A Set of Lies Agreed Upon: Mass Effect 3 and Revisionist History
[My apologies for the length of time between posts. I was (and still am) working on a lengthy, meandering, rhetorically suspect look back at 2013 that I hope to post in the next few days, but for reasons explained momentarily, I inflict this other sprawling, tedious piece on the upcoming two-year anniversary of Mass Effect 3 upon you instead... Yeah, you're welcome.]
IMAGE: The New Shepard-Catalyst, Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)
Mass Effect 3: A History
It’s been a long time since I stirred myself to think about Mass Effect 3.
Two years ago it was almost all I thought about. After what felt like an eternal wait (that in reality was a rushed production schedule at publisher EA’s instruction) the game had been released to its eager fans amidst a flurry of hyperactive advertising. Preview features were slathered across every gaming publication; cinematic trailers screened with great fanfare alongside the Walking Dead premiere; the official Mass Effect Twitter feed was busy encouraging fans to sign a petition designed to pester the UK government into release information about extraterrestrial life. Seriously. Copies of the game were even being shot into space. …Because that’s something to do, I guess.
And although I probably did roll my eyes a little at this glut of media saturation, my enthusiasm and love for the franchise was too great, so I gobbled up every morsel gladly, only adding to the din by rambling away to friends and co-workers about this, the great new frontier for interactive speculative fiction…
That was until the real spectacle arose days later when people played the game, and reached its inglorious end.
The details of the audience backlash to this conclusion need not be revisited in too much detail here. For anyone who followed the story it is old news; for anyone not familiar, my summary will no doubt sound (and certainly is) too clouded with bias. Suffice it to say that there were petitions, there were pleas, there were cupcakes. There were weird complaints to the Federal Trade Commission for false advertising; there were disgusting, inexcusable threats from a very small faction of lunatics calling themselves fans. There were games publications that wound themselves into apoplectic knots trying to justify their unceasing praise of the game in the face of the wider audience’s scorn, columnists chastised fans as ‘entitled whiners’, bleating on about games as ‘Art’ (as if that immediately shut down all critical debate), and flamed with rage whenever anyone mentioned the curiously near-universal failure of any major publication to address the narrative’s end at all, let alone in any substantive manner. Colin Moriarty (not surprisingly) particularly embarrassed himself.
For my part, although it will sound overly melodramatic to say, after the shock of the ugly, artless message at the heart of Mass Effect 3’s ending, the part of my nerd heart that used to brim with love for the franchise was left exposed, raw. I was confused. What I had witnessed seemed so clumsy and so offensive that I was too stunned even to be angry. I just found myself numb.
So rather than wallow in impotent bewilderment (who am I kidding: maybe I was just looking for a more convenient way to do it), I ventured online to try and make some sense of it. Any sense of it. Surely it wasn’t all this ham-fistedly ‘resolved’? A literal deus ex machina, popping up in a floaty ghost suit to rub your face in the
rote emotional manipulation arbitrary massacre of a nameless child and grant you a wish? And there’s no way that the writers of a game that has always been about navigating tricky political and social relationships would ultimately just putter out on a declaration that different races can never truly get along unless they are forced to by having one of three gruesome war crimes inflicted upon them?
‘Peace is a lie! The universe has to be bent to your will!’
Drop the mike.
I must have misunderstood something?
In my efforts to unpack a text that seemed either wilfully stupid or ideologically repugnant, it was comforting to find a community on the Bioware fan forums who shared my state of disbelief. For months we were like a group therapy session. Together we dissected the narrative, we tried to comprehend its alarming shift in tone and theme, and we reminisced about the events of the preceding games in the series, swapping stories about the triumphs and the tragedies that had all led up to this weirdly nihilistic surrender (indeed, it was a direct consequence of finding this welcoming, profitable discussion about games and pop culture that led to the Themenastics blog. And yes, I may have spoken about Mass Effect 3 since then…)
And yet still, despite the wealth of intellect and imagination that I found amongst this group, no further answers came. Instead, I became only further discouraged to witness the too often contemptible way in which representatives from Bioware communicated with their audience. In the wake of the PR storm they seemed to have closed ranks, communicating only in vague, often dismissive statements to the press (where ‘vocal minority’, ‘artistic integrity’, and ‘people just wanted more closure’, etc., all got a run), at no point ever actually willing to discuss the subject matter of their narrative, or the statement that it had made. I watched as dissenting voices were literally censored and banned from their forums, heard the game’s creators, in their sole, pre-recorded interview (used as marketing for the release of the ‘Extended Cut’) patronise all negative criticism as people simply having trouble letting go, and saw countless fans being personally belittled by Bioware’s frequently condescending community manager Chris Priestly.*
After a time, the ‘Extended Cut’ of the ending was released – which promised ‘clarity’ but ultimately just doubled down on celebrating the atrocities the original version had depicted – and suddenly hoping to ever understand Bioware’s intent felt utterly futile. The company seemed happy to spruik future projects (including the next Mass Effect game, about which nothing is yet known), but any discussion of Mass Effect 3 was met with uniform silence.
