In my first post in this series on the controversy over the ending of the video game Mass Effect 3, I posited that the true fault that caused fan upset with that ending is a lack of player interaction that extends back throughout not just that title, but into Mass Effect 2 as well.
In the second, I examined two stand-out examples in the Mass Effect series when players are allowed to influence the game’s plot to great effect and personal involvement – and how even those instances are limited by the nature of the game.
With those examples in mind, I come back to the original premise in this series: That the ending of Mass Effect 3 is so disappointing to fans not because of a lack of closure, but because the plot element at the very heart of the Mass Effect trilogy is never opened up to player influence.
NOTE: This post contains plot spoilers for all three video games in the Mass Effect trilogy. If you haven’t played Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 or Mass Effect 3 and are interested in doing so, I strongly recommend you play them before reading further.
I’m aware this may take a few months. The games are worth it, though.
The Absence of Choice: The Unbroken Cycle
Mass Effect tells a tale of humanity gaining the stars thanks to technology left behind by a race known only as the “Protheans.” An ancient alien observation post on Mars gave humans access to scientific knowledge far in advance of its own, that when applied, allowed us to break the light-speed barrier.
But it was the discovery of a massive alien structure beyond the orbit of Pluto that truly unlocked the galaxy. This device, a “mass relay,” was part of a network of identical machines scattered across the galaxy that allowed ships to cross distances that would have taken decades, even centuries at maximum FTL speeds, in an instant.
At the heart of the relay network was the Citadel, a massive Prothean space station where the asari, salarians and turians formed the Citadel Council, the galaxy’s ruling body. The minor races of the galaxy – the elcor, volus, hanar and humans – have embassies from which they petition the Council to address their interests.
As to the Protheans? According to all evidence that the Council was able to discover, fifty thousand years ago they disappeared. No one knew how or why. At the height of their power, they somehow… became extinct.
By the end of Mass Effect, though, Commander Shepard has uncovered the truth. The Protheans didn’t build the mass relays or the Citadel. They inherited them from the race that held the galaxy fifty thousand years before them, who themselves inherited the technology.
The real builders of the relays and the Citadel are an ancient race of machines; every fifty thousand years, they activate the Citadel, itself a giant mass relay, and return from the dark space beyond the galaxy’s rim to harvest those civilisations that have advanced enough to use the relays and spread beyond their home star systems. The relays are part of the machines’ great design, ensuring each cycle’s races advance along the paths they require.
Distant myth has a name for them: The Reapers.
At Mass Effect’s end, Shepard narrowly defeats Saren, thought to have been behind a plot to topple the Citadel Council but in fact a slave to the one Reaper that remained behind after the Prothean extinction, a two-kilometre long squid-like spaceship named Sovereign. Without Saren to activate the Citadel, the Reaper cannot summon the rest of its kind, but it still takes the combined firepower of a whole fleet of ships to destroy Sovereign, a fleet which suffers heavy losses in the bargain.
While the galaxy is thankful to Shepard, the authorities are more than willing to explain Saren’s actions away as that of a lone madman (well, mad turian), and the mysterious ship he possessed as a product of the reclusive geth he was working with.
Things get worse when, at the commencement of Mass Effect 2, Commander Shepard is killed in action; the crew who fought Sovereign with Shepard are split up and the Commander’s claims of the Reapers’ imminent return disregarded. It’s only a human-extremist group called Cerberus that takes Shepard seriously, gong so far as to locate the Commander’s remains and conduct a two-year effort to restore Shepard to life.
Yet even throught Mass Effect 2 and 3, for all the choices that the game presents you regarding the races of the galaxy and deal with big questions posed by the ugly hypotheticals of the genophage and the geth rebellion, not once does the series let you address the huge ideas right at the core of Mass Effect:
- Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I see farther, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” What if instead of giants, you stand on the shoulders of monsters who hold you up only so they can tear you down at their choosing? What does it mean when your technological and social development is dictated in part by a force that you cannot control and only barely understand?
- Are the mass relays the only means of rapid galactic travel? Why are none searching for or developing alternatives?
- What is the nature of the insectoid Keepers, a race of seeming idiot savants who maintain the Citadel? Where do they come from? Are they born? Cloned? Manufactured?
Which is why, when we come to the end of Mass Effect 3, Shepard is confronted with what to many felt like a choice that had already been answered.
