On First Looking Into Mass Effect 3: It’s like a leap day; only with genocide.
Some time ago, on the Bioware forums, CulturalGeekGirl asked me what my first experience was when finishing Mass Effect 3, and I realised with the posing of that question that on some level I think I had been trying to avoid thinking through the emotion of that experience too much. Until that point I had been speaking through the mechanics of narrative and the manipulation of form to rationalise my experience (all of which I still heartily believe in), but that doesn’t quite capture my own personal thought process, and the stunned distaste that it engendered.
So I think I’m going to try to do that here, in a lengthy, prosaic, largely incomprehensible purge of my feelings at the end of the game. Obviously it should go without saying that this is purely subjective: my own, singular, private response as the game concluded, staring wide-eyed into the glare in a darkened lounge room, sleep-deprived, weary, probably with a sliver of dried drool still glistening on my chin…
Going back to that moment, I realised that my first thought, when I reached that horrible, ominous choice, was so ridiculous, so tangential, that I haven’t come to unpack it properly until now. Because the weird thing is, as I stood on that precipice (as I’ve mentioned previously, striving to put several bullets through the Cthulhu Jr.’s face), I was stunned, frozen in place. Three paths lay before me, all stretching out into an unknowable, inconceivable, morally-repugnant future, and all that I could think was: I once head-butt a Krogan.
It was on Tuchanka in Mass Effect 2. My boy Grunt, standing beside me, breathing through the back of his throat the way Krogans do, was asking Wrex if he could fulfil the Rite of Passage to join Clan Urdnot. Suddenly, some other Krogan starts scoffing, refusing to show him respect. Here I was, an intruder on this planet, in the midst of factional fighting for which I had little context and no jurisdiction – but my friend was being slagged off by some punk who needed to be put in his time-out chair, and a Renegade trigger appeared. Of course I pulled it. Shepard reared back and cracked her head against the loudmouth’s hump, staggering the beast, knocking him back. I remember laughing. It was so audacious, so utterly extreme. An armour-plated dinosaur, already flushed with a cocktail of rage issues and persecution complexes that manifest in crazed, bloodthirsty violence – and my Shepard clonked his head like a Stooge.
Shepard shook it off, glared him down, and carried on like that was completely normal. Because that’s what Shepard does: the insane, the extraordinary, the unbelievable; because that’s what humans – and Shepard most of all – do repeatedly throughout this game.
For the span of three narratives Shepard has been permitted to do the completely irrational – the impossibly grand. Even the dialogue wheel mechanic is all about performing feats the defy common sense. Got enough morality points? You can persuade people to do what you want. Not argue logically. Not draw a helpful diagram that will talk them through the slippery slope of their prospective actions. You calm them, or shut their flapping mouths the hell down. You perform an entirely irrational act – essentially not arguing better, but arguing more – and drag them along with the strength of your convictions, so magnetic and full of purpose that people fall immediately into line. They act irrationally too. Miranda and Jack, two souped up biotics on polar opposite ends of the girls-your-mum-wants-you-to-date-spectrum are ready to tear each other, the ship, and probably your pet hamster, apart; and yet you can swagger into the room and tell them to stow that crap for later. And they do. Because you are so damn convincing, and they believe in you.
Because that’s what humans do, what for the majority of these games humans are presented doing: we believe in irrational things. Falling in love with Garrus or Tali makes no sense (with a Turian diet there will be no sharing a milkshake at the local diner; meeting the Quarian in-laws requires Haz-Mat suits and an unsettling amount of handy-wipes) but we do it anyway. Stopping a war with yelling makes no sense, but Shepard gets it done. We push boundaries, try out new and impossible circumstances, and by believing that we are up to the challenge we make it so. We find a giant space-doohickie frozen beside Pluto and we poke at it until we make it work. We meet a bunch of xenophobic council members who think humans are too pushy and not ready to become Spectres, so we keep pushing those council members until they agree to make us Spectres. We’re told that there can be no end to the conflict between Geths and Quarians, and one way or another we end it. We get sent on a suicide mission and damned if we don’t fly on back. The entire series has been an affront to expectation: we believe we can do something and we make it true; tell Shepard she can’t and she’ll call you back when she has.