Soon the Bioware forum was peppered with a number of contributors who happily embraced the ending’s nihilistic message – people genuinely applauding the use of forced eugenics to win an ideological war, or arguing that even in the metaphorical space of a science fiction story synthetics aren’t real (no matter how sentient they are), so killing them doesn’t count. Besides: humanity has to take care of itself, and all that ‘we can work together’ crap is nice in theory, but when it matters you look out for your own… Page after page of lazy, intolerant moral relativism dressed up as grand heroics, all commending the Catalyst for merely ‘doing what needed to be done’.
To be clear: I do not mean to suggest that the whole forum was overrun with such voices – there were, and no doubt still are, some wonderful people contributing to the conversation – but this shift in the atmosphere both within and around the text, of Bioware being comfortable with this interpretation (or certainly not discouraging it, as they had with Indoctrination Theory), made me finally give up any lingering hope of salvaging what I had once loved about the franchise.
The wound in my nerd heart calloused over with indifference, and although I still look back fondly at my experience with Mass Effect 1 and 2 (which remain two of the finest experiences I have had in gaming), I can no longer bring myself to replay them as I once did. The themes of hope and unity they espoused, that once so resonated with me, were soured, revealed as hollow pabulum to be discarded by the writers in service of a gormless M. Night Shyamalanian twist. Thus, whenever I hear news of any future Mass Effect properties (or even Dragon Age properties, if I’m honest), I find that any enthusiasm I had for the franchise has withered utterly. Bioware, and the narratives experiences that they produce, have become unreliable companions on a journey I no longer trust them to undertake.
All of which all brings me to now. Or more specifically, to a couple of days ago, when a kind reader of this blog, Tom Painter (whose exceptional comments on Doctor Who I implore you to read – they are phenomenal, referred me to a new article published at Game Front by Phil Owen titled ‘Interpreting the Catalyst’. It is a piece in which the whole controversy of the Mass Effect 3 endings are revisited – the difference being that this time, Owen claims to make sense of Bioware’s jarring narrative shift, and promises to reveal, with the benefit of hindsight (and Bioware’s subsequent paid DLC offerings), its heretofore unappreciated genius.
Now, given all that I’ve just described of my experience, you probably imagine that I was too weighed down with my own baggage to give this article a fair reading – and who knows, perhaps even after all this time that’s true (I certainly didn’t intend for this, my response to the article, to go on as long as it already has). All I can say is that I was genuinely curious to read a new perspective, if one was to be offered. I was under no illusions that Owen might salvage my love of the series, but even if he could help me better understand what went wrong, that would be more than worth it.
To his credit, Owen acknowledges that his is just one reading of the text, one individual’s interpretation, and he invites people to respond in kind. And I do want to be clear that the following comments are not in any way a personal attack on Owen; nor am I suggesting that he does not have the right to read his version of the game in any way that he wants – despite the fact that I still find the ending of Mass Effect 3 to be the most jarringly intolerant, narcissistic, and childishly nihilistic moment in any fiction I have ever experienced, with the laziest, last minute retcon of a plot every conceived, I still legitimately envy anyone who was able to glean something of substance from it. But less than half of the way through the first of the three parts of his article, I was already taking issue with Owen’s premise, method of argument, and the conclusions he chose to draw – not because they are radically different to anything I’ve seen before (they are in many ways strikingly similar to several arguments proffered in the Bioware forums well over a year ago), but because they yet again reveal what is so utterly distasteful about the trap set by both the Catalyst and Bioware’s writers.
