‘This is the way the world ends’: A Response to Mass Effect 3’s Extended Cut
[As will be almost immediately evident – this post was originally written (but not published here) back in July – but there’s nothing like fermented heartbreak, so please endulge me. And it should go without saying: spoilers, spoilers, spoilers…]
Huh. Well that was a hell of a thing.
Depending on who you ask, last week (26th June) Bioware, the creators of Mass Effect 3, either ‘caved to fan pressure’, ‘corrected their ham-fisted, hurried storytelling’, or ‘wanted to provide closure for those who appreciated their vision’ by releasing an Extended Cut of the concluding game of their trilogy. From whichever angle it was viewed, this free downloadable addition to the current game was a direct response to months of criticism directed at the game’s plot holes, inconsistencies and sloppy design – all elements that even the creators themselves came to admit needed clarification lest the confusion continue. Many have found these revised and expanded endings to be satisfactory (if not outright brilliant) additions to the Mass Effect lore, which is no doubt a good thing. I however will have to admit right out of the gates – before the tenor of my response drifts into inevitable sorrow – that I was not one of those people. So if you are (quite understandably) sick of hearing people whine about these endings, it might be a good idea to pass on by right now…
Many (myself included), had criticised the game’s original ending for its thematic, character and logical inconsistencies, and although a great deal of effort was exerted to justify these problems in the new cut, it is odd to note that so many narrative absurdities still litter the work – this time arguably even more pronounced as they work overtime to clear up the jarring details left hanging the first time around.
Now, crewmates that were once somehow mysteriously transported onto the Normandy are shown in the process of being bundled onboard – despite the fact that this involves the ship parking itself right directly front of a giant Reaper, a creature that was spewing a volley of devastating lasers that were only moments before annihilating objects as small as scampering humans with surgical precision. The Reaper, Harbinger, seems to take a mystifying coffee break while Shepard evacuates her team: ‘No, you guys have your conversation. I’m just gonna fill in this crossword for a minute and – Oh? You’re done? Well: Laser! Laser! BLAM! Mmwoah Ha Haaaa…‘
Similarly the ship’s pilot Joker no longer runs off during the battle and abandons you without a reason; he is shown being ordered to do so by Admiral Hackett because – well, because… Just because. You know what Admirals are like. And although Joker looks momentarily conflicted, fan-favourite character Garrus leans over the console to agree with the call and tell him to scram. So now you are no longer abandoned by the guy who earlier in the game promised never to leave you, you’re also abandoned by the guy who promised that he’d walk into hell with you and order a beer. So that’s two people off the Christmas list.
Perhaps the most extraordinary addition to the work, however, is the further elucidation of the Catalyst character. Previously your standard deus ex machina (literally a God from a Machine) through expanded conversational choices he is now revealed to be a sociopathic Artificial Intelligence, designed several eons ago to solve the ‘inevitable’ problem of synthetics and organics eventually slaughtering one another. Having watched The Matrix and Terminator 2: Judgement Day one too many times, the Catalyst used his dispassionate machine logic and decided that the best way to stop the bloodshed was to just kill all advanced species himself and save them all the time. He therefore rolled out a swarm of killer space-locust who turned everyone to goo, and to make ever more machines of slaughter out of their remains. You know, as you do.
Once again players are not offered the opportunity to point out that they may well have already solved the synthetic versus organic conflict that has him worked up in such a tizzy; synthetics and organics are currently working together right now, knocking on the outside door to come in and kick his ass. Likewise we still get no explanation for why he’s decided to wear a dead kid’s face to have this conversation; nor do we know why he’s so eager to tell us the best way to wipe he and his creations out, despite arguing that his is the only solution.
And so, unswayed, the Catalyst, ultimate face and voice of the Reapers, goes ahead and explains his new options to resolve the conflict, each of which remain precisely as they were in the original ending, and all still carrying the arbitrary price of death:
Firstly, you can Destroy the Reapers, but by doing so also wipe out all sentient life forms, thereby committing genocide on a race of creatures that have been proven to respect life and fear the implications of death, and who in most case are fighting alongside you at that very moment.
Secondly, you can Control the Reapers, dissolving yourself to overtake the hive mind of the Reapers, brainwashing them to do your will (something that you’ve been trying to stop people doing for three straight games).
Thirdly, you can choose to merge all organics and synthetics together as one race, thereby destroying all distinction and diversity and removing (in the Catalyst’s rather eugenically-perverse vision) all cause for conflict. Essentially you pull a reverse King Solomon, employing his wisdom in some ugly, monstrous reverse: ‘Can’t decide which is better, robots or fleshbags? Well just smoosh them together, natch!’
If anything, the three conclusions become even more twisted and unappealing, because the source of these options is better understood: each is the product of an incomprehensibly deranged mind; the most successful, pitiless mass-murderer in all of existence is offering you three choices that will fulfil his ultimate scheme, and you get to pick one to help him out. …So yay? In your name you get to impose his will upon the universe, become a Reaper yourself, and decide how all life will be lived in the future.
