Spoiler alert: If you haven't completed the 30-plus hours of Mass Effect 3 and witnessed the ending of the series, please don't read on. No angry emails if you do anyway.
There have been a lot of embarrassing moments in video game history. The Great Crash of 1983. The Super Mario Bros. movie. The Atari Jaguar. PlayStation Home. But few will come close to the quagmire in which BioWare finds itself after the colossal disaster that is the ending of its marquee title, Mass Effect 3.
Yes folks, it's that bad.
I didn't feel this way immediately, but many others did. The grand finale of more than 100 hours of gameplay stretching across three titles resulted in one of three color-coded, marginally distinguishable cutscenes, apparently taking little, if any advantage of the intricate and complex dialogue tree system that made the series so revolutionary and enjoyable.
At first I was mildly disappointed with such a pat ending, and decided the true climax of the game was the confrontation that took place prior to the final choice offered to Commander Shepard. The buildup to the decision that would ultimately end the story was a grand, entertaining spectacle, almost granting clemency to the final 1 percent of the title that wasn't up to par. Upon reflection, it is a colossal failure, and the only explanation is bad writing or bad product planning. Or both.
There were the usual rumors that Electronic Arts had rushed BioWare through the process. There have been whispers that both publisher and developer made decisions to excise entire storylines from the game to sell as downloadable content later. Imagine buying a book with the best chapters torn out, or watching a movie with entire scenes vital to the plot deleted, only to be sold to you two months later. With the ending of Mass Effect 3 so apparently disjointed and nonsensical, it can only be the case that the ending was either altered or rushed into oblivion. And fans have noticed.
The uproar has been so loud, BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka addressed the issue in a blog post last week.
"I personally believe Mass Effect 3 is the best work we've yet created. So, it's incredibly painful to receive feedback from our core fans that the game's endings were not up to their expectations," he wrote. "This is an issue we care about deeply, and we will respond to it in a fair and timely way. We're already working hard to do that."
He went on to say the company is listening to tweets, Facebook posts, chat forums, emails and so on, and will take into account any and every criticism. That's important when you're talking about a game that sold almost 1 million units in its first 24 hours on the market.
"Building on their research, Exec Producer Casey Hudson and the team are hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey. You'll hear more on this in April," Muzyka wrote. "We're working hard to maintain the right balance between the artistic integrity of the original story while addressing the fan feedback we've received. This is in addition to our existing plan to continue providing new Mass Effect content and new full games, so rest assured that your journey in the Mass Effect universe can, and will, continue."
So what they're saying, popular thinking prevails, is that so many people complained, they just may release a new ending to the game. Talk about your interactive medium.
There has been some hew and cry on the blogosphere that art should stand on its own merits, and BioWare shouldn't bend to the will of its fans simply because those gamers didn't like how the game ended. But BioWare seems to have an ace in the hole: The Indoctrination Theory.
YouTube user Acavayos has stitched together an amazingly well-produced video explaining that the finale of the game — in which a Reaper gruesomely injures Shepard, who then boards the Citadel only to face down the Illusive Man and then be forced to choose whether to control the Reapers, destroy all synthetic life or merge all synthetic and organic creatures in the galaxy — is all a mental battle in which Shepard fights Reaper indoctrination, and the true ending has yet to be revealed. The choice presented to the gamer is unsettling and nuanced on its own, but Acavayos takes it to a new level (watch the video at youtu.be/ythY_GkEBck).
This wild speculation, which is so well-conceived and defended it almost seems like it's been planted by BioWare, gives the developers the out they desperately need. So many gamers have now seen this and support this idea, they could release DLC with a new ending and claim they had that planned all along — unless, of course, that truly is what they had planned all along.
While this would be an astonishingly crass way to treat loyal fans — "Didn't like the ending? Just kidding! That will be $10, please." — it would be a damn sight better than the way they closed out what could have been one of the best trilogies in all of sci-fi, in any medium.
It won't however, repair what is easily a dark moment in gaming. Whether EA forced a change in the storyline to milk DLC sales or BioWare truly packaged and published such a lackluster resolution, the makers of Mass Effect 3 have their own suicide mission to undertake: Either change the ending and admit the game as released was only 99 percent complete, or accept the fact that your core audience thinks you're a pack of idiots.
Well, there's probably nothing they can do about that last one, in any case.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.