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.
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.
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:
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.