Before I say anything else, I want to say a few words about Mass Effect as a whole. It’s fun and you feel like a big damn hero/heroine when you play it. The fate of the Milky Way galaxy is resting on your shoulders and the battles keep getting bigger and badder, while the characters become deeper and richer. A simple mission at the beginning of the first game leads to Shepard–your character–making a decision on the fate of the galaxy for thousands of years to come.
I was telling some friends that I’d just reached the end of Mass Effect 3, an ending that’s been controversial at best. We came to a quick consensus that Mass Effect has a lot in it that writers can learn from. As a whole, the staff at BioWare got that right. By the end, you care about people like Garrus, Liara, Kelly Chambers, just as you can’t help but be curious about Saren, Benezia, and the Illusive Man.
A quick summary: A fleet of nightmarish starships are coming to kill everyone and only Shepard (you) can stop them.
The first two games give you an incredible battle to cap off the action and to really make you feel like a badass. Whether it’s fighting your arch rival or killing a cybernetic monster made out of pureed people, you end both games with a victory, a triumph that would be the highlight of any badass space soldier’s career. You’d think an equal or bigger battle would occur at the end of the third game, seeing how it’s the climax of the story. Sadly, it doesn’t.
What does happen is Shepard has to make a decision. After facing down the worst his foes have to offer, Shepard is offered three choices that all have wide effects, both positive and negative. There’s even a fourth option that’s even more horrifying than the others. The choices have consequence and rewrite the entire dynamic of the galaxy.
Having stakes is an important element of any writing. Being able to set up such high stakes in an interstellar space story is much harder, if only because the scope is so much larger. BioWare pulls this off since player characters can die, get horribly wounded, or, in the case of Shepard, arrive to the final battle wearing melted armor and barely able to hold a pistol. After that, there’s a confrontation that pays off at least two games worth of character conflict, a tense scene where Shepard and the Illusive Man finally stand in the same room.
Then comes the choice, that decision that determines how the game ends. It doesn’t matter how honest or bloodthirsty you play, the choices are the same, as are the outcomes of those choices. Many are irritated that alignment and romantic interests don’t impact the ending to much of an extent, but I don’t think that’s a problem, not when dealing with issues on a galactic level.
When you make your choice, a few scenes play. Some are still images, others are brief physical interactions between known characters. No matter what you choose, things come off looking simple, almost mundane. Even though one of the characters writes that getting back to normal would be the greatest revenge, these scenes don’t feel normal, nor do they look normal. The endings feel lacking because they consist of someone–a different narrator depending on the choice made–telling what happened.
When I saw my ending, I realized the problem. I wasn’t being shown the ending, nor did I feel like I was experiencing it. A narrator was telling me what happened. Imagine watching The Lord of the Rings movies, only to have Peter Jackson appear on screen at the end reading a summary of the last few chapters, including the final scene at Mount Doom.
Show, don’t tell. That’s the solution. BioWare made an A or A+ trilogy, then started telling rather than showing. No matter how you feel about the ending of Mass Effect 3, that’s what happened. Audiences want to see things play out, not just get a summary of it, no matter how good that summary might be.
Also, applying a three act structure, the action and emotion should climax simultaneously, or at least in short order. In my play through, there was a big fire fight, an emotionally climax, a wounded fight sequence, an exploration scene, the final confrontation with the relationship character, a denouement, and the final choice. There is no final confrontation with the invading leader, nor was he shown in the ending I got.
So, BioWare, here, for free, is an exercise, is my outline for how to reassemble/rewrite this ending to give it more power.
- Shepard’s allies are wounded and must be evacuated. Include the romantic interest to tug at heartstrings.
- Shepard (protagonist), alone, is wounded by Harbinger’s attack, then has to fight through the last pocket of Reaper forces anyway.
- A cut scene (not gameplay) of Shepard entering the final location
- Confrontation with the Illusive Man (relationship character). Illusive Man should be more convincing, despite his visual appearance.
- The final choice. Have Harbinger (antagonist) attack, in an attempt to save himself and/or, force Shepard into a different decision.
- Character rich focus on resolution of Shepard’s choice. Full scenes, not a narrated montage
Those are my thoughts, though I’m sure there are others. How would you change the ending if you could?