Spoilers for Mass Effect 3 are discussed in this post. (Part 2 here)
Now, the hero falling in love might be written off in other games as the token romance subplot that every story is expected to have in order to titillate viewers a little bit, but I didn’t get that from my Shepard’s story. He had a thing with one woman, Liara, early on, but that fell through because things happen (including Shepard’s death and resurrection, but that’s a story for another time) and they were separated. When they met again, the magic had gone, mostly because Liara had moved on and made something of her life apart from Shepard, and he had important business to deal with saving the galaxy. Then he fell for another woman, Tali, who was an old friend from his earliest adventures. It began as a simple crush on her part that had gone unrequited for some time, and then Shepard realized that Tali had been there for him the whole way. They were good friends, and then they became more than that. While Shepard was going through some of the most trying parts of his mission, she was there to support him.
They were unavoidably separated after Shepard completed his suicide mission to stop the Collectors, and they spent six months apart. When they saw each other again, there was some uncertainty about their affections for one another, but those vanished quickly. The fact that there was a war going on didn’t matter. Honestly, it made them more resolute. Everything was falling apart and uncertain, but they could at least depend on each other. Then when they helped reclaim Tali’s home world (while simultaneously ensuring the cooperation and peace of two races that had been at war for about three hundred years), they realized they could have a life together there.
I really wanted them to have that life together.
It was at this point in Shepard’s story that I started to worry about how the ending was going to play out. I knew that there was a possibility Tali could die in the ending if I didn’t have my galactic readiness score (a metric used in game to determine how powerful the forces Shepard gathers to combat the Reapers is) high enough, to say nothing of being able to get an ending where Shepard himself didn’t die. It was a major conundrum, because I went back and forth over whether I would risk having Tali die so Shepard could live (since I didn’t know exactly what the parameters were for getting an optimal ending) or if I’d go for the noble sacrifice.
My inclination was to go for the noble sacrifice, simply because I figured the win-all ending where Shepard gets out alive and everyone else survives was unlikely to be available with my inability to access the online parts of the game. Of course, this was back before I learned there isn’t a win-all ending at all. Like I pointed out earlier, the three broad versions of the ending consist of two options that result in Shepard dying to save the galaxy, and the third option where his survival is possible, but at the cost of annihilating an entire race (and one of Shepard’s aforementioned friends). Those were all bad choices for the way I had shaped the story, because my Shepard was definitely the noble type, but he really wanted to have that happy ending with the quiet retirement. The fact that he’d developed a reputation for making the impossible happen left me hoping there might be a way to have his cake and eat it, but that just isn’t in the cards.
Yeah, it’s possible for Shepard to get out alive, but the cost is too high for the Shepard that I played. How was he supposed to live with the guilt of destroying an entire race that he worked so hard to save in the first place?
So basically, I realized that my particular Shepard was doomed to a tragic ending no matter what. He was either going to become a genocide in order to preserve his own personal happiness, or he was going to sacrifice himself for the good of everyone else.
He couldn’t be happy.
And that’s what really made me angry about the game’s ending. I know that Mass Effect is a war story, and most of the endings were probably going to involve making a hard choice. But I also learned from playing through the games that with enough effort, the player could manipulate events to work out where everyone wins. This wasn’t true in every situation (no matter what, you have to let one of your squad mates die at one point in the first game), but it was a possibility so many other times that I just took for granted that the developers would include a wish fulfillment ending. Reflecting on the experience now, I think it was the assumption of there being a wish fulfillment ending where Shepard gets his happily ever after and the galaxy is restored to peace without losing something irreplaceable that filled me with all the angst over being limited in what ending options I could get with the crippled Xbox. The realization that there never was an ending like that felt like a betrayal of what the developers had promised me (which I know is absurd because all they ever promised to do was tell a war story; there was never any promise that it would end happily).
So, for what it’s worth, the ending I would have liked would have involved Shepard persuading the Catalyst that the Reapers aren’t necessary anymore by offering the peace between synthetics and organics that have been blooming as examples of progress during this galactic cycle (let alone the fact that organics do plenty of fighting among themselves, so this assumption that it’s a “synthetic vs. organic” conflict instead of a more general “us vs. them” is flawed and causes needless violence and destruction). The Catalyst considers the evidence and decides to recall the Reapers, leaving all the galactic races to rebuild without the Crucible (the superweapon that was being built to combat the Reapers) being fired at all. Shepard gets to go home and have a peaceful retirement with Tali, and everyone lives happily ever after.
That’s the ending I wanted, anyway. I’m still working out how I feel about the ending I got.