The End of All Things: Mass Effect 3, pt. 2 (major spoilers)

I spoke with a guy at a game store the other day, and he made a valid point about ME3. He said that the whole game was the ending. That’s true enough. The Reapers have made it to Earth, which lies in ruins. They’ve also made it to the homeworlds of all the other major races, none of which have fared much better than ours. People are dying–lots of people–and for the first time in the series, Shepard reacts independently of player input. He gets emotional. It’s taking a heavy toll, and in order to reflect this, the creators have gently pried the reins out of our white-knuckled grip, taking back some (though certainly not all) of our control over Shepard. Squadmates comment on how bad Shepard looks. He has recurring dreams of a boy he was unable to save from the Reapers at the start of the game. Instead of being an empty vessel, a personality begins to emerge (admittedly a one-dimensional personality–player choice still accounts for the rest).

In some ways this decision to deny players complete emotional control of Shepard actually makes him (or her) a more compelling character. For me, anyway. Because you’re not creating your own character from scratch: you’re playing a preexisting character with a background and experiences totally independent of your input. It’s true that in the first Mass Effect, you get to choose between a set of personalities and singular back-stories for Shepard, but these are superficial choices and only cover Shepard’s recent history. I chose to make my Shepard an orphan whose parents were taken by slavers; I also gave him a “sole survivor” personality. This doesn’t mean I governed every aspect of the character’s life, though. He had a life without me. I just controlled some of his decisions.

The fact that Shepard has more autonomy in the last game accomplishes several things. It brings him/her back into the role of the hero–which, no matter if you’re renegade or paragon, Shepard definitely is–and reminds the player that these arepeople (albeit fictional ones) and not just empty user-generated shells that enable players to act out their fantasies of violence. They are that too, of course, but they have stories and personalities. Shepard is the avatar of the player, but still has independent existence.

So, throughout the game, while you do still get to make major choices–the biggest, most universe-changing choices the series has ever featured–you are more aware than before that Shepard is a person with very human concerns and feelings, forced to act in spite of them. It’s an emotionally potent strategy, in terms of the effect on the player, and I think the creators made a good call in playing it this way.

But the reverse is true of the ending. What worked until the last half-hour falls all to pieces in the final moments. If you’re concerned about spoilers, this is the time to stop reading.

In the final mission, your squad returns to Earth. You meet up with the human resistance and fight your way across a bleak, zombiepocalypse-like battlefield (the Reapers’ infantry are former humans, converted into mindless, zombieish creatures called husks). It was really a surprise to me when I made it up to the last crazy suicide run without any squadmates permanently dying. I suppose it’s possible that people do die during this last segment, depending on your choices, but I didn’t lose anybody.

Without completely ruining it, at the end Shepard finds himself alone on the Citadel, which has yet another hidden purpose in the Reaper’s plans. Shepard is badly wounded at this point, obviously dying, and this is the moment where he meets the force controlling the Reapers: a super-evolved, arrogant AI, which for some reason (and I could speculate) resembles the little boy Shepard watched die in the opening sequence. This being, rather than killing Shepard, declares that the old way of doing things no longer works, and as a result Shepard must choose a solution to the current conflict.

This doesn’t make sense within the logic of the ME universe, and I think this is the real reason people hate the ending.

It’s been established since the first game that the Reapers are sentient machines which return to the inhabited galaxy every 50,000 years to harvest genetic material from organic species, which they use in some pseudo-scientific way to evolve. So far so good. But at the end, this newly-introduced AI declares that the Reapers see themselves as representing order, while organics are chaos and must be periodically cleansed.

This rhetoric is pretty new–I don’t think any of the Reapers from the previous games have spoken of order and chaos. Sovereign, the Reaper/final boss of the first game, just spoke of destruction. Harbinger, the antagonist of the second game, spoke of “salvation” and “genetic destiny,” but no order/chaos stuff entered into it. So they’ve totally changed the motivations of the main bad guys, in the closing scenes. That’s one strike.

