At long last, the Mass Effect 3 Short Script is here. It also happens to be the 25th script I've written, which probably marks some kind of jubilee. You'll find it on BeefJack once more by clicking the link above. Regarding the game and its controversy, I find myself in agreement with Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade, who claims that Mass Effect 3 doesn't have a shitty ending, it is the ending. The entire Mass Effect series comes to an close with this game, not just in its final minutes. So even if you think the ending sucks noodles, the other 95% of the game is still awesome. I think it's an amazing game that's not undone by its conclusion.
Its storytelling strengths lie in the various conflicts that exist between antagonistic races, and the way Shepard needs to resolve each one. The previous games made promises on which Mass Effect 3 delivers, exemplified by missions set on each homeworld – places that were only referenced or glimpsed before. Then there’s Mordin Solus, one of the best-written characters I’ve encountered in any game. The way his sacrifice is handled (and the way he handles it) is a perfect resolution to his compelling character arc.
Considering all the variables BioWare needed to (and did) take into account, it’s a massive achievement in its own right. I always say that the touchstone of good design is the quality of any content that the player will likely never see. And the Mass Effect games are full of such content, thanks to the myriad different outcomes that your choices have. It’s the best combination of BioWare telling their story and letting the player craft their own. For that to work, concessions needed to be made in both directions.
Defending the ending
I’ve read many interpretations regarding the ending to Mass Effect 3. The most prominent one is the 'indoctrination theory', which asserts that everything that follows Harbinger’s decimation of Shepard and his team occurs only in his mind. The Reapers are attempting to indoctrinate Shepard just as they did Saren, and everything you see, from the final confrontation with the Illusive Man to the encounter with the Catalyst, is the Reapers trying to bend Shepard to their will.
If this was BioWare’s intention, I’d argue they would have made it more apparent. The indoctrination theory seems to me no more than a really tall epileptic tree. The most fitting interpretation for the ending that I’ve come across goes as follows:
The Catalyst, faced with the recurrent problem of organic civilisations being destroyed by their synthetic creations, devised the Reaper solution to safeguard organics by preserving them. It didn’t trust organic life to act in its own best interest, since it is marked by chaos and destruction. However, the Catalyst is aware that its logic may be flawed, so it devises a failsafe. It implements the Crucible plans in every cycle by way of a test, so a galactic civilisation that manages to build it would trigger the Catalyst to review its solution (the word ‘crucible’ means ‘severe, searching test or trial’).
In the game, it’s repeatedly stated that the Crucible schematics are “elegant, but simple.” It’s not about being technologically advanced enough to build it, it’s about bringing together the galaxy in a concerted effort to do so. All previous cycles were lost through internecine warfare and strife, and it’s Shepard’s achievement in rapidly brokering peace between warring races that convinces the Catalyst to stop the cycle. How it does this is then determined by the measure by which Shepard’s peacemaking efforts succeed (represented by the Galactic Readiness mechanic).
(summarised from tvtropes.com)
To me, this interpretation makes the most sense within the game’s fiction. It’s just one of many theories, though. Being able to select or come up with your own is ironically true to the spirit of the Mass Effect games. BioWare didn’t want to provide all the answers, which of course paves the way for an outpouring of discussion. In a sense, the game has an open ending, but one that isn’t signposted with an obvious cutaway like that of Inception - a movie that engendered a similar number of opposing theories.
Fans are still clamouring for clarification, which BioWare are now willing to give them. But would the ending have been better received if the Catalyst just spelled it out? All theories and interpretations are being formed on the basis of what BioWare wanted to show in the resolution, one that many lament for not fitting the Mass Effect spirit.
I’d argue that it was indeed foreshadowed, though subtly enough that it takes some digging to get to it. Some of this foreshadowing is contained within Reaper dialogue. Here’s some outtakes from what Sovereign and Harbinger (the two Reapers Shepard directly interacts with) have to say throughout the first two games:
“The pattern has repeated itself more times than you can fathom. Organic civilisations rise, evolve, advance. And at the apex of their glory, they are extinguished.”
“Your greatest civilisations are doomed to fall. Your time will come. Your species will fall.”
“We are the harbingers of your ascendance/destiny/perfection.”
“Your extinction is inevitable. You cannot escape your doom.”
Even though the message is lost amidst evil gloating and ambiguous threats, the Reapers never state outright that they are the ones to wipe out all life in the galaxy. They’re instead hinting at the fact that organic civilisations do this to themselves by creating synthetic life that will inevitably rise up against them, essentially relaying the Catalyst’s motivation.
Implications towards the ending have been subtly embedded in the series from the word go. This is also mentioned in The Final Hours Of Mass Effect 3, Geoff Keighley’s retrospective of the trilogy as a whole. It states that the overarching theme of “the tension between organic and synthetic life” was already slated to be the frame of the trilogy when the first game was still in its conceptual stage. It’s just that this theme was always kept in the background, which is why it feels like it comes out of left field in Mass Effect 3′s conclusion.
