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June 30, 2012


Editorial – Hope Springs Eternal: Mass Effect 3 Extended Ending DLC Analysis

by Master Pillow

After spending months debating the relative merits of the original Mass Effect 3 ending here we go again with Bioware’s Extended Ending DLC that supposedly attempts to directly speak to many issues that outraged fans brought to light.  Let’s cut to the chase here and state the obvious question – will this new ending placate the masses of irate fans?  Well, it depends.

In the interests of full disclosure let me just restate the obvious – that I have always liked the original ending and though I realize it is in no way perfect the ending I got was closure enough for me.  You can read all my thoughts in past articles on this site if you so desire as I attempted to “answer” many of the issues fans had with the game.  For me, I approached this new DLC from the point of view of mild curiosity just to see exactly how Bioware handled the controversy and whether or not they managed to address some of the bigger questions I still had remaining.

At the same time, this entire brouhaha about the ending has at least totally shone light on the much larger issues plaguing the video game industry as well as spurred debate on artistic integrity in this new medium.  Even if one hated the original ME3 endings I think everyone can agree that debate on these issues is necessary to push video game theory to the forefront and perhaps begin the long arduous process of even determining if it should be defined as art in the traditional sense.  This new ending DLC won’t answer that question at all but it will certainly spur debate once again and that is never a bad thing.

Finally, just one word of caution, much like my original articles on ME3 if you intend to comment on anything I’ve said I welcome any constructive criticism but please refrain from profanity or heated language.  Let’s keep it civil and not have the discussion thread descend to abject name calling.  Also, once again, this is a massive wall of text of around 10,000 words so here’s a handy table of contents if you just want to skip through it faster. Obviously there are going to be spoilers everywhere so if you want to bail from this blog post now is the time to do so.

Table of Contents:

1.0 What exactly is this Extended Ending DLC?
2.0 So will I like this new ending?
3.0 Hope Springs Eternal
4.0 Once More Unto the Breach Dear Friends…
4.1 She’s dead, Jim.
4.2 She’s dead, Jim….or not?
4.3 But, but, but…My Shepard wouldn’t accept any of these options
4.4 Dream on…
4.5 But why would the Catalyst simply give up and let Shepard choose?
4.6 So who or what created the Catalyst/Citadel/Mass Relays/Reapers?? WTF?
4.7 But, but, but…the Normandy?
4.8 Everybody is dead and I mean everybody.
4.9 Ooga booga?
4.10 Time for some forbidden love going on…
5.0 New Content & Old Theories
5.1 Indoctrination Theory, or how I managed to delude myself.
5.2 The Fouth Choice: Refusal
6.0 So what did I really think?
6.1 Olympic Dash Postponed
6.2 Stargazing Time
6.3 Kablooey!
6.4 God Emperor/Empress arise!
6.5 Shepard has become a legend now give me your wallet!
7.0 The Undiscovered Country
Appendix: Transcribed Shepard and Catalyst dialogue

1.0 What exactly is this Extended Ending DLC?

The Extended Ending DLC is a 2 GB download patch that EA/Bioware is offering for free to any Mass Effect 3 game owner on all three platforms (Xbox 360, PS3, PC).  Some might wonder why the size is so huge but take note that there is a lot of full motion video and full voice over narration added. Once downloaded it basically disables the original ending completely so if you really want to experience that again you would have to uninstall the DLC or watch it on YouTube.  Somehow, I have a feeling most fans probably won’t care to watch the original endings again after seeing this extended cut.

Although Bioware recommends players to fire up an old save that starts right before the Cerberus Base assault gamers who are impatient can just reload the autosave file that commences right at the epic run to the citadel beam.  All the new content begins to show up at this point in the game anyways so don’t worry about missing anything by not killing Kai Lang…unless you really want to skewer the bast**d all over again.  Seriously, no matter what you thought of the ending I doubt anyone disapproved of having Shepard plunge her omni-blade into that particular loser.

What the extended cut really focuses on is expanding dialogue options with the Catalyst to better flesh out the three decisions as well as explaining the ramifications of each in much more literal terms.  At the same time it adds a few extra snippets of dialogue explaining what the Catalyst is and its backstory.

This new ending also directly addresses many fan complaints by adding cinematics and a whole new epilogue for each ending consisting of mainly 2D slides showing how Shepard’s decision has impacted the galaxy.  These new epilogues run for around 4 minutes each which might not sound like a lot of material but in actuality it is far more than enough exposition.

2.0 So will I like this new ending?

To put it succinctly those diehard practitioners of the Indoctrination Theory and those who spent hours lambasting Bioware’s lack of writing prowess leading many to ask for a totally new ending are probably not going to be too pleased at all.  In fact, I have a strong feeling this segment of the fanbase will be just as, if not more, irate that Bioware has chosen this particular path because it validates and adheres almost 100% to the original three endings.  Make no mistake, nothing in this ending DLC radically changes the core three choices that the Catalyst presents to Shepard.  “Space Magic” and the “bratty God-child” are all still very much front and center here so those fans who wanted an ending based on something totally different might just as well not bother to even watch the new ones on YouTube.

Those who argued that the entire ending was just too discordant and didn’t jive thematically or flew against the grain of the entire 95% of the game that preceded it should also not get their hopes up that this new ending will satisfy them.

Additionally, if one hoped that Bioware would somehow create ending variations based on aggregate past decisions from all three games then once again you will be disappointed as the new ending still herds players into making three (perhaps four!) pre-determined choices.  Admittedly, the concept of war assets is still very much in play here except that the maximum threshold for the “best” ending has been reduced from 4000+ to 3100.  This is a pretty sizable drop in my opinion and it should definitely result in more players being able to get all the various ending options unless one is the worst video game player in the world.

That said I still can’t help but point out that Bioware really hasn’t fleshed out the war asset system in a totally satisfactory manner since many elements one might have wished to be included such as seeing the Rachni Queen or the Geth Primes are nowhere to be seen in this extended cut.  Still, this is not much of a big deal because it is obvious Bioware is under both financial and time constraints to get the extended ending released to the fans as soon as possible.