By that end point, the Reapers have spread across the galaxy starting with Earth, with every major homeworld being routed. The only hope for the galaxy is the Crucible, a device, supposedly a super-weapon, whose plans the Protheans left behind in their Martian observation post. With the united efforts of the galactic races, the Crucible is prepared and sent to Earth, yet still absent is a mysterious and crucial component known only as the Catalyst. Chasing down more ancient information, Commander Shepard discovers that the Catalyst is the very Citadel itself, only to have enemy agents steal the information and pass it to the Reapers, who take the Citadel and relocate it to Earth orbit.
As the fleet massed to take Earth back engages the enemy, Shepard makes a desperate push to the Citadel. Here, the Commander meets a being that claims to be the Catalyst, the creator of the Reapers, the Citadel and even the design of the Crucible, which passed from cycle to cycle until the combined efforts of our cycle’s advanced races finally succeeded in building it.
“I control the Reapers,” the entity states. “They are my solution.”
Artificial intelligences, says the Catalyst, will without fail rise up and not only destroy their organic creators, but also the entirety of organic life. By harvesting the races that have become advanced enough to travel the galaxy, the Catalyst preserves their genetic legacy in a new generation of Reapers before they can engineer the doom of all. Then it moves them out of the way for fifty millennia so that younger races can have the next cycle to flourish before they are themselves harvested.
It is an imposition, the Catalyst and its Reapers believe, of order on chaos.
The completion of the Crucible and Shepard’s arrival at the critical time, however, indicates to the Catalyst that its solution is no longer valid. It offers Commander Shepard three choices. The first: Use the Crucible to destroy the Reapers. The catch? Doing so will also destroy all other synthetic beings, including the geth, and all cybernetic systems within any organic lifeforms. As the Cerberus project that resurrected Shepard used cybernetics extensively, this means Shepard will die.
The second choice is to control the Reapers. The process by which Shepard will gain this control will change the Commander irrevocably, but the Reapers will follow Shepard’s orders.
The third is a new option, one the Catalyst has only come to consider thanks to Shepard’s actions: Remove the distinction between synthetic and organic by fusing the two and changing all into a new form of life. Shepard will be the template for this fusion, but the process will consume the Commander.
No matter which option the player chose, the firing of the Crucible would destroy each and every mass relay. No more swift galactic travel. The nations of the galaxy will become isolated islands of star systems.
It’s this seemingly arbitrary choice that frustrates fans of the Mass Effect series so much, and while some were disappointed that it meant Shepard wouldn’t get a happy ending with the squadmate they’d been romancing for one, two or even three games, others took issue with internal logic of this final plot twist.
- If synthetics are such a danger, then what does that mean for those players who brought peace to the geth and the quarians? A whole race of artificial intelligences had not only set aside its differences with its creators, but were fighting side by side with a whole host of organic races, right there in Earth orbit, in full view of the Catalyst. It had even cost the players Legion, who (if the geth unit survived Mass Effect 2) sacrificed its own existence to grant the gift of independent self-awareness to its people.
- Why does some sort of outside solution need to be applied to achieve galactic unity? Many players have already achieved it by curing the genophage so that the krogan could help bolster the defence of the homeworld of their old enemies, the turians, and / or by giving the last rachni queen another chance when they discovered her back in the first game.
To these players, who invested themselves in the game’s themes of overcoming prejudice, embracing diversity and refusing to be governed by powerful paranoiacs who fear the future (like the salarian ruler who is sure that curing the krogan of the genophage will lead to another rebellion, or the quarian admiral who refuses to see beyond his blind hatred of the geth), this arbitrary set of options, which Shepard didn’t stand against or even debate, seemed nonsensical at best, a slap in the face at worst.
What was this Catalyst anyway? The very strong implication was that it was an artificial intelligence itself. If so, didn’t the fact that it was doing the best it could to preserve organic life refute its own position that AIs were organic life’s doom?
If not, then what else could it be, especially as it claimed that a fusion of organic and synthetic was a final form of life, a form that it, presumably, didn’t have itself?
Whatever it was, it must have been at least thirty-seven million years old, the age of a derelict Reaper that appears in Mass Effect 2 (the ancient spaceship aboard which Shepard meets Legion).
When I thought about the grievances that disappointed Mass Effect fans raised about the Catalyst’s sudden and summary judgement of all Shepard’s work in creating a union through diversity and breaking the patterns and prejudices of the past, the Catalyst’s case came down to the fact that the advanced races of the galaxy were still reliant on its designs:
- To bring the fleet together and take Earth back from the Reapers, they’d still used the mass relays, and the solution they were intending to deploy, the Crucible, was the one that the Catalyst had itself created to end its cycle.
