Mass Effect 3′s Refusal Ending: ‘Artistic Integrity’ Achieved

At Last, Real Artistic Integrity?

Of all the missiles lobbed at critics of Mass Effect 3, perhaps the most infuriating is the claim that by registering their complaints and demanding BioWare do better, the fans have committed a sin against the artistic integrity of the creators behind the game. We’ve previously demolished the notion that changing a work after the fact is somehow an artistic compromise, but we have not yet commented on the question of whether or not the endings of Mass Effect 3 actually constitute ‘art’. Frankly, they do not, at least not in the sense intended by those screaming about the quest to change them.

In the mind of the counterbacklash, Mass Effect 3 was created in an environment similar to an author toiling away in obscurity until his or her masterwork was completed. In fact, from the beginning it was a group project with the input of several dominant voices, the scope and scale directly affected by the dictates of the business in which it was made. In this it resembles less an auteur film made by someone like Woody Allen, and more a rather competent, highly enjoyable blockbuster.

That isn’t to say that you can’t make art under those circumstances; in fact, the Mass Effect series was very frequently artistic, managing to wring real emotional responses and grapple with dense, divisive concepts. That’s the work of a very excellent team of writers. But, those writers are employees of one of the biggest business conglomerates in the United States, and for better or for worse, this conglomerate managed to effect a degree of what some might call artistic compromise on a scale far greater than the combined cries of a few thousand gamers could ever accomplish.

Though we are only speculating based solely on information from the public record, it’s worth noting that the Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer seems to have been prioritized over narrative elements many fans would have preferred. This is likely why series-critical characters like Aria are reduced to fetch-quest generators. ME3 multiplayer is popular enough to justify its existence though, and not necessarily a bad idea. Less popular is the decision to put Javik the Prothean behind a DLC paywall. Doing so indisputably weakened critical moments in Mass Effect 3. Throughout the game, Javik offers dialogue that greatly expands the overall story. In fact, the mission set on Thessia is quite clearly incomplete if you don’t take Javik in your squad. Cosmetic changes to the endings are significantly less far reaching than either of these elements. For better or for worse, changes were made based solely on economic realities, in essence the definition of artistic compromise.

As for the original endings themselves? They are indeed challenging, but only because of the massive lore and gameplay problems they contained. That they also require the player to fill in large gaps with their own imagination, something even Hudson and Walters have admitted, makes them further problematic. Vagueness does not equal ‘depth’ anymore than nudity equals ‘adult’, a point all would-be artists should commit to memory. It’s safe to say that real art, the kind you protect from compromise, should provoke the observer to consider its themes deeply. There’s a difference between that, and challenging the observer to do the work of the artist for them.

We don’t claim to define art for all time, but it could probably be said that ‘real’ art challenges the observer meaningfully, while offering keen insight into the mind of the creator that even their own autobiographical materials omit. And with the Refusal Ending, Casey Hudson and Mac Walters have done precisely that.

The imposition of absolute failure on the player who rejects the Catalyst’s choices, the sad and all too brief cutscene implying that the people Shepard failed never learned anything about precisely why he or she failed, the fact that the only option in this case is to die free; this is complex stuff and worth hours of discussion. One may be justifiably annoyed that it feels like a giant middle finger, and more so that the Refusal Ending renders the bullshit inherent in the War Readiness system painfully obvious. But for what it’s worth, had it been present in the original ending, we would probably have been happier with it.

More importantly, by quoting verbatim from fan-written suggested endings, by making Shepard’s refusal to submit sound like a hissy fit, and by flinging failure in the face of the player, Casey Hudson and Mac Walters have, perhaps inadvertently, revealed their own mindset going into the creation of the extended ending. They are not, it seems, very happy about the controversy and kind of wanted to lash out. Let us be absolutely clear: This isn’t a bad thing. The artist’s job, after all, is not to make friends, it’s to communicate something vital or, at least, something they consider important. In doubling down on the ending everyone hated, and rubbing salt in the wounds of those who hated it, they have finally achieved what they previously failed to do: assertion of their artistic integrity.

And with all respect, and quite honestly, that’s a beautiful thing to behold.

