(Mass Effect 3 spoilers in this article, inevitably)
If my mention of Mass Effect 3's ending in my ZP review felt a little brief, as if it were crowbarred in late in the writing stage, it's because it bloody well was. One of my policies that I consider most important is to avoid reading other people's reviews or getting a feel of popular opinion before I do my own review, 'cos they might make me misremember my own opinion. Also it gives me a great excuse to spend most of my time lazing around not doing research or reading the gaming press. But even a man with his head trapped in an octopus would have found it impossible to avoid hearing the internet buzz around the Mass Effect 3 ending, which has been busily doing the adult equivalent of raping childhoods among its fanbase, and I felt I had to pay it some kind of service.
Mainly it's the fanbase up in arms about this one. I have heard it said that the disappointment factor of the ending increases the more into the series you were, and it's true that I'm not crazy about it. I like my sci fi a bit dirtier and full of characters with interesting flaws, and Shepard struck me as a boring emotionless ponce, even for a Bioware game. I've always thought it'd be interesting if there was a Mass Effect spin-off in which you play a scrappy, street-smart freelance mercenary type who's looking after himself just to offer some juxtaposition to this bland, lofty galactic superhero out to save all organic life.
Anyway, the ending. And I guess the reasonable objection is that there's very little that changes depending on how you've built your character or what major decisions and side quests you've made throughout the game and the series up to this point. Calm Shepard and Angry Shepard both end up making the same desperate suicidal charge to the Reaper transport beam - getting his nice hot pink armor blackened, upsettingly - meets the Reaper babysitter or whoever it was on the orbiting mothership and is given one last choice - again, unaffected by anything done previously - to pick the method by which the Reapers are pacified. But you basically get the same ending either way, and all that changes is the color of the magic space lasers that sort everything out. Pretty much everyone dies, the Mass Effect Relay is destroyed, preventing any future long-distance space travel and presumably stranding a massive variety of human and alien soldiers on post-apocalyptic Earth for what will probably be a very long, awkward series of Pictionary tournaments.
So was the objection that audiences wanted things to finish with multiple different outcomes? I can't support them on that. I'm kind of cynical about the whole concept of multiple endings in storytelling. When you have a situation like in ME3 or Deus Ex: Human Revolution where the final ending depends on one last choice that one can easily reload and do again immediately afterwards it just makes the story feel like it doesn't have an "official" ending at all. And the whole impact of an ending like ME3's where pretty much everyone dies depends on it being a very definite no-backsies turn of events.
Interactive storytelling is a tricky proposition but it is, at its heart, storytelling. Everything must eventually surrender to what kind of story the creator is trying to tell, and the ending is where that becomes apparent. I picture the Mass Effect story as a sort of eye-shape. You start off on the left at one single point and then it spreads out as it moves to the right as the various options and subplots are established, before they all come back together and meet at the far right in a single point again. Before we can say that Mass Effect has a shit ending we have to figure out what kind of story Mass Effect was trying to tell.