Thematically Revolting: The End of Mass Effect 3
Putting aside all of the hanging plot threads that rankled me when first playing through the ending of Mass Effect 3 (where was the Normandy going? why did my squad mates live? Anderson is where now? wait, the catalyst was Haley Joel Osment? etc), I would like to take a moment to explain why, when I was offered those three repellent choices, ‘Destroy’, ‘Control’, and ‘Synthesise’, I turned and tried to unload my now infinite pistol into the whispy-space-ghost’s face.
It was not because I was unhappy that my Shepard would not get to drink Garrus under the table one last time, or get to help Tali build a back-porch on her new homestead, nor that I was pretty sure no one was going to remember to feed my space fish – it was because those three ideological options were so structurally indefensible that they broke the suspension of disbelief that Bioware had (up until that point) so spectacularly crafted for over a hundred hours of narrative. Suddenly Shepard was not simply being asked to sacrifice a race or a friend or him/herself for the greater good (all of which was no doubt expected by any player paying attention to the tone of the series), Shepard was being compelled, without even the chance to offer a counterpoint, to perform one of three actions that to my reading each fundamentally undermined the narrative foundations upon which the series seemed to rest.
In the Control ending, Shepard is invited to pursue the previously impossible path of attempting to dominate the reapers and bend them to his or her will. Momentarily putting aside the vulgarity of dominating a species to achieve one’s own ends (and I will get to complaining about that premise soon enough), this has proved to be the failed modus operandi of every antagonist in this fiction up until this point – including the Illusive Man and Saren – all of whom have been chewed up and destroyed by their blind ambition, incapable of controlling forces beyond their comprehension. Nothing in the vague prognostication of the exposition-ghost offers any tangible justification for why Shepard’s plunge into Reaper-control should play out any differently. In fact, as many people have already pointed out, Shepard has literally not five minutes before this moment watched the Illusive Man die as a consequence of this arrogant misconception.
The Destroy ending, however, seems even more perverse. One of the constants of the Mass Effect universe (and indeed much quality science fiction) has been an exploration of the notion that life is not simplistically bound to biology, that existence expands beyond the narrow parameters of blood and bone. That is why synthetic characters like Legion and EDI are so compelling in this context, why their quests to understand self-awareness – not simply to ape human behaviours – is so dramatic and compelling. Indeed, we even get glimpses of the Reapers having more sprawling and unknowable motivations that we puny mortals can comprehend…
To then end the tale by forcing the player to obliterate several now-proven-legitimate forms of life in order to ‘save’ the traditional definition of fleshy existence is not only genocidal, it actually devolves Shephard’s ideological growth, undermining his ascent toward a more evolved conception of existence, something that the fiction has been steadily advancing no matter how Renegadishably you wanted to play. This is particularly evident when the preceding actions of all three games entirely disprove the premise that synthetic will inevitably destroy organic: the Geth were the persecuted victims, trying their best to save the Quarians from themselves; EDI, given autonomy, immediately sought to aid her crew, even taking physical form in order to experience life from their perspective and finally learning that she too feared the implications of death.
And finally Synthesis, the ending that I suspect (unless we are to believe the Indoctrination Theory) is the ‘good’ option, proves to be the most distasteful of all. Shepard, up until this point has been an instrument though which change is achieved in this universe, and dependent upon your individual Renegade or Paragon choices, this may have resulted in siding with one species or another, letting this person live or that person die, even condemning races to extinction through your actions. But these decisions were always the result of a mediation of disparate opinions, and a consequence of the natural escalation of these disputes – Shepard was merely the fork in the path that decided which way the lava would run. His/her actions had an impact, but was responding to events in the universe that were already in motion before he/she arrived.
To belabour the point: Shepard is an agent for arbitration, the tipping point of dialogues that have, at times, root causes that reach back across generations. Up until this moment in the game the narrative, and Shepard’s role within it, has been about the negotiation of diversity, testing the validity of opposing viewpoints and selecting a path through which to evolve on to another layer of questioning. Suddenly with the Synthesis ending, Shepard’s capacity to make decisions elevates from offering a moral tipping point to arbitrarily wiping such disparity from the world. Shepard imposes his/her will upon every species, every form of life within the galaxy, making them all a dreary homogenous oneness. At such a point, wiping negotiation and multiplicity from the universe, Shepard moves from being an influential voice amongst a biodiversity of thought to sacrificing him/herself in an omnipotent imposition of will.
