Let us approach this slowly:
The purpose of this text is to comment on story elements of Mass Effect 3 and how the recently released extended cut changed some of them and my personal perception of the game. Therefore, it is almost impossible to work without spoilers. I apologize, but I believe a proper analysis is not possible without directly referring to certain events of the game, especially since throughout the whole debate about the Mass Effect 3 ending people felt compelled to comment on the issue without either even having played the game or even worse any of the franchise’s games. That is downright stupid and ultimately makes any expressed opinion invalid. Commenting on elements of the story of a so story-centric game as is Mass Effect, without even having experienced the elements in question simply makes commenting seem like arguing for the sake of it, not arguing about the issue in question. That is quite obviously equal to wasting everyone’s time and considering the effects that some expected the discussion to have it is dishonest and even dangerous to both, the gaming industry and the gaming culture.
After release, I had given myself about two days to complete Mass Effect 3, from beginning to end with an imported character from the previous game. When the end credits rolled, I sat there stunned, unsure about what I had just seen and experienced. I loaded up a close-to-the-end save game, trying to experience all three actual endings. I closed the game, shut down the computer, and, since it was late at night, went to bed. I remember lying awake for several hours, unable to make sense of what Bioware had decided to present as the ending of their critically acclaimed science-fiction trilogy. To be blunt, I could not. I was not even sure what I felt. I felt empty, hollow, and betrayed. There was no sadness. I knew sadness, because during the game I was forced to experience deep, deep sadness several times, seeing some of the characters I had grown to like and even considered friends die, some for good reasons, others not. I was not sad, I was empty and disappointed. Still, I forced myself through the game two more times with two different characters, to see whether some of my decisions would actually have an impact on the outcome, from different love interests to decisions of a more universal nature. After seeing that, basically, that was not at all the case, I shut down the game and considered my options. In the final 2 to 3 min. of the game, Bioware had not only managed to utterly destroy the amazing journey the three games had been to that point, it had ruined the memory, the mood and taken any desire to play any of the games again.
Quickly I realized I was by far not alone with my feelings about the ending, since a vocal protest movement had formed and let Bioware know about the extent of their disappointment. This should have an impact: Bioware announced that further down the line there would be free DLC expanding on the ending. The result of this is the recently released extended cut.
Long before the release of Mass Effect 3, it was known that the third game would be Commander Shepard’s final trip to the stars. The Commander’s death was not inevitable, but certainly a tested and likely option to ensure that. The often sarcastically mentioned Hollywood-type happy end was therefore not what most would have expected, though certainly what some would have hoped for.
Bioware made good decisions in the extended cut, indeed not changing the basic parameters of their originally introduced endings, but being much more elaborate on the impact of your decisions, on both, your friends and the universe as a whole. Not only does the EC tell you what happened to your friends and crew members, but also to the fleets gathered in the final battle and the countless aliens supposedly stranded after the destruction of the mass gates.
In a way, Bioware has given a “happy ending”. It might not be the full-blown romantic sunset on the beach, but I personally feel a lot better knowing that my crew and the various other characters you met along your journey are alive and safe after the big final battle. It comforts me to know that the losses, from Virmire through maybe ME 2’s suicide mission throughout the inevitable losses in ME3 until the final confrontation have not been in vain.
There are a few things though, that still trouble me about the extended cut. There are still several unanswered questions, some of them quite severe and important, which are likely to remain unanswered. Furthermore, a true happy ending, one that preferably sees Shepherd united with their love interest, would have been downright fantastic. After all, the journey to that point has been tough and definitely taken its toll, so a little luck would have been a nice reward for that and the small feat that apparently is saving the galaxy.
The big issue I personally have is as follows: before buying ME3 I had 12 to 15 character saves, of which at least half had seen actual playthroughs in both previous games and all had successfully completed ME2. In ME3, I don’t see myself playing the game ever again after only three actual runs, furthermore I don’t even see myself playing any of the previous games either. I am just unsure what the reasons might be, built-up frustration about the original ending, the harsh and definite nature of the ending, that basically does not encourage further playing or plain and simple the fact that I felt not properly rewarded for my efforts. Now, to be completely fair, the game does not deserve that feeling. It is really just the last couple of minutes which spoil an overall amazing experience for me.
About dark energy and indoctrination
I was not sure if I should even pick up these two subjects. For one, I am not sure whether or not I fully understand the stories behind them and secondly, because they do not matter in regards to the extended cut. Still, a few words should be said. The indoctrination theory was something like a last straw to cling on for people like myself, who could not at all come to terms with the original ending. People have put great effort into fleshing out this idea and giving it actual substance, to the point where, I’m almost certain, even Bioware found the theory quite convincing. I will not get into the details at this point, but simply suggest you start your research on YouTube if you are interested.
Dark energy is a whole different story entirely. The idea of dark energy probably had its most prominent appearance in the trilogy during the mission to recruit Tali’Zora in ME2. As far as I understand a leaked script for Mass Effect 3, surfacing some time in 2011, saw this as the whole grand scheme and topic of the final confrontation. As said, it has not resurfaced in the extended cut at all, which is not necessarily a big loss. If this piqued your interest, feel free to ask Google about it. I was able to control my curiosity without much effort.
Did Bioware make the best of what they had? In all honesty, they quite likely did not. Looking at the epicness that is Mass Effect, looking at some of the twists and turns they let the story take, looking at the overall great quality the storytelling throughout the series had – and yes, that of course includes this concluding part of the trilogy, it is probably fair to say that even the three new ending cut scenes are not necessarily the best that was possible in terms of ending the trilogy and in particular the story of Commander Shepard. Bioware simply used to deliver more compelling content. Opinions on the extended cut are probably just as divided as they used to be on the original ending. Considering the really, really bad situation Bioware had maneuvered themselves into, and considering it is simply impossible to please all members of such a big following, it is probably safe to assume that at least under the circumstances Bioware achieved the best result possible.
After all, what remains after the extended cut, is a restored faith in Bioware’s ability to tell amazing stories, new faith in their actual interest in listening to their fans, and of course one of the most amazing soundtracks ever created for a videogame. While I personally had planned not to follow news about future Bioware games after the original ending and the news about them dropping support for Dragon Age 2, I am now opening up to the idea of buying future Bioware titles again.