So Be It

BioWare accepts that you don’t like the ending, even if it does punish you for your insolence for questioning the plan. You pay the price with the lives of your friends in the Mass Effect universe, but you can pay it. “So be it,” the Catalyst bellows, making a statement that BioWare should have made from the beginning.

While the endings as shipped for Mass Effect 3 were broken at a basic level, lacking both continuity and catharsis, BioWare didn’t necessarily have to deal with players asking or even demanding more. As much as the endings to the game were problematic, it could be argued that BioWare’s handling of the fallout was just as bad. The company played PR games with fans rather than talking with them frankly; it decided to make the Extended Cut, while maintaining that it would do so on its own terms, as some means of saving face. Neither of those plans of action was necessarily the right call.

The Refusal Ending, however, allows BioWare to make the stand it should have from the beginning. Players are capable of making their choice, and though BioWare treats them a bit like petulant children for asking for it, it also signs off on that decision. The endings are bad. You don’t like them. And that’s fine. You might not want to buy more BioWare products (as many have said they will not). That’s fine too.

The Catalyst makes its peace with Shepard’s decision and BioWare makes its peace with players’ decision with those three words. DLC and multiplayer might go on, but in terms of the conversation on Mass Effect 3 — that’s closed. For better or worse, this cycle is over.

Follow Phil Hornshaw, Ross Lincoln and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw, @rossalincoln and @gamefrontcom.

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27 Comments on Mass Effect 3′s Refusal Ending: ‘Artistic Integrity’ Achieved

Blake

On June 29, 2012 at 11:37 am

This is a comment I made on the lipstick article but seeing as it relates to this more I will post it here.
As a fan of the original Mass Effect (play style and the best story of the three imo) it seemed Bioware had already been making decisions that were questioning it’s artistic integrity. When you compare ME and ME2 the changes made were vast and somewhat unexpected. I know the original had a flawed cover system and somewhat spotty ai but what they did in ME2 was to nearly remove all the rpg aspects from the game. They got rid of the exploring, the earning experience by killing enemies and made a more linear level experience similar to Gears of War. In fact they took a lot from that third person shooter and then added a Bioware narrative over it. Next they decided that players don’t want unique weapons and armors for themselves and their crew so they cut it down to only a very, very small selection and removed companion armors all together. They went in the wrong direction when EA had acquired them instead of making a great rpg with well implemented third person shooter elements they made an good third person shooter with some rpg elements like EA was trying to ride on the back of the GoW money train. The missed potential reeks in ME2 and 3 and the terrible excuse of endings was the final slap in the face for many of the Bioware fans. There is nothing wrong with Shepard dieing, in fact someone who is suppose to stop the reapers I figured a great heroic sacrifice would probably be the only option. Then getting to the ending with all the assets I could possibly get plus spending multiple hours in multiplayer to have 100% galactic readiness only to be shown emo garbage like some JRPG crap that makes no sense what so ever is ridiculous. Bioware lost it’s artistic integrity long before this fiasco. It was lost when they let EA purchase them.

JimP

On June 29, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Another great article, guys. I know I’ve made this comment many times, but one of my main problems with the endings is that it feels like a game of chess, where you put the opponent in check, only to have them flip the table over on you. ME is primarily, a game and a game has to offer the chance for victory. That’s how writing a game differs from writing a film-script or a novel. On another note, “Vagueness does not equal ‘depth’ anymore than nudity equals ‘adult’, a point all would-be artists should commit to memory.” Is a great line! It reminds me of “Stranger in a Strange Land” where Jubal says “obscurity is the refuge of incompetence.”

Jason

On June 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Hear hear.

I think I’ll add, if I may, my realization as to what has been bugging me since finishing the game the first time. It’s the choices. It’s that we actually have them. In ME1 and 2, we were never explicitly given choices, decisions on how exactly the game would end. It was always a culmination of our efforts to that point that decides how things end. With ME3, the choices at the end almost disregard all of that. It only takes into account minor details like who your LI was, who survived thus far. Everything else was decided by that choice.

Hellfury

On June 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Brilliant, as usual.