Ironically, although his article was intended to expose the elegance with which the game weaves its narrative together, it instead shows just how utterly it’s writers botched their conclusion, when even a fan like Owen, who desperately wants to read it all favourably, still cannot justify its vapid, faux-philosophical pretentiousness.
And suddenly, like arthritis when there’s a storm a comin’, that two year old ache in my nerd heart was flaring up again.
IMAGE: The Catalyst’s ‘Lesson’, Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)
Mass Effect 3: Re-History
What struck me most about Owen’s article is the way that it reads like wishful revisionism – both about the way that the game communicates its story, and what the substance of that story ultimately proves to be. I’ll return to its subject matter momentarily, because I want to briefly (ha!) address the way in which Owen speaks of the subject matter of Bioware’s curious (I would say highly disingenuous) DLC releases after the game’s launch…
One of the most unique elements of the videogame form is that it offers a new, unchronological means through which narratives can be conveyed. Downloadable content presents an opportunity for creators to go back into already completed narratives and flesh out more detail, to explore heretofore unknown territory within the larger structure of a tale that has already been told. I’ve always found this particularly appealing when done well, because in other media it is not treated so organically. In film, when a ‘Director’s Cut’ gets released it is usually an indication that somebody tampered with the original product (the ratings board, or a producer, etc); in fiction a redraft it is often viewed as a sign that something was flawed with the original work (F. Scott Fitzgerald re-publishing Tender is the Night, for example), or that the work is just a cheap cash grab (some saw Stephen King’s decision to segment The Green Mile into six instalments an intriguing means through which to protect his plot twists from spoilers; many others saw it as a cynical way to increase revenue).
In videogames, however, audiences are far more open to this rather extraordinary premise. They are far more willing to allow the text’s creators the chance to revisit their worlds – perhaps even to upend preconceptions about the original text. It has meant that players could further explore the connective tissue between the two Bioshock universes in ‘Burial At Sea'; that they could visit strange new environs in Oblivion’s ‘The Shivering Isles’ expansion; or embrace the crazed abandon of Far Cry 3’s giddy retro throwback, ‘Blood Dragon’.
But that narrative invention and audience goodwill collapses when game creators start knowingly withholding pertinent information purely so that they can shake down the their audience with it later. When makers begin releasing unfinished games in order to guarantee extra sales from those players that they know are invested enough to be incapable of leaving their journey incomplete, they have violated a fundamental trust with their audience, and should not be so readily applauded, as Owen does here.
Indeed, it’s a kind of extortion that Bioware expressly promised they would never commit. Casey Hudson, the game’s director and executive producer, explicitly stated in interviews immediately preceding the release of Mass Effect 3 (thus when the story was already finalised), that players would never have to purchase extra DLC to make sense of the main plot (here – see the 3:30 min mark). The Reapers, the extermination cycle at the centre of the trilogy’s narrative, the fate of the main characters, all of that, he promised, would be explained in the main game, without need for further purchase.
Except that this wasn’t true at all. In fact, his assurance was immediately proved a lie when a day one DLC pack was revealed to contain a Prothean team mate – a member of a race of ancient beings that the protagonist has been striving to understand for the past three games – a character whose back story provides the only firsthand context for the entire galactic war that you are tasked to end, and who provides the pivotal character, Liara, with her only real narrative arc.
So whether or not Owen has personally made his peace with the ending of the game, I must admit I am a little shocked to see a member of the games media spending a good portion of his article not only excusing, but actually praising Bioware for a business model that requires players to buy several add-ons on top of their original purchase – all in order to simply make sense of their original game’s central plot. And this is particularly true when the subsequent material offered comes to contradict what has already been established.
