It’s Not Just The Journey: Mass Effect 3 and Why Endings Matter

In all the uproar over the ending of Mass Effect 3, I found myself reading an unsettling amount of articles in the gaming press decrying unhappy fans as being unjustly obsessed with one small element of the game. Indeed, one of the principle refrains I have heard from the people who criticise those that remain unsatisfied with the offered conclusion is that ultimately ‘it’s all about the journey, not the destination’ – implying, somehow, that it doesn’t matter if the endpoint is nonsensical, or detached from the greater framework; you’ve had fun along the way so that’s all that matters. So I would like to take this opportunity to firmly, devoutly, over-adjectively call nonsense on that whole line of argument. You may defend the endings, you may think that people misunderstood them, but no self-respecting human being who has any sense of the history of narrative can ever claim that endings do not matter.

The first (rather snarky) response to such a statement is that while many people might enjoy hearing a child tell a story, they wouldn’t want to invest over 100 hours listening to one, nor turn it into a global franchise (…unless it’s the Twilight series. Bam! Take that, author-I’ve-never-met-and-whose-success-I-shamelessly-envy). A child’s story can be filled with colour and adventure, can go in all manner of directions, but it lacks the coherent order necessary for a resolved, satisfactory fiction. Form and theme are fundamental for a story to endure; the beginning, middle and end of a tale must have some kind of structural integrity; and it is arguably the conclusion that is most crucial for providing this unity.

The second (more helpful) response is to explore exactly what kind of narrative we are dealing with, and to examine why leaving the ending vague, contradictory, or dependent upon an unwarranted twist, undermines the whole negotiation of journey and destination at the core of the text, resulting in the audience feeling misled and the expedition meaningless.

A lot of people have put Shepard into the category of a ‘tragic’ hero – perhaps tempted to approach this series as a tragic arc because it exudes such an ominous tone. Again, I’m offering nothing new to this discussion, I’m sure, but it should be acknowledged that Shepard is not in fact a character who by thematic necessity has to die. I was more than prepared for him/her to die in my play-through, but that does not mean that this death was predestined; indeed, despite what people might suppose, classic literary tropes of death for the focal character are relatively rare. We see them frequently in Shakespearean tragedy, or Greek theatre – but Shepard is not a tragic hero. He/she has no fundamental fatal flaw like hubris, or jealousy, or rage that condemns him/her to the inexorable inevitability of thematic consequence. Even the most Paragon-y Shepard is not allowed the luxury of being a Hamlet-style procrastinator; and the most Renegade-y Shepard struggles to be fuelled by personal ambition like Macbeth, or jealousy like Othello. He/she is a cipher onto which we project our own interpretations in a feedback loop of player and text. And so we get full Renegade Shepards (who will steal your lunch money and sleep with your mum), or my Tess Shepard (who rescues pets from animal shelters and is polite to telemarketers …And yes, I admit it, is named after Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Shut up.) But in all of these cases Shepard is driven to fulfil a larger goal, not by a personal failing that will be his/her Achilles heel.

Shepard is instead more of an epic figure – a reading that Bioware itself wants to endorse with that obnoxious Stargazer (‘Can-I-haz-another-story?’) scene that concludes the game, placing the character and his/her universal struggle into the confines of mythology and folklore.  And mythology has no such requirement of death. When Perseus returns home to get married after defeating the wicked Gorgon, he doesn’t also have to then set himself on fire and fling himself into a ditch, just for the hell of it. Or to use the example of Homer’s Odyssey (the foundational text that has, in one permeation or another, inspired every quest narrative in the history of Western Literature), not only does Odysseus not die in the end, but his return home to reclaim what is his is by necessity profoundly centred on reiterating everything that he has learned on his journey.

