Mass Effect 3’s ending controversy is nearly ten years old at this point. Back in 2012, BioWare was the subject of a barrage of fan backlash for the Mass Effect trilogy’s conclusion, ultimately resulting in the studio putting out an Extended Cut DLC that added new content and clarity to the final sequence. The additions help clear things up, give certain choices more context, and show some relationships a little bit more respect, but in terms of the actual on-paper plot, Mass Effect 3’s ending was unchanged. This was despite demands from angry fans that BioWare should create an entirely new ending to appease those who weren’t happy with the conclusion of Commander Shepard’s story. In the years since, BioWare hasn’t been super upfront with the inner workings of the studio during the roughly four months between Mass Effect 3’s launch and the release of the Extended Cut. But People Make Games tracked down a handful of the developers at the studio at the time to hear more about what it was like to be part of the Mass Effect 3 team in the fallout of its ending.
If it wasn’t clear, this article will contain spoilers for Mass Effect 3.
One of the first complaints the video addresses is that all three of Mass Effect 3’s ending choices were cinematically differentiated by a color, even if the decision the player was making about how to handle the synthetic invaders known as Reapers was drastically different. Destroying synthetic life was represented by a red beam, Controlling the Reapers was blue, and achieving Synthesis was green. Animation Director Dave Wilkinson explained that the colors representing three different endings likely stems from original storyboards of the ending decisions that were similar to what actually ended up in the game, but had one distinct difference: the Catalyst, the AI that created and controlled the Reapers and talks with the player about each choice, was originally meant to be a Reaper “queen” who had been outcast by the other Reapers for holding differing views on the synthetics’ goals and their evolution.
“At that point, Shepard was so augmented with like electronic bits and all the rest of this shit, I actually had him just plug himself into the Citadel, and then within a virtual world he has a conversation with- it was described as a ‘god of the Reapers,'” Wilkinson said. “I think it was a Queen? And he had this conversation with the Queen, and the Queen is basically saying, like, ‘the way the Reapers keep going, this isn’t sustainable, blah blah blah blah blah blah, we have to evolve, but we’re incapable of evolution because of the limitations of our AI’ and stuff like that.”
Because of her views on Reaper evolution, the rest of the Reaper fleet ended up locking her within the galactic hub known as the Citadel in the original script. As such, she would have filled the same role as the Catalyst in the final game, saying that Shepard’s arrival was a chance for her to evolve everything along the lines of the Synthesis ending. The choices described in this scenario make some more sense of the visual elements of the final ending, as the Destroy ending would have had Shepard shooting the mainframe, destroying the Citadel and Reaper fleet, and apparently Earth, as well. The Control ending still resulted in Shepard becoming a commander of the Reaper fleet. Much like the final ending, the Synthesis ending was basically a pitch by the Reaper Queen as the next phase of evolution. Wilkinson went on to describe another scene that sounds evocative of the final scene in Mass Effect 3, in which an Asari-adjacent alien is telling their child about how Shepard saved them from the Reapers and helped the galaxy achieve Synthesis.
According to testimony from BioWare devs, the ending cinematics of the final game were expensive to make, so differentiating them by a color was just a cost-efficient move. One that BioWare didn’t anticipate being such an issue for fans at the time, comparing it to something like Sub-Zero and Scorpion’s models being similar in the original Mortal Kombat.
“It’s Scorpion and Sub-Zero, right? It’s two ninjas that are two different colors,” says Cinematic Director Zachariah Scott.” It’s not a good fix, but we didn’t expect it to blow up this- I mean, we should’ve. We completely should’ve. But we didn’t expect it to blow up.”
After the game launched and the controversy began online, fans created an entire movement called “Retake Mass Effect 3” in an effort to get BioWare’s attention. This included raising money for charity under the movement’s name, and even some passive-aggressive shit like sending red, green, and blue cupcakes to BioWare’s office. Scott says he is still “pissed” about the cupcakes, both because of the sentiment but because BioWare wouldn’t let employees eat them. Systems Programmer Mark Jaskiewicz said the cupcakes were a turning point for some people at BioWare because that’s when the situation became “real world.”