This isn’t the only rhetorical change. The AI also frames the war and the whole 50,000-year cycle thing as part of the inevitable conflict between organic and synthetic life. This bit is the hardest for me to swallow. The organic/synthetic conflict has previously been addressed in ME, sure. It’s central to the geth/quarian conflict, as well as the character EDI, who is the AI that controls your ship, the Normandy. But the Reapers have been styled as a fusion of organic and synthetic, so this conflict feels tacked-on and not at all, if you’ll excuse the pun, organic, in terms of the established narrative.

So the final choice comes down to solving this organic/synthetic conflict, which has not been on the radar at all (except, again, for the geth/quarian thing). Shepard is given three possible solutions: to eradicate all synthetic life (including the geth, who have by this point become allies); to somehow take control of the Reapers, without actually destroying them; or the middle-ground, synthesis–that is, some kind of melding of organic and synthetic life.

No matter what choice you make, Shepard is doomed. And each choice will have major negative implications for the survivors. Destroying the synthetics means the geth, EDI, as well as the Reapers will all cease to function. Controlling them means that eventually the same conflict will resurface, presumably with Shepard’s consciousness replacing the murderous AI as the big bad guy (though I didn’t choose that ending, so I can’t say for certain). And synthesis just seems like a terrible thing to do to all the survivors, who’ve had no say in any of this.

All kinds of problems are presented by this. It all seems out of keeping with the rest of the series, for one thing. What has previously been about hard moral choices made in times of war has suddenly transformed into an exercise in weird, techno-metaphysics. The scale has gone from galactic/military to cosmic/existential in a few moments, and it feels forced. The AI controlling the reapers seems, frankly, godlike, which doesn’t match the tone of the previous treatments of the Reapers. They are powerful, implacable, and destructive, sure, but they can be destroyed. They aren’t immortals. This random AI, however, is basically a techno-god, and I hate that shit.

Whatever choice you make renders all your character-building and tough moral decisions up to now totally moot. The ending doesn’t exactly reset the universe, but it alters reality as surely as if an actual god had waved his hand and written half of creation out of existence. Shepard’s fight, ultimately, has been for one of three bullshit outcomes that don’t follow canon and leave the player feeling like they actually never had any control at all. It might be an effective lesson for a student of Zen, bent on penetrating the illusion of free will; as a gamer, it makes the whole trilogy seem like a waste of time.

On a more mechanical level, the final choice is presented not as a dialog wheel, as is normal in the series, but as a spatial thing that isn’t clearly labeled (you have to choose one of three physical paths to have Shepard stumble down). By the time all the dialogue was finished and I had to make my choice, I wasn’t entirely sure which path (left, right, or center) represented which outcome. I meant to choose the take-control-of-the-Reapers thing, but instead I apparently chose the destroy-all-synthetics thing. That was especially frustrating, because it wasn’t my choice at all.

Ultimately Mass Effect’s mythos has served as a scifi commentary on Creationism. The Reapers have governed the evolution of all organic life for their own nefarious and not-entirely-clear ends. I liked this part, even if it is old hat in the scifi genre. I also liked the way the “cycles” kind of coincide with Hindu metaphysics, and how the Reapers were acknowledged in the mythologies of most of the major races. The world was seamless, and the mythology was compelling. In the closing scenes, though, it lost sight of these issues. They introduced a god when none had been known before, and that was the point at which I stopped caring. It’s like the Qs from Star Trek. Why do the struggles of the Enterprise crew matter at all if there’s a race of omnipotent beings who can, and do, rewrite reality at whim?

None of the conflicts of Mass Effect really matter if it was always going to end the way it does. You’re fighting for a particular goal, but it turns out that that goal was apparently never an option. I respect the creators’ rights to write the story as they see fit. I’m not furious about it, the way some people have been. But I’m very much turned off by it. I cared about these characters immensely, and the ending had the effect of making me stop caring altogether.

I’m not sure they left any openings for the franchise to continue. Certainly, if it does, it won’t feature the crew of the Normandy anymore. But I don’t think I’d want to revisit the Mass Effect universe after Shepard’s sacrifice. I don’t like the shape(s) the universe will have taken. I no longer care about the people left behind in the way I once did. So I’m not angry about the ending, but I am more than a little saddened by it.

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