On his quest Odysseus has developed patience and ingenuity in dealing with the Cyclops; outwitting Circe he has gained poise and cunning; with Nausicaa he has discovered humility, charm, and how to look all sexy while emerging from the surf, James-Bond-style; in the underworld he has found fortitude, hope, and just how self-involved dead people can be (sure, let’s talk some more about you then…) The conclusion of the Odyssey is thus the culmination of everything that he has learned or experienced in his preceding adventures: he carries with him new truths on how to be a better hero, King, father and husband, but it is only by proving the growth that he has attained on his journey at home that his worth is measured and his quest, finally, fulfilled. His journey was great (actually it was horrible for him; great for us), but it is only the destination that validates the ride.

And the analogies that can therefore be drawn to Mass Effect are already pretty obvious… Most obviously Shepard’s final journey, like Odysseus’ quest, is about returning home (leave aside the fact that for many people’s Shepard’s home probably wasn’t Earth; it’s clearly meant to be symbolically important); we are being compelled, just as Odysseus was, to ‘Take back’ what is ours. And like Odysseus, Shepard’s journeys are not only about who you shot in the head, or who you romanced, or whether you bought that space-hamster, they are about the whys: the who you met along the way, what you learnt from them and their individual struggles in order to choose the path forward.

The game is about developing yourself and your relationships throughout the galaxy: learning about the Genophage; the Geth/Quarian conflict; the downfall of the Protheans; the advancement of AI. You smite physical and ideological monsters (the Thorian, the Shadow Broker, whatever the hell Jacob’s father was doing on that horrible planet); you descend into the underworld to gather intelligence (the Reaper Base); and each time you glean more information about this universe and Shepard’s place within it. You literally and figuratively bring back everything you have learnt and assembled on your quest to aid you in the final push…

And so when Shepard (read: Odysseus) returns to Earth (Ithaca) to clear out the Reapers (the suitors are plaguing his land and smashing stuff up good), we expect him/her to employ all of the life-lessons gathered on the journey up until that point.

We see Odysseus show poise and humility, disguising himself as a beggar and awaiting the right time to strike.  He outwits his opponents by cunningly devising a trap in which to snare his enemies.  He proves his bravery and tenacity by facing insurmountable odds. He exhibits, through each of his actions and choices, the proof of the personal growth he has attained over the course of this quest…

In contrast, when Shepard returns to Earth he/she… well, has a conversation with a creature that reveals itself to be the cause of several millennia of devastation, then does one of the three things that this creature says – each of which appear to contradict the sum total of his/her experience up to this point.

And again, that’s why I found the endings so disconcerting. They seemed to be superficially connected to the intellectual principles teased out throughout the remainder of the story – synthetic and organics; control versus domination; sacrifice for the greater good – but the actual application of these notions was in stark contrast to everything that had come before it (unless you were renegade humanity-first destroyer, apparently).  The three options with which the game concludes, at the point of the text in which the sum total of these lessons should be reaffirmed, force Shepard to be sacrificed in order to initiate an act that sits in complete opposition to all that he/she has previously experienced. Unity in respect of diversity; the validity of artificial life; the right to autonomy; all are summarily ignored as Shepard dissolves in an ideological self-immolation. The destination undoes the entirety of the journey – at least thematically – leaving the quest itself void and the character’s growth stagnant.

To argue that ‘it is the journey not the destination’, is to actually entirely misunderstand the structure of all quest narrative. The journey is indeed where the heart of the text lies, but until the lessons gleaned from this expedition have been confirmed by the endpoint of the tale, they are merely a series of things that happened to one person, without resonance and coherency, failing to unify into a cohesive narrative whole.

Image: Slaughter of the Suitors

IMAGE: Odysseus Slaughters the Suitors by John Flaxman, from Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece by Gustav Schwab

p.s. – Oh, I forgot to mention: Spoiler Alert for the Odyssey.  Although, I guess since it is almost three thousand years old maybe I’m in the clear.

p.p.s – But you know about The Sixth Sense, right?