But for three games we have been invited to investigate the myriad examples of when authority is unwillingly exerted over another species – when decisions of how another sentient being should live their life is unceremoniously stripped away: Indoctrination, the Geth, the Krogan, the horror of the Batarian slave-traders, Protheans misguidedly dominating other species under their rule, the mass slaughter perpetrated by the Reapers. Every race we meet seems to be healing from some kind of atrocity in which their autonomy was maligned or abused, and in every instance – every single one – the writers present these acts with all the grim moral ambiguities that such domination evokes.
That’s not to say that they are always depicted as outright wrong (one may of course side with the decisions to keep the Krogan sterile; to wipe out the Geth wholesale), but at no point in this universe is it appropriate to say that ‘I-will-force-my-will-upon-you-because-I-know-better’ ever ends happily. There is always resentment, there is always horror, and the game invites (does not compel, but I would argue encourages) you to fight against the arrogance of such dominion.
Until the end.
In the end you are directly responsible for making such a choice. After years of wandering the universe sweeping up the wreckage of a hundred such abuses – from the thuggery of pirates, to the persecution of entire species – the game forces you to become the thing you have fought. To me it felt like I was not only becoming a Reaper (embracing at least one of their nut-bag visions of the universe), but I also had to be a bully.
Playing through this ending I felt all of this impotent frustration over again – but then I realised there was something new. Because here, newly added to the Extended Cut, a direct response by the creators to the fan’s critical outcry, was a fourth option.
I cannot express the glee I felt at discovering that this fourth option existed.
We did it, I thought. The fans and Bioware connected. They saw what was wrong! They felt the pain. They never wanted to put their audience through all that! Force those who despised the endings down a cattle grid of moral slaughter. Suddenly it was clear that they were going to offer a new way: perhaps not necessarily a better way, but new. For those who remained unnerved by the endings, here was the alternate path; the means to preserve what had meant most to them about their Shepard, and to still defeat the big bad. To stand up and glare it down. To maybe take some hits, but to never acquiesce, not aligning ourselves with the enemy and embracing their psychosis.
And so, in spite of the emotional devastation of her last experience tottering on that spot, my Shepard rallied. She rose: a resounding, towering figure. A silhouette amidst the blaze of ruination around her. Damn right we will not bend, she seemed to be saying. We will not lose faith. We’ll fight on – in a universe of cruel, dispassionate violence and hate, we will forge a path of unity and reassert our indomitable will. We will not be terrified and bullied into submission to some sacrifice of virtue. You cannot lay us on an altar and cut the very heart out of our spirit.
And so, after months of being haunted by that moment, I got to tell the face of all the Reapers to go screw off. Got to tell him right to his smirking little face that his endless, cyclical scheme was madness, and that he was but an unhinged monster on a witless rampage. No matter what his original intentions had once been, he was nothing but a ghoul now, a husk devoid of purpose, bringing darkness and pain wherever his shadow was cast. A mockery to the very life he was trying to ‘preserve’.
And so, my Shepard selected the fourth option, and I readied myself to watch the Reapers feel what happens when the downtrodden bite back…
But instead, the whole goddamn universe ended.
Was wiped out.
I saw a galaxy of life get flamed away in an instant – even after the cause of all that devastation had agreed with me that his ridiculous plan no longer worked. I had shown the villain the flaw in this scheme; he had admitted that his solution was no longer acceptable; but he decided to go and do it anyway. What the hell? The gasoline was already spilled. Why waste it? Like a frenzied child he lit it up because I refused to obey, because I wasn’t willing to perpetuate his narrow vision of existence.
To be honest, it was the most heartbreaking meta-textual moment of narrative I have ever experienced; final proof that the whole promise of individuated interaction that drew me to the Mass Effect universe in the first place (and that was repeated ad nauseum in Bioware’s marketing for half a decade) was a complete misinterpretation on my behalf. This was not my story. This was never my universe. I fell in love with these characters, but I was never fighting beside them. I really was just looking through the window as they talked amongst themselves, imagining what I might say if I was there. I never talked Samara out of killing herself; I never helped Thane reconnect with his son; I never tempted a traumatised biotic to reconnect with the world; I certainly never stared down a Krogan ready to rip me to shreds. I pressed buttons. I stared at a screen. Watched polygons dance.
For months I’ve been hearing critics who decry the fans that have voiced their displeasure at the ending say ‘Why are you getting so upset? It’s just a game’. And not only could I not agree with this sentiment, but on many levels, I literally couldn’t even understand what such a sentiment meant. It wasn’t just a game. It was a world in which you were invited to project yourself: to participate in and influence. It was a reactive agent, and you were – Well, you were any other term than the ‘Catalyst’.
Or it was.