And it is in Owen’s willingness to excuse, or fill in these myriad contradictions, that forms the second issue I take with his article. Over the course of his analysis he repeatedly makes defences for unsubstantiated leaps in logic, presumes meaning when none is present, and even explains his way around direct contradictions in lore. Any semblance of the rationality with which he claims to approach the text is abandoned utterly. Consequentially the article is riddled with phrases like ‘How it accomplished this is not known…’ and ‘That’s not something I can explain…’, instead simply presuming that the narrative should be given the benefit of the doubt, despite countless evidence to the contrary. He appears to assume, and readily accept, that the writers put meticulous forethought into their overarching narrative (something confirmed to be not the case), and uses examples from DLC released months after the conclusion, and designed specifically to plug missing gaps in the lore, as proof of some pre-planned mythology.
I want to be clear: I’m certainly not advancing some tedious argument that every conceit in every fiction has to be laboriously explained and justified. This is in no way some dreary bid for narrative absolutism. Of course stories skip over pertinent facts when required, or leave out scenes if they have offered enough substance for the audience to infer the necessary details (for example, we don’t have to see Luke Skywalker’s entire adolescence to get the idea that he’s a restless young man longing for adventure when he stumbles across two filthy droids). But in this article, trying as desperately as it can to justify the gaping holes in the narrative’s basic plot, the leaps required to wrangle the story into any coherent shape require such a Herculean effort that it almost appears as though Bioware were being openly insulting their audience by being so obtuse.
Here, even by Owen’s account, questions about the central conceit of the Catalyst (the principal antagonist of the series who was originally only introduced in its concluding five minutes) are raised, and yet still go mystifyingly unanswered. A major plot point will be cited that speaks to the purpose of the antagonist’s scheme (a purpose that you, as protagonist, are eventually tasked with completing), but the lack of any evidence for what the antagonist is saying is not seen as a failing – it becomes, impossibly, proof.
‘Synthetics will inevitably destroy all biological life in the universe.’
It’s the central conceit of the Catalyst’s plan. …Except that they don’t. They never have. Long before the Catalyst was created, and even after he was meddling in everyone’s business (his extended absence from the universe allowed the Geth and Quarians to learn to play nice), biological life was never entirely exterminated by robots.
It became a rather famous snarky meme in the aftermath of Mass Effect 3, but in truth, the only synthetic who went nuts and tried to exterminate all life was the Catalyst himself. He may have given each civilisation a (by his standards) short grace period, and he might have re-labelled wholesale extermination ‘harvesting’, but even by Owen’s account, he knowingly littered the universe with technological detritus designed to speed along everyone’s advancement toward an AI singularity for which they weren’t prepared; he was therefore directly perpetuating the imaginary problem he claimed to be wanting to solve. Again: even in Shepard’s cycle it is only because the Catalyst is delayed in his return to the universe by the events of the first game that the ‘unity’ he eventually ‘rewards’ in game three is achieved. Had he turned up when he intended, all life in the universe would have once again been annihilated – snuffed out before it had the chance to pass his rigged ‘test’. The all-knowing Catalyst, from whom Owen will implore Shepard to learn, is proved to be his own continuous impediment to peace. And yet this self-perpetuating illogic is once again never addressed.
Similarly, the Leviathans apparently consider their creation to be working fine, despite the fact that although it was built to preserve them, the Catalyst tried to exterminate their entire race, turned them into enslaved zombie abominations, and has since been holding the history of the galaxy in a genocidal cycle of stagnation. Again, none of this is seen as a contradiction. Owen even describes the Leviathans as viewing the Catalyst with ‘begrudging respect’, waiting for him to finish his work. (It’s hard to even know where to begin unpacking such personal projection onto the text…)
Far more egregiously, however, the article completely skips over the most glaring plot point of all: Owen repeatedly talks around the ludicrous convenience of the Crucible’s very existence. Because for something so crucial to the resolution of the trilogy (it is only through the use of the Crucible that the Reaper slaughter can be stopped; according to this author it is only by using the Crucible that we pass the Catalyst’s test of our social evolution and user in the ‘next phase’) we end up knowing precious little about what the Crucible actually is. Meanwhile what we are told is abject nonsense.
IMAGE: The Crucible, Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)
For example: there’s no explanation at all for how countless cycles of living beings – unprompted and with no knowledge of one another’s efforts – could each contribute to the construction of this single piece of completely alien technology (even building it to the exact specifications that would allow it to ‘dock’ with the Citadel and its systems), the entire time never having any idea what it was they were building or what its purpose was to be, all so that it could, at the very last second, magically solve a problem about which they had no knowledge in the first place…
I think I just got a nosebleed.
