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‘Mass Effect 3’ Foreshadowed Fandom’s Divided Decade

How backlash to the original ending presaged an era of fans tweeting, petitioning, and campaigning for changes when their favorite games and movies let them down

DC/Disney/HBO/EA/Ringer illustration

“How bad is it?” one military man asks another in the first few seconds of Mass Effect 3. “Bad,” the other answers. Those opening lines set the desperate tone maintained for much of the final installment of the Mass Effect trilogy, in which an existential threat foretold in the first two games endangers all life in the universe. But for BioWare, the storied RPG developer that launched the trilogy in 2007 and concluded it in 2012, the first impression produced by the franchise’s big finish wasn’t bad at all.

In its first month on the market, Mass Effect 3 doubled the U.S. sales pace of its predecessor. Shortly after its release, its Metacritic score sat at 94, falling between the similarly lofty aggregated grades of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. A month earlier, BioWare producer Mike Gamble had promised players closure and expressed optimism about how the game’s audience would receive its revelations, saying, “I honestly think the player base is going to be really happy with the way we’ve done it.” At first, it appeared his prediction had proved correct: In early March 2012, happiness and prosperity prevailed. By the middle of the month, though, that contentment had curdled, at least in some vocal quarters. The ending, many Mass Effect fans felt, was a failure.

On Sunday, Mass Effect 3 will turn 10 years old. The game remains a largely lauded conclusion to an almost universally celebrated trilogy—one whose upgraded and repackaged Legendary Edition was one of the 20 bestselling games on three systems last year, and one whose disappointing 2017 sequel only slightly subdued anticipation for a forthcoming fifth game and TV adaptation. But the legacy of Mass Effect 3 is more than that of a really good game that couldn’t quite tie a bow on a mostly excellent saga. It was also a harbinger of the divided, demanding, and sometimes toxic decade of fandom that followed it.

In the weeks after Mass Effect 3’s release, respectful, considered criticism of the game’s ending surfaced alongside the tantrums and tactics of aggrieved gamers who wielded a soon-to-be-standard-issue array of internet tools of provocation and persuasion, including campaigns and petitions, targeted threats, and review bombs. The movement to remake Mass Effect 3’s ending manifested signs of the discourse that would dog many of the highest-profile genre releases of the rest of the decade: calls to Release the Snyder Cut; requests for a redo of Game of Thrones Season 8; demands to decanonize the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Those subsequent controversies almost certainly would have occurred even in a world without Mass Effect 3, which probably became a precedent-setter because it happened to debut right around the time when social media made it easier for fans to team up and make their preferences felt. But perhaps the impulse to mold or unmake creations that some fans have found wanting has also spread partly because in the case of Mass Effect 3, the complaints (sort of) worked.

In retrospect, Mass Effect made a perfect target for unfulfilled fans’ discontent. The trilogy, which followed the likes of Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic and overlapped with Dragon Age in BioWare’s rich release history, is a sweeping, heroic, and horny space opera starring playable protagonist Commander Shepard. After discovering an impending invasion by the Reapers, an extragalactic race of robot starships that purges the galaxy of organic life every 50,000 years (for kind of convoluted reasons), Shepard sets out to unite the intelligent species of the late–22nd century Milky Way and stop the next devastating cycle. From the start, Mass Effect preached the power of player choice, and its sequels supported importing save files so that past choices could carry over. As Gamble described the denouement, “You had a part in it. Every decision you’ve made will impact how things go. The player’s also the architect of what happens.” Couple that implied ownership with a hefty time investment—even the lengthy Lord of the Rings trilogy lasts less than 10 hours, whereas Mass Effect demands anywhere from 60 hours to more than twice that, depending on the player’s pace and completionist tendencies—and you had a recipe for some players feeling entitled to an ending they’d envisioned and designed.