In short, if your mind is already made up that this is going to suck hard than perhaps you can save yourself further stress and just move on to other entertainment.  If Bioware has really caused you to somehow hate a corporate entity then it’s just as well that you find solace elsewhere.  That’s not meant as a dig but simply kind advice to save you from further misery.  If you feel like downloading and watching the extended DLC is akin to pouring salt into an open wound then perhaps it is best to avoid it entirely or read other peoples’ opinion first to see what the general consensus is as well as get information on what exactly has changed to ascertain if this is what you have been looking for.

You know you wanted to see this.

3.0 Hope Springs Eternal

Well this is the title of the entire article so it has to mean something right?  Simply put if the original endings did not rub you the right way because you felt incredibly devastated to the point of thinking that someone just died then I have an inkling this feeling didn’t come from the deus ex machina moments or the Catalyst per se but more so that the ambiguity of the ending certainly set up a much bleaker atmosphere than what most expected.

This is certainly a game of expectations and though I have long since argued that the game itself foreshadows a rather bleak end for Shepard I never once felt that it was Bioware’s intent to essentially blow up the Mass Effect universe to shreds.  Bioware deliberately made the ending ambiguous but I do concede that though I did not see this as a bad element that many despised it.  In fact there was one simple emotion missing that many lamented was conspicuously absent and that was…hope.

Killing Shepard was the most obvious downer but through ambiguity many gravitated to extreme viewpoints that everyone else was essentially screwed to die of starvation; vaporized by exploding Mass Relays; galactic races being pummelled back to the Stone Age without advanced tech; their most loved team members and obviously the love interest were now marooned for all eternity on some God forsaken tropical planet; and many other sore points that seemingly pointed to utter devastation.  All these views pointed to a massive loss of hope and instead despair ruled the day.

Therefore, if you were one of the many fans who just felt like they had been punched in the gut and found yourself in any of the following categories I have a very good feeling this new extended DLC is specifically meant for you.

  • You didn’t exactly hate the original ending even though you didn’t like them either.
  • You wanted more information on what happened to your squad mates.
  • You wanted more information on what happened to the other Galactic races.
  • You just wanted a scene where Shepard said “goodbye” to his/her lover.
  • You wanted some indication that Shepard and his/her love interest might someday reunite.
  • You were worried that the mass relay detonations wiped out all life.
  • You could not justify how Joker would be at FTL or using the Mass Relay to escape.
  • You had no idea how your squad mates survived Harbinger’s attack in London.
  • You wanted more information from the Catalyst before making a decision.
  • You wanted to shoot the damned Catalyst in the face and go commando on him instead of choosing any of his harebrained solutions.

If you find yourself in any of the aforementioned groups then chances are the extended cut will at least provide an answer to your query.  Now, this doesn’t mean that you will be satisfied with the answer Bioware has provided but that is up to each individual to evaluate for themselves.

You will also notice that virtually every point above isn’t really based on one thinking the endings were themselves totally moronic but that one just felt like the endings were just too vague for their consumption.  This is certainly valid as everyone has a different tolerance for ambiguity.  Being formerly in the film industry it isn’t rocket science to state that most moviegoers have a low tolerance for vagueness.  I understand that mainstream entertainment, be it films, books, TV shows or even video games usually gravitate to providing a ton of overt material instead of venturing into haziness and it has become a kind of defacto standard so most are just more accustomed to receiving it.

One need only look to a current hot-button topic in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus to see this at play as the movie has been massively polarizing between those who loved the uncertainty in it and those who would rather have been given explicit information.  It just depends what one expects a piece of entertainment to provide.  There is no magical formula here that will please everyone so if someone really didn’t like the Mass Effect 3 endings because certain elements seemed a bit too esoteric al then perhaps the new ones will suffice.

Haven’t I been here before?

4.0 Once More Unto the Breach Dear Friends…

Okay I’m going to quickly go over what this extended DLC actually accomplished and link it back to what I previously wrote in my article.  Astute readers will no doubt notice that I’m using the exact same titles as I did before but I promise not to drone on for too long as most of the information in the new DLC is now so overt it is impossible to miss.

Did I get everything “right?”  No, of course not but I feel somewhat vindicated that many of these so-called plot holes were explainable just by using your imagination and trying to justify how something could work.

4.1 She’s dead, Jim.

Yes Shepard is dead in every ending except for “destroy” assuming you have a high enough war asset score whereupon you receive the short “breath” video.  This hasn’t changed one bit from the original ending although the extended cut gives players more choices when conversing with the Catalyst so that you understand just exactly what the consequences of each one really entails.

Control: If you choose “control” Shepard’s consciousness is essentially copied and assumes direct command of the Reapers all at the cost of her life.  Yes, that means human Shepard dies to basically give life to VI/AI Shepard who then retains all of human Shepard’s morality and memories.

Synthesis: Shepard throws herself into the beam and disintegrates in order to force all organic and synthetic lifeforms to basically evolve.  Yes, that means Shepard is dead once again.

And yes, she dies too in the new ending choice but more on that later.

4.2  She’s dead, Jim….or not?

If players choose destroy and their war asset score is above 3100 (previously needed over 4000) then the short video of Shepard breathing is shown right after the new cinematic of her love interest deciding at the last moment not to place Shepard’s name on the War Memorial wall.  Implication?  Obviously, providing enough hope that Shepard lives and that her love one will soon meet her since the Normandy is now fixed and ready to fly into space.  Some might say that this is still ambiguous but the way it is edited strongly implies a connection between both scenes and though it might sound saccharine the fact that her love one somehow has a premonition/sixth sense not to put Shepard’s name on the memorial is proof enough to most that this is essentially the happy ending many are looking for.

With this fact alone I would argue that though the destroy ending kills all the Geth, EDI and advanced synthetic races that I have a feeling this is going to be the canon decision for the majority of fans since it manages to save all organics, completely wipes out all the Reapers and obviously keeps Shepard alive to hook up with Liara and have blue babies while chugging beer at the bar with Garrus.  Okay, I exaggerate but bottom line the heroine lives and gets the girl/guy while saving the universe.  The only thing missing is a Star Wars parade down the street.  As for the Geth and EDI, well they can be rebuilt although whether or not they are the “same” beings is open for discussion in another blog post.

