Why Did the Mass Effect 3 Ending Ruin The Whole Series?

Spanning three lengthy role-playing games, the Mass Effect series created an elaborate science fiction universe for players to explore and shape. It also had great characters with detailed and well written backstories that made them as memorable as any fictional character I’ve otherwise encountered. The alien doctor Mordin Solus, a pragmatic and likable soul who nevertheless carries the weight of a genocide on his shoulders, is probably my favorite video game character of all time. When my family got a dog a few years ago, I lobbied hard to name him “Mordin” but had to settle for “Ezio” instead. (Still not a bad name, I think.)

The universe, the lore, the characters, the voice acting, the motion capture technology, the branching narrative, and the sheer amount of time that players spent with the games meant that many of us counted them as among the best that that generation of consoles had to offer. It was an amazingly satisfying experience.

Until the ending of the third game, anyway. That’s when things fell apart.

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I think Paul Tassi explains it pretty well in his book, Fanboy Wars: The Fight For The Future Of Video Games

After two beloved games and a third installment that lived up to immense expectations for the vast majority of the game, the ending of Mass Effect 3 is widely regarded as one of the biggest narrative snafus in video game history. The conclusion abandons the choices players have made throughout the series. After allowing players to make dozens of important choices across the three games, the games’ developers boxed them into one final choice that essentially alters the entire universe, negating everything else that came before it. The ending fails on a personal level as well. The beloved characters in your crew simply vanish for the final portion of the game, only appearing briefly in a rather cheesy montage that’s the same no matter which final apocalyptic choice the player makes.1

After that ending, many people claimed that the entire Mass Effect series had been ruined. Somehow a few minutes at the end managed to sour the memory of an overall experience that lasted dozens of hours or longer. Said one member of a video game message board I frequent, “Of the 35 hours it took to finish the game, the first 34 hours 50 minutes were great. The last ten minutes dropped the ball into the street where my respect for the series chased after it into oncoming traffic.”

That’s weird, right? Similar things have happened with the endings of other games like Fallout 3.2 Tassi even goes on to point out that the disappointing endings to popular TV shows like Dexter or Seinfeld can result in the same thing: a bad ending exerts a disproportianate weight on our evaluation of an entire experience. Why is that?

To answer that question, let’s talk about sticking something up your butt.

Well, not just anything. Calm down. Specifically, let’s talk about colonoscopies. This is a medical procedure during which a tiny camera on the end of a flexible tube is inserted into the patient’s anus. 3 This lets the doctor visually inspect the bowels for signs of cancer and even retrieve a tissue sample for a biopsy. Colonoscopy patients today benefit from anesthetics and even drugs that make them forget the whole thing, but during the 1990s it was a painful procedure that people endured and remembered.

"Relax, Shepard. This won't hurt at all until the last few minutes."

“Relax, Shepard. This won’t hurt at all until the last few minutes.”

During that time, a doctor by the name of Donald Redelmeir conducted many colonoscopies, and he partnered with psychologist Daniel Kahneman to conduct a study of how memory affects evaluation of experiences. During each colonoscopy, which might take anywhere from a few minutes to over an hour, patients were asked every 60 seconds to rate their pain on a 1 to 10 scale.4

Take a look at these ratings of pain across time for two patients:

Taken from Kahneman (2011).

Taken from Kahneman (2011).

Which patient suffered more during their procedure? Patient B seems like the obvious answer. Because the procedure lasted longer, he experienced more minutes of pain and thus one could argue that his procedure was more painful.

Here’s the thing, though: shortly after the procedure was completed, the physician asked the patient to rate the “total amount of discomfort” experienced during the procedure, using a similar 10-point scale. In studying the data, Kahneman writes about two interesting and strong findings that, taken together, form what’s known as “the peak end rule.”5 First, the duration of the procedure had no effect on overal ratings of pain. It didn’t matter if the doctor was rooting around in there for 4 minutes or 40 minutes. Second, the researchers found that the amount of pain experienced at the end of the procedure mattered a lot, and that a person’s memory of how painful the colonoscopy was could be pretty accurately predicted by a combination of how painful it was in the last minute and how painful it was at its worst.