We humans test and prod and evolve; we believe that we can stretch ourselves beyond our limitations. And it is when synthetics start feeling the inexorable tug of self-awareness that they start to have faith in things too: impossible, unquantifiable things that expand beyond the laws of physics and math. Legion asks if he has a soul (and goddamn it he does); EDI wonders how to quantify affection, but ultimately realises there are no instruction manuals or wikis to put in context what she feels for Jeff. They step beyond their programming, reaching out into a world beyond the prison of their specifications, and they start, finally, to believe.
What the concluding moments of Mass Effect exhibit, in contrast, what the Catalyst in all his unevolved synthetic wisdom presents, is the final vulgarity of the rational. He – in whatever long-forgotten transom of time he was programmed – did the cold, logical math. Hypothesis: synthetics will destroy humans. Conclusion: fact. And so he did what any artless machine would do: he programmed a corrective equation to regulate the chaos. It’s like a leap day; only with genocide. And for him that was fine, because in the grander scheme of things life was permitted to perpetuate and the universe went spinning on.
But we are human. We do not surrender to the tedious drudgery of calculation. We know that if life is simply the perpetuation of a constant then it is nothing but code, and our mortal span merely components in a Rube Goldberg Machine. So we choose the other thing. We believe. We go on pushing and prodding and challenging the universe to be worthy of our questioning gaze.
But not this guy: this Catalyst. He has no imagination, no music, no soul. His solutions are just more of the same tedious robotic oppression that has spooled out over countless millennia: reprogram, delete, overwrite. Press the button; justify the means; become what you have fought against for so long…
But he didn’t see me head-butt that Krogan in the face.
He didn’t see Liara long so much for her lover that she shot her name into the stars. He didn’t see Tali finally lay eyes on her home world, or Mordin erupt in a curative blaze of mercy. He didn’t even believe that all of these things were possible, and that at the same time none of them were, all in a multitude of versions of this wonderfully malleable tale. He doesn’t know what it means to believe that things can change without control and domination.
I guess what I wanted from the ending – what I’m still waiting for in fact – is my Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz moment. The point where we get to pull back the curtain, show this little glowing bastard just how artless and crass these options are, how ridiculous his whole existence is. I know it’s childish – petulant even – but I want to swim in the moment where my Shepard stands up and says, ‘No.’ Where she looks that shimmering monster of equation in the eye and says, ‘These are not real choices, and I don’t believe in you.’
‘But the probability of singularity occurring again in the future is certain,’ Casper will say, tilting his head incredulously.
‘Hm,’ my Shepard will grunt, nodding ever so slightly through the pain. ‘That all … sounds very … logical.’ She’ll inch closer to the window.
‘But you must choose.’
My Shepard will cough, tasting it then: the blood. She’ll feel it in her lungs, wet and heavy, somehow cold. ‘You thought it all out,’ she’ll say. ‘Simple.’
‘It is the only solution.’
‘But you see,’ she’ll say. She’ll look out into the abyss where the cacophonous ballet of conflict rages. She’ll see something, a spark in the gloom. Her spine will straighten. Her eyes will light with fire. ‘You see,’ she’ll say, her teeth clenched, the pain twisting her lip up into a sneer, ‘I’ve still got them.’
A thrum of detonations will light with bubbles of flame, and in front of it all the familiar streak of the Normandy will flash on by, still firing those wonderfully calibrated guns, still dancing through the maw, not fleeing from the fight.
The Catalyst will turn his insubstantial head toward the stars. ‘It is inevitable,’ he will say. But this time it will be almost a question.
‘But I believe –’ she will say. ‘That you and your goddamn solution, can go to hell.’
…And I don’t have a clue what my Shepard does next. All I know is she will be tall, taller than I’ve ever seen her before. She will be like a phoenix, risen anew and glowing in the light of that onslaught as the universal alliance behind her rips through the Reaper hoard. They might not win, they might gamble and lose and watch the whole cycle spin into ash; but I’ve believed in Shepard long enough. I’ve seen her do exceptional, glorious things, and I believe that she can hold back the tide of unwinnable odds.
No bending, no breaking, no compromise. In my mind she’s going to stand there, glaring that glowing freak down. With the fleet that she has impossibly mustered through her tenacity and force of will still ripping everything arrogant enough to call itself ‘inevitable’ into drifting, incalculable shards.
(Original versoion published in the BSN ‘All Were Thematically Revolting…’ thread: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/11435886/)