What's in an Ending?

I finished Mass Effect 3 and Darksiders this week. For this article, I will assume some familiarity with the controversy over the ending of Mass Effect 3. Darksiders was released in 2010, but I still hear about the ending - it was supposed to be one of the best in recent years. Even with the hype, it did not disappoint me. Darksiders tells a great story and it ends with a bang. It's the kind of ending that makes you sit-up and think (or shout), "Fuck yeah!"

I have not heard the same thing said about the end of Mass Effect 3. However, they offer very different stories and experiences. Darksiders tells a story over about 10 hours. I spent ten times the number of hours, easily over 100, following Shepard's story through Mass Effect. I developed attachments to Tali, Liara, Garrus, and the others. They were my crew and we were saving the galaxy together. During Mass Effect 2's suicide mission, I had to hold my breath before every cutscene and seriously consider every decision I made. After ~60 hours, I really cared about the outcome and wanted to get my crew out of there alive. In Darksiders, I only had War, the main protagonist, to care about and I knew I would make it to the end of the story.

One hundred hours is a lot of time. The average film is 90 minutes. The average reader can consume a Stephen King novel over one or two days of avid reading. However, games offer unique possibilities the storyteller can use to pad the experience. Combat, traveling, and side quests all add time to the experience, but that time still counts. Perhaps not all of it, but combat banter and side missions (good ones, anyway) develop characters and give the player time to grow attached to them. Even if you cut-out a lot of the extras, Mass Effect's story still requires a more significant investment than most trilogies, movies or books.

Mass Effect complicates its story further by factoring in the decisions made by the players. Anyone who talks to a few players who have followed Shepard's tale since Mass Effect 1 will hear very different retellings of events. How can a storyteller satisfy everyone when they all have such different experiences and expectations? They might choose to cater to popular ideas or, perhaps, fabricate a big twist that makes it easier to end the story on the storyteller's terms. Many games opt for closing out the story with loose ends to hint at sequels, even if they do not expect one to be coming. It leaves the player wanting more and, if done well, satisfied at the end. In fact, Darksiders does this to great effect.

Furthermore, I always considered Shepard's tale to be a sad one. I started Mass Effect 3 fully expecting Shepard to die by the end. I even suspected Bioware might attempt a cop-out by killing Shepard a bit before the final battle to make it easier to wrap-up the story. I think it is fair to say most games do not tell sad stories, especially sad space operas, so Mass Effect's story is very unique. I recommend reading this article: Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction of Our Generation

I can understand some of the anger around Mass Effect's ending - I have mixed feelings myself. However, I take offense to some of the more dramatic complaints. Mass Effect 3 was the end, not just the game's final 10 minutes. I might rank Mass Effect 3 below Mass Effect 2 as a game, but it was still a good game. I will not call it excellent, but I confess I have only a few gameplay gripes. Most of my disappointment is due to the ending. I am both sad the trilogy has come to a close and sad the ending did not make me jump out of my chair and cheer. I did save the galaxy after all.

However, I have been unable to create an ending of my own that I feel is satisfactory. A happy ending would make me wonder where my Shepard's story would go, but I do not want a Mass Effect 4. The ending of Darksiders got me to think about how I react to endings. I want a game to be fun and exciting, so a good ending for me usually ends on a high note with a lot of "Fuck yeah!" moments. That isn't right for Mass Effect, though. I must accept that Mass Effect is much more than an ordinary video game and entertain the idea that the ending was appropriate. I just wish they had included a more exposition to explain what was going on. Whatever your opinion of Mass Effect's ending, I hope you can respect that it was able to become this thing you care so much about.

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