Edit: Part 3 is now published.
First, three pre-blog notes.
To start, yes. I am aware I constantly misspelled the Mass Effect protagonist’s name as ‘Shephard’: a portmanteau of the word shepherd and the actual name Shepard. I’ve edited the first post to reflect the proper spelling.
Secondly, it took me longer than expected to get around to this. I’ve been moving around a lot and (shock! horror!) been playing video games instead of complaining about video games and / or complaining about complaining. It doesn’t take long once I get down to it, because I’ve had the posts written for quite some time, I’m just editing and searching for my required links and images. The third and ‘final’ (using the term loosely, details below) post should come in a few days’ time as I have to dig up a lot of links, videos, articles and quotes, some of which may be buried beneath ending rants. I couldn’t even find the article in which a Bioware employee stated Mass Effect 3 was the perfect spot for new players to jump in. The third post has somewhere in the area of sixtylinks.
And finally, I realise that the Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut DLC has been released. I’m considering, once I’m done with this three-part lashing of the original ending, to talk a little bit about the new versions. I won’t be editing the third part, the metacommentary, to reflect the new information aside from one little bit that I’ve been proven correct on. I’ve watched the ‘refuse’ and ‘destroy’ endings with the sound off and I have mixed thoughts, but I’ll consider.
And with all that out of the way, we return to our regularly scheduled programming.
The crux of the Mass Effect series isn’t shooting people in the face, but making decisions and talking with NPCs to make informed ones. Throughout the main storyline, the decisions that garner the best results have a common thread of themes and messages. The ending, however, turns many of these themes on their heads, gives major ones just a cursory nod, or brings less important ones to the forefront. It isn’t reflective of the rest of the story, and it saddens me to know that there isn’t as much focus on it by journalists and players as there should be. While the flaws mentioned in part one are far more numerous and noticeable, (hell, just look at the word counts) the handling of the themes can’t be improved by an extra scene or explanation. “Additional closure and clarity” won’t fix these issues that really sour the ending because of what they are at heart – in form, not in execution. It’s possible to see what Bioware wanted to achieve, but it belongs somewhere else.
Tolerance, Diversity and Unity
Because of the galactic scale of the story, we are introduced to a multitude of different species with different values. Salarians make for great scientists, the Quarian fleet values its separation from other races, the Krogan are honourable warriors, and Asari culture begs the question “is there anything inherently wrong with being promiscuous?” Each has their own place in the galaxy, and the subplot of the first game revolved around humans proving their worth to the council – not ‘when will the council give us our first spectre’ but ‘what will our first spectre give back to the council’. In the first Mass Effect, you needed the help of Tali, Garrus and Wrex to expose Saren, and Liara’s mind-diving abilities to interpret the visions from the Prothean Beacon – staying as a troupe of humans would have led to absolute failure. The climax of Mass Effect 2 revolved around this – to get everyone through the Suicide Mission, you had to put aside your reservations, and evaluate everyone’s own talents to come together as a fully functioning team.
The human-supremacist organisation Cerberus is portrayed as a villain, but a necessary evil for stitching Shepard back together. Your choices of dialogue project a personality onto Shepard that embraces or resents the need to stand together, but regardless he understands it’s needed to complete the mission. Paragon and Renegade speech both reject the idea that Shepard works for Cerberus in Mass Effect 2. There is no option to laugh at the helpless victim of Operation Overlord, only to grit your teeth and accept it as an asset.
Codex entries on Prothean culture show that they would wage war on other races and have them assimilate into their society, to the point where the conquered would identify as being Prothean. If you have the From Ashes DLC, Javik mentions that one of the major reasons his cycle failed was that civilisation was far too homogenised beneath Prothean rule. Embracing that diversity is the key to a cycle that can survive. But in the ending, Destroy wipes out an entire section of that civilisation, the Geth, and at the moment of decision you may be unsure of who else may suffer as explained in part 1. Synthesis vastly reduces variety in the universe by single-handedly homogenising all DNA into an organic-synthetic hybrid. What happened to accepting synthetic life as being more than walking boltbags with laser guns through the Quarian-Geth storyline and Legion’s character arc?
Bringing Down the Reapers
My favourite section from the first Mass Effect game has to be Virmire. It’s the peak of dramatic action in the story. The great plot twist is revealed, your nerves are tested to defuse Wrex’s murderous temper, and you have to make a choice between one of the two people you’ve known since the first hour of the game. It wasn’t the assault in the Mako or on foot that kept me glued to the seat or the panic as I tried to save the lives of team members through the dialogue wheel. The part of Virmire that stays with me with most lucidity is the conversation with Sovereign.
Everything prior to this has led up to the meeting with the hologram. We knew the Reapers were coming and managed to shut up that Turian councillor by outing Saren. But it was impossible to be prepared for this. The first words that come from that deep, echoing, bowel-shattering voice are “You are not Saren.” He just doesn’t give a damn. Bitch, bring me my cosmic latte. When that alarm clock goes off every fifty thousand years, we have some civilisations to devour.