I guess the final message of Mass Effect, the message its creators went to extra pains to communicate, was that yes: it was just a game. There was a structure and there were parameters, and unless you agree to the win-scenario in its absolute moral vacuum, you forfeit your right to success.
Because I refused to play according to the rigid, objectionable rules that Bioware laid down in the final moments of the game, I watched a galaxy of beauty and grace annihilated, and got to acutely feel that it was all my fault. Hell, I was even told I failed by the companion tasked with cataloguing my fight for the ages.
I tried to play by my rules (the rules I had been led to believe up until that point were at the heart of the experience), and was punished for it. Foolishly, I tried to hold on to the beliefs that I thought made human beings more than automatons. Critical Mission Failure. You lose. What a jerk I turned out to be.
Instead I got to watch the galaxy spin on until someone else was willing to come along and push the button I couldn’t. Either way, the only way life perpetuates in this narrative is through an act of fear and moral compromise. Life will go on, but the standard of that life is proved irrelevant. The principles upon which it is now founded are genocide, domination, or the arrogance of compelled mutation. Three games, all leading up to a final thesis of moral futility.
And to add the final insult, it all still gets credited to ‘The Shepard’, even though the thought of such an eventuality literally killed her.
A whimper, not a bang.
And so, if Star Trek is about hope, and Firefly about defiance, and Star Wars is about the balance of good and evil (and infuriatingly stilted dialogue), and Battlestar Galactica is about cycles of self-destruction, and our capacity to alter that inevitability, then in its final moments Mass Effect reveals itself to be wholly about compromise. What are you willing to sacrifice in order to succeed? For some that’s everything.
How far will you compromise those ‘ideals’ that pushed you along the whole time? Or do you even need to sacrifice your beliefs at all? Because if you never saw Synthetics as people, then gravy. Not only does the game force this compromise upon you for victory, but it only rewards you for making a choice that gives you over to your enemy’s point of view.
But what I don’t understand, what even now fills me with bewilderment and genuine shock, is why, if the whole theme was compromise, did they kept insisting that the central thrust of the game was ‘hope’. Liara even throws the term out to future generations in the opening of her holo-log in the ‘Refuse’ ending. We offer you hope.
…No we don’t. We hoped and failed, remember? We didn’t do what apparently needed to be done.
And the word hope is not just a trump card that you can slap own amidst a cavalcade of despair to pretty up the carnage. As silver linings go it’s pretty flimsy. Just four little letters, more a puff of air than a declaration. It has to be attached to something. There has to be something to hope for.
So why on the whole way to those final choices was everyone blathering about hope? I mean, all the ‘I’ll-see-you-after-this-is-all-overs’ were heartbreaking enough, knowing what was to come, but to then have everyone praising Shepard for sticking to her beliefs, a litany of platitudes about how magnificent it was that she never sacrificed what defined her, how that fortitude was a beacon for the peoples of the galaxy. And what for? To be called an abject failure for continuing to stick to those beliefs when it counted most?
In his farewell Javik told my Shepard that she was the ‘avatar’ of all life. That everyone and everything in the universe was looking to her and at her at that very moment. That She was a symbol of all that existence could, and will, become – it is from her metaphorical blood that a new generation will emerge. Even the Illusive Man, while cursing her name in a video feed said that he respected that Shepard’s beliefs never wavered. She would do what she believed in, no matter the cost, no matter what the circumstance.
And then the game places before her three atrocities cooked up by the guy who has been strangling the life out of the universe and demands that she go along with one. Her legacy is to be a sycophant to the sociopath who eons ago lost himself down a perverted path of malformed altruism. Not to shut him down. Not to expose the horror of his actions to him, nor argue him back to sense. To agree that his ways (destruction or control) or his wildest fantasies (* sparkles just-makes-everyones-the-sames rainbows *) are the only way forward for life. We’ve spent hundreds of hours fighting against such twisted ideals, and now we must not only suffer one of them, but wholly embrace it. Make it our own choice.
The Reapers get to stand over us – even metaphorically in their deaths – shouting ‘Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself! What? Gonna cry?’
Hope it aint.
To give them credit, Bioware did ultimately let me reject the three endings that I continued to see as repellent, but the price was that I was no longer permitted to exist in their world anymore. Indeed, they vowed to torch it all down rather they let me spend another second there: ‘The universe ends now. You can see your own way out.’
As the credits rolled and I saw the creators names pass by all I could feel is that it would have been nice if they had have let me know all this three games ago: that I, and my dorky little ideals, weren’t welcome. Bioware disabused me of my misconception that I was even part of their vision. I guess I was just fuel for that purging fire that the Catalyst wanted to unleash upon the galaxy – too mired in my primitive hopes and faith to exist in his new galactic order.
But I guess if I hadn’t taken the ride I would never have enjoyed such rich characters. And it’s true: you can’t grieve for something if you didn’t love it first.