In early 2012, the memory of Lost’s less-than-two-year-old finale (which had followed a Mass Effect–esque 90-plus-hour series running time) was still fairly fresh, and Mass Effect’s makers were aware that they’d face a backlash of sorts. (In fact, there had already been one in response to a prerelease leak of a work-in-progress script.) “It’s going to make some people extremely happy,” Gamble had said of the epic’s ending. “It’s going to make some people angry.” But BioWare underestimated how many people would find the trilogy’s climax lacking, and how angry (and organized) they would be.

The matrix of possible endings to Mass Effect 3 can be bewildering to anyone who hasn’t had a berth on the Normandy, but the original game culminated in a choice between three options, each of which gave Shepard a different way of dealing with the Catalyst, an ancient AI that operates the Reapers. The “Destroy” ending allows Shepard to eradicate the Reapers along with all other synthetic life, allies included. The “Control” ending turns Shepard into the new, non-organic Reaper overmind, which will direct the Reapers to repair and defend the galaxy. The “Synthesis” ending results in races of hybrid, organic-synthetic creations who in theory will no longer war with each other. Aspects of the player’s trajectory through the trilogy, including the sums of moral decisions made and military strength assembled, affect the ways in which these three paths play out.

The primary problem, as some (though not all) players saw it, was that the significance of this one momentous selection dwarfed the weight of the multitude of preceding decisions, small and large. Some of the details of each ending differed depending on previous choices, but the broad strokes were the same, and the options weren’t plentiful or ethically clear enough to deliver on a portion of the player base’s expectations of an ending tailored to their personal journey through the series. Other complaints centered on the hasty introduction of the Catalyst and the abrupt, ambiguous, and depressing resolution of the story, which arguably gave short shrift to many of the characters with whom players had spent so much time.

The backlash built quickly. Even before players had had time to reach the end of the roughly 30-hour campaign, Metacritic began to remove negative reviews that appeared to be part of a coordinated campaign intended to tank the game’s user rating. That initial, relatively limited acrimony arose in response to the game’s expanded same-sex-romance options—presaging similarly regressive (and futile) attempts to smear future releases such as Black Panther, Captain Marvel, The Last Jedi, and The Last of Us Part II—as well as BioWare’s decision to sell a $10 DLC on day one. Some fans griped that the content in the expansion should have been part of the base game, which prompted a former BioWare designer to tell players, “Stop thinking you’re a producer and telling us when and where we should be building our content.” But players weren’t done doing so.

Within days of the game’s release, polls, petitions, and campaigns made clear that Mass Effect 3’s ending wasn’t working for a significant percentage of players. The most prominent movement, “Retake Mass Effect,” began by sending hundreds of cupcakes to BioWare’s office. The cupcakes came in three different colors, but all of them tasted the same—an allusion to the insufficiently differentiated flavors of Mass Effect 3’s endgame. Retake Mass Effect moved on from cupcake commentary to publicity-generating philanthropy, eventually raising $80,000 in crowdfunded donations to the Child’s Play charity (much to the consternation of Child’s Play organizer Penny Arcade). The campaign, which garnered coverage not just from the games press but from mainstream outlets such as the BBC, endeavored in @dril-like fashion to strike a measured tone (in contrast to its somewhat possessive-sounding name), stating, “We would like to dispel the perception that we are angry or entitled. We simply wish to express our hope that there could be a different direction for a series we have all grown to love.” That direction would consist of additional endings that offered “a more complete explanation of the story events,” “an explanation of the outcome of the decisions made,” and “a heroic ending which provides a better sense of accomplishment.”

Some fans also filed frivolous complaints about BioWare’s marketing claims with regulators like the Federal Trade Commission and the U.K.-based Advertising Standards Authority. Although those grievances went nowhere, the Better Business Bureau entered the chat to chasten the developer for what it termed false advertising. In particular, the Bureau took the company to task for a tagline that declared that “the decisions you make completely shape your experience and outcome.”