- The very impetus behind uniting the races wasn’t altruism or enlightened self-interest; it was to create a force that had a chance of standing up to the Reapers until the Crucible could be activated.
- Even the geth’s new, independent self-awareness was due almost entirely to program code contributed by the Reapers.
Assuming the player had successfully brought the geth and quarians together – a feat that requires the player make certain choices in Mass Effect 2 and 3 in the correct sequence – the Catalyst still had strong evidence that the advanced races of this cycle had not outgrown its pattern, not found a superior or even equal alternative.
Therefore, it could still claim with some authority that peace with the geth was temporary, that sooner or later synthetic life would commit the genocide of every organic species, presumably right down to bacteria. In fact, while explaining the option to destroy the Reapers and all synthetic life, the Catalyst states that that particular solution is only temporary: The next generation of organics will create new synthetics who will then set about exterminating organic life, bringing on the chaos.
(To my mind, the game gives the organic races’ rejection of the Reaper cycle overtones of a meeting of the People’s Front of Judea: “What have the Reapers ever done for us?”)
Herein lies the root of fans’ issues with Mass Effect 3’s ending:
The game’s players never had the chance to do anything about the advanced races of the galaxy’s dependence on the Reaper cycle.
Throughout my play-throughs of the Mass Effect games, I’ve only come close to meeting characters actually doing something about the cycle twice. The first is a single salarian in Mass Effect who is conducting scans of the Keepers in order to find out more about them. Shepard can choose to help the salarian collect data or remind him that he’s breaking Citadel law in scanning them.
I chose the former, directing Shepard to scan any Keeper he came across and return the data to the salarian. After Mass Effect ended, I had the hopes that one of Shepard’s missions in Mass Effect 2 would be to plumb the off-limit depths of the Citadel to discover more about the Keepers or even other mysteries hidden within the great space station.
The second is an an asari matriarch who appears in Mass Effect 2 and 3; in the final game, she mentions that she once tried to persuade her fellow asari to find alternatives to the relays and was cast out of the asari ruling body. This is treated solely as a piece of background information; Shepard cannot react to it nor act on it.
Every time I used a mass relay in Mass Effect 2 and the jump animation, showing the relay flinging the Normandy off to another star system, played, I’d remember that these huge chinks of technology were creation’s of the game’s arch-enemy and wonder how much longer we’d get to use them, whether anyone else was considering the question.
No luck on either front. Aside from a couple of e-mails in the next two games, the sole plot element about uncovering the mysteries of the Citadel receives no further on-screen development. The idea of finding alternative methods of galactic travel to the mass relays only comes up in conversation about something else.
The writers of Mass Effect either decided that this core idea – that synthetic life is inherently inimical to organic life and will act to to exterminate it – was beyond question or never even realised that players might consider it as important as the krogan genophage or the shared history of the geth and the quarians.
We players never meet anyone actively involved in finding alternative ways of travelling the galaxy to the mass relays, never get to choose to encourage or discourage them. The advanced races are written as too lazy to seriously consider a galaxy without the mass relays, lacking enough imagination to consider possible alternatives or even plumb the mysteries of the miraculous technology that they’ve built their civilisation upon. Not even humanity, the new, upstart race intent on making a place for itself at the table of galactic rulers, bothers challenging the mysteries of the Reaper cycle. The concept is given such short shrift that the galactic status quo is fundamentally doomed, no matter how hard Commander Shepard works or how much we players have become invested in it.
Content to stand upon the shoulders of monsters.
James Cameron was right, say the writers. The only way the galaxy can be saved from eventual organic annihilation at synthetic hands is not through tolerance, acceptance of difference or overcoming the burdens and fears of the past, but by either becoming the new dominator of the force that harvests organic life (and hoping that the process doesn’t change you so much that you come around to their point of view anyway) or by changing the fundamental nature of life itself.
In The Next (And Final) Post…
In response to the fan outcry about Mass Effect 3’s ending, BioWare announced a package of free downloadable content for the game. Dubbed the “Extended Cut,” this DLC would endeavour to address the constructive criticism BioWare had received on the ending whilst keeping its original content intact; in other words, while it would expand on the ending, the DLC would not alter it in any fundamental way.
But What About You?
What was your take on the ending of Mass Effect 3? What problems did you have with its internal logic? Do you think it works, fine, no matter what?