Daniel S

On June 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Good writing and spot on. Don’t forget that when fans complained about the “red, blue or green” endings, Bioware lashed back by advertising the next multiplayer pack with a red, a blue and a green character. That, in conjunction with the refusal ending, DAMN WELL PROVES they’re being petty over this. I hope EA fires Casey Hudson’s pathetic ass over the PR disaster he’s more or less single-handedly created. Because I’m not sure they would have been voted Worst Company of the Year if not some tens of thousands of ME fans had taken that opportunity to avenge themselves just a little.

Dratkin

On June 29, 2012 at 10:16 pm

You know Bioware had the opportunity with the refusal option to:
1: extend the game by not using the crucible
2: Prove that they were listening and they did care
3: Allow the player to actually use the war assets he/she has acquired and actually fight the reapers.
4: Redeem themselves from the original horrible ending.
Well instead they just give us the middle finger for choosing option C.
I have said this before. I am just about done with Bioware. The only way I can see ever buying their games again is if they actually make a real and decent sequel to Origins. Honestly I don’t see it happening.

Luca

On June 30, 2012 at 1:30 am

This ending has no sense.
After 3 games, after all the struggle to survive….come on….suicide is not an option for shepard and humanity…

wesker1984

On June 30, 2012 at 9:55 am

And again everyone are just a bunch of crying babies. Get over it Mass Effect 3 is still a good game and better now with the extended cut, with how the endings end now i’m finally in peace with my Shepard. Control is my personal choice. What? I like the blue color!

And for those who cry again about Dragon Age 2 just shut up! The game was not perfect but was good, not as good as the first one but still an awesome game. For me Borderline even if i finished this piece of crap was a true mess and i dont get why evertyone love Borferline as an co-op game. Even Resident Evil 5 was a better co-op game than that.

wesker1984

On June 30, 2012 at 9:58 am

Oh and i have nothing against gamefront opinions because at least they are not a bunch of insulting jerks. They show respect for the works even if that work is questionable.

sep

On June 30, 2012 at 10:29 am

Brilliant article. Bravo Bioware.

However, my Shepard beat indoctrination and thats his story. To hell with everything else.

Xavier

On June 30, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Why all the hate on the Refusal ending? It’s perfect. No other Cycle was able to stand against the reapers with sheer might alone. The reapers only make a single Harbinger class reaper each cycle. Look at how many there are. The entire alliance fleet barely took down a single reaper. What did you expect when going up against the entire reaper fleet? Bioware got the message across big time with this. It’s simply not possible to take the reapers on with military might alone.

Iam3dhomer

On July 1, 2012 at 12:34 am

I basically agree with what you’re saying about the refusal ending, but I do think it inadvertently opens up a new plot hole. Why does the Star Child get so pissed about you refusing his options, or from trying to shoot him, when picking his options result in his death? (Although maybe not in the synthesis ending, I’m not clear on that)

“What you want to let me keep doing what I’ve been doing? Well screw you!”

And really with the destroy ending, where according to him, you’re dooming organic life to eventually be wiped out by synthetics, the thing he’s been trying to prevent. And some of the new dialogue makes it clear that the control ending involves you overwriting him, something he doesn’t seem to pleased about, but even then he doesn’t whine about it. Makes it feel like Bioware projecting their frustration and not bothering to write the Star Child in whatever character he’s supposed to have beyond exposition fairy.

I also think that there’s a chance that Bioware didn’t intend it to feel that way, but they just didn’t care enough about this addition to think through how it would come across to people. I’m not sure which read of what happened here makes Bioware look worse.

Sica

On July 1, 2012 at 8:34 am

why must shepard die?:(

T. Witme

On July 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Superbly written, unlike the travesty that was the head writer who penned these.

“So be it.” I have no remorse left for Bioware right now.

As studios who did not deserve to be closed down like 38 Studios and Radical Entertainment, while hacks in Bioware continue to fistbump. I would not shed a tear if the EA closed the studio in the near future.

T. Witme

On July 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Superbly written, unlike the travesty that was the head writer who penned these.

“So be it.” I have no remorse left for Bioware right now.

As studios who did not deserve to be closed down like 38 Studios and Radical Entertainment, while hacks in Bioware continue to fistbump. I would not shed a tear if the EA closed the studio in the near future.