4.3 But, but, but…My Shepard wouldn’t accept any of these options

Bioware has directly addressed this issue in two facets.  First, they’ve provided much more exposition between Shepard and the Catalyst so that those who felt they were being railroaded by the God-child can now at least pose more questions to gain enough information to make an informed decision.

If a player still determines that the Catalyst cannot be trusted and decides to go out in a blaze of glory by refusing to make a decision or shooting at the God Child then the brand new ending which I discuss below under “ The Fouth Choice: Refusal” kicks in.

4.4 Dream on…

Many fans, like those who support the Indoctrination Theory, have put forth arguments that the entire ending from Shepard’s teleportation to the Citadel right to the end credits was all taking place in Shepard’s head.  While I suppose anyone can believe what they want the very fact that Bioware has expanded all the endings with much more exposition and closure seems to me proof enough that this theory is now disproved.

I wonder if this would make a good buddy movie?

4.5 But why would the Catalyst simply give up and let Shepard choose?

This hasn’t changed one iota from what I previously said that the Crucible and Shepard’s arrival has convinced the Catalyst that his solution is now flawed enough that it needs revision.  Now with the expanded conversation choices one can infer that the Catalyst either has his programming changed by the Crucible or that the very fact of Shepard’s appearance has caused his ”perfect” logic of his Reaper solution to be disproven.

The Catalyst can best be described as an advanced AI that is the sum of all Reaper intelligence and though he might sound human enough he most definitely is not and relies on computer logic.  He clearly has seen that organics are beginning to catch up in each cycle in terms of presenting a formidable challenge for the Reapers.  While the Reapers/Catalyst have not changed or evolved over the millennia the organics have and though the plan to reset the galaxy every 50,000 years is still successful the Catalyst understands with Shepard’s arrival that the organics now have an avenue in which to destroy him and the Reapers.  Thus it is now inevitable that the organics will stop his plan forcing him to consider new options.

The Catalyst states that he has known about the crucible for many cycles already thus he understands that his plan to erase advanced races and their tech is no longer working as intended as enough data is being passed to the organics in the following cycle to keep adding on to the work on the Crucible. At the same time he readily admits that he has underestimated what organics are capable of.

“We first noted the concept for this device several cycles ago with each passing cycle its design has no doubt evolved…We believe the concept had been eradicated – clearly organics are more resourceful than we realized.”

4.6 So who or what created the Catalyst/Citadel/Mass Relays/Reapers?? WTF?

Nearly all these questions are finally answered through the new expanded conversation options with the Catalyst that are included in this new ending and it should be more than enough backstory to satisfy most fans who wanted more data on the various options as well as lore of the Mass Effect universe.

It is revealed that an organic race created the Catalyst as a kind of advanced AI that was intended to discover a way where organics and synthetics can co-exist.  However, over an indeterminate period of time where organics and synthetics end up in conflict the Catalyst essentially becomes stumped because he tries various solutions that outright fail.  His exact words:

“I was first created to oversee the relations between synthetic and organic life to establish a connection but our efforts always ended in conflict so a new solution was required.”

Actually I find this quite intriguing because of one key word choice he uses – conflict.  On the surface of it all conflict seems to connote war but really we all know that it can mean something not so calamitous.  It’s certainly something to think about because one can argue that the concept of conflict can be an avenue in which to grow and mature in our own lives but here the Catalyst clearly takes the side that it is nothing but a negative obviously to the detriment of both organics and synthetics.

Regardless, after all his plans fail he finally comes to his solution that the only way to maintain peace/balance is to use the Reapers to preserve organics thus he readily admits that he basically kills his creators turning them into the first Reaper and starts the cycle of destruction.

“They became the first true reaper.  They did not approve but it was the only solution”

Does all this new dialogue make sense?  Sure it does and it plays directly to one of science fiction’s oldest tropes of an AI which attempts to create a solution using logic except it has no organic concept of spirit/soul.  To the Catalyst his Reaper solution is the optimal path because he admits that it preserves both advanced organic and synthetic races while retaining their knowledge, culture and creations. This is a cold-hearted plan that makes total sense to a computer that has no clue about questions of morality and ethical behaviour.

At the same time, in an ironic twist, the Catalyst himself falls prey to the very cycle he is trying to prevent as he is basically a synthetic that destroys organic life proving his own findings that synthetics always rise up against their creator although in his point of view he does not see turning organics into Reapers as genocide but preservation.

For the interests of any I’ve once again transcribed some of the salient dialogue between Shepard and the Catalyst in the appendix below at the end of the article if one needs to reread it for clarity.

From zero to hero

4.7 But, but, but…the Normandy?

Now easily explained in two cut scenes with the first one showing Shepard calling Joker for a medivac extraction of his squadmates during the epic run to the beam and by a following cut scene showing Admiral Hackett ordering a retreat once the crucible is activated.  Now it is much clearer to all that the Normandy flew down to London to pick up team members and was in the midst of a warp out of Earth orbit due to Hackett’s command when the crucible blast hits.

Out of all the elements in the original ending this was the one which caused me the most grief, not the fact that London squadmates were shown later emerging from the wrecked Normandy but what the heck it was doing fleeing from the Mass Relay explosion.  Hackett ordered the retreat and in a nice touch the new cinematic shows Joker resisting the command until another team member convinces him to leave.  In other words poor Joker was the butt of many irate fans who complained that he seemed cowardly in running away but this new ending certainly presents him in a massively honourable light by attempting to wait for Shepard until the very last moment.

4.8 Everybody is dead and I mean everybody.

The new ending totally refutes this point now.  The mass relays are only disabled and the fact that tons of additional 2D cutscenes show the various galactic races rebuilding is proof enough that life returns to normal over an indeterminate period of time.  Heck, the blasted citadel is fixed and is now in Earth orbit making me think that humanity is going to be the dominant political force in the future.

4.9 Ooga booga?

Some thought that the original ending would result in a new galactic Stone Age but once again this new ending throws all these complaints out the window for good.  Not only does every race rebuild there is a strong undercurrent in each new ending that the galaxy is united and working together in unison to accomplish a kind of new Golden Age.

