Mass Effect 3′s Refusal Ending: ‘Artistic Integrity’ Achieved
Your Belief is Not Required
None of this is to suggest that the Refusal Ending is terrible. In fact, despite the apparent
pettiness willingness to flick the noses of unhappy fans, by adding this new option to the game, BioWare has almost created an ending that feels worthy of the concepts they began to explore in 2007.
The Only Honest Ending?
An unfortunate aspect of the Refusal Ending is the fact that though Shepard’s dialog about freedom is more in keeping with the themes of Mass Effect than anything else written for the Extended Cut, or indeed in the original success endings, it results in total failure. The thematic success of Refusal only underscores the flaws inherent in the three “correct” endings. But while we admit it would be nice for there to be at least one possible outcome in which the series’ factions win on their own terms, the failure is perhaps the most honest thing BioWare has yet done with the end of Mass Effect 3.
Again and again in the series, the Reapers refer to themselves as an insurmountable threat, and that sentiment is echoed by many critical NPCs. And in the end, no matter what the player does, he or she will succeed or fail as the Reapers (or rather, the Catalyst) direct despite having done everything right. Many players would rather (rightly, we think,) have rejected the three “correct” endings out of hand. With the Refusal Ending, players now have the ability to do just that. Sure, it results in losing the game, but as those who mock the endings’ critics are so keen to point out, life rarely has happy endings. If that has to be the case in a video game, at least this time, those players can end it on their own terms. And as a bonus, the player is given some rather meaty subtext to chew on.
Yes, it might feel like BioWare thumbing its nose (or flipping the bird) at the people who loudly demanded additional options. But by giving the player an option to literally choose death over subjugation, some of the agency the original endings robbed from them has been restored. It also doesn’t add additional plot holes to the situation. By that standard alone, it’s better than anything else the game offers.
Gathering Up Toys and Going Home
In terms of player agency, though, the Refusal Ending offers a degree of control that doesn’t really exist in any other form in Mass Effect, short of hitting the power button and going outside. Creating the Refusal option drastically changes the conversation between creator and player: it actually offers players the opportunity to say, “No. I will not play by your rules.”
The Catalyst at length explains that the rules of the Crucible are the only way forward, but BioWare has provided players with a way to reject that path in its entirety, within the game itself. Putting this point eloquently in his post “On Pyrrhus” is Ray Neilson, who notes that the ability to reject part of the work within the work is a power that’s rarely, if ever, given by a creator to the audience.
The Mass Effect series is filled with choices, but more often than not those choices are illusory rather than concrete. For the sake of continuity, choices generally reflect subtle differences rather than sweeping ones. Whether you send Anderson to the Citadel Council really makes no difference; whether you save or destroy the rachni doesn’t affect their resurgence under Reaper control; whether you cure the genophage or let it run rampant has effects you’ll never see or experience. Often the game rewrites your choices anyway — you still make them, and they are significant to your experience, but as a whole the game must progress in a certain way. And that way usually means isolating or limiting the impact of player agency, even if the game is meant to make players feel as though they’re in control.
With the Refusal Ending, this is not the case — perhaps for the first time ever in Mass Effect. Here the player’s morality and his or her interpretation of the events and of the characters allow for one definitive instance of free will. You’re literally allowed to pick up your toys and go home, with all that that entails. You can abstain from playing BioWare’s game while still playing it. It alters the player/creator relationship on a fundamental level: You can doom all the characters to death in your moral stand if you so choose. You can reject the creator’s creation.