Why Mass Effect 3′s Fans Are Wrong About The Ending – But So Is BioWare (Part 3)

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

A mass relay activates. Image from the unofficial Mass Effect Wiki.

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.

A fan’s rendering of the Normandy approaching the Citadel. By Euderion.

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.

A Repaer attacks an Earth city. Image from the Mass Effect web site.

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.

Control, Synthesis or Destruction. From Gamerant.

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 given the depth of the issue with the Mass Effect trilogy’s plot, is this enough? Is there anything that BioWare can do at this point?

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?

13 thoughts on “Why Mass Effect 3′s Fans Are Wrong About The Ending – But So Is BioWare (Part 3)

  1. PaulAtreides

    The other thing I had with the ending is that destroying a mass relay destroys life in that system (eg. the DLC Arrival where you destroy the “Alpha” relay and as a result wipe out all life in the system it resides.
    By destroying all the relays you are destroying all life in the star systems that have a relay

    • Rob F. Post author

      Hi, PaulAtreides. Thank you for your comment!

      I will say that there’s a difference between sending a pre-planned signal that scuttles the relays and crashing a honking great asteroid into one, as happened in Arrival.

      Plus, people also tend to forget (probably because it’s only mentioned once in the first game) that the Citadel is a mass relay too, and the energy wave from when it exploded didn’t wipe Earth out.

      Granted, though, it wasn’t acting as a relay when the Crucible was activated.

  2. Craig

    I really think that the massive flaws in the logic of the last 30 minutes of Mass Effect 3 are there for a reason (the writers put them there on purpose). I support the indoctrination theory which, without going into a huge amount of detail, ultimately suggests that Shepard has been undergoing a slow indoctrination throughout the entire series. The last segment of Mass Effect 3 (everything following Shepard getting up in front of the grav lift after Harbinger blasts him/her) is not really occurring. It is an event occurring in Shepard’s mind. The endings provide a hidden choice to the player: give in to the reaper indoctrination (the blue and green endings) and fight against it (red ending). The biggest give away is the extra scene that you recieve if you pick the red ending (neither blue or green recieve this extra scene) which shows Shepard’s chestplate lying in rubble that looks like the street you were running down to get to the grav lift on Earth (implying that you never actually got up after harbinger blasted you). You then see and hear Shepard take a breath, indicating he/she is alive and that the story is not over. I suspect that the DLC will reveal this to everyone. If this indoctrination theory is correct, then Bioware has created an absolute masterpiece with the Mass Effect series. This “hidden” story line has been occurring the entire time with many elements hinting to it or providing serious forshadowing or symbolizing what is occurring behind the main plot lines. Do a google search for the indoctrination theory and check out the evidence to support it, if you are interested. It explains virtually all of the “issues” people are having with the ending.

    • Rob F. Post author

      Hi, Craig. Thanks for your comment!

      I’ll admit, I’ve read people discussing the Indoctrination Theory without having looked too deeply into it. If such is revealed to be the case, I’ll see how I respond to it.

      At the moment, I feel as though, given that BioWare has given its audience face-value “oh, what the hell, let’s just put it in there” silliness like a race of blue alien babes and a hot robot (EDI’s avatar), the Indoctrination Theory just doesn’t seem to match the tone.

      Anyway, we’ll see what the Extended Cut reveals!

  3. Alan

    Three basic problems:

    First off the idea of choice was very important in the ME series. Granted maybe not as much as it would in real life or people would’ve liked but the writers did consider some of your choices and that impacted how you could affect the story. The fact that they didn’t even give you the option to even CHALLENGE the Catalyst and bring up the idea of Geth/ Quarian peace was a huge oversight.

    Two: A lot of races and people even in the real life do take our technology for granted. You seem to be asking ‘what if we lost the refrigerator or Microwave?’ Very few people challenge the status quo or technology nor would know what to do without it. And those who do usually are deemed ‘survivalist freaks’ and have the ‘blue laughed off their ass.’

    But three: As has been pointed out the races of the Galaxy do ahve means of travelling without the Relays. Whether they chose to use them or not is largely up to the imaginations of the races in the galaxy.

    • Rob F. Post author

      Hi, Alan. Thanks for commenting!

      Agreed on point one. I still think the Catalyst had at least thirty-seven million years of experience on its side would have allowed it to consider the geth evolution as a temporary reprieve, but yes, we players should have the chance to say, “But what about…?”

      I see point two as a bit of a stretch, though. We invented the microwave and the refrigerator, the railway and the airline. In Mass Effect, the mass relays are presented to humanity (and every other race) as complete items and a complete system of technology that *nobody* invented, yet every race uses them blithely every day.

