Warning: This post contains mild spoilers for Mass Effect 3, but not details.
The gaming world’s been on fire a while now about the end of Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 and has opened a lot of discussion about what makes a good ending and what makes a hasty ending hacked together because of executive meddling caring more about release dates than putting out the best possible product (not my words).
Full disclosure, I haven’t played Mass Effect; not because I’m trying to be internet cool and avoiding the fun, popular thing, but because my computer can’t keep pace with fun, popular things. I have, however, watched videos of the end and listened to the debates. All in all, I feel I know enough to use the ME3 ending as a flimsy excuse to talk about what makes a good ending and why.
Having written a lot and read, played and watched even more, I can attest to endings being the hardest thing to pull off well. Getting started is hard in a motivational sense, but endings are complicated by the need to resolve plot points, provide closure, and accent tones and themes built up over the course of the story.
The crux of the argument going on right now is based on misunderstanding of that principle. People who are arguing in favor of the ending tend to accuse those who aren’t of disliking the ending of the series because it isn’t ‘happy’, implicitly adding the classic fallacy that happy endings are inherently immature.
If they bothered to read the actual complaints instead of the loud, internet style howling demanding a new ending be released, they would realize that this isn’t the case. A lot of people unhappy with the endings are perfectly fine with an ending where Shepard (the main character of the series) dies, Shepard’s entire crew dies, or even the entire universe is irreparably screwed. In fact many of them, go as far as to subscribe to the same ‘happy endings are for kids’ tripe and argue against a happy ending, but are still unhappy with the ending.
So what’s wrong with the ending? Well I’m going to ignore the game design issue where the three choices provided at the end of the game are all functionally the same on the personal level for the player and the continuity error where character that were right there with Shepard at the end can wind of far, far away for no apparent reason. Those aren’t issues that help in understanding good endings as much as general foul-ups.
The larger problem with the ending is that it just doesn’t fit with the series. Now, I only know about the series from forum posts and Wikipedia, but even to me, the incongruity of the ending is evident, starting with the fact that Shepard, a character who is shown to never just lie down and accept things, accepts that s/he (the character can be either gender based on player choice) only have three choices, as given by the series antagonist, an entity introduced only in the eleventh hour.
In story telling terms, this is a failure of characterization. A character losing their defining characteristics in order to serve the plot is never a good thing, but it can be forgivable early on before they’ve been firmly established. The audience will forget that slip and on review, simply find it an off quirk prior to character development. At the end however, it becomes a major downfall of many otherwise great stories. Characterization at the end of the story is something the audience is sure to remember. And if it gets flubbed there, you have no excuses, no justification. And if it’s bad enough, you cannot only make your ending fall flat, but taint the reader’s view of the character.
Another problem is that the game’s ending completely ignores what happened in the rest of the story; presenting motivations for doing things that your character has already demonstrated to be incorrect if your character made the right choices during the series.
It’s one thing to have a villain’s motivation demonstrably proven wrong throughout the course of a story. It’s quite another to turn around and have the main character suddenly agree with it without ever even discussing the previous evidence.
Which isn’t to say that all ‘everything you know is wrong’ endings are bad. But if you do them, you can’t just have someone say ‘You’re wrong’ and that be the end of it. They have to say is and then say ‘because A, B and C. D might have seemed to contradict this, but that’s because of E’. Only in psychological pieces can you get away with having non-real reasons for things happening, even when they’re only really happening because ‘this is the end’.
Endings also have to be a part of the story that’s being told. By this, I mean that any ending needs to follow from what’s come before in the story. Having new plots spring up and be resolved in the last ten pages does a disservice to the story and to your readers.
In Mass Effect, an enemy that was previously alien and unknowable suddenly grows new and frankly stupid, self-contradictory motivations at the very end, leading to the choice at the end. Beyond the sudden turn around, it completely invalidates ignores everything the player as Shepard had been trying to do. Up to that point, the player is fighting for the fate of the entire universe. But once the end hits, the player makes their choice, things happen and then there is no epilogue. That means, you don’t get to see what shape s/he left the universe in. The player is left to infer what happened for themselves.
And what most players infer turns out to be a Shoot the Shaggy Dog story. None of the three choices at the end of the game allow the things Shepard has done, the other choices made by the players, mean anything. They are essentially independent of the entire plot of what, all told, is a one hundred hour experience.
Nothing that came before matters. Hours of story, character development, plot twists are rendered meaningless.
I’m not going to say here that there’s no place for Shoot the Shaggy Dog stories. There’s not place for them in my personal entertainment, but that’s beside the point. A Shoot the Shaggy Dog story isn’t something you spring on people like an April Fool’s prank, it’s a tonal choice that should be upheld, upon reflection, in the story itself. It is not an appropriate choice for a pulp space opera that never showed any hint of existentialism before the last twenty minutes.
If not these things, what should endings be? They should be just that; culminations of the story they serve to end. If it’s a mystery, the clues should come together to find a solution. If it’s a love story, it should resolve the relationship, for good or for ill. If it’s about a conflict, it should show how that conflict ended.
Now this doesn’t mean it has to be clear cut, or happy, or anything certain poison vectors have labeled lowbrow or juvenile, but they can be and they can be done magnificently. But what the ending absolutely needs to be is appropriate to the work and built on elements within the story.
This of course gets messy when you’re trying to plant a sequel hook, or trying to legitimately be ambiguous, but it can still be done cleanly without breaking character, or introducing new elements just to force the story to stop.
I suspect many bad endings are born from a writer or writers who need the story to end now for whatever reason. Try and avoid this. It is my firm belief that the end of a story is a place where the story stops, not where the writer wants to stop writing. This is where many of my own poor endings emerge, thanks to what has for a long time been a personal hard limit on how many chapters an issue can have.
So I’m imploring anyone reading this who is interested in writing to learn from my mistakes: tell the story until it reaches a natural end, then clean things up in editing. Don’t try to force the story to stop.
Otherwise, the next internet firestorm might be about you.