I do take issue with a certain aspect of Mass Effect 3′s storyline, but it isn’t the ending or its outcomes. There are more differences between the available choices beyond the colour of the pulse wave emitted by the Crucible (something that is nonetheless a focal point of the critique levelled against BioWare). The ending cutscenes show varying degrees of success depending on how well Shepard did (anything between the extremes of Earth and the Citadel being destroyed or surviving), even though the link to his specific actions is abstract at best. The ‘test’ interpretation quoted above actually makes it more tangible. No, my issue lies with the Crucible.
I’m willing to overlook the fact that the Crucible schematics are suddenly found in the Prothean archives, the very same that have been extensively studied after humanity discovered them nearly 40 years before the events of Mass Effect 3. What I can’t wrap my head around is that no one figures out what exactly it does. It’s a weapon, so let’s just build it, no questions asked.
The fact that the Crucible’s purpose is a mystery is fine for the first part of the game. But even when it’s finished, nobody has a clue exactly how it works. And it’s still the crux of the entire galaxy’s strategy against the Reapers, who “can’t be defeated through conventional means.”
Another problem is that the Crucible, while technically not a true MacGuffin, is essentially unconnected to the main storyline. It’s just something that happens in the background while Shepard undertakes various peacemaking missions (he only marginally influences its construction by adding or forgoing War Assets). Even finding the Catalyst is more about dealing with Cerberus than anything else.
There was a throwaway conversation between Shepard and EDI that gave me my own expectations of what the Crucible would do. The brief exchange serves only as a humorously convoluted response to Shepard’s casual question of “What’s on your mind?”, but I interpreted it as a subtle hint:
Liara recently requested assistance in calculating whether the mass effect is a phenomenon that occurs only in our universe, or in all possible universes. It may be that our laws of physics only occur in a finite area, a bubble if you will, in an ocean of other possibilities. I’m speculating whether, if you went far enough out or created enough energy, you could reach a place where one plus one equalled three. Everything would change. All energy, all matter, all the underlying math of the universe would be unrecognisable to us.
This led me to believe that the Crucible wouldn’t turn out to be a weapon. At least, not in the conventional sense of a weapon you can aim. During its construction, scientists would instead discover that it is an area of effect weapon that uses dark energy (a hinted-at phenomenon that many thought would feature heavily in Mass Effect 3′s storyline) and the mass relays to permanently render inert all mass effect fields. And so, while I didn’t hate Mass Effect 3′s ending, I’d have done it quite differently.
Here's how I'd do it
The Reapers run on massive element zero cores, so firing the Crucible would disable them by killing their power source. The collateral damage is that all other technology would similarly suffer. All the galactic races use mass effect fields to power their ships, weapons, shields, you name it. Everything would become pretty paperweights. The mass relays would cease to function, biotics lose their edge, and many planets (which would be cut off from much-needed aid) are still infested with husks. In essence, the solution is worse than the problem it’s meant to solve.
It’d be like our current society suddenly losing electromagnetism. A ‘dark age’ isn’t the most original of plot developments, but it becomes infinitely more interesting if this discovery is made halfway through the game (ideally, right after Act 2 ends with the resolution of the geth-quarian conflict). The consequences that are simply implied by the current ending would take centre stage even before Act 3 starts.
This allows for much more moral ambiguity, because the Crucible is still the only thing that can stop the Reapers. Choosing between two evils is always more interesting. In Mass Effect 3, you’re only fighting Cerberus and the Reapers (sometimes directly, but mostly through the husks they create). The discovery of the Crucible’s purpose might give rise to fringe groups that lose sight of the bigger picture and don’t want to doom the technology that they, and everyone else, are so reliant on. It might even undo many of Shepard’s peacemaking efforts.
However, this also creates the potential for Shepard’s performance to impact the endgame in a more direct fashion. One of the more common complaints I’ve come across is that players, despite putting in the effort to grind out the best possible endgame conditions in all three games, were still faced with the dire implications of Mass Effect 3′s endings – even the ‘good’ one. They felt they weren’t rewarded for their efforts. While the inclusion of a true ‘happy ending‘ is beside the point (some of the best endings ever are inconsolably bleak affairs), using the Crucible as described above would create a greater link between Shepard’s choices and how they affect the ending.
It’s been repeatedly established in the Mass Effect canon that the Reapers run on their own code. Act 3 of Mass Effect 3 could be about upgrading the Crucible to affect only the Reapers. The best ending then wipes them out while leaving all other technology unharmed (a variation might also affect the geth if Legion uploaded the Reaper code to their consensus). In the neutral ending, the Crucible is fired as-is, which results in the realisation of all the implications mentioned above. And the worst ending means the Crucible has been shoddily constructed, so it burns the Earth’s surface and destroys the Citadel too.
This also wouldn’t preclude the overarching theme of organics versus synthetics. The Catalyst can still have its say at the end. The only plot development that needs to be shifted is the Crucible schematics really being of Prothean design, a last-ditch scorched earth policy that was or could never be used (and not incrementally improved upon during each cycle, which is ridiculous anyways).
There are, of course, many more specifics to figure out in order to make this work, and I hate to think how many plot holes I’ve created. We know how dangerous those can be. But it does solve my main complaint with the Crucible while allowing for greater agency in how one’s choices influence the ending.