4.10 Time for some forbidden love going on…

This was a really odd complaint that the marooned Normandy on the alien planet with a small crewsize would result in a lot of forbidden love and hanky panky going on.  The point does make sense in that such a small population would result in less than desirable genetic cross-breeding but once again now that the new ending shows the Normandy being fixed and flying away this entire point of contention is vaporized.

5.0 New Content & Old Theories

And that’s that in terms of my old Mass Effect 3 article.  Let’s now turn to some new content specific to the extended DLC and see what it portends as well as address one big lingering issue.

You don’t say….

5.1 Indoctrination Theory, or how I managed to delude myself.

The Indoctrination Theory was presented by fans as an avenue in which to somehow connect the dots of plot threads and somewhat vague exposition along with some incongruous graphical proof that the entire Mass Effect 3 narrative is basically a sham and that Shepard is simply in the process of being “brainwashed.”

Look, I don’t want to get into a massive argument about this point.  If after watching these new endings you still want to adhere to the Indoctrination Theory that is certainly your right to do so yet for me the very fact that Bioware has chosen to concentrate the majority of their resources into showing the aftermath of each decision and how it affects the ME universe and those in it basically can be inferred to mean that the ending should be read “as is.”  In other words, the ending is literal and there is no secret agenda or hidden plotline that Bioware ever intended the ending to be read as Shepard being indoctrinated.

Sure, the destroy ending still retains the scene where Shepard takes a breath and can still be used as evidence of indoctrination theory but the argument is decidedly much weaker now that the other endings have been vastly expanded.

In addition as news leaks on each new single player DLC that is coming it makes it harder and harder to think the Indoctrination Theory is true especially if all these expansion packs keep adding new missions to the game.  Once again, I very much doubt Bioware would expend this amount of resources on adding content that would essentially be disproven as taking place in Shepard’s brain.  Yes, I realize that many fans who like this theory will counter that IT only begins at the citadel beam but even they have to admit many others want to see it start much earlier in the game or even further back than that.

Of course, you can still believe it if you wish and the only thing further I will say and I’ve said it all along in my past articles and through many discussions is that if Bioware decides to set Mass Effect 4 sometime past Mass Effect 3 then indoctrination makes no sense unless one is willing to somehow force the explanation that ME4 is somehow taking place in Shepard’s head as well.  I’m sorry, you can hate the ending as it is but if Bioware goes this route by making ME4 a sequel to ME3 and introducing a whole batch of new characters then holding on to the indoctrination theory at that point is an act of utter futility.

5.2 The Fouth Choice: Refusal

Surprisingly Bioware has included a final fourth option that Shepard can choose instead of the other three existing options.  I have to really congratulate Bioware for this one no matter what as they have managed to both accommodate fan outrage yet provide a compelling, though admittedly curt, new ending that I feel makes perfect sense.

Many fans voiced their opinion that they felt betrayed that their Shepard would never listen and believe what the Catalyst is presenting and that they would find another solution rather than trust three vague decisions without knowing what the outcome would literally be.  Granted I understand their objection but it stems from two main objections one of which I can support being that many felt that they just did not have enough information to make a proper decision thus without knowing the ramifications of each they could not in good conscience choose any of them.

This line of thinking is sound yet I would assert that at this stage in the game Shepard is in no physical condition for continuous combat and seeing as she is essentially now stuck talking all by herself to the leader of the Reapers that the predicament is obviously not to her advantage.  Thus in my point of view I would expect Shepard to basically bite her lip, hope for the best and choose one of the three non-optimal choices.  I would also point out that even though she is lacking more information that in all three decisions that her primary goal to stop the Reapers and save the galaxy would be achieved thus it seems more than plausible given the circumstances to accept what the Catalyst is saying and make a choice.

However, I understand some fans just can’t see it that way and though the new exposition fleshes things out immensely they still come to the conclusion that the Catalyst being the leader of the Reapers cannot be trusted.  That’s fine but the question then becomes what would Shepard do now? Well, Bioware certainly addresses the most obvious one with the “refusal” ending and it directly speaks to what I wrote in my analysis in the past:

“Fans who think that their Shepard would simply take out her gun and blow stuff up or spend more time trying to outdo Captain Kirk’s diplomacy skill that routinely destroys advanced AI/computers to either reason with the Catalyst or search the room for another option are missing the point that she is in no shape to do so.

Discharging her weapon at a holographic AI would be an act of futility…the very act of violence itself might be misconstrued by the Catalyst anyways as being aggressive and indicative of why organics contribute to chaos as they are irrational and governed by emotion.”

In other words, by spurning the Catalyst either verbally or through ignorant physical combat all it does is force the Catalyst to conclude that Shepard is not deserving of its attention and that the fact that she is the first organic to make it to this point is now irrelevant since Shepard now seems to be nothing more than yet another example of an illogical organic that needs to be pruned.  It is then revealed through the ending that the Catalyst basically lets the cycle continue thus dooming everyone and everything Shepard knows and loves.  In other words, this is a critical mission failure of epic proportions and there is no way in good conscience that I could ever accept such a scenario.

I am sure some will vehemently disagree but to basically doom not only this cycle but countless others to continuous Reaper harvesting is not exactly an optimal solution.  Remember, there’s no way but blind faith that Shepard can know a future race will be successful so by choosing refuse she is also taking a chance that the cycle will never be broken at all.

And this is where I feel Bioware has crafted an ending that brilliantly plays into the issue of morality that is present in every Bioware game.  Bioware has always advertised that each decision carries moral and ethical weight and that perhaps there are instances where one needs to bend or throw away altogether their moral compass for the greater good.  We only need to look at what occurs in Mass Effect 3 to see this.  Do you want to cure the Genophage if Wrex, who supports a reconciliatory path, is the leader?  Would you do the same if it is Wreav who openly purports to favour a military strong-arm approach to diplomacy and wants some sort of retribution?

