The hardest part of writing any story is its ending. You can have a mesmerizing, exciting tale, full of pathos and action and humor, a story that fans love to an obsessive degree, but if you don’t stick the landing, you’re dooming your piece of work to be remembered for its least satisfying moment. You might enrage your fan base. You might invalidate everything else in your series. You might obliterate every piece of goodwill you ever earned.
For BioWare, the Canadian video game developer responsible for some of the best-selling and highest-rated role-playing games in history, the conclusion of their epic Mass Effect series was their version of the Leon Lett fumble in Super Bowl XXVII. The problems with the final ten minutes of Mass Effect 3 have been enumerated in exacting detail elsewhere, but to sum up: the Mass Effect trilogy was a swashbuckling space opera, a series in which the player, as Commander Shepard, defied impossible odds, made tough moral choices with directly observable consequences, and ultimately saved the galaxy. This held true until the very last few scenes, in which said space opera turns into an unfocused mess. The player is given a poorly-explained choice to make; upon making said choice, the primary difference in the following cutscene is the color of a wave of energy. No information on the actual effects of your choices are ever given, characters start doing things that make no sense, and it is indirectly implied that your character accidentally destroyed the very backbone of galactic civilization that he or she was trying to save in the first place.
I could go on, but there is only so much nerd-rage one can indulge in before it becomes unhealthy. Basically, Mass Effect was a mixture of Star Wars (the good ones) and Star Trek until its final moments, in which it became a mixture of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Requiem for a Dream, and possibly Saw.
The reaction to these endings was nearly unprecedented in scale and volume. Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 both have user ratings of 4.5/5 stars on Amazon.com -- Mass Effect 3’s user rating sits at a dismal 2.5/5, despite being mechanically the best game of the series. BioWare’s official forums exploded in rage and disappointment, with fans expressing their dismay at what they perceived to be a game left unfinished. Perhaps the most visceral reaction to the ending came from a group calling itself “Retake Mass Effect”, which raised $80,000 dollars for charity just to show the company that they were something more than a simple vocal minority.
Mass Effect: Extended Cut is BioWare’s attempt to address concerns about the ending and rebuild their faltering reputation as the premier company in story-based gaming. Released as a free (!) package of downloadable content, Extended Cut adds about ten to fifteen minutes of additional material to Mass Effect 3’s ending sequence. It’s not the first time an auteur has changed an ending due to fan feedback (see: Sherlock Holmes, Fallout 3, etc.), but the conditions surrounding the ending debacle are unique in both their manner and scale. Extended Cut is, quite simply, unprecedented.
Much of Extended Cut is an exercise in changing the tone of the original endings. Mass Effect has always been a series about characters -- Shepard spends nearly as much time talking to her SpaceBros as she does pushing bad guys out windows or launching into enemies like a Space Cannonball. The original conclusion largely abandoned said SpaceBros -- they casually disappear from the narrative right when they’re needed most, only to reappear in a bizarre crash-landing sequence that had some fans wondering whether the characters they had come to love were doomed to starve to death on a deserted planet. In Extended Cut, we’re given more information about their fates (generally positive ones) and their part in the story ends on a more hopeful note.
Mass Effect’s choice system was one of its main selling points. The player was given hundreds of opportunities throughout the series for Shepard to make a moral choice about an important plot point, and the marketing revolved around these choices combining to form a unique narrative. The aforementioned poorly-explained options are now slightly more fleshed out, and their after-effects are illustrated through narration and ending slides. They also preserve the universe itself -- no, the galaxy did not explode or knock itself back to the Stone Age. This isn’t quite good -- what I was expecting was more along the lines of the epilogue to Dragon Age, also a BioWare game -- but it is better than what was previously there, which was nothing.
Unfortunately, the biggest problems of the ending still remain. Said choices don’t seem to matter that much (in particular, the armies you spent the game gathering only make weak and limited appearances in the story), the three endings themselves are logically problematic (the Synthesis choice in particular is a bit of poorly thought-out futurism that even Ray Kurzweil would find laughably optimistic) and the plot is still resolved largely through a literal Deus Ex Machina, in the form of a ghostly child who is, a) introduced in the last ten minutes of the game, b) is the putative head of the genocidal race of starships whom Shepard had been trying to destroy from the first mission of the first game, and c) basically gives the player orders. Extended Cut allows Shepard to argue with the so-called StarChild a bit (previously, she had just kind of passively accepted what her greatest enemy had told her), and even lets the player reject the StarChild’s three options, although this results in an Easter Egg Game Over. The fact that the StarChild is there at all means the endings can never be truly successful -- he’s simply in the wrong game, and really should have been excised completely from the narrative.
Does Extended Cut fix Mass Effect 3’s endings? Not entirely. What it does is make them palatable -- they go from terrible to bad, entirely nonsensical to weird, inexcusable to just kind of “meh.” For fans, it’s a chance to reassess their investment in a series that looked entirely off the rails. For BioWare, it’s probably enough to salvage Mass Effect as an intellectual property and reclaim some fan goodwill -- it’s not every day that a company releases this much essentially free content, even if it’s stuff that really should have been in the game in the first place. There were hints of future single-player DLC in the Extended Cut files; how that DLC sells will largely determine how successful the new endings were. For everyone else, it’s a valuable lesson in how much an ending matters -- you don’t have to be Kerri Strug, but you absolutely, positively cannot be Luis Castillo.