CatmanStu

On July 1, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Echoing others sentiments, this is another thoughtful and well presented arguement. The point about this ending RE-ENFORCING artistic integrity was particularly thought provoking. One thing I would add; as I haven’t seen this mentioned in any of the articles about these “new” endings; is that this is the choice that changes the post credit scene into something that doesn’t feel like a kick in the teeth.
All the scenes attached to the “good” endings feel like the game saying “Congratulations; you saved the galaxy. But isn’t it sad you’re dead? Wouldn’t you like to be Shepard again? Don’t worry DLC is coming.” Whereas the “bad” end scene is more like “You may have fought a hopeless war; you may have lost all that you cared about, but it wasn’t in vain. Because of your sacrifices we finally won. Thank you.

And don’t forget to buy the DLC when it comes out.”

Hey, I didn’t say it was perfect.

joao

On July 2, 2012 at 2:35 am

Excellent article, as usual – I’m just not sure that I agree with the whole point.

“One may be justifiably annoyed that it feels like a giant middle finger, and more so that the Refusal Ending renders the bull inherent in the War Readiness system painfully obvious.” As many have already pointed out, if the Refusal Ending’s outcome was tied into the EMS rating, it could have been something absolutely awesome. As it stands, it might be better than the original endings (which isn’t much of an achievement, truth be told), but it still a giant middle finger from Bioware to its (former?) fans, as if they wanted to get into a pissing contest with those who buy and play their games. It’s BioWare being petty, immature and, above all, unprofessional.

Brad

On July 2, 2012 at 9:44 am

Didn’t that promise some years back (around the time that ME as released) that they would eventually release a complete package with all three games in it? If so, I have a theory regarding that. What if they bring Karpyshyn back to rewrite the endings in the complete pack later as a marketing tool to get people to rebuy the series?

The other alternative I can think of is that EA really does want to liquidate Bioware, so they screwed with ME3′s development cycle.

Nulltron

On July 2, 2012 at 11:04 am

Just one question. Why doesn’t the star child kill Shepard after he refuses all the colored choices? Or holograms cannot kill you? After all Shepard was selected by the catalyst to be the brain on the reapers forever and ever. Now, he can just go on? Suddenly the Catalyst is like “bring ‘em on”?.

What a bull. I just hope that whatever the universe is like after “so be it”, there is no Bioware in it.

Nozyspy

On July 2, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Excellent post Blake, i agree with you 100%. I loved all of the Mass Effect games, including 2 and 3, though the endings to 3 were the worst written endings of any science fiction story i personally have ever seen. The fact that some fan versions of the endings are 200% better is telling as far as Mac Walters ‘artistic integrity’ goes.

I have to say though that there was something absolutely unique and special about the original Mass Effect. As a rabid Star Wars fan, there was something fresh about the techno music, angular and futuristic architecture and the intricate lore that was written right off the bat. Of course, once it proved that the series could take off, EA sunk their claws in and i will bet there were more than a few compromises Bioware had to make to please their EA masters and ‘appeal to a wider audience’, such as the reducing of RPG features, lack of proper exploration themes etc.

Good article Phil, so long as GameFront keeps a level and fair head and does not do a Kotaku and start posting articles about how the endings were ‘magic’ and that meeting the Catalyst was amazing and like ‘meeting a god’, you will further cement your place for excellent journalism. ;)

R.J.

On July 3, 2012 at 9:39 pm

I’m somewhat torn on the Refuse option. On the one hand, having something the players asked for always result in failure feels like Bioware was sending a message not to ask such things of them. On the other hand, people did want to see the Reapers win if you “screwed up” and throughout they were pretty clear that conventional warfare never defeats the Reapers. So, I’m not sure what I feel about it.

AOPrinciple

On July 4, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Excellent article, sir. I agree entirely. …nuff said, i guess.

Name*

On July 8, 2012 at 7:04 am

Excellent article, ever since this debacle began, i have had a very high opinion of GameFront, when previously i barely knew who you were.

“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”
Thats why it pisses people off. No matter how many assets you have, you just lose, instantly. If they showed why you lose, the Reapers have backup FTL jump in and just destroy your entire force or something, then it wouldn’t be a giant up yours to irritated fans.