Even according to Owen (in a non-ironic reflection of how half-baked this whole premise of the Crucible is), when activated, apparently the Crucible ‘would have sufficient power to do … something’. The fact that this premise makes as much basic sense as having several cavemen, in different time periods, in different caves, in the dark, somehow using rocks and sticks to construct a Mammoth-Killing iPod app, is never addressed.
And yet this is finally revealed to be the central and most critical conceit through which the entire plot of the trilogy is resolved. Were any other fiction to hinge entirely on such a ridiculously implausible convenience (particularly when trying to make a majestic poetic statement about humanity’s growth, and the gravity with which we must take our place amongst the stars), it would be rightfully laughed down. A narrative that tries to celebrate the communal quest for knowledge and advancement through a grand symbol is one thing; finding a magic remote control that your ancestors made for you down the couch cushion of the universe is entirely another.
And this is a problem that resurfaces throughout the article. In the interest of salvaging the plot from its innumerable internal logical contradictions, Owen gestures toward a broad metaphysical potentiality that is never validated by the text itself. Instead, he requires the audience to spackle over the gaping holes in the basic narrative with some rather tenuous supposition (as his article does). The Levithans, once the rulers of the galaxies, are shown to be able to defeat the Reapers if they choose – so of course they must therefore want to hide out on a nowhere planet for countless millennia waiting …for something. …Don’t you think? The Catalyst, a creature that has routinely used deception and brainwashing in every encounter with its adversaries, twisting them to perform his will, must be only lying for the right reasons when he asks Shepard to fulfil his psychotic mission statement at the end…
Ultimately, what is most unfortunate of all about this article, and what I have despised about the ending of Mass Effect since it was first inflicted upon its players two years ago, is that even if – as Owen invites his readers to do – you give all of this nonsense a pass and just embrace the ‘lesson’ that the Catalyst wants to impart, the result is a text that callously endorses some of the most despicable and juvenile ethics ever rendered in fiction. Owen argues that the three ‘solutions’ with which the Catalyst presents the player in the game’s denouement are the final test to prove that humanity, and the combined force of the universe that humanity has helped gather together, are ready to ascend (with the Catalyst’s help) to the next stage of our evolutionary development.
The universe is in crisis – the Catalyst says – synthetics will always destroy organics. (He leaves out the detail that at this point he is literally the only synthetic left in the universe who has any interest in destroying organics – but whatever, he has a lesson to teach.) His ‘solutions’ are therefore to genocide all synthetics, as he has done to biological life countless times before; to have Shepard take his place as the watchdog of the universe, ascending to become the new leader of the Reapers; or to blast every living being with a magic ray that will turn them all into synthetic/biological hybrids (something that the Catalyst was always unsuccessfully trying to do by turning races into mindless, zombie husks). Countless millennia to rethink his ‘solution’ and the best he can come up with is: just keep trying to do the same thing, but bigger.
Again in Owen’s complimentary account of these endings logic takes a beating. The extremely rosy glasses with which he views the Synthesis ending define a eugenic purgation of genetic diversity as ‘unity’, and the profound contradictions in the Destroy and Control endings are just as casually hand-waved away. Sure the Catalyst allowing Shepard to kill him is no proof that future conflicts with synthetics won’t occur, but …he did it anyway? And sure, Shepard agreeing to kill herself and become the Catalyst is no proof that she’ll behave any differently to her enemy, nor that she won’t just become indoctrinated herself (like literally every other person who encountered this happily deceitful leader of the Reapers has) …but it’s okay, Shepard is different to all of them, because…
Because she just is?
Ultimately the only way that these endings work as proposed by this article – and presumably by anyone inclined to believe that Bioware was remotely aware of what they were doing – reveal them to be some of the most vile, hopeless, racist messages ever put to fiction. Because if the ending of the game is, as Owen posits, the final test that the Catalyst has put before Shepard, using cunning and deception in order to elicit the most honest response it can from the unified galaxy’s representative – then God help us all.
