Mass Effect 3's ending vending machine

Yt. is going to write some quick, spoiler-ridden thoughts on Mass Effect 3.

Film Crit Hulk says that Mass Effect isn’t really about choice—that it’s just a gameplay mechanic. I disagree. Although everything he else is says is terrifically spot on.[1]

At the very end of Mass Effect 3, you’re presented with three choices that determine the fate of the galaxy and the ending you get to watch. You can blow up all synthetic/robot life, taking out all your synthetic invaders but also your newfound robot buddies; you can take control of the synthetics, leading to (possibly uneasy) coexistence; or you can throw everyone in a (metaphorical) blender and make them all live in perfect harmony.

I’m going to leave aside the fact that the endings themselves are fundamentally all the same. (Hulk handles that one pretty well, I think.) And the three endings are basically presented like a vending machine: you poke a button and one pops out. Which is kind of boring, gameplay-wise, but whatever.

But many have also complained that their previous choices and actions throughout the series have no effect on the ending’s choices; there’s just the three, and what you’ve done has no bearing on those three, or how you pick between them. Which is silly. The choice is deeply motivated by what the player—not the character—has done and felt throughout the series.

When yt. was confronted with this decision, I was not thinking, “Which ending is going to give me the most closure and explain the most about this game that I am playing?” I was thinking, “What was I fighting for? What’s my purpose? What do I value? What do I sacrifice?” Every choice that the player has made throughout the series factors into the final decision in a non-programmed, fundamental, personal way—every victory, every failure, every triumph, every regret, everything that the player has learned and knows about the Mass Effect universe is something for the person holding the controller to chew on and think about before making the choice. That’s how the past catches up with the player.

I admit that it’s kind of silly of me for getting kind of distressed and worked up about what was ultimately just a bunch of ones and zeroes. But Mass Effect did what few (if any) games, but many works of art, do: it made me look inward, and think long and hard about what I saw, and gave me a means to reflect and make real that thought process.

And so what, if the result of my choice is largely identical to the other choices? Like Hulk says:

BUT IT IS IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT ALL THREE ARE USING THE SAME IMAGERY TO MAKE A VERY, VERY SPECIFIC STATEMENT ABOUT HOW HUMAN NATURE CYCLE-SOLUTIONS BRING US TO THE SAME PLACE. ALL GO TO THE NEW MYTH FOCAL POINT. AND THE ONLY DIFFERENCE IS OUR INTENTIONS AND THOSE INTENTIONS MEAN EVERYTHING BECAUSE THEY REFLECT OUR VERY HUMANITY AND PURPOSE.

So no, I don’t care that all you have to do to pick an ending is push one button, or that there’s no “closure” (whatever the heck that means). And with how they tied in this moment of reflection, of evaluation of purpose and intention, and made it so deeply personal[2]—it was beautiful, and the crowning achievement of the entire series. The ending just sums up that moment in words: it’s not where you go, but how and why you’re going there.


  1. That thought isn’t really related to anything else. It’s just something I thought about.  ↩

  2. Yt. is going to admit that they sort of brute-forced this one, because it’s hard not to get attached after a total series playtime of over one-hundred hours, but the fact is they did it, and that is remarkable.  ↩