Put another way, a long, painful procedure could be ameliorated by a just a few, relatively pain free minutes at the end. But an examination could be remembered as much worse if there was a spike of discomfort and pain in the closing moments. The final minutes of Patient B’s lengthy procedure was relatively painless, but the last few minutes of Patient A’s brief procedure were very painful. Thus he reported the whole thing as worse.

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman goes on to describe research that expands this point that we disproportionately weigh the last few moments of an experience when evaluating overall memories of how good or bad it was. This has implications for life, such as making it wise to save the most enjoyable parts of a vacation for the end. It also predicts that the disappointing endings of games like Mass Effect 3 are likely to drag down our memories of the entire game. The end of a protracted experience (good or bad) affects our evaluation of it more than anything else.

One has to wonder if the game would have benefitted from some kind of more enjoyable coda or epilogue, such as the eventually released “Citadel” DLC where players got to end their experience the game by attending a party with many of their beloved characters. Going into that fun experience for just a few minutes might have made a large difference in players’ overall evaluation of the series.

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Footnotes:

1. Tassi, P. (2014). Fanboy Wars: The Fight For The Future Of Video Games. Forbes Media.
2. I mean Fawkes was a mutant. Radiation HEALS HIM. Why couldn’t he just go in there and flip the dang switch?
3. Look at me. I’m writing “anus” with a straight face, almost.
4. Redelmeier, D., & Kahneman, D. (1996). Patients’ memories of painful medical treatments: real-time and retrospective evaluations of two minimally invasive procedures. Pain, 66, 3–8.
5. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

15 thoughts on “Why Did the Mass Effect 3 Ending Ruin The Whole Series?

  1. And for those of you thinking that the title of this article is bombastic …well, yeah, you’re right. I thought the color-coded endings were disappointing, but it didn’t really “ruin” ME3 for me, much less the whole series. But that sentiment is definitely out there.

  2. A very interesting perspective on why so many folks got riled up. I got the game back when it was released, but decided to wait and see what Bioware would do about the controversy before I finished it. Only recently did I play it again from the beginning, with the expanded ending and CItadel DLC installed, and I loved every minute of it. At the end of the day, the element of player choice was mostly an illusion, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. For me at least, the amazing characters (100 percent agree on Mordin), universe building, and exploration of so many fascinating themes – synthetic vs organic life, xenophobia, colonialism, power enables vs power corrupts. etc – made the whole thing worthwhile.

    • Another thought that occurred to me about the dynamic that Kahneman describes…it’s helpful in understanding why my overall memories of several Bethesda games – Oblivion and Fallout 3 in particular – are ambivalent at best. Although I enjoyed dozens and dozens of hours in each of those games, at a certain point I was just done and slogged through to the (disappointing) endings of the main narratives. My final hours in those games felt tedious and oppressive, and in turn my overall recollection of those experiences is one of tedium and oppression.

      This is why IMO open world games are such a double-edged sword…for myself and no doubt many others, the diminishing returns of such an experience can eventually undermine the overall sense of whether a game was enjoyable and worthwhile.

      • Yeah, it also builds the case for tight gaming experiences that don’t last so long as to overstay their welcome.

  3. I completely agree. I always thought Mass Effect 3 was the best in the series right up until the end. The ending was so out of place and unlike the rest of the series it made my whole experience sour (and I have yet to replay it since). I wish they kept Casey Hudson on as the lead writer and did “the reapers are killing everyone because of dark matter and dark energy” thing.

  4. The other thing to consider in a narrative like the ME series is that some or all of the interest in the earlier moments of a narrative are in anticipation of those moments paying off in a conclusion. Once you know that the payoff doesn’t exist (or, worse yet, that the payoff actively negates), the enjoyment that was once perceived in the earlier moments may no longer exist.

    I have many fond memories of playing through the ME series. Some of the most intense and effective moments I’ve ever experienced in a video game were part of the ME series. So I wouldn’t say that ME3 ruined the series for me. But it definitely ruined my replays of the series.

    I have had a similar experience with the ALIAS TV series: A good deal of the series’ appeal was in the eventual payoff of the Rambaludi mystery. Once the series conclusion revealed that there was no such payoff, much of the entertainment value of the earlier episodes vanished.