Literally all that it is being tested is whether Shepard – we humanity; we the player – are willing to become the Catalyst ourselves. For the ‘preservation’ of some life, are we willing to exterminate an entire race of beings and devote ourselves to being vigilant to never letting them rise up again? In the pursuit of ‘peace’ are we willing to become an omnipresent, omniscient synthetic God policing the universe as we personally deem fit? For the sake of ‘equality’, are we willing to inflict our will upon everyone, to change them utterly without their permission, and to force them to become a happy master race? After three games of fighting against the horrors of oppression, death, and racial intolerance, Bioware’s ultimate message is: ‘Hey, if you can’t beat them, join them.’
Rather than evolve to a higher state of being, as Owen suggests, the game actually just forces us to forfeit hope and embrace the same broken illogic that kept the Catalyst in a state of infinite regress. Committing genocide in order to prove that every race has the right to live is a disgusting fallacy; fighting to free people from oppression just so that you can be the one doing the oppressing is a farce; and even putting aside how idiotic it is to believe that ‘having the same DNA’ will solve intractable racial prejudices and conflict, the act of denying people the right to organically grow toward this state of unity by altering them against their will means that the result is debased entirely anyway. After all, just because someone hands you a gold medal, doesn’t mean you earned it.
Of course, history usually does get written by the winners. The winners stomp the losers down, glorify themselves and demonise their enemies. The ugly business of building an empire gets recast as the gift of enlightenment. Caesar Augustus paints Anthony as a drunken, Cleopatra-whipped traitor. VHS curb stomps Betamax and calls it natural selection. But in the case of Mass Effect 3, it seems that Owen wants to propose something even more troubling. Here we have history being written by the losers, but with the victims so broken that they actually want to praise their tormentor.
Here the Catalyst was right, apparently. It didn’t matter what progress we made as a people, what alliances we made or futures we built, we needed to be exterminated like vermin because we just. weren’t. smart. enough. It didn’t matter that we’d already solved the whole synthetics and organics thing by ourselves; we still needed to learn to kill, control, or mutate the universe to our will. We still needed to be forced – at threat of annihilation – to embrace the Catalyst’s sociopathic hate speech. Because differences really can’t be overcome through cooperation. Enlightenment really can only arise through suffering and death. And forsaking your morality, and your regard for the right to life of others, is the only way to ‘grow’.
Ultimately it’s a good thing that the Catalyst tested us, taught us to think like him and use the cruel calculus of war as a chrysalis for change. After all, we had to pass his test, right? The student had to become the master? And now that his actions have blackened every corner of the universe with an unfathomable history of bloodshed and horror, our newfound self-indulgent moral relativity will fit right in.
No wonder Shepard killed herself.
But I say to hell with the Catalyst’s reductive, hopeless nonsense – and if that, as Owen supposes, is the message that Bioware truly intended to send to their audience, then to hell with them too.
I certainly don’t envy the task of the writers – trying to summarise a sprawling saga filled with multiple back stories, an ominous, Lovecraftian mystery that has been teased relentlessly for hundreds of hours, and any number of branching paths that have diverged with the intrusion of player choice – but that was the task that they set for themselves, all the time repeatedly promising their audience in countless interviews that they knew where the project was heading. And in their efforts to slap a bow on the series with one ten minute conversation with a techno-ghost, they almost wilfully ignored their own fiction. Rather than speaking to the journey that had been undertaken over the course of three games – the slow, necessary healing of old conflicts and prejudices, the acceptance of different races and cultures, the need to work together to overcome greater physical and existential threats than our own ideological squabbling – they decided to dip back into the grab bag of standard sci-fi tropes and pull out ‘HUMANS AND ROBOTS WILL ALWAYS FEAR AND DESTROY EACH OTHER’ – a notion that the narrative had already grown far beyond halfway through Mass Effect 2 with the introduction of the character Legion.
By the time the Geth/Quarian conflict was resolved, and EDI, the ship’s AI, was dating her pilot while waxing philosophical with Shepard about the nature of death, this ‘inevitable conflict’ between the races had become farcically irrelevant, a bigoted nightmare scenario that even the smallest amount of common decency had already proved untrue. Therefore, tasking the player with ‘solving’ a problem that no longer existed was redundant; forcing them to ‘fix’ it by committing genocide on an innocent race, becoming a galactic overlord to police the universe yourself, or genetically mutating everyone to have the same genetic code (because that will totally solve racial conflict) was an embarrassment. An horrific, infantile embarrassment.