The Reapers are unfathomable, incomprehensible, indestructible, Lovecraftian. At least, that’s what Sovereign wants you to think. It’s possible to draw parallels between H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror and the first Mass Effect. Both Saren and Wilbur Whately seem outwardly normal aside from a couple details, and they spend their final moments revealing bizarre, eldritch true forms beneath their skin. Both bring forth their masters, Sovereign and Yog-Sothoth (or alternatively the Dunwich Horror itself), who seek to open gates, The Citadel and a space portal, to usher in their kind, the Reapers and the Outer Gods, that will doom civilisation. At the game’s climax, defeating the thrall Saren left Sovereign vulnerable to attack, and an entire fleet was necessary to rip him to pieces. It was that moment that it became clear you weren’t fighting an unwinnable war against Space Cthulhu, but a fleet of Star Destroyers. These things can be killed. Even the voiced codex entry on Reaper indoctrination states that a view of the Reapers as being Godlike is just “superstitious awe”.
Sovereign didn’t care who you were, just that you weren’t Saren. By contrast, Harbinger knows that you know that he isn’t indestructible. Every time you heard a yell of ‘Bring me Shepard’s body’ or ‘Assuming direct control’, it wasn’t the work of an omniscient, omnipotent being, but a powerful enemy that specifically targeted you as he recognised you as a threat. Now you were the one to be feared. Even nature revolted as a Thresher Maw slammed headlong into a Reaper on Tuchanka, killing it instantly. The galaxy itself was fighting back. The final moments of Mass Effect 3 have you running with an assault team straight to Harbinger. This is it. This is for everyone who was killed, indoctrinated, and transformed in this war. He makes it a point to shoot his superlaser at you in particular – and it takes him three attempts to get it right. And once he does, he…flies away. Your antagonist is replaced by a glowing blue child who gives you three cop-out solutions. What happened to the enemy we hated, the goal we held in sight from day one? The shift in character focus throws the trend of weakening and defeating the Reapers right out the window. Good-and-evil stories benefit from giving the villain a face. Before this, we were motivated partly by the will to save the galaxy and also a personal vendetta against Harbinger. When this works so effectively to give the player emotional investment in the story, it’s not a good idea to introduce a new key figure in the final scene.
Synthetics and Organics
It’s rare, if ever, that the main characters in the series refer to the Geth as robots. It’s usually the term ‘synthetic life’. Over the course of the series, the theme is developed similarly to the main plot of the Matrix trilogy. In the first, it’s a rather simple duality of ‘robots bad, fleshbags good’. They’re your immediate threat, often on Saren’s side, so take care of them. In Mass Effect 2, Legion mixes it up. His character arc describes how the Geth aren’t the aggressors in the war, and in Mass Effect 3’s Rannoch section you can decide who wins, or even usher in peace, at a cost.
It’s a well-developed and self-contained story arc that ends with some degree of closure no matter what you choose. By the time you leave Rannoch, you will feel like you achieved something, or at least that you are to be held responsible for not achieving the result you wanted. In the ending, however, it becomes the sole focus of the Catalyst’s speech, the existence of the Reapers, and the chief consequence of your choice. Up to this point, synthetics versus organics has been a minor theme in the main ‘stop the Reapers’ plotline. That story has already been resolved and our aims achieved in that field. Among the other themes in the series, such as unity, self-determination and perhaps a little trans-humanism, it’s not central, but the ending makes it the main premise of your final, supposedly most important choice. It’s redundant and detracts from the draw of the main storyline.
Although the options of the endings try to mirror the original Deus Ex, those endings worked for that game because they reflected one of the largest central themes that ran throughout the story: ideologies of society, power and hierarchy.
From the opening movie and speaking with the target of the first mission, it’s made clear that the factions aren’t simply in a black-and-white, good guys-bad guys conflict, and when someone talks about ruling classes, corporate interests, or the 99%, that’s your cue to pay attention. The first hour of play told you that this is what you need to think about as you progress through the game, and the free-roaming levels allow you to listen to the sick and homeless as much as you did to your boss at UNATCO. By contrast, Mass Effect 3 brings a previously resolved theme into the spotlight in a space where it shouldn’t be the focus.
Each Mass Effect is a bit like an exam. If you’re prepared, you’ll reap the benefits. If you’re lucky and smart, you can still cut your losses and fare well, but rigorous preparation is a must for the best results. In the original, you could skip a boss through having trained your ability to talk your way out of situations. If you didn’t converse with your squad, you put Wrex’s life in danger. The theme came to the forefront in Mass Effect 2, which had you gathering, training and trusting a large team for one big mission. If you got everyone’s loyalty and understood their talents, you could come out of a nerve-wracking finale unscathed, but if you failed to prepare, you were preparing to fail.
