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.]

Mass Effect 3 Control Ending

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.

It wasn’t.

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.

Mass Effect 3 Catalyst Conversation

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.

Mass Effect 3 The Crucible

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.

It’s farcical.

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

Well, because…

Because she just is?

Flawless, Socrates.

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.

42 Responses to “A Set of Lies Agreed Upon: Mass Effect 3 and Revisionist History”

  1. concernedgamer82 Says:

    Prior to the release of Mass Effect 3, there was this big debate between Paragon players and Renegade players as to which group was favored the most. The Renegade players seemed to argue that their Shepard should be allowed to be a complete a-hole and have the rest of the universe like them for it. It became pretty heated in the Bioware forums. I eventually stopped participating, but I think that Bioware probably paid close attention to this argument and inserted what is essentially a “Renegade no matter what” ending into the game. The end result being that the ending makes absolutely no sense, unless you consider the next possibility.

    The other possibility, considering Bioware’s penchant for borrowing things from other sci-fi narratives (they borrow some elements from Babylon 5, Firefly, etc.), they may have decided to borrow from Dune before ending the game. As I understand the post-Dune novels (Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, etc.) Paul Atreides was attempting to put humanity on the “Golden Path,” a task he later abandoned as he realized the he would, in effect, have to become a tyrant and cause stagnation in order for it to happen. His son eventually takes up the task and accomplishes it after causing a few thousand years of stagnation. The plan to trigger the “Golden Path” required crushing stagnation to force humanity to reach for some kind of freedom and growth, requiring them to overcome their limitations to escape.

    When I read Owen’s explanation of Mass Effect 3’s ending, it triggered this thought about Dune. The Catalyst’s job is to create the stagnation to force the advanced civilizations of the galaxy to overcome their own limitations and shortcomings. The problem is, as you say, the endings do not result in overcoming anything, but rather the destruction of one or more advanced civilizations.

    However, I have also considered that considering the controversy surrounding the ending of Far Cry 3, and how it pokes fun of gamers in general, Bioware probably developed a screwed up, nonsensical ending such as this as a means to make fun of the fans who have invested themselves in the series up to that point.

    In the end, there’s really only one way Bioware’s going to change anything, and that’s if Mass Effect 4/Dragon Age 3 suffer from really poor sales upon release. That may effectively jar them back to reality. This might get us a belated, grudging change to the ending (probably won’t happen), or there will be a reboot after the next set of Mass Effect games when Karpyshyn might be asked to return to writing the series again to give it a better ending (which is probably slightly more likely to happen).

    Personally, I hope that Mass Effect 4 actually suffers from very poor sales (Duke Nukem-style, for instance), in order to drive the point home to Bioware.

    • These are great points, concernedgamer82.

      I too have wondered about that seeming shift from the ‘paragonish’ play style of the first two games, and the enforced ‘renegade’ ‘twist’ of ending. I’ve even heard people on the Bioware forums quite aggressively arguing that it was about time that the renegade Shepard’s got some love …but I just don’t really get it.

      After all, I had a pure-renegade Shepard character (alongside my paragon one, and my main Shepard, who was a mix of the two) and even he didn’t want anything that was offered at the ending. He was a contemptible, self-serving bastard, but he wasn’t psychotic – and being forced to comply, becoming the very thing that he was intent on destroying and ultimately proving it ‘right’, really quite pissed him off.

      • concernedgamer82 Says:

        Agreed. My recent rewatching of the endings (so I don’t have to reinstall) gives me the impression that Bioware was trying to smooth over the Catalyst cluster**** by trying to infuse the ending cutscenes with a “you did the right thing” feel. For me, though, it just isn’t enough. It just feels lazy.

  2. This is a comical misunderstanding of what I was doing when I wrote my essay. I can’t even argue with your assertions about me because you’re making them up. I’m not sure how many times I have to say “I am not making a value judgment” for it to sink in.

    • If I misrepresented your position in any way, then you have my sincere apologies, Phil, but I was merely responding to the content of your piece.

      If you could be more specific about what I ‘made up’, then I could clarify (or correct) myself further, but I feel certain that everything I was saying was a direct extension of your analysis.

      But perhaps that lack of a value judgement you mentioned is the cause for our disconnect. See, as I said in the article itself, I am not attacking you – you are welcome to whatever reading you wish of the piece (although I did take issue with some of your more generous leaps in logic).

      My scorn was (and is) directed solely at the writers who thought that this vile immoral hypothetical was good storytelling. If my contempt for the message of the ending, which you were apparently writing completely dispassionately about, seemed to splash onto you, then that was not my intent.

      (Although, the premise of your article was that Mass Effect 3 was a misunderstood work of narrative more worthy of consideration than people had previously granted it…)

      • Drayfish, I hate to say this, but you’re wasting your time with Owen. Looks like he’s even not interested in a civilized discussion. Even worse, he’s calling you an idiot on Twitter and trying to gain sympathy votes by linking your blog and making fun of you. Yeah, Phil, it’s hard to take you and your analysis seriously when, at the first sight of criticism, you start acting like a facetious entitled manchild.