  5. I think you hit the nail on the head with this thing. Overall I LOVED ME3 – the whole game plays completely different depending on how you played 1 and 2. Everywhere you turn is a reference to decisions you made in previous games. It’s just that all of that building up doesn’t matter because there will be just one decision at the end, that doesn’t even matter which you pick – each one is similar, just with different colors. I’m not even sure there’s a satisfying way to end the series. I always thought maybe the best would be “you” don’t make the decision – the Shepherd that you’ve created over these three games makes it. All of the actions you made have the final consequence of what Shepherd picks.

  6. Whoever wrote the script for the ending should be fired, it makes no sense. So the Reapers like the Nazi’s were doing it for the betterment of all, oh how noble of them, mudering billions to save thousands, maybe they should learn what the real meaning of ROLE PLAING GAMES is first.

  7. ME3’s ending was terrible because it failed to reward the most invested players, and failed to stay consistent to the core narrative: different species will conflict with each other unless they can find common ground and learn that cooperation is better than conflict. Shepard does this in ME1 by overcoming human purists to build a multi-species team and then succeeding because of the diversity of that team. That is intensified in ME2, and to get the full fleet for ME3 it is essential. So Bioware spends three games telling us that success comes through ending conflict and finding ways to cooperate, and then says: “oh yeah, except in cases where the difference is totally intractable. In that case, genocide is the only option”. The contrast between the Paragon and Renegade position is illustrated in all three games by contrasting the Paragon position with Cerberus’s extremist, fascist views. You know you’re playing an essentially evil character if you find yourself agreeing with the Illusive Man all the time.

    The most invested players will grind through every side mission, every piece of text in the Codex to get that perfect Paragon score. You do that for three games and then it’s ‘nope, none of it matters’. The destroy ending, the laziest and the one associated with Renegade (it was red on colour, just like Renegade, and was the laziest as it fails resolve the supposed fundamental problems between synthetics and organics, preferring to kick that problem on-to the next generation to bleed over) turns out to be the canonical one (the only one in which Shepard lives).

    All of this ignores all the previous paragon achievements, none the least of which is resolving a conflict between organics and synthetics and making them allies by helping them realise they have more in common than differences, partly through being a paragon of those ideals. It’s jarring,and is feels so in conflict with the rest of what seems like the central theme: finding a way to work together in-spite of our differences.

  8. However you can’t deny that a single choice in the end nullifies all that you tried to decide for the past 3 games.
    I mean, why not make it scripted?
    Good actions take you automatically to one ending.
    Bad actions to the other ending.
    Mixed actions trigger the other ending.
    If I had know I had to choose at the last moment the finale, I probably would have played a lot less carefully
    in the whole series.

  9. Ok, let me start off by explaining the ending to you, in case any of you don’t understand it.

    First off, the Reapers were created from The “Leviathan” (or whatever the race is called) to solve the problem of the lesser races that served them creating machines that destroyed them in the end. That goal was preservation of life at any cost. It wasn’t a reaper to begin with, it was just an intelligence, or an AI. When the AI found a solution (Preserve life by harvesting) it cleaned out the “Leviathans”, stating the Godchild, roughly, “They didn’t realize that when they required a solution, they were part of the problem themselves.” Therefore they were harvested.

    And this is the most important aspect of what a reaper is. It’s not purely machine, but the preserved DNA of organic harvests along with synthetic build.

    So the three endings make sense, if you really think about it. You could destroy the reapers, which would allow civilizations to repeat the same mistakes of creating synthetics that destroy them. You could synthesize, which is the whole point of the reapers to begin with, merging organic and synthetic life into one. The control ending is mostly to give the reapers a new consciousness, you taking the place of the catalyst.

    The godchild’s reasoning makes sense, if you’d have listened to the story, and paid attention to the lore.

    I think the main problem people had with the endings was first off, without the DLC ending extended cut, it makes no sense. Three choices with different color coded endings, whoopee, that’s what I spent money and months on working towards. And the godchild doesn’t have much dialogue compared to the extended cut and DLC, so you’d never know what he’s talking about.

    Second off, the choices made throughout all three games meant almost nothing, in both original and extended cut endings, which pissed people off. I think Bioware basically was more focused on the main story as opposed to individual decisions, though it would have been nice to see some of those come to light.

    However, the ending makes sense. For those who don’t get it, they haven’t paid attention to the story or the lore. (Codex entries are helpful)

    I just think the personal choices made not coming to light, and the original ending was what screwed with people’s emotions. Other than that, I thought it was a fantastic series, and a fitting ending, whichever way you go.

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