In fairness to BioWare, the Mass Effect trilogy belongs to a long lineage of video games, from Fable to The Walking Dead, that have overpromised and undelivered in the realm of player autonomy. Players want games to be engaging in a way that’s difficult for developers to deliver without largely scripting the user experience. Yet players also crave the freedom to reshape the virtual world around them and drive the story themselves. In games that purport to let players take control, those desires exist in constant tension; even a Choose Your Own Adventure book offers only so many plot permutations. Few franchises have solved the dilemma in a way that balanced both sides of the equation. BioWare’s binary morality system, in which branching dialogue options permitted players to lean evil or virtuous, was a simplistic approximation of true autonomy, but it provided the appearance of player sovereignty that exceeded what it offered in the end. (In practice, the vast majority of Mass Effect fans pursued the “Paragon” path over the “Renegade” path, but players still appreciated the option to be bad.) In the closing scenes of Mass Effect 3, that conflict came to a head as players pierced the veil that made Mass Effect seem like it supplied a less limited menu than the one BioWare had designed.

After taking time to listen to fan feedback—while dropping occasional, cryptic tweets and mounting tepid defenses of the ending—BioWare bowed to public pressure. On March 21, BioWare cofounder Ray Muzyka published a post on the BioWare blog in which he affirmed his belief in Mass Effect 3’s overall quality but also acknowledged the ways in which it fell short, thereby appeasing upset players and falling on his sword on the studio’s behalf. “Our first instinct is to defend our work and point to the high ratings offered by critics—but out of respect to our fans, we need to accept the criticism and feedback with humility,” Muzyka said, citing the “unprecedented” reaction to the game and promising that the studio would find a “fair and timely way” to “address the comments on ME3’s endings from players, while still maintaining the artistic integrity of the game.” In response, Retake Mass Effect declared its mission mostly accomplished.

The planned tweak to the endings was revealed on April 5, when BioWare announced the Mass Effect 3 “Extended Cut,” a free, downloadable addition for “fans who want more closure.” The studio asserted that the goal was “not to provide a new ending to the game, rather to offer fans additional context and answers to the end of Commander Shepard’s story.” The completed DLC, which dropped on June 26—a few months before Muzyka and fellow cofounder Greg Zeschuk left BioWare—made a multitude of (mostly minor) changes. Among the most meaningful were new dialogue options and cutscenes leading up to Shepard’s (and the player’s) fateful choice, as well as additional epilogue scenes that illuminated the ramifications of each selection. The Extended Cut also provided a fourth option, albeit one that wasn’t as “heroic” as Retake Mass Effect had hoped: refuse to pick the future behind one of the three doors, or confront the Catalyst, and the Reapers get what they want and wipe away civilization. That new ending included a line from Shepard that may as well have been the motto of many Mass Effect fans: “I fight for the right to choose our own fate.”

The Extended Cut mollified many fans, maybe because BioWare had granted gamers an even greater form of agency—the power to partly remake Mass Effect—than a more expansive suite of options would have. Others were still dissatisfied, because even the more artfully and elaborately related endings weren’t fundamentally different from the originals. Some fans still wonder what might have been with one of the BioWare’s considered and discarded endings, or have a headcanon answer of their own. (The feel-good 2013 Citadel DLC struck some players as the perfect ending, while others ride for the “Indoctrination Theory,” which holds that the game’s canonical ending is a Reaper-induced hallucination that plays out in Shepard’s head.) But the Extended Cut established a template for fans’ collective action in the internet age, which some observers viewed as encouraging and as others saw as a worrisome sign. It was hardly unheard of for creators to tinker with their art of their own volition, through director’s cuts, remasters, and even DLC. (A 2009 expansion for Fallout 3, for instance, had altered the 2008 game’s original ending.) And consumers had long made their feelings felt not just through box-office figures, TV ratings, and sales figures, but through campaigns to save canceled series. But for fan unrest to result in a post-release amendment of a monumental moment in a major franchise seemed like something new.