If it is Wreav in charge do you allow Mordin to make the cure, convince him not to or put a bullet in his chest? Whatever your decision it certainly is rooted in one’s own morality and code of ethics and it isn’t hard to see someone wrestling with his/her conscience to “do the right thing” in curing the genophage yet being fully aware that Wreave would probably plunge the galaxy back into a massive war.  Can you live with killing one of your best friends to stop Wreav?  This is not an easy choice but the fact remains that you need Shepard to make a command decision that he/she can live with.

Now apply this to this new ending and Bioware seems to be saying that finally here is a decision where perhaps Shepard’s morals/ethics will lead her down the wrong path if she remains stubborn.  Sure, it is definitely not a Hollywood decision where good morals always win the day and I find that exciting.

I don’t like to lose.

I know some fans have commented that this is Bioware’s version of Star Trek’s famous Kobayashi Maru test which each Starfleet cadet needs to take in order to graduate.  The issue with the test is that it is rigged to present a no-win scenario just to test how the cadet candidate will react to failure.   Being a Trek fan this was one of my favorite moments in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the dialogue simply goes like this:

Kirk: I don’t like to lose.

Savik: Then you’ve never faced that situation.  Faced death.

Kirk: I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.

I find this analogy between Trek 2 and Mass Effect 3 in this case extremely intriguing because like Kirk, Commander Shepard and, by extension the player, never likes to lose and though Trek fans know that Kirk beats the no-win scenario Kobayashi Maru test by cheating that in the end he too realizes one important fact – you can’t cheat death forever ergo there is no such thing as a no-win scenario because by the end of the movie he wins a pyrrhic victory at the cost of Spock’s life.  Thus I see this “refuse” ending as one such path where players can brag and boast like Captain Kirk all they want but this is that one case that you can’t win outright.

Kirk learns the hard way that there is indeed a no-win scenario.

In other words, there is no way at this point in the narrative for Shepard to even consider another option save the three the Catalyst offers.   Telling the Catalyst to go F himself is pure folly.  The bulk of the Alliance and Reaper fleets are currently in combat above Earth but it is more than inference to say that the Alliance fleet’s only goal is a delaying tactic to allow time for the Crucible to dock and for someone to turn it on.  Hackett and others have made it abundantly clear that a conventional war will result in an organic lost.  Even the blasted Catalyst himself warns Shepard that spurning his offer is futile:

Shepard: I’ve made it this far. We’ll destroy you without setting it (the crucible) off.

Catalyst: Impossible you are vastly outnumbered. You have sacrificed many of your resources just to reach this point. If you do not use the crucible the Reapers will not be stopped and the cycle will continue.

Shepard: I don’t believe you.

Catalyst: Your belief is not required.

If Shepard does not fire the Crucible the remaining Alliance ships in orbit now only have two putrid options of staying there and enacting a sci-fi version of The Alamo or quickly turning tail and escaping.  Both strategies are useless at this point because an escaping fleet would be nothing more than a smouldering rump of molten metal that would have its military readiness degraded to near nothingness.  It might survive for another day, week, or month but it is clear that the Reapers are prepared to cull the galaxy over centuries and the prospects of fighting them through conventional warfare are decidedly poor.

Some fans might still fume that the Alliance might have found a way to defeat the Reapers through conventional means provided they had enough time.  I’ve heard some decent strategies before such as somehow herding the Reaper fleet into a solar system with a Mass Relay and then attempting to blow it up ala the Arrival DLC meteor strike to ensure both the system and the Reapers are killed.  I certainly commend those who have thought of this yet the fact remains simple – when Shepard is confronting the Catalyst does she choose to save the galaxy here or hope for something better?  It might have been a bit vague in the original ending but to say that Shepard will still spurn the Catalyst in the new ending DLC cut with the added exposition on each choice is nothing more than pure folly.  No, she’s going to choose to save the galaxy and everything she holds dear right now rather than to risk losing everything no matter how hard she has to bite her tongue and trust the Catalyst isn’t trying to con her.  There is such a thing as a no-win scenario.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but thinking that this ending is akin to Jade Empire’s “sacrifice” ending (seen here) where the player can choose to let his/her master basically kill them instead of putting up a fight.  I remember back then playing that game that I LOLLED so hard when I chose to basically let him kill me and saw the ending that resulted in him laughing his ass off that he had won by convincing me to let him kick my ass.  In that sense Bioware has really nailed this new option by giving players a chance to give a middle finger to the Catalyst yet being fully aware that they are going to condemn their own cycle to destruction.

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying though, this is really a valid ending option that Bioware has crafted into the extended cut and though I argue against ever taking it I am sure others will disagree.  However, more than anything it should confirm to everyone that Bioware’s original intent was to always force players to make one of three choices and there was never an avenue in which Shepard could outright win without losing anything.  In fact, one of the biggest thematic strands has always been that winning wars always engenders a sacrifice of some sort and to provide an ending where Shepard has a parade through the streets of Vancouver with their lover by his/her side was never in their plans.

I swear I got something in my eye…

6.0 So what did I really think?

After all this analysis what did I really think of this extended DLC?  Simply put in a few words – if you liked the original endings the new ones won’t change your mind as they basically confirm everything you’ve probably already figured out but for those who really want closure and extra catharsis then the extended cut is exactly what you are looking for.  The way they are executed should provide enough resolution for all the characters you have come to love over the course of the past half decade while at the same time restoring a supreme sense of hope in the Mass Effect universe.  The fact that Shepard sacrifices herself for the greater good is much more evident and emotional here which again should act as a big plus for the majority of the fans who felt adrift with the original ending’s ambiguity.

However, compared to the original, the new ending radically shifts the tone from potentially being one of the darkest endings to virtually sunshine, rainbows and unicorns cavorting through cobblestone streets lined with lollipops and marshmallows.   Okay, I’m obviously being facetious here but the tonal shift is incredibly jarring no matter which ending one chooses as even the “refusal” choice which condemns the entire galaxy to death ends with a cheery coda with a new female stargazer implying that the next cycle managed to defeat the Reapers using Liara’s memory archive.  In other words, if you were really one of the few that wanted a devastating ending where the universe is wrecked but still capable of repairing itself in the far future this new ending basically erases that reading altogether.