      And when Shepard discovers that they’re part of a trap set by an ancient alien race… well, I won’t say it stretches suspension of disbelief, but I will say it seems unfair that BioWare dropped that chunk of story in our laps and then didn’t let us do anything with it.

      Also, point 3: Yes, FTL drive exists and allows folks to zip within and between star systems in hours (days, max), but it’s also pointed out that it still takes centuries of travel to cross the distances the relays let ships travel in an eyeblink. Plus, if you take the gameplay limit of fuel presented in ME2 and 3 at face value, a ship as small as the Normandy simply doesn’t have enough FTL fuel to get from Earth to, say, Eden Prime.

  4. Leon

    Great article, Rob. I have dealt with “what the..?” endings countless times before. Bioshock, Deus Ex (all of them), Red Dead Redemption to name a few. It usually doesn’t bother me because the journey was so great, who cares about 5 minutes out of 40 hours? People have said “why didn’t Shepard tell that kid to f*** off and refuse all three options?” I didn’t care, there were plenty of times throughout the games when I would have rathered a third or fourth option. But I did what I always did, I thought “which option would Shephard choose?”

    I honestly didn’t care about the reaper threat. At the end of ME2 I found myself wondering, why I am fighting a human-shaped reaper? The reapers are just a distant threat in 1 and faceless monsters in 2 and 3 with no personality. They even had to invent a third faction, Cerberus, just to give people a villain they could talk to. In contrast, the geth/quarian conflict and the genophage are infused throughout the trilogy and you deal with them directly through your interactions with your squadmates and other aliens you meet along the way. Being able to wrap both of those things up in the final instalment was immensely satisfying and something I didn’t expect. I received plenty of closure, the whole game was closure. Grunt, Samara, Jack, even the rachni queen. I was emotionally exhausted from so much closure. Hugging it out with Garrus was the end of the game as far as I was concerned.

    What really bothered me about ME3’s ending was more that it broke my suspension of disbelief and took me out of the game. For example, we were charging toward the beam thing and everyone died except me. I shed a silent tear for Garrus and Liara (my loyal squadmates) and soldiered on. But Garrus and Liara appeared on the Normandy in the end. What? How? Maybe Joker picked them up after I went through the beam. Yeah that makes sense I guess. Wait how did Joker get ahead of the relay blowing up anyway? As far as I know Shephard didn’t tell anyone what he was going to do so why wasn’t Joker in the middle of fighting reapers? Is the entire Quarian fleet stranded in the Sol system now? What about all that effort I made to reclaim their homeworld? How is Wrex going to be a positive influence on Krogan expansion if he’s stuck here? His presence was the tipping point for why I cured the genophage. I enjoyed reading your analysis of the dependence on the reaper cycle but while playing it was a bit beyond me. It’s more these fundamental questions that confused me to the point of anger.

    If I could have any ending I wanted, it would be this: From the crucible, Shephard tells Hackett to order the entire fleet back through the Charon relay. Then he blows up the relay with the power of the crucible, thereby stranding the bulk of the reapers in the Sol system and dooming himself in the process. Fade to the rest the fleet rounding up the remaining reapers, Quarians and Geth rebuilding Rannoch, the Krogan raising children, Ashley as the new spectre in charge of the Normandy, dogs and cats living together peacefully, etc. Roll credits.

    • Rob F. Post author

      Good points, Leon, and glad you came on to make ’em! It’s the Normandy situation that make me think the folks who claim that ME3’s ending was rushed mightn’t be wrong. I think my perspective has changed so that the smaller details don’t really bother me too much – I was too busy hoping that he got away from the energy blast.

      Same with the crewmembers – I had Javik and EDI with me on the final push, so even though I had a, “How did EDI get there?” moment, the final scene with her and Joker in the Synthesis ending made me go, “Oh, doesn’t matter.”

      I do think that showing Liara, who was my Shepard’s romance, just get off the ship was a bit of a wasted opportunity (maybe a quick shot of her sad gaze at the sky before she squares her shoulders and heads into her new future with determination), but still.

      What can I say? I’m a big sook.

  5. SmithsonianDSP

    Although you don’t actually meet the characters–and they weren’t really part of that cycle, I still think you forgot an important mention: the Protheans on Illos. They were working to uncover the secrets of the mass relays—and even built their own functional prototype (the one Shepard ends up using to transport him directly to the Citadel). I guess that would mean good news for the Mass Effect universe because it does seem to be possible to build their own Mass Relay without incomprehensible Reaper knowledge… It seems it will just be a matter of time. The bad news is that the Protheans won’t likely be much help, since the scientists at Ilos were working in silence and cut off so the Reapers did not learn of their plans and wipe them out… which means what they figured out there won’t be much help to anyone.

