N7 Day: Mass Effect’s Story Is So Much More Than Its Ending

Even today, debates about the Mass Effect 3 ending rage on. While the third game had the most complex gameplay mechanics and some excellent individual moments, the multi-choice A B C ending didn’t feel like a fitting way to round out our journey. Since then, the immediate anger and shock has subsided, and some fans have convinced themselves that the ending was great, actually, and they wouldn’t change a thing. How much this is true and how much is raw, unfiltered copium is unclear, but the fact is Mass Effect is, and always has been, about the journey.

My thoughts on the ending itself have tempered over the years. The extended cut adds a little more depth to the story, and while I still don’t enjoy the cheapness of picking A B or C after investing hundreds of hours, each of the individual endings have a sense of bittersweet charm. If you take the endings themselves and shear away the choice of it all, you’re already closer to a competent sign off. Mostly though, I’ve made my peace with the fact a story is more than just its last chapter, and on N7 Day, it’s worth looking back on all the other chapters that weave together in the tapestry of Mass Effect.

BioWare’s space opera has always been held together by its characters. Replaying the Legendary Edition, I was surprised at how awkwardly the game thrusts these characters at you initially, but once you’re up and running Mass Effect never misses a beat. The game launched when writing in video games was still maturing, and while story-driven cinematic games now dominate the triple-A landscape, we still haven’t had a game eclipse Mass Effect’s breadth when it comes to character writing.

Each character feels alive, a core part of the story, with a level of depth and complexity that most video game protagonists can only dream of. Even Kasumi, a DLC character less connected to the core of the game, has her whole story told by the scattered objects in her room. While the characters excel when they interact naturally with the narrative and ever-changing context of the game, Kasumi can shine even when this is taken away from her.

Mass Effect is not a game of heroes, and that’s why it works. All of the characters have a grey morality to them, and with choices far more effective and impactful than the ending, you can influence these choices too. Mass Effect doesn’t deal in ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but in reality. You do not get to redeem or condemn, only to shape the future. Mordin, the kindly and quirky scientist, is responsible for genocide. Tali, the sweet natured and kind engineer, endorses indentured servitude and violent retribution against the race of slaves her people created. Jack, the angry and violent criminal, is a victim of intense abuse who protects other children from suffering her fate.

The real reason the ending of Mass Effect doesn’t matter is because Shepard is unimportant. Not in an Indiana Jones, if Shepard wasn’t there nothing changes sense, but in how little Shep impacts the experience. Of course, Jennifer Hale’s performance in particular has been roundly praised and Shep is a little bit of an unsung hero holding it all together – Ryder was not up to the challenge in Andromeda. But when it comes to the mist sparkling character moments, it’s the rest of the crew that tend to provide them. This supporting cast are not tarred by the ending, and so it’s easier to celebrate their story.

As I’ve written about before, Mass Effect has several endings. Shepard’s, and Mass Effect’s own, are one and the same. Despite the disappointment of this though, Mass Effect reveals itself to be an expert at endings, tying off everyone’s story perfectly. Though a few characters slip through the cracks, the most profound characters get measured and meaningful send offs that only enrich Mass Effect as a whole. The last 15 minutes are not ones for the history books, but it shouldn’t diminish everything Mass Effect does along the way.

On N7 Day, it’s important to recognise that the true star of Mass Effect has always been its grey areas and moral dilemmas. That the ending is such a reductive rebellion against this idea only makes it sting worse, but we shouldn’t forget the journey that took us there.

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