(An earlier version of this post was published in the ‘All Were Thematically Revolting…’ thread: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/11435886/; for more of me whinging about Mass Effect 3 see: https://drayfish.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/thematically-revolting-the-end-of-mass-effect-3/ and https://drayfish.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/on-first-looking-into-mass-effect-3-its-like-a-leap-day-only-with-genocide/)

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6 Responses to “It’s Not Just The Journey: Mass Effect 3 and Why Endings Matter”

  1. Well said. I’m glad someone has finally vocalized a good argument against the opposition. I put a lot of hours of my life into that game, and to have it end that way is… bah. Words can’t describe, but I think you’ve come pretty close.

    It’d be like Frodo dying at the end of LotR.
    It’d be like Bruce Willis dying at the end of Die Hard.
    It’d be like Bruce Willis dying at the end of 5th Element!
    It’d be like Luke dying at the end of Star Wars.
    It’d be like the Avengers dying at the end of the Avengers.
    It’d be like… I dunno, Commander Shepard dying at the end of Mass Effect.

  2. Well said. I just finished the game the past week and posted about the ending myself. The analogy to Odysseus is apt–Shepard is meant to be an epic hero with analogies to Christ (resurrection, vicarious sacrifice, unifying power, unnatural abilities)–and the problem is that the conclusion did not keep the promises made during that narrative as to the nature of the reapers, the solution to the problem, the choices of the player, or Shepard’s own identity.

    The fact that these games can elicit such a visceral reaction out of us is a sign that *something* went right, but also that this ending went very, very wrong.

  3. I placed my response to the phenomena you described on Forbes.

    Basically, if I just had an awesome full-day with Emma Stone, ending with her promising “endless pleasure” right before I close my eyes for the night, I’m just supposed to “remember the journey” if I open my eyes and see Ron Jeremy’s naked hairy body approaching?!

    • Hi Sarat, thanks for the response.

      At first I misread your comment, but you’re absolutely right: the two are not unrelated incidents. Fiction doesn’t operate as merely a series of disconnected, arbitrary events (as life does), otherwise there would be little connective tissue to evoke any kind of thematic resonance. After all, J.K Rowling could have just had a pterodactyl sweep in and eat Harry Potter at the end of book seven, but it would have been utterly asinine. Fiction has a beginning, middle and end, and if the end of your artwork profoundly (in this case rather offensively) invalidates everything that surrounds it, I would argue that it should be for a better reason than trying to milk some lazy pathos from the audience.

      And this is particularly true when the consequence of the change is that the text suddenly advances some worryingly racist ideologies.

      So thanks again. And you have now horribly burned that image of Emma Stone turning into a hairy, sweaty, mustached man into my mind.

      Curse you!

      • Heaven Smile Says:

        “invalidates everything that surrounds it”
        Some people would change their minds and defend the ending, just for TRYING to have the “philosophical” cosmic problems for us to explore:

        http://caffeinesymposium.blogspot.com.ar/2012/04/mass-effect-debacle-my-2-part-one.html
        http://caffeinesymposium.blogspot.com.ar/2012/04/mass-effect-debacle-my-2-part-two.html
        http://caffeinesymposium.blogspot.com.ar/2012/05/mass-effect-debacle-my-2-part-three.html

        This guy went 180º on Part 3 and flat out say that it didn’t fail as Art. This is what he said:

        “See, Shepard’s story is BioWare’s story, not the players’ story. The player has some narrative input, making the tale more interactive. However, at its core, the story does not belong solely to the player”

        Armando Troisi and “The Agreement” would disagree with you:

        “As it stands, the Mass Effect saga is over, Shepard’s story is complete, the thematic ideas regarding free will, determinism, existentialism, and dialectic are all resolved the moment the player chooses which path they will take, Green, Blue, or Red. What matters here is not the consequences of the decision, but the decision itself”

        Not sure why the decision itself is important, since Synthesis is the Canon ending, even on Refusal ending. Making all this struggle meaningless before even choosing since it wont shape the galaxy except the favored ending:

  4. […] profitable discussion about games and pop culture that led to the Themenastics blog.  And yes, I may have spoken about Mass Effect 3 since […]

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