So, some of you may have heard about this game series called Mass Effect. If you haven't here's the short version: it's a really well-done sci-fi space opera series that's captivated millions of people worldwide for about 5 years now. The final game in the trilogy came out a few weeks ago, and pretty much everybody agrees that the game is awesome....until the very end.
Now, before you go on, here's your warning:
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD!
All right. I wanted to talk about this, not just in the context of one truly horrible example, but of endings in general, how important they are in capping off an audience's experience, and how they need to fit in thematically.
The ME series is great, well-written, engaging, and emotional, but high-brow art it is not. It is a very excellent space story about aliens and killer robots and character development, growth, redemption, sacrifice, and more. It is not 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is not a psychological mind-screw. It's a straight-forward narrative with lots of shooting and explosions and sex in it.
But the ending cocks all that fun up by trying to be different. It presents a series of incomprehensible events that make zero sense, leave gaping plot holes, and devalue any and all personal choices a character has made up to this point. Many players have spent the last 5 years playing their Commander Shepard (ME's protagonist), making their choices, and having those choices matter in the sequels. ME is notable for it's use of choice and consequence, and is one of the major differing points between traditional story-telling modes.
In something like a book or a film (or even a lot of video games!) the audience must merely sit and watch. As they are passive, watching the events unfold, there is less emotional investment. In a game, especially one so heavily focused on choice and consequence as ME, the audience is active, and no longer just an audience, but a driving force in the course of the narrative. We want our decisions to matter.
But in the ending, you are presented with a maximum of three choices, and these choices are exactly the same no matter what you have done prior to this. Have you saved an entire species of aliens, or destroyed them? Have you been a paragon of virtue or a renegade of merciless destruction? It literally does not matter. You will be given the same options as someone who made dramatically different choices than you.
The events that follow which of the three decisions (each of which are nearly identical themselves, mostly featuring a cosmetic change of what type of energy is unleashed on the galaxy: orange, blue, or green) are even more inexplicable. A character is seen fleeing from the game's major conflict, an action which goes against everything we know about his motivations and personalities. We know this character would fight to the death, but they are inexplicably fleeing. Worse, he's somehow picked up my friends, who last I checked, were fighting on the ground. How did they get in the spaceship? why did they leave the battle? How did they leave the battle?
There are nothing but plot holes and messy mistakes, which I won't get into here. Suffice it to say, it's a lazy, emotionally disappointing ending. And it ruins the rest of the game, if not the series. The question is how? How could ten minutes of bad writing (even truly awful writing) spoil dozens of hours of otherwise good writing?
Invalidation and frustration.
Any ending that makes the previous time spent getting there invalid ruins the whole thing. The best example of this is the "It was all a dream," ending that shitty writers seem to love so much. By saying the events an audience was emotionally invested in were all a dream, you're saying it wasn't real, and if it wasn't real, it had no consequences, so it didn't matter. It was a brain fart. The events in ME3 were real, but by taking away the consequences of previous actions, the writers invalidated those actions. They were meaningless, because there was no emotional payoff for them, good or bad.
And frustrated is the last thing you want an audience to be at the end of a story. Sad is perfectly fine. Happy is great. Wondering what happens next is awesome. Confused or frustrated...no. Avoid those. Those two mean that you as a writer have not done your job. If your audience is confused, you have failed to help them understand. If they are frustrated, you have failed to give them the emotional release or catharsis they require at the end.
Neither of these two things have ANYTHING to do with if an ending is Disneyland Happy or Gulag Sad. A sad ending can provide just as much (maybe even more if somebody's crying!) emotional satisfaction and understanding as a happy one. However a confusing, frustrating ending cannot.
Let's look at The Grey with Liam Neeson. Spoilers ahead 'cause I'm gonna talk about the ending, duh. The Grey is a very bleak film about survival in the frozen wilds, about men hunted by ferocious animals and the cold grip of nature itself. It is NOT a happy movie. It's about the struggle to survive, to fight, to live in the face of horror and despair, to not give up. Throughout the movie, Liam is stalked by wolves, including the Alpha, the head honcho of the vicious creatures. At the end, Liam is face-to-face with the creature and his pack: impossible odds. His death seems certain.
But then he tapes a knife to his hand, arms himself with broken glass bottles, and stares the wolf in the face, ready to go. The music swells and the movie ends. We don't know if he lived or died. But that's okay, because the big question was answered: Will Liam give up and die, or will he fight, even in the face of hopelessness? He decided to fight. We achieved an emotional release because Liam made a decision that was consistent with the feel and themes of the movie.
If this had been like the ME3 ending, it would have ended right before Liam made a choice, and the audience would be left holding the ball. The whole build up to this confrontation and whether the character chooses to lie down and die or fight would be pointless because the question wouldn't be addressed in a satisfying manner.
ME3 fails so completely because it ignores the players' decisions, their investment, and it ignores its own story. It forgets about the characters its developed, the events that have unfolded, and minimizes everything to three nonsensical, stupid, nearly identical choices. It betrays itself as much as the player. And the real tragedy is that it was so close to being such a great story.
Too bad, ME3.