So, again: I am glad for Phil Owen that he has made peace with his experience of Mass Effect. But if his only conclusion, after ignoring plot details, waving away contradictions, and filling in gaping holes of narrative, is ultimately just that this game affords us an opportunity to embrace the wisdom of a callous sociopath who terrorised every living being in the universe because it arrogantly believed it knew best how people should live – then I’m not sure why anyone should bother.
My Shepard had no desire to become the Catalyst, no matter what ‘lesson’ it might impart; because becoming the Catalyst means literally abandoning hope in anything beyond yourself, being incapable of trusting in the inherent goodness of others, and their ability to govern their own lives. It means elevating yourself to a state of godhood to judge the universe and redesign it as you see fit. This was the mistake that the Catalyst made in his original programming, a mistake that continued to be played out in a redundant, genocidal loop for countless millennia, massacring unfathomable amounts of lives to satisfy an equation about the nature of biological beings that it had fundamentally misunderstood. Having Shepard finally break that cycle by helping him finish making his original mistake doesn’t evolve anything – it simply means that the Catalyst’s nihilistic world view is confirmed, and that there really never was hope without all the carnage and enslavement and terror.
I’m not sure which version of Shepard Owen was following on that quest through the stars (I assume it wasn’t a Renegade Shepard, because mine was a real piece of crap, and even he through the Catalyst was a ridiculous monstrosity), but whoever it was, he and I have very different perspectives on the nature of sacrifice, and I sure as hell do not recognise, nor welcome, the ‘improvement’ his Catalyst was trying to offer our ‘evolved’ selves. For Owen to go to such extraordinary efforts to bend logic and reason beyond breaking point just to land on such a viciously egotistical moral, suggests that he and I were playing very different games, and frankly, even if his argument were more rigorous, and less filled with conjecture, the thought of this kind of selfish moral relativity being applauded as a bold new vision in narrative makes me feel ill.
Ultimately, by extending Bioware’s writers (or at least those responsible for the ending) this blanket benefit of the doubt for all such contradictions, Owen’s article affords Mass Effect it’s best opportunity yet to test whether the plot they delivered actually can, in hindsight, be seen as coherent. But by returning to the tale (despite his own admitted frustration with how awkwardly the story at first played out), by taking the time to put the DLC events into chronological order (something even Bioware didn’t think was necessary, as they left inarguably the most crucial details of their story for the ‘Leviathan’ DLC, which Owen references repeatedly, for last), and by being willing to grant them a mulligan every time their plot risks descending into nonsense, for me, all that Owen’s article reveals is that even with all of these allowances, even with a critic primed to present it in its best possible light, Mass Effect 3 still degenerates into a tangle of ugly gibberish.
But unlike players like Owen, who long to preserve the image of Bioware’s writers as infallible gods, I prefer to look at the reality of the narrative mess that was served to fans in Mass Effect 3 and give them a different benefit of the doubt. I see the contradictions in lore, the violations of logic, the overt thematic contradictions that –almost contemptuously – befoul that asinine ending, and I see it, not as the work of an omniscient god, all glowing and dispassionate as it asks us to embrace its nihilistic hate speech, but as the mistake of fallible humans, who failed to understand their own work of art, and who were too overcome with hubris to admit they had made a mistake after the fact.
I agree with Owen that the end of Mass Effect 3 is a test, but in my opinion Shepard and the player aren’t the ones who failed.
IMAGE: ‘Hope’ In Mass Effect (I’ve used this picture before, but what the hell…)
* Not to mention the blanket ban later imposed upon the discussion of ‘Indoctrination Theory’ – a reading of the narrative forwarded by a community of devoted fans who were told their interpretation was not welcome in a public forum, and who found their threads locked and accounts suspended if they even mentioned it. It’s not a reading that I personally subscribe to (as I discussed here), but everyone has the right to their interpretation, and the idea of aggressively censoring fans (weirdly, some of the only fans who actually like the ending of the game) in what is purported to be a fan forum, is shameful.