    I have also had a similar thought during my Mass Effect experiences: Isn’t anyone looking for alternatives? I guess I didn’t think of the reason why they did not look further into this as being lazy, just they lacked motivation to do so. And why would they? There were more than enough active relays for their needs, on top of the many deactivated ones which they have not turned on (for fear of what is on the other end). Any funding put into this research would seem to be a waste and have nothing to really gain if they succeeded. As they say, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and it just never seemed necessary. Until now. I expect there would be a large priority on this now, though.

    The final upside is that there are still quantum communicators throughout the galaxy, which means that the isolated systems and civilizations will still be able to enjoy lag-free communication to some extent… so I would expect a gathering of minds similar to the ones who built the Crucible working together to figure it out. Kind of like an intergalactic conference call. Nothing a few centuries of research couldn’t solve, I expect.

    And just as a note, in my personal opinion, I was mostly disappointed by the lack of explanation or elaboration following the final decision–along with the similarities between the endings. (After my first playthrough, I watched the other endings on YouTube… and I am glad I did it that way because I would have been a LOT more upset if I had gone all the way through my other playthroughs and expected something much different. I still did other playthroughs, though, but at least I didn’t go through the entire playthroughs expecting something more than a few different subtleties. I want to see the consequences of the choices I made… *was* curing the Genophage the right decision? Could the Geth and Quarians continue to co-exist harmoniously on Ronnoch—or would they go their separate ways? Would the Rachni’s help on the Crucible be enough to help them to be integrated into the galactic community? (Although there isn’t much of a community without any Relays, though). I could live with not having all of the answers about the Catalyst and the Reapers—that is mostly back-story, honestly. I could also have probably lived without knowing their fates if they had given enough reason to be hopeful… however, after all of that, every choice destroys the Mass Relays, so everyone is isolated and the fleet made up out of ships from every civilization in the galaxy is now stranded in the Sol system. They didn’t exactly give me anything to be hopeful about. “Unite ALL the species to save the galaxy!” Then: “Every species is cut-off, isolated, and forever alone! The End!” That is what really bothered me.

    • Rob F. Post author

      Thank you very much for your comment, Smithsonian, and very good points all, especially about the Conduit and the quantum communicators. I keep forgetting that someone DID manage to reverse engineer the Reapers’ technology and that there’s a means to get in touch (as long as the other half of each pairing is still active, anyway)!

      I know that having everyone stranded in the Sol sector (they do have FTL drives, still, which should allow them access to nearby star systems that might solve any resource problems) is a bit of a downer, but I still felt it was more like “Right: Next challenge.” than “Well, that’s it; we’re all stuffed now.”

      I’m just curious to see how far ahead they’ll set the next game (if they do go ahead and make one). A few centuries? A few decades? Maybe even a few years? Who knows? Regardless, unless they decide to go ahead a millennium or two, there’ll likely be one or two folks still around from Shepard’s day (like the asari and maybe the geth).

      • SmithsonianDSP

        I agree that having the FTL drives means they aren’t all necessarily doomed… however the most immediate threat would be for the Turians and Quarians, who have dextro-amino acid based biology, meaning they have completely different food needs than the Sol system can provide. So unless the Quarians brought their liveships along in the fleet, they may have some big problems finding food.

        The other reason I think this is a huge down? The Quarians have just spent the last 300 years as nomads, without a home. They FINALLY retake their homeworld, and then get stranded. The in-game codex says that the Mass Relays provide(d) instantaneous travel between points that would otherwise take “decades or even centuries using conventional FTL drives,” so—if my memory serves me correctly—the Salarians might have one of the shortest trips, followed by the Turians, Krogan, and then the Asari. But the Quarians? First, they’re going in a different direction than everyone else (I think, unless you count the Geth, though), and by far have the farthest to travel, being on the outer rim on the side of the galaxy opposite of the Sol system… well, I’m sure that would put them on the “centuries” side of the scale. And now that all trade commerce is effectively gone, though, resources are limited to whatever they have on planet. And there would be little value for any interstellar currency at that point, so what would any of these new migrant fleets be able to offer a planet or spaceport in trade?

        As I said, it doesn’t mean they are all DOOOOOOMED, but it is very, very bleak, with very little to be hopeful about.