Thanks to streaming’s ascendance and the ease of editing digitally, art of all kinds is more malleable now than it was when most products were accessible only in analog, physical form. Most non-Kanye creators still prefer to finish their work before releasing it, but tweaks of all kinds have become more feasible after the fact. (If you find a typo in this piece, please let me know.) Video games are the medium most subject to such changes, both because post-release patches and expansions are routine and because new dialogue and cutscenes can conceivably be created with less hassle and expense than, say, a sequence in a movie can be reshot. Many would-be blockbusters that came after Mass Effect 3 have been published in dramatically more broken, incomplete, or otherwise deflating states—Fallout 76, No Man’s Sky, Cyberpunk 2077—and fan complaints have held their creators accountable, though those complaints often sound less like “The ending disappointed me” than “I couldn’t reach the ending because of game-breaking bugs.” Some of those games have gradually redeemed themselves through regular updates.

On the one hand, the Extended Cut is an improvement; it may not be a brilliant ending, but it’s a better one. When the Legendary Edition was released last year, it included only the Extended Cut, not the original editions. “To me that Extended Cut was that opportunity to add a little bit more love and a little bit more context around the ending,” Legendary Edition director Mac Walters said. “So to me that is part of the canon.” It follows, then, that the current canon would be worse if fans hadn’t grumbled and BioWare hadn’t heard them. Most recent remake evangelists have, for the most part, picked appropriate targets too, however far-fetched their aims or problematic their methods; in Game of Thrones Season 8, the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and the theatrical release of Justice League, fans were responding to real deficiencies caused by accelerated timelines, poor planning, and creative differences. (The campaign to remove the rat from the end of The Departed was possibly a little less vital.)

On the other hand, the feedback from fans wasn’t all cupcakes and charitable donations. In 2012, Muzyka noted that some of the criticism “delivered in the heat of passion” had “become destructive rather than constructive.” Last year, some of Mass Effect 3’s creators recalled that destructive side in a YouTube documentary produced by People Make Games. Although some sources said they were pleased that the Extended Cut came to be, others remembered receiving death threats from angry gamers and working long hours—a repeated problem at BioWare—to deliver DLC that would placate players. In the Extended Cut’s Synthesis ending, the AI character EDI (voiced by Tricia Helfer) says, “We will remember that this chance for a new life did not come without cost.” The cost of a new ending for Mass Effect 3 was borne by the game’s already exhausted developers—most of whom probably hadn’t been to blame for the finale’s shortcomings, and some of whom later conceded that they’d shared fans’ misgivings about the ending—not the fans who downloaded it for free. That toxic behavior of a subset of gamers, which would fully fester via Gamergate beginning in 2014, remains a major pox on the industry and has also been a blight on non-gaming-related remake campaigns.

“I only hope the lessons learned in this war don’t die along with those of us who fought to win it,” Admiral Hackett says in one version of the Extended Cut’s “Destroy” ending. It’s not as if every subsequent campaign to remake a maligned piece of IP was inspired by the movement to Retake Mass Effect, but later attempts have employed similar playbooks, though they usually haven’t produced the same outcome. A petition to remake Game of Thrones Season 8 garnered close to 2 million signatures, but it didn’t sway HBO. Persistent rumors that Disney could decanonize or remake the divisive sequel trilogy still circulate, but they appear to be baseless and implausible. The Snyder Cut of Justice League was released—and like the Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut, was better than the original release—but in that case, the creator was leading the charge, with the fans bolstering his efforts to twist the studio’s arm. And despite the Snyder Cut’s seeming success, the “Ayer Cut” of 2016’s Suicide Squad hasn’t surfaced yet, though the buzz still hasn’t subsided.

The past 10 years have taught us that the uproar and online activism (mixed with spleen-venting harassment) that greeted Mass Effect 3 is a permanent feature of fan culture. But that decade has also demonstrated that the change that stemmed from the aftermath of Mass Effect 3’s release is more the exception than the rule. If creators respond to real or imagined fan feedback, they often do it during the creative process, not after their art exists in the wild—though the desire to avoid a backlash can (for better or worse) be as big a motivator as a backlash itself. Even so, the Mass Effect controversy continues to cast a long shadow. Mass Effect 3 was a very good game, but maybe the real mass effect was the ending we remade along the way.