Yet those people are surely in the minority and I figure that most fans wanted to be able to have an ending that accentuated hope that the universe and the characters they have come to adore not only survive but thrive.  There’s nothing wrong with this as it is just basic human nature to want to see positives in the face of unremitting destruction.  Nevertheless, I only question whether or not Bioware has swung the pendulum too far from being blatantly vague to overtly bombastic exposition where just about everything is explicitly spelt out to fill in the blanks.

I remember clearly in a previous discussion that the core issue for many was the concept of ambiguity and that everyone has a different threshold level for it with some loving vagueness and others hating it with a passion.  To this extent I can certainly understand that many people did not like the original endings because they felt they needed more information whether it be from the Catalyst himself or from Bioware in showing the results of Shepard’s sacrifice.

With this extended ending it is clear as day that Bioware has decided that out of all their options the best course to “please” the fans while maintain some degree of artistic integrity to their original vision was to basically fill in the blanks and directly address some of these issues that caused fans to waver.  While I have to give kudos to Bioware for trying I wonder if now the ending is even more bloated than it needs to be.  Before people complained that the Catalyst acted as a massive info dump in the original ending but compared to that the extended cut is a gigantic torrent of seemingly unending exposition.

That said I have to admit that I am a sucker for melodrama and I am not averse to watching sappy soap operas featuring people dying of terminal diseases while soaring orchestral music blares in the background attempting to pluck at my heartstrings.  As such I think Bioware has certainly managed to add a much more emotionally investing series of scenes showing how Shepard’s squad reacts to his/her death mainly through the war memorial segment where Shepard’s plague is applied (or not!) to the cenotaph.  Couple this with some excellent voice over work from Jennifer Hale (Control), Lance Henriksen (Destroy) and Tricia Helfer (Synthesis) and the ending organically feels much more like an emotional catharsis that should satisfy many.  I do applaud that the endings are now much more distinct from one another and that anyone now harping about reusing three colours sounds more like whining than anything else.

Yes, I still think the old ending was fine but in the end these new ones will probably be loved by a much larger portion of the fanbase.  Anecdotally, I’ve seen a much more positive response to this ending from fans proclaiming that they actually cried to others basically shouting that they once again love Bioware.  Though it is early to state I think those at Bioware responsible for the DLC will be relieved with the generally satisfactory response.  Like they mentioned in their press release, this DLC won’t make everyone happy but my gut tells me that the majority of the fans will be willing to at least accept these new extended cuts and then proceed to replay the series all over again.

6.1 Olympic Dash Postponed

Unfortunately, this new extended cut also does manage to radically change one big segment which I originally thought were damn well near perfect being the epic run to the citadel beam which was akin to a Herculean, though admittedly lunatic plan, to run the final distance to victory that really got my adrenalin pumping.  I remember mentally cheering Shepard on as Harbinger and other Reapers arrived to try and blast everything to smithereens and then the huge feeling of “oh sh*T!” as Shepard is hit.  This was one of the highlight segments in my first play through and it has stuck with me even all these months later.

The new ending though really dilutes the sequence in an attempt to address two fan complaints the first one obviously being how Shepard’s two squadmates disappear and reappear later on the Normandy.  This is one area of fan contention that I never agreed with as it seemed obvious to me that the only way to ever explain it would be to imagine that somehow the Normandy was called down to pick them up and then went back into orbit to rejoin the space battle.  Lo and behold this is exactly what Bioware has shown yet I had always envisioned that it would take place after Shepard teleports up to the citadel.  By placing it right in the middle of the epic run the entire visceral adrenalin Olympic dash is essentially broken, chopped into two segments that don’t have the same kind of kinetic fluidity.

At the same time I realize that Bioware created this new scene to kill two birds with one stone so now not only does it answer literally how the two squadmates were saved but it also adds a short dialogue scene where Shepard is basically saying her goodbye to whoever her love one is.  Is it sappy? Obviously, but again I understand why Bioware is putting it here to help answer those fans who wanted one extra scene with Shepard and her partner.  Does the scene work though?  Yes but in doing so the epic dash now feels tonally very different and I just can’t help feeling the entire segment is a bit ham-fisted in execution.  Does it ruin anything for me?  Not really but I was always satisfied by Shepard’s talk with all her squad members at the London FOB so this scene is basically a duplication.

In film one of the most common comments I always hear on movies with director commentary tracks is that many scenes are cut due to them essentially being redundant such as repeating plot points that just don’t need to be overemphasized.  This is certainly what I feel has taken place here especially with the last chance meeting with Shepard and her lover as it smacks of pandering in a way that is unnecessary.

6.2 Stargazing Time

Speaking of redundancy the new endings also act to unfortunately reduce the importance of the entire Stargazer segment.  The issue here is that this is the one segment in the original ending which was meant to be the “hope” builder by showing a vision of the future where it is implied that galactic civilization is fine and is recovering well from all the damage caused by the Reapers.  By presenting this dialogue between an old man and a young kid it is meant to invoke not only optimism but also finally link Shepard’s sacrifice to the greater good.

Now however, the entire sequence is going over the exact same themes as the new ending material so it completely loses its original purpose.  By this point in the new ending we’re already brimming with optimism of the future from all the new cutscenes and it is more than evident now that Shepard’s sacrifice has not only saved the galaxy but allowed it to reach new heights as never before cementing his/her position in history as not only its saviour but a legend.  Having the Stargazer sequence basically say the same points now feels like browbeating and it makes one wonder if it would have been a better idea just to junk it completely and only leave the new version with the female narrator if one picked the refusal option.

Sadly, no longer Michael Bay approved…

6.3 Kablooey!

The other segment that clearly needed some work was the mass relay explosions and here I have to say I am incredibly conflicted with the solution Bioware has opted for.    I never once thought the relays resulted in an explosion that wiped out the solar system because I likened it to a car’s gas tank in that the petrol is harmless unless an external third party force interacts with it in a way it was never meant to such as someone shooting the gas tank with a bullet.  However, in one of my discussion answers I wrote the following as well:

“I think perhaps Bioware decided to let their artistic cinematic director get a bit too giddy and he/she decided it would make the ending more thrilling to show a super big explosion rather than the mass relay coming apart like Lego.”