Mass Effect 3, contrary to pre-release statements, does away with the need to prepare. The ending choices are meant to represent ideologies, and the shift in focus damages the effect your other choices have on the ending. The illusion of choice is abandoned as the value of your war assets only becomes clear when watching other versions of the same ending. There’s no direct correlation, no sense that your preparation affected the outcome. And if you really must see the ‘good’ (and I use the term loosely) version of each ending, no problem, just go online, slap on your [xXMLGXx] clan tag and score some sweet 360 quickscopes with your friends 420xkushxsmoker and 5n1p3r-dr4g0n-b01-69.
The Unpredictability of Life and Self-determination
One of the greatest flaws with the ending is that Shepard simply bends over, grabs his ankles, and stands idly by while the Catalyst marches on with his speech about the cycle of synthetics killing organics. No Shepard, not even a full Paragon, would accept that. Many players kept their eyes glued to the screen’s corner, expecting a Renegade interrupt to show up and riddle that little shit’s forehead with bullets. When faced with an inescapable situation, Shepard almost always tries to find another way. Two of three outcomes of the Geth-Quarian war plotline disprove the Catalyst’s logic. As long as there are unpredictable leaders like Shepard and Legion, the cycle can be broken.
With the term ‘synthetic life’, Mass Effect asks what it means to be a living thing, and one of the clearest possible answers is the ability to be flexible, unpredictable, and determine your own fate. Legion ends as a living thing, able to accept Tali’s friendship in his last moments. EDI spends her time going from a ship’s computer to a being with a personality, able to fall in love with the pilot, Joker. The truly ‘unliving’ beings in the franchise are the Reapers and the Catalyst, as they cannot function outside of their cycles – overly logical, predictable, cold, and unmoving.
The most important storylines in the trilogy revolve around characters defying the odds and forging their own destinies. Garrus leaves his position at C-Sec to aid Shepard, Mordin eventually moves against the genophage cultivated by Salarian scientists, Wrex fights on against an immense challenge to save his race, the Suicide Mission is undergone in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and on not one but two occasions, both in the original game alone, Shepard defies the will of the Citadel Council (first in outing Saren, secondly when his ship is grounded) and goes on to save the galaxy because of it.
But the central goal, of stopping the Reapers, is a battle against fate itself. Generations upon generations have been fighting for a chance to choose their own fate rather than be wiped out, evolving and getting closer each time, and Shepard has a shot at breaking a cycle that’s gone on for dozens of millions of years. But at the final hurdle, after saying ‘No, there must be another way’ for three games, he capitulates to the Catalyst – when the old Shepard would have been more likely to refuse outright, and stand beside the child watching the battle unfold above. If they lose, so be it. They would have died with their autonomy, and Liara’s stored data would have almost ensured the next cycle emerged victorious. Prior to the last few minutes, Shepard doesn’t accept any option other than the one he makes.
Shepard’s Role As A Leader
Hand-in-hand with the theme of unity is Shepard’s role in the story. Each game revolved around enlisting the aid of others to achieve the main character’s goal. In the first game, it’s about gathering a party of seven to stop Saren, each contributing technology, information and ability. In Mass Effect 2, it’s the same concept on a greater scale with many more team members. The final game has you bringing entire civilisations together to form the Victory Fleet. Commander Shepard is exactly that – a commander and a shepherd (it’s even the name he’s remembered by in the epilogue). He’s Commander Shepard, not Wargod McKillemall. Even though he is empowered by the Prothean visions and Cerberus tech, and he undertakes tough assignments, his real strength lies in bringing others under his flag and rallying them to a common cause; as important a leader as a fighter.
The ending is one of the very few moments where Shepard is not backed up by an ally, working alone (and we have no idea exactly how they got away, for that matter). The final choice is made by him and him alone. I fully respect that Shepard should have a major role in the finale, but the structure of the ending leaves out others entirely. He’s no longer the Commander that brought together everyone, but the be-all and end-all of the galaxy. Your choice forces his will on other life forms – the Reapers in control, but all synthetics in Destroy, and Synthesis impacts everything, from synthetics to spacefaring organics to insects to animals to foliage. It strips them of their autonomy which you spent three games trying to protect. The hardest pill to swallow in the ending isn’t the God Child – it’s the God Shepard.
The ending of Mass Effect 3 isn’t a pick-and-choose of what messages you value over others. Some are thrown away entirely in the ending’s structure and organics VS synthetics usurps self-determination as the central theme. All three games take a very clear stance on the topics, in both writing and mechanics, but the end doesn’t reflect what preceded it. “Clarity and closure” isn’t what we need to have a proper ending in this instance. But the nightmare isn’t over yet. The problems with the end may be drawing to a close, but the biggest shockers occurred in real life. Watch out for part 3, where the problems with Bioware / EA’s corporate culture and the gaming media begin.
I could post it when you wanted, but that would compromise my artistic vision.
Edit: And now it’s up, in accordance with my vision!