        As for the setting in the timeline of future games? I have thought about this too, and I am really at a loss because a reunited galaxy would be very dependent on the choices made by Shepard in ME3: The Genophage and more importantly the Quarians/Geth. OR if the “Destruction” choice was made, and all synthetics were destroyed… These would be major elements that I find it hard to imagine they could simply skirt over or not directly address… so either you would have to continue to be able to import your ME3 saves, or the scope of the game would have to be much, much more narrow.

        I would, however, like to see a game set before the ME1-ME3 timeline… or even the same CYCLE—specifically, the Prothean cycle. My guess is that would be more of the setting of the rumored/speculated Mass Effect MMORPG, though. But a pre-ME1 setting seems a lot more feasible, though.

        Also, back on the topic of the choices made throughout the games, I was kind of disappointed during my following playthroughs to see how small of an impact or change those decisions actually had. The biggest difference was whether Wrex lived or died in ME1—whether it is Wreav or Wrex changes the entire tone on things on Tuchanka–but it is still essentially the same story. Mordin dead? A different salarian inside STG leaks the info and helps Shepard do the exact same things. I had some pretty major variations in ME1/ME2 decisions yet regardless, the game story still plays out almost the same. The biggest differences were seen in which War Assets you received and their value… which to be honest is frankly disappointing. Even saving the collector base vs. destroying it only led to minor dialogue changes—and very few of those at that. I would have just expected a bit more of an impact from some of those choices. The only one I haven’t explored myself is how the game would have differed if Legion had either been killed in the final mission of ME2 or not activated (I know he shows up at the assault on the Cerberus Base if you turn him over in ME2) but I imagine it would just be a different Geth who helps you instead.

  6. nuc3larsnke

    I was really interested to hear what you had to say through the first two parts of this series, but here you started simply making errors and imposing your own ideas about characters onto the game and then acting as if they were canon.

    For example, you write: “The first: Use the Crucible to destroy the Reapers. The catch? Doing so will also destroy…all cybernetic systems within any organic lifeforms.”

    The Catalyst never says this, and that fact that ships still function and Shepard can even live through this ending proves you wrong.

    You later suggest that the player’s inability to have Shepard reject the three options offered by the Catalyst is a fundamental problem with the game or with how Shepard is written, but Bioware has been telling us throughout the entire Mass Effect series that we have literally NO hope of defeating the Reapers through conventional means. Everything shows us this, from the number of ships it takes to take down Sovereign, to the fact that the Protheans -who seem to have been MORE advanced than the races of the current cycle- were defeated by them, to the Reapers’ unstoppable progress throughout ME3, to Admiral Hackett’s repeated and explicit statements that we are hanging everything on the Crucible, and if that doesn’t work, essentially, we’re screwed. Shepard MUST accept the options offered by the Catalyst because there are no other options.

    Not being able to protest these options? I understand wanting to be able to do that, but in the light of not being able to take any other actions, does it really matter that much? The fact that actions matter more than words is another theme of the Mass Effect series.

    You also express frustration that Shepard can’t do anything to lessen the galaxy’s dependence on the Mass Relays, and call the races of the galaxy “lazy” for not doing more to understand and be able to duplicate them, but you’re completely ignoring the fact that, right up until ME3, the galactic leaders are all still living in denial that the Reapers are real and are coming. I mean, how famous is the “Ah yes, the Reapers. We have already dismissed that claim.” quote from the turian councilor?

    Nonetheless, it is not as if the races of the galaxy are doing NOTHING to understand Mass Relay technology. After all, all modern FTL drives are based on Mass Relay technology, and mass acceleration is also used in all modern weapons. Just because they haven’t been able to duplicate the mass relays themselves (something even the Protheans only just barely managed in their dying days with the creation of the Conduit) does not mean that they are doing nothing.

    I think the leaders of the galaxy are doing what they can, but the fact that those in power will deny problems they can do little or nothing about is another theme of the Mass Effect series that you seem to have missed.

    And as for Shepard, well, she/he is just one person, and just a soldier at that. After being dead for two years, Shepard doesn’t have a ton of influence or pull left, and spends Mass Effect 2 rebuilding that, simultaneously trying to stop the Collectors and get the races of the galaxy to take the Reaper threat seriously. It seems to me that he/she is doing all one person can do to face the Reapers. Encouraging scientific progress isn’t necessarily something there is time left over for, even if it were Shepard’s strong suit.

    On the whole, I thought you were doing a great analysis of the series up until this part. It almost seems like you started from the premise “that many fans can’t be wrong” and set out to prove them right.