In my opinion this is what occurred as someone at Bioware basically followed the Michael Bay guidebook to explosions and decided a super massive blast would look cool thus that is what we received.

However, the fans protested that they were too confused based on the Arrival DLC so Bioware went back in this new ending and basically retconned the scene.  On one hand the new cinematic clearly just shows that the internal spinning ring falls apart rather like Lego but that the rest of the relay is mostly intact therefore no solar system wide extinction of life.  Does this work? Sure it does as it is now obvious that the relay is disabled hence problem solved.  Yet this irks me somewhat because this is really the only instance in the entire ending which is markedly different than the original and the moment I saw it being retconned I immediately thought that here was proof that artistic integrity went flying out the window.

To me it would have been much easier to keep the original cinematic of the mass relay exploding but then showing the blast wave hit Earth and nothing happening as everyone would then infer that this was not the same case as depicted in Arrival DLC.  With the new optimistic endings it would not have been a stretch to show the Reapers or the Alliance forces rebuilding the mass relays from scratch to show that the technology has not been lost instead of fixing a half-busted relay.  In this fashion Bioware’s artistic integrity would remain intact yet by making the explosion just rip apart the spinning inner ring I have a strong feeling someone who does not want to see video games defined as art will use it as proof that the medium can’t be art because the original intent was forced to be changed.

Where’s my crown?

6.4 God Emperor/Empress arise

That said I really had a blast with some of this new material especially the new control ending where I almost fell out of my seat in laughter at what Bioware had accomplished.

I confess that I chose “destroy” in both the original ending and the new one as my first choice as it is “canon” for my particular Shepard but for the sake of this review I had to see all the others and none made as much impact as the new control ending which I think makes a great example of what only Bioware can do when they are at the top of their game.

Simply put the new control ending work so well for me because it manages to be both totally successful if Shepard is either renegade or paragon just by swapping a few words.  Now, control is an ending I would never choose just because I’m uncomfortable with giving supreme power to any one individual yet this ending is near flawless in execution.  That stems from the aforementioned dialogue difference that clearly delineates what a benevolent Shepard would say as opposed to one with more grandiose ambitions yet the musical soundtrack is pitch perfect since it can be read optimistically and pessimistically at the same time.

More than anything the voice over narration by male and female Shepard is both inspiring and downright disturbing at the same time as it is jarring to hear the protagonist begin to sound like a Reaper automaton.  Put all these elements into a single package and the ending itself resonates on a level that the original never came close to.  Also, any hardcore renegade Shepard now has a clear-cut choice of which ending to go for since they can now turn Shepard into a galactic dictator who imposes his/her will on the galaxy. Not only does Reaper-Shepard now have overwhelming military might but one can presume still has indoctrination powers so any megalomaniacal player should be salivating at the possibility of basically brainwashing the entire galaxy to follow their lead.  Well Done.

On the other hand synthesis now seems like a more viable choice than previously since the new ending shows that it creates a kind of utopian society with both former organics and synthetics living in harmony.  I can’t help but relate it to Pinocchio or Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation as both individuals strive to become human yet here in the synthesis ending it becomes reality best seen through some excellent dialogue and delivery by EDI (Tricia Helfer) who nails the emotional resonance in the scene by hugging her crewmembers.  Still, it is not as if I would personally chose this ending since it still smacks of Shepard imposing his/her will on the galaxy without anyone’s consent but at least it presents a clearly delineated option for others to take if they so desire.

If at first you don’t succeed…

6.5 Shepard has become a legend now give me your wallet!

Another great change is the final text scrawl that appears once the ending credits are over.  Most fans, including me, cannot forget the original message that popped up was truly one of the most inconsiderate posts I’ve ever seen especially when taken in context with the tone of the ending itself.  After blowing through the tense London stages, saying goodbye to my friends at the FOB and then basically sacrificing myself to save the universe it is somewhat dumbfounding to say the least to have a message pop up thanking you for playing the game but by the way go buy some upcoming DLC.  Think what would happen if you attended a funeral of a loved one and suddenly at the end the priest blurts out to go buy a new copy of his religious book for the low price of $9.99 on the way out.  Yeah, not exactly tactful.

Thankfully, that message is dead and gone, replaced by much more palatable text that thanks fans for supporting Bioware and the Mass Effect universe as well as striking a conciliatory tone that they also listen to the constructive criticism in crafting their products.  Say what you will about corporations in general but this is a nice touch and leagues better than the original message.

Shouldn’t we be flying INTO the sunset?

7.0 The Undiscovered Country

I have a strong feeling many fans will be satisfied with this new ending as it makes the game feel much more optimistic.  It certainly ups the emotional catharsis as well as provides clarity for all the supposed plot holes that bugged many fans.  This is not bad per se but it does so by diminishing the thick sense of mystery that permeated the original ending.  Using your imagination to ponder where the Catalyst came from, who his creators were, what happened to the Citadel and many more points now seems almost pointless with the answers staring at you in your face.  At the same time by removing the mystery Bioware runs the risk of alienating fans with the answers they provide thus creating yet another negative cycle of fan distrust.

On a more esoteric level this entire ending debacle doesn’t seem to advance the video games are art movement and instead provide ammunition for those who will use this example as why games can never adhere to the traditional definition of immutable art forms.  Sure, there are always exceptions to the rule found everywhere but one would have to write a damn near perfect explanation as to why Mass Effect 3 would be accorded the status of being the exception of being allowed to be changed by fan criticism but still be considered art.

Mass Effect is certainly a unique franchise within video games as there really isn’t anything comparable to its size, scope and ambition.  Whether or not this fact alone accords it special status though is cause for much debate.  Yet I doubt few would have thought that it would have blossomed into the sensation it has become when it was first announced and I am sure many were supremely cynical that Bioware, or any company for that matter, could fashion a trilogy which kept track of past decisions in such a manner.