(And lest we forget that the entire character arc of Javik (the ‘bonus’ paid-DLC character that gives unique context to the entire cycle of destruction upon which this fiction is based) is utilised to reveal that a lack of diversity, the failure to continue adapting to new circumstances, was the primary reason that his race was decimated. …So I guess we have that to look forward to.)
This bewildering finale felt as if you had been listening to a soaring orchestral movement that ended in a cacophonous blast, the musicians tossing down their instruments and walking away. I find it hard to conceive how the creators of such a magnificent franchise could made such a mess of their own universe. The plot holes, thematic inconsistencies and a deus ex machina that was unforgivable in ancient Greek theatre, let alone in any modern narrative, all combine to erode the foundations upon which the rest of the experience resides. (It’s a disturbing sign when apologists for such an ending have to literally hope that what they witnessed was just a bad dream in the central character’s head.)
And to hear Bioware and sympathetic critics arguing ‘artistic integrity’ as an excuse to hide from their audience’s criticism, or to arbitrarilly dismiss the idea of a re-writing of the end, seems a juvenile escape from valid critique. One can immediately think of Charles Dickens being alert to, and adapting his writing in response to the floods of letters he received from his fans in the serialised delivery of stories such as The Old Curiosity Shop; or of F.Scott Fitzgerald extensively redrafting Tender is the Night for a second publishing after receiving negative critical feedback. Indeed, whatever you think of the final result, Ridley Scott was able to reassert a definitive vision of Blade Runner in spite of its original theatrical release. Despite what critics might burble about artistic vision there is innumerable precedent for such reshaping, even beyond fundamental industry practices such as play-testings and film test-screenings. If a work of art has failed in its communicative purpose (and unless angering and bewildering its most invested fans was the goal, then Mass Effect 3 has done so), then it cannot be considered a success, and is not worthy of regard.
And for those who would respond that I, and fans like myself, are simply upset because the endings do not offer some irrefutable ‘clarity’ that would mar the poetic mysteries of the ending, I would point out that I am in no way against obscure or bewildering endings: if they are earned. In contrast to a majority of viewers, I happen to love the ending of The Sopranos for precisely this reason – because, despite the momentary jolt of surprise it engendered, that audacious blank screen was wholly thematically supportable. The driving premise of that program was a man seeking therapy (a mobster, yes, but a psychologically damaged man) – indeed, the very first beat in that narrative was Tony Soprano walking into a psychiatrist’s office. The principle thematic tie of the entire series was therefore revealed to be a mediation upon the underlying psychological stimuli that produces identity: whether the capacity to interpret and understand one’s impulses can impact upon the experience of one’s life; whether one can attain agency over one’s life.
That ending might have been agonising, but it was entirely fitting that the series ended with a loaded ambiguity, inviting a myriad of interpretations in which we the audience were now placed into the role of the psychiatrist, suddenly compelled to reason out the ending of those final thirty seconds with the cumulative experience of the preceding six years of imagery. Did Tony die? Did he have a second plate of onion rings and enjoy his family’s company? Did Meadow ever park that car? In its final act The Sopranos gives over the interpretive, descriptive function of its narrative to its audience, intimately binding the viewer to Tony Soprano’s own (perhaps failed) attempts to comprehend himself and attain authorship over his life. …But the only reason that they could even try this is because every minute of every episode to this point has been propagated upon the notion that Tony Soprano was a man with a subconscious that could be explored, and that motivated his actions whether as a loving father or brutal criminal.
The obscurities in the ending of Mass Effect 3 have not been similarly earned by its prior narrative. This narrative has not until this point been about dominance, extermination, and the imposition of uniformity – indeed, Shepard has spent over a hundred hours of narrative fighting against precisely these three themes. And if one of these three (and only these three) options must be selected in order to sustain life in the universe, then that life has been so devalued by that act as to make the sacrifice meaningless.
And that is why I shall go on shooting Haley Joel Osmont’s ghost in the face.
(Originally published in the ‘All Were Thematically Revolting…” thread: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/11435886/)