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11 Nov

Mass Effect's Ending(s)

Written by Michael Fuchs
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No Sense of an Ending? Mass Effect and the Problems of 'Ending' a Story in a Transmedia Environment

When BioWare's space saga Mass Effect 'concluded' in the spring of 2012, fan reaction was negative, to say the least. After five years of world-building in various media (video games, novels, comics, live-action as well as animated movies, and tie-in apps), which struggled with the potentially unbounded textuality of digital narratives and the typically limited (and limiting) textuality of old media, the series' 'ending' could not satisfy fan expectations at all. Apart from the third game's narrative deficiencies, the reason for dissatisfaction most often voiced among fans was the players' limited influence on the series' eventual conclusion. To this day, Mass Effect's official website promises that "the decisions you make completely shape your experience," as "your choices drive powerful outcomes, including relationships with key characters, the fate of entire civilizations, and even radically different ending scenarios." However, the series' outcome is, effectively, defined by one decision at the end of the third game. And while there are—officially—eight different endings to the original game (and nine to the 'extended cut'), there is, in fact, little difference between them.

Spurred by vocal fan responses and the development team's own dissatisfaction with the ending due to the third game's rushed release forced by the pressures of commercial interests, BioWare released an 'extended cut' about four months after the original game in an attempt to silence its critics. This is the official tale, however, for I would argue that delaying the series' ending conceded to the powers of seriality in our day and age, in which a transmedia narrative's conclusion is not an end, but rather just a new beginning (which not only mirrors the apocalyptic story in the diegesis, but also testifies to video games' power to transform endings "into beginnings and different repetitions," as Souvik Mukherjee diagnoses in Video Games and Storytelling [2015]). However, the 'extended cut' also served to encourage and support replay and thus kept players glued to the screens. Granted, the first two games in the trilogy already rewarded multiple playthroughs that took the roads not taken the first (or second) time in the forking-path game texts (e.g. by offering achievements for the various character classes in the first game and separate achievements for taking 'paragon' and 'renegade' paths). However, as I will argue, the game series' purported 'ending' and the serialized delay of this ‘ending’ through the release of the 'extended cut' and two DLC missions that may be considered crucial to the third game (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the entire saga) fetishized re-play and addressed the idea of ‘ending’ a transmedia storyworld as expansive as Mass Effect's. In the end, Mass Effect's (lack of an) ending functions as a meta-commentary on both player agency and the question of ending a transmedia narrative.