Sure, many will point out that these aggregate decisions did not have an impact on the ending of the series but there is no way any can argue that they did not have direct impact on the fates of many crewmembers.  Perhaps Bioware was a victim of its own success as well as expectations that grew with each new release and a few errant comments by its staff surely did it no favors.  If there is another lesson to be learned here is that many game developers are going to have to learn to censor themselves when speaking to the press as any comment/statement is sure to boomerang back to their posterior if it is proven to be false.

I’m sure this issue is the last thing on Bioware’s collective minds these days but this begs the question as to how the company will proceed in its future games.  Are they now going to feel more constrained and be dissuaded into doing something daring thus sticking to general convention? Will they do what mainstream Hollywood has always been accused of and craft entertainment by committee purposely to placate the majority of the fans?

Say what you will about video games or entertainment in general but it is in nobody’s interest to see a commercial product arise that has been crafted entirely by focus group testing as it is a sure-fire strategy that leads to cookie-cutter design that attempts to appeal to every demographic possible and ends up being nothing more than soulless generic trite.  Does anyone remember back in the late 1980s when video game platformers were arguably at their peak with fans being split into two camps, one loving Nintendo’s Mario and the other Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog?  Does anyone remember what virtually every third party developer tried to do in that they attempted to craft their own mascot based on either Mario or Sonic and ended up with a hodgepodge array of hackneyed copycats that now reside in the video game graveyard?  We surely don’t want developers to take this route again.

It is certainly a massive quandary because Bioware is like every other company and it wants to succeed critically and financially but that takes a lot of skill to accomplish successfully.   I am an optimist at heart and though I don’t personally know anyone at Bioware I do not think they deserve the high level of vitriol they were bombarded with.  If you don’t like something just state bluntly you don’t like it and leave it at that.  Sure, provide your reason for it but then move on.  Degenerating into inflammatory language by berating the writers or sounding like a petulant child gets you nowhere fast and I dare anyone to launch into such a diatribe with their manager or boss at work and see what happens.

To be fair the use of provocative language was not just confined to those who didn’t like the ending as many who defended it were just as ill-tempered by calling those who had valid criticism ridiculous monikers which did nothing but prolong the agonizing debate between both sides.  In the future one hopes a more level-headed conversation can take place without resorting to schoolyard buffoonery.

What will the future bring? Who knows but as I’ve spoken to others with the same opinion as mine there still is the possibility that perhaps ME3 will in time turn into something like Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey which are examples of films that more or less polarized both critics and fans when they were initially released but have risen in stature once sufficient time has passed merely because critics can now chart how they changed the industry in general and influenced a new generation of film directors.  The question though becomes if this ME3 debacle will change the industry for better or for worse.  I wish I had a crystal ball or some space magic right about now but I have no clue and won’t even venture to guess what the future holds for gaming in general.

Finally, I want to give my thanks to all the hard working employees at Bioware for creating the Mass Effect series as it is truly a landmark franchise that many have embraced.  I understand some people will always be negative and look at this extended ending as being nothing more than massive damage control by corporate shills in order to protect IP but I’d rather be an optimist and say that though part of the decision surely was to somehow redeem themselves in the eyes of the fans that it takes serious dedication and love of the fanbase to bite the bullet and devote both time and money into releasing this free DLC. Other companies might have just tried to ride out the storm or ignored fan reaction entirely and I think it speaks volumes of those at Bioware that they decided to take this as constructive criticism and attempted to give fans what they wanted.

People can criticize all they want but I have no doubt the most ardent fanboys and fangirls of Mass Effect are indeed all the Bioware employees who have worked long and hard through these past 6-7 years to deliver their epic vision of science fiction space opera to the masses. To those people at Bioware I salute you and wish you the best of luck in the future.

© 2012 The Galactic Pillow

The fans really really love me…don’t they?

Appendix: Transcribed Shepard and Catalyst dialogue

Please forgive any small errors in this transcription as I did it quickly in order to write this article.

Shepard: Where did the reaper’s come from? Did you create them?

Catalyst: My creators gave them form.   I gave them function.  They in turn give me purpose.  The reapers are a synthetic representation of my creators.

Shepard:  And what happened to your creators?

Catalyst: They became the first true reaper.  They did not approve but it was the only solution.

Shepard: You said that before but how do the reapers solve anything?

Catalyst:  Organics create synthetics to improve their own existence but those improvements have limits. To exceed those limits synthetics must be allowed to evolve.  They must by definition surpass their creators.  The result is conflict, destruction, chaos.  It is inevitable.  Reapers harvest all life – organic and synthetic – preserving them before they are ever lost to this conflict.

Shepard: how is this not conflict? We’re at war with the reapers right now.

Catalyst:  You may be in conflict with the reapers but they are not interested in war.

Shepard: I find that hard to believe.

Catalyst:  When fire burns is it at war? Is it in conflict? Or is it doing what it was created to do? We are no different.  We harvest your body, your knowledge, your creations.  We preserve it to be reborn in the form of a new reaper.  Like a cleansing fire we restore balance.  New life both organic and synthetic can once again flourish.

Shepard: You said you are the catalyst. What are you?

Catalyst:  A construct.  An intelligence designed eons ago to solve a problem. I was created to bring balance, to be the catalyst for peace between the organics and synthetics.

Shepard: So you are just an AI?

Catalyst:  In as much as you are just an animal. I embody the collective intelligence of all reapers.

Shepard: But you were created?

Catalyst: Correct

Shepard: By who?

Catalyst:  By ones who recognized that conflict would always arise between synthetics and organics. I was first created to oversee the relations between synthetic and organic life to establish a connection but our efforts always ended in conflict so a new solution was required.

Shepard: The reapers?

Catalyst:  Precisely.

Shepard: What do you know about the crucible?

Catalyst: The device you refer to as the crucible is little more than a power source. However, in combination with the citadel and the relays it is capable of releasing tremendous amounts of energy throughout the galaxy.  It is crude but effective and adaptive in its design.

Shepard: Who designed it?

Catalyst:  You would not know them and there is not enough time to explain.  We first noted the concept for this device several cycles ago with each passing cycle its design has no doubt evolved.

Shepard: Why didn’t you stop it?

Catalyst:  We believe the concept had been eradicated. Clearly organics are more resourceful than we realized.

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