    In my mind, Bioware actually did a pretty good job with Mass Effect 3’s story, however, they did a TERRIBLE job of managing expectations. Ending an epic series (especially one where player choice must be balanced against the constraints of programming and creating a coherent “canon” storyline) is epically hard. The fans, as a whole, simply expected more than they could deliver, and sadly, they actually encouraged us to believe that they could deliver the sun and moon.

    And, as you say, there’s a fair amount of “No, it can’t end that way!” going one, whether it’s over not having a happy enough ending for the romance, or not having a happy enough ending for the galaxy…

    • Rob F. Post author

      Nuc3larsnke, thank you very much for commenting. I’m glad what I wrote grabbed your attention so thoroughly!

      Sorry that I took a while to get back to you; you wrote a substantial comment and I wanted to put some work into my reply to it.

      Well, no, the Catalyst doesn’t out and out say that choosing the Destroy option will kill Shepard, but it’s very strongly implied. The exact wording I saw (thanks, YouTube) is: “You can wipe out all synthetic life if you want. Including the geth. Even you are partly synthetic.”

      When the Catalyst made that distinction, I found myself not just thinking about Shepard and the geth (whom I was in no way about to wipe out), but also the quarians, who use cybernetics to bolster their suits’ protection. But I take your point; maybe I read a bit much into that – especially as Shepard is probably more synthetic than most (what with Project Lazarus bringing him back from the dead). And, as you mention, play the game in the right fashion and we get a horridly cruel teaser of Shepard drawing a breath right at the end. So perhaps I did read a bit too much into it.

      And I remember thinking at the time, “I don’t want Shepard to die… but I won’t let him live if the geth are the cost.”

      On the matter of the lack of opportunity to reject the Catalyst’s choices: I’m definitely not arguing that the Reapers could be defeated. You’re right; it’s made abundantly clear that’s not an option. I also disagree with those who compare Mass Effect 3’s ending to the end of the Great War in Babylon 5; there’s definitely no telling the Reapers to “… get the hell out of our galaxy!”

      It’s more that the player isn’t given the chance to say, “We’d rather die on our feet than let you impose your solutions on us.”

      On the lack of options regarding the mass relays: Again, you’re not wrong. Yes, there’s the turian councillor’s famous line. Yes, the actions of the Council don’t necessarily reflect those of the broader galaxy. Yes, Shepard is just one person.

      But the game’s authors give that one person options in virtually every other major plot in the galaxy. You get to choose whether the genophage is an evil that should be cured or a harsh but necessary compromise in the name of galactic stability and then make that choice real through Shepard. You get to choose whether the quarians were right in deciding to eliminate their creations, whether the geth have a right to survive on their own, whether there is hope for peace between the two, and then make those choices real through Shepard.

      These are options that BioWare’s authors decided to place in our hands. They came up with interesting hypotheticals, created characters who allowed us to emotionally invest in them, then let us make a call.

      “We think the geth problem could end three ways. The geth could wipe the quarians out. The quarians could wipe the geth out. Both races could find peace with each other. Which one do you want to go with?”

      Yet the potentially biggest hypothetical – an entire civilisation based on a technology it doesn’t understand (I take your point about mass effect technology in general, but I specifically mean the mass relays here – and if they understood those, I believe they’d be replicating them) – is kept completely off the table (except for that one brief side-quest about the Keepers) and then brought square into the spotlight right at the end.

      “We think the galactic status quo is going to change in a fundamental way. The results will be uniformly grim. Here’s why, in the words of the Catalyst. No, you can’t do anything about it; the Catalyst is right. All you can do is shape what comes after.”

      See, as much as you can argue that someone, somewhere, could be doing something about the situation, it’s irrelevant to the actual narrative of the Mass Effect trilogy because the writers never show us those someones, let us as players engage them, offer them up as a way to change the state of the galaxy as they did with the turians, salarians and krogan, the quarians and the geth.

      I’m not arguing the depth of the world, I’m pointing out the decisions that the writing team at BioWare made, their authorial judgement call on their creation, the same sort of judgement call novelists and screenwriters make when they decide how their plot is going to play out. It’s their statement as expressed through the character of the turian Councillor (and those of the rest of the Councillors in their agreement with him).

      Was “lazy” the wrong term? Perhaps. But for purposes of getting people thinking and talking, I’m sticking with it.

      Finally: Very good point about the management of expectations. I’ll admit, I thought I was going to get something different at the end of ME3 after all that “Take Earth Back!” business – but I will say that the game, through taking Legion and Mordin in my playthrough, and through the main plot from Thessia onward, itself did a great job of setting up the idea that stuff wasn’t going to end well. And I didn’t feel ripped off as a result.

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