Based on Bioware's tacit admission that they are in fact going to be paying attention to posts people make about the Mass Effect 3 ending and where it went wrong I figured I'd throw my hat in the ring. Initially, I was just going to discuss the pain that is the last 5 minutes of the game, as a separate element but I think it would be appropriate to expand some criticism to the entire final mission, as it laid plenty of ground work for providing closure and context to players but was squandered in a random do-nothing-zone instead.
Against my inclinations, I should probably start at the end itself before doubling back to talk about the lead up. The key issue for me is the context the ending is provided in. I've read a large number of books with endings similar for instance the Evergence series, or any number of Ian M. Banks Culture novels which seem to all end in the death of all of the characters. However, while these endings can work, they are inherently passive experiences. You are reading a story about a person succeeding in some areas and failing at others, accepting the context of both and continuing with the story, and importantly this story is being told to you, not molded by you.
Video games do this too in many cases. The ending of DeusEX Human Revolution, which derided by many and I would argue it was a weak ending, is very much a nobody-wins ending. However DXHR's story gave no pretense that you were molding the outcome, you could do better or worse in the context of telling the story, but you weren't crafting your version of Jensen. He, for instance, was going to blow up the dock regardless of your personal moral qualms with doing so. The ending was actually a bit out of character for the rest of the story line, which is why I found it so weird. I would have preferred if the ending had been purely driven off your successes with manipulating characters throughout using things like the social modification system and the amount of information gathered to determine the outcome. But I digress, my point here is that DXHR isn't in fact an RPG but an action / adventure game so while it's not a passive experience like reading, it is passive in that your influence on the story line is tangential to your enjoyment of the gameplay.
This ending could also have found a better home in the Assassin's Creed series. You are effectively along for the ride when you play those games and are literally incapable of making any decisions beyond 'how exotic of a kill should I go for'. The way that story has been building up, I would not be at all surprised if it ends with all of humanity completely doomed and more questions than answers. Ironically though, reading the reference codex for that series gives you actual closure on characters whose paths you've crossed throughout the game.
Which brings me to Mass Effect 3 and, more broadly, the Mass Effect trilogy. The whole idea of the trilogy was that you made 'your' Shepherd. You could make a paragon of virtue or a total asshole if you wanted to and the characters actions would reflect that in the game play, cut-scenes and conversations. These choices were lent weight through the deaths of characters, hostages, and species. The broader decisions could also dog you through all three games, if, for instance, you chose to kill Wrex in the first game, that decision comes back in multiple points throughout the series. This let you craft 'your' story, in which you expected 'your' ending. Instead you got the end of their (Bioware's) story, in which they discarded all the work you'd done and boiled your results down to a selection between different pixel colors (see below).
Here's the root of my problem with the endings: The endings are incredibly lazy. While it isn't surprising or reasonable to expect every single plot thread presented in the game to be wrapped up, it is reasonable to expect closure. I don't even object to Sheppard dying, I actually expected to not survive despite having done a near perfect run through the game, accruing allies and never losing any characters due to my choices. However I did make a number of decisions I would like to see boil out, Thessia is... pretty much doomed, but what happens to the krogan? And by tangent what happens to the Turians? If you do exceptionally well and manage to bring the Batarians into the cause, does that save them or are they doomed to extinction? If you've decided wiping out the Reapers gets rid of the Geth and EDI, explain why. Is it an basically an EMP? If so, does it effectively destroy all of galactic civilization's technology? Why does blowing up all of the Mass Effect relays not cause a galactic purge of all life when it killed every Batarian available when one was blown up in the Arrival DLC in Mass Effect 2?
The ending doesn't have to be one action to wrap up everything, very few things fall together with everything being wrapped up in one action. Getting to the crucible (don't get me started..) and getting it to work could do almost exactly what it was doing right now: secure galactic hegemony for the Humans, save the galaxy from the Reapers, or fuck up completely and show us the cycle starting over again in 50,000 years with the Yahg kicking ass across the galaxy. But that only tells the story of the crucible, the catalyst and the Illusive Man (there is no reason why an indoctrinated TIM couldn't have easily stood in for annoying child wonder AI and have been entirely consistent instead of stroke inducing). It has nothing to do with anybody you've interacted with up to that point. What I want to see the gravity of my choices, if we fail, and doom the krogan, then show us their sunset.
This brings me to my next point, the pacing at the end is fairly awful. The games set precedent of knocking you into machinima'd cut scenes when it needs to convey information to you. This could have been used to tell the ending stories of Jack and her pack of biotic miscreants, do they get turned to paste, or do they save and bolster a contingent of soldiers to help save London? These don't even have to be long segments, just snippets scattered throughout would have been an excellent way to add texture to a fairly bland last battle area. Instead, you got a set of conversations you could have with basically an audio update to serve as 'closure'.
I should probably address the changing of the ending by Bioware, which there is at least some indication they are considering doing. A great number of people have argued that they shouldn't (you will not find me among those people), claiming the ending is fine and they have every right to make the ending whatever they want. I would remind anyone on that side of the argument that ret-conning endings isn't completely without precedent. For instance, Superman is not dead, Sherlock Holmes didn't die when he fell over that cliff, and your character is saved if he decided to be a hero in Fallout 3.
Even considering all of this, I'm not sure where Bioware should go from here. Combining the tone deaf display of 'look forward to DLC!' that dumps your now-dead character back on the bridge of his ship with the fiasco that was the day 1 DLC has been viewed by some to be the worst part of this whole aspect. Personally, if they hadn't had the combine problems of the ending and the day one DLC of disappointment, I don't think this would be much of a controversy. In light of it, however, it seems like Bioware's only sane way out is going to be a DLC fix of the ending that is free, or they will burn some of the last bridges of goodwill they have with some of the most die hard fans in the industry.
Ultimately, the ending is under the control of Bioware, or I would suspect more likely under the control of EA Games via their control of Bioware's purse strings. I find it very difficult to codify exactly what I hate about this ending so much, but the entire experience turns out unfulfilling and sours the rest of the games replay value (though... go die in a fire Kai Leng you annoying literary prop). However, it was clearly deemed acceptable by somebody in the same way the end of The Evergence novels, the new BSG series, or the Lost series were; it made it to production after all. This doesn't make it right, it just places it in terrible company.
The important part for me with the ending of something like the Mass Effect series vs. the ending of any of the afore mentioned series is the specific story telling approach used in the game. It invited gamers to get invested in their characters, over 80,000 dollars invested, by selling them on the idea of telling 'their' story in the games world. To steal this from them at the last moment in a bid to assert your philosophy (as argued by ars's initial coverage and the referenced pop bioethics article) on the masses is a gross abuse of your consumers. VirtualShackles captures the whole approach better in one picture than I suspect I can do in the entirety of this write up. For my part this is the nails in a coffin built by Dragon Age 2 (which would require an entire new post to explain) and unless this is fixed, I won't in the forseeable future be purchasing a Bioware game until all DLC are out and the GOTY version has hit the $20 bargain bin. And that's a shame, considering I've been a fan of the Bioware brand name since my discovery of Baulder's Gate in middle school / early high school which was more than a decade ago.