(NOTE: This article assumes that the reader has played or is familiar with the entirety of the Mass Effect trilogy's main plot line. If you have not played Mass Effect 3 in particular, it will be difficult to follow the analysis).
The Mass Effect trilogy has established itself as a step forward for the sci-fi gaming genre. It has spearheaded a movement of video games into the realm of art rather than simply entertainment. It puts you in the shoes of a character that is not only larger than life, but larger than a galaxy, and every choice that you make as the hero, Shepherd, affects every piece of the story that unfolds. At first glance, the possibilities seem endless.
But the truth is a harsh one.
Despite the player feeling like he or she has complete control over Shepherd and the way they change the galaxy, ultimately the story is still limited to an interactive medium; everything is in fact scripted and only so many choices (and repercussions) are programmed by developers. And nothing reveals this frustrating notion more than the end of the whole series.
WARNING: DON'T READ ANY MORE IF YOU HAVE NOT FINISHED THE GAME!
The whole premise of the game is that every choice you've ever made as Shepherd, both big and small, is meant to contribute to the final war against the story's main antagonist, a giant synthetic race called the Reapers. However, the real truth is that free will in the series is little more than an illusion. Think about this: every time you make a choice in Mass Effect, it really comes down to A, B, or C:
|A. Paragon||The "good guy" choice. Usually the more morally correct choice or turning the other cheek.|
|B. Renegade||The "bad ass" choice. Usually less morally correct and using violence to solve problems.|
|C. Neutral||The choice with no moral stance. Takes action without really including you in the equation.|
Just like in the table above, the more important of these choices are obvious; they are typically even color coded for you. This has been done from the very beginning of the first Mass Effect. The endings of the trilogy, which the player must choose from as they finish the third game, very much reflect the same choice system. And when you finally find yourself at the Crucible in the end of the game, one realizes that everything one has done in the past 3 games has led up to this one, fleeting moment. Thousands of choices have been made, entire civilizations' as well as close friends' fates have been decided, so surely every choice you made will factor into how the game ends, right?
The "A" Ending: Controlling the Reapers
In the control ending, the player (as Shepherd) decides to assume control over the Reapers and command them to leave (and presumably never return). In the process of doing this, Shepherd's body is destroyed and implied to fuse with the Reapers' consciousnesses, thus making them obey.
Even so, the excess power from the energy used to accomplish this also destroys the Mass Relays--which connect all the major systems of the Galaxy together--and sends Shepherd's ship and crew cascading to an uncharted planet in a mystery part of the galaxy. This also means most of every major race's army is left stranded in Earth's solar system. So, to recap:
Shepherd is dead, the galaxy is doomed to be disconnected, but the Reapers are gone. Great, except that just before the player makes their choice, it is explained to them by the Catalyst (current controller of the Reapers) that as long as both organic life and synthetic (artificially intelligent) life exists, they will eventually destroy each other. This is why the Reapers came to be in the first place, and every time synthetic life is created, they destroy every advanced race in the galaxy and "harvest" their technology to help them continue this cycle when the more primitive races evolve. Basically what that's saying is that this choice doesn't matter. Shepherd has ended the current Reaper threat, but it is destined that eventually the synthetic life of the present (like the Geth) will eventually become new Reapers anyway and kill everyone off until the end of time.
So, it feels like nothing was really accomplished at all.
The "B" Ending: Destroying The Reapers
In the Destroy ending, Shepherd just explodes the Crucible, sending out a shockwave that deactivates all synthetic beings and advanced technology in the galaxy. Naturally, he/she is also caught in the massive explosion, obviously also implying his own death. So, the Reapers would be gone this time, but again there is the implication that some day the threat would simply re-emerge as long as organic life can create it again. So, ultimately, this ending succeeds in doing nothing that the Control ending doesn't, only with the added bonus of destroying at least 2 main races in the galaxy (the Geth, who are robotic, and the Quarians who use A.I's to run suits which keep them alive). The Catalyst also explains in the final cut version of the dialogue that this will also effect the technology of all the ships that are probably going to be stranded in Earth's orbit at the time the choice is made.
However, this ending is widely considered a fan favorite because if the player has finished enough side quests and achieved enough war assets by the end of the three games, there is an additional scene at the end of the game just for the Destroy ending. The scene shows a quick second of a lying figure in what appears to be Shepherd's armor taking a quick breath. While this implies him/her to still be alive, it also makes no sense based on what the Catalyst explains. The Destroy choice will...well, destroy all synthetic life, and as of the beginning of Mass Effect 2 when Shepherd is "rebuilt," he or she is largely comprised of synthetic parts as well. So if you take this as a sign of Shepherd getting to live for all that sacrifice, take it with a grain of salt.
The "C" Ending: Synthesizing The Life Forms
The Synthesis option is probably the most unique, and probably solves the problems of the series the best, but it is far from perfect. In this choice, the player opts to sacrifice Shepherd in order to "re-arrange the DNA" of all living things--both organic and synthetic--in order to create a hybrid between the two. Ignoring the fact that this ending sounds more like magic than sci-fi, it does fit well as far as resolutions go. The Reapers leave because the whole reason of their existence is gone (there is no synthetics to turn on organics, they are all one and the same). Shepherd still dies, but he insures the cycle has ended, and while all of the Mass Relays are destroyed, the damage to the races' technology is mitigated.
Out of all the endings, Synthesis is the only one that seems it could result in actually stopping the Reaper threat permanently. But the fact is that even so, a good portion of the entire galaxy's species have been destroyed already and have a substantial amount of them stranded in Earth's orbit at the time of the final battle. The Relays are still destroyed, so they're not going anywhere, either. Not to mention Shepherd's long time squadmates are still flung off to a planet that nobody knows the location of...
That brings me to the real meat of the analysis. No matter which ending the player chooses, they feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment. After playing through three games' worth of choices, dialogue, and plot developments, Shepherd (and the player) have made thousands of choices. Some of these choices even really seemed important in the large scale of the plot. But what it comes down to is that none of those choices effect any of these endings. As a matter of fact, if you watch the above three videos, you'll notice something a bit annoying; all of them seem very similar after the first minute or so. The only difference is, quite frankly, the color of the blast the Crucible winds up making.
Now what does that sound like?
That's right. Just like the three color coded dialogue options you see throughout the entirety of the game, the endings themselves are color coded. And just like the rest of the game, this gives you some free will, but it is definitely confined to three choices. The problem with this is that in dialogue this works and is pretty interesting, but for the ending to an entire franchise that is lauded for its outstanding writing, this is just not acceptable. Coupled with this is the fact that all three of these endings virtually disregard anything you did in the previous two entries. Yes, the Reaper threat is neutralized (at least for one cycle), but nothing you did in the previous entries really did anything to help that. It was a plot device introduced rather suddenly within the last 15 minutes of the game (literally) that decides everyone's fate.
It's like somebody promises you a wonderful present for your next birthday. A year goes by and you, so excited, expect so much from this person. But then they put before you three, differently colored boxes. They tell you to only pick one, and you do. Then, inside there is a pair of socks. And you find out the other two are also pairs of different brand socks. How do you feel about that person now? Not too good, right? That's a lot like what these endings present.
None of them are very good, none of them really connect to the premise of the entire story so far, and none of them offer any bit of catharsis for all the tough choices the player had to make until then. And that is why such a wonderful game, despite all of its critical praise, can be ruined for thousands of fans all because the ending is just such a bad fit.
In fact, the ending is just bad, period.