The fact that narrative coherence and general good sense takes a back seat to “artistic integrity” is genuinely saddening. With Dragon age, you have an option to prevent your death via a ritual that may or may not be a bad thing. Do you question it? No, because it makes sense and magic is already prevalent in the story. A science fiction epic, that has a lot of well explained science and general sense just flies into space magic at the very end, while generally destroying the overall storyline of the entire series. If something is broken, you FIX it. You don’t try to patch it up, because in the end, it is still broken. The extended cut is like duct tape in that regard, it works, but not when you consider implications or long term consequences.

The fact you have to change Shepard’s very being, the one thing that has made him or her the single most important person in the galaxy, his/her determination and unwilling to just accept things, to change things for the better(paragon or renegade, that seems to be the motivation) and just accept something that makes no sense in itself makes no sense. Artistic vision is fine, but making it incoherent and inconsistent makes it terrible when added to something that was otherwise very good.

wesker1984

On July 10, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Forgive me, for I am a troll who constantly posts fanboy drivel on Mass Effect 3 articles and attacks people who think Bioware are capable of errors, or that they and EA are anything other than populist organisations who have only the consumer’s interests at heart and would never dream of rushing out an inferior product to meet a deadline in the hopes of releasing full-price post-ending DLC like Ubisoft did with Prince of Persia. I have nothing interesting or informed to say, and I am incapable of justifying my childish belief system, which is why I resort to ad hominem attacks instead. I am the sort of blinkered, easily-led spanner who the industry and the gaming press relies on in order to continue publishing weak products and claiming it’s “art” and therefore beyond scrutiny. So please forgive me, because my mind is not my own and my opinions have been passed down to me by my gods at Kotaku.

rista b

On July 11, 2012 at 1:19 pm

First of all thanks to Gamefront for covering this story in such a thoughtful way.

This is a very thought provoking article as my initial reaction to the refusal ending was in line with the “middle finger” interpretation. One thing I didn’t see mentioned in the article was the affect that choosing this ending has on the “secret ending”. And I think that’s an important piece to consider if this is really a “middle finger”. The secret endings implication that Shepard’s sacrifice has given the next cycle a much better chance at being prepared for the Reapers and ending the cycle of development and harvest casts a new light on the whole thing.

But my main problem with this ending is that no matter how you slice it, Shepard is a soldier on a mission and his/her mission is to save humanity from the Reapers. By rejecting all three of the Catalysts options Shepard immediately dooms humanity and all advanced galactic civilizations to destruction. I just can’t see Shepard making that decision under any circumstances.

Sol

On July 13, 2012 at 1:56 am

“The Catalyst makes its peace with Shepard’s decision and BioWare makes its peace with players’ decision with those three words.” In the worst possible way. You lose, and the catalyst goes from “my solution won’t work anymore” to “whatever, keep reaping”. It still feels like a big you. There was no indication in the codex in any information we are given, that the reapers cannot be beaten through sheer military might. But they decided to go for cool cutscenes that neglect half your assets rather than actually include the most widely spread and powerful gun on the galaxy’s side: The Thanix cannon. The batarians, geth, rachni, Aria’s pirate fleet and stuff don’t even bother to show up(geth is assuming you make peace). Its just lazy. If you did enough work, you should be able to beat them, with heavy losses, but still do it.

Kevin

On November 29, 2013 at 5:42 pm

The more I think about it, the more Refusal is the only option that makes sense. The other 3 results in Shepard relying on a deus ex machina device that plays into the Reapers’ game and s/he could never even be sure it will work, unlike the player who has hindsight.

Because, frankly, the galaxy never really stood a chance. It did manage to do something the Protheans before them failed to do- unite as a galaxy. But it’s just too little too late. The actions of Shepard, from the first game, buys the galaxy a few more years. And how do they choose to spend them? Mostly by continuing to play politics and even outright deny Reaper existence. It isn’t until the Reapers finally arrive and start demolishing planets that the races are spurred to action.

Saving the galaxy from something like genocide is something far beyond the ability for one man/woman to choose, however influential Shepard may have been. Living with the consequences of choices in one of the themes of the “Mass Effect” series. The fact that the galaxy cannot be saved without the Crucible’s intervention in the end is the end result of an entire galaxy’s poor decision making until its final moment. It was a pretty good try though, better than what the Protheans did. Next time, the Milky Way will do better.