“Up until that point, you just try to say one of the nameless few that has a credit on the game and you don’t stick your head out, right,” Jaskiewicz says. “But now you’ve got people sending something to the place where you go to work every day. And that then becomes a little bit interesting.”
At some point, these movements stopped making broader demands of BioWare and started targeting specific developers with death threats and other assortments of online hate.
“There were literal death threats,” Narrative Quality Designer Arone Le Bray says. “And that’s not something you can- you can’t just shrug that off.”
“I was getting angry messages, curse-outs,” Gameplay Designer Manveer Heir says. “I imagine I got a death threat or two, I don’t remember. I’ve had Gamergate come after me, so it all just melds into one thing at some point.”
Cinematic Animator Marc-Antoine Matton was sympathetic to fans’ negative reaction to the ending, but says the nature of the internet meant that reaction being put into actions went far beyond what was reasonable.
“The reaction to the ending wasn’t wrong,” Matton said. “The main problem is it’s the internet, and the internet is toxic and vitriolic, and it’s got no filter, and it’s horrible. They attack people on a personal level. Especially female writers.”
As the noise continued, higher-ups at BioWare started to separate the vitriol from the more legitimate criticism, which led to a sentiment that some kind of make good was merited. BioWare co-founders Ray Muzyka and Grega Zeschuk made the call that the Extended Cut would be a free DLC to “do right by the fans.” The DLC added new cinematics for each Mass Effect 3 ending, as well as a new option to let players choose not to make a decision, resulting in them losing the war entirely. Nearly ten years later, people who were at the studio seem somewhat divided on whether or not the decision was the right one.
Cinematic Designer Richard Boisvert says while he wished the original ending had been satisfactory, but that as time has gone on he has “very little tolerance for people who still bring it up.” Cinematic Designer John Ebenger says that the response demanding a new ending “still boggles [his] mind” after all these years. Matton says while it was a shame the entire thing had to go down the way it did, he said he was happy that the studio recognized there was value to some criticism and that it was worth addressing. However, all of the above came at the expense of some significant crunch for the team at BioWare, which was a “morale hit,” according to Heir.
“You’re kind of ready to be done with a game and a franchise at a certain point,” Heir says. “Then when it gets extended out, that’s like, ‘wait, the people who were crunching the hardest at the end now had to go back and start crunching again?’ So they didn’t good rest.”
For some developers at BioWare, the Extended Cut development window led directly into Dragon Age: Inquisition, which piled onto the studio’s already well-established track record with overworking its employees.
“We were an unhealthily close family,” Scott says. “And part of it is how that studio works, part of it is how remote Edmonton it is and how cold those winters were, right? And how much we crunched, but like, we were good. I remember us being pretty okay, but […] within two years once we got into Dragon Age: Inquisition…everybody was fried. Everybody was completely destroyed. Morale was incredibly low. I joined Dragon Age: Inquisition and I stayed for a year, and that whole year was me like, fighting for upper management to just listen to how stressed out everybody was. So I don’t know- I don’t normally attribute much of that to Mass Effect, but it is safe to say that around that time, a lot of people were starting therapy.”
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As a person who has been part of the Mass Effect fandom for the past 14 years, I sympathize with Boisvert’s sentiment that he doesn’t have a lot of tolerance for discourse that still involves the original ending of Mass Effect 3. My feelings on the Extended Cut as a piece of additional Mass Effect content would take up its own blog, but I do find it telling that BioWare went out of its way to create something that added more context to the ending, and yet deliberate misunderstandings still permeate through Mass Effect discussions. People calling the Catalyst a “ghost kid” when the game outwardly says it’s an AI. Accusations that your choice at the end doesn’t matter and is still a “pick a color” decision when new cinematics illustrate how the galaxy changes. Perhaps there are some people who still feel so slighted that anything short of a new ending wasn’t going to be good enough, and that means that they will continue to spread deliberate misunderstandings and feign ignorance?
The Mass Effect: Legendary Edition remasters have brought the games to a new audience, but people who are still mad about something that happened a decade ago are still sewing new discussions with the same false talking points. Perhaps some things are just too ingrained in the way we talk about certain pieces of media to ever go away. And given that it clearly affected the developers who were working on it, that’s a huge fucking shame.