        Anyway, Drayfish, I enjoy reading your columns on why the Mass Effect 3 ending failed and I wonder if I can get your thoughts on this: http://www.nexusmods.com/masseffect3/mods/66/?

        I remember you mentioning this way back in one of your posts, but it has now a bad ending alongside the good ending, also the modders will be adding a new Harbinger sequence in the upcoming update.

      • Thanks mst3krom, much appreciated.

        And I don’t really care if he’s name calling (as you said, it’s a pretty weak tactic and I’ve been called much worse), I’d just hate to think that I had genuinely misunderstood, and then misrepresented something he’d said.

        And I have always absolutely adored MEHEM. Indeed, it made me wish that I had played Mass Effect on the PC so that I could fully embrace it as my ending. I mentioned it very briefly in my Marauder Shields column (https://drayfish.wordpress.com/tag/marauder-shields/), but what I failed to say then was that I thought it was a beautiful metatextual realisation of all of the promises about player agency that Bioware made throughout the series, but abandoned the moment the Catalyst showed his face.

        It (like Marauder Shields) allows players unsatisified with what they had just witnessed (as I was) the opportunity to actually reclaim control of their character by literally altering the game; and for a text that always purported to let the player to be the author of their own destiny, it seemed a natural extension of its storytelling. If the game’s authors were going to abandon their own narrative, its ingenious, creative fan base could claim it back.

        Of course, that’s not to say that it’s for everyone, but it most certainly worked for me.

    • ReddofNonnac Says:

      Uh question, if as you assert in your article “Thus the Catalyst would establish the benchmark I mentioned earlier, as a way of testing civilizations and driving them to improve. The benchmark is a standard of cooperation, in a sense. To reach that benchmark, a civilization would have to be able to build the Crucible and then use it with the Citadel,” Why is it Vigil stated they flood through the Citadel at the start of every harvest and then shut down the relay network so only they can use it? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9KW1fo8mqs

      Vigil also states it was the Prothean scientists who stopped the signal from reaching the Keepers which in reality broke the cycle. So your idea that “The standard we met required cooperation without subjugation (which is why the Protheans couldn’t do it,” is not really true as Shepard and her team only prevented Saren from restarting the cycle. The Protheans gave this cycle a chance. So without the Protheans this cycle would not have had the chance and would have been overrun just like the Protheans.

      Can you explain these holes in your theory? This is key moment in ME1 that you don’t really explain.

  3. melindasnodgrss Says:

    Lovely analysis, as always. I’ve been thinking about tackling a blog post about how Citadel creates just tons of problems and opportunities all of which were ignored by this less than effective writer’s room at BioWare. You’ve inspired me so I guess I’ll do it. 🙂

  4. Tom Painter Says:

    Fantastic article once again Colin, you have my admiration. I do, however feel somewhat guilty for inciting you to rip the ME3 band-aid off by linking you to Mr Owen’s analysis. For reopening your mind to the aneurism inducing logical/thematic/narrative/ethical clusterf**k that so horrifically embodied such squandered potential I apologise. I did very much enjoy your ranting though, and agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments therein.

    To add a little of my own reading of his critique, I felt that there was an unsaid acknowledgement of the unsubstantiated nature of the Catalyst’s existence, within the piece, whether Mr Owen was conscious of it I do not know. Given that his work was espoused as having been informed by a recent playthrough of the entirety of the trilogy, I found it remarkable telling that two thirds of the narrative were untouched, namely Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.

    I would personally attribute this to the fact that these titles represent events either entirely neutral to Casper the Genocidal Ghost’s existence (almost as if it were a last minute narrative ass-pull) or, “oddly” enough, entirely antithetical to it’s existence (the need for Sovereign to do anything, let alone 3 times).

    Basing a theory on what can charitably be referred to as assumptions is already very shaky ground. Compounding the issue further by ignoring or consciously obfuscating evidence that contradicts your point of view is academically heinous. This would be a blood-bath at academic peer review and part of why I found myself more irritaed by his analysis than I have been by similar theories posisted on myriad forums over the past two years.

    I’d like to pick apart one portion of his analysis, one that you mentioned and articulated wonderfully. That of the Catalyst’s ‘test’. Mr Owen posits that the Catalyst instigated the harvesting cycles as some attempt to encourage interstellar civilizations to co-operate towards a mutual good and that only once a united front of organic and synthetic species had arisen would they be deemed worthy of the cessation of the cycles.

    I’m not going to ask: ‘Why must such an alliance be forged through genocide and not diplomacy?”

    I’m not going to ask: “If the whole thing was a test to see if organics could accept synthetic life and co-operate, why is one of the solutions to completely invalidate synthetic life as actual lifeforms by annihilating them specifically, so organics can start afresh. (Really lazer focussed message there Catalyst.) Why
    another solution is to create a Galactic Tzar at the helm of an armada of incomparably powerful death machines/museum exibitions with spurious definitions of ‘the weak’ and ‘the many’ that can subjugate the entirety of the galaxy at a whim. The third solution being to violate all organic life from virus to grass to shifty cow to thresher maw to rachnii queen at the subatomic level and to cheapen any notion of accepting synthetics as alive because they can only be that if they have glowing green ‘eyes’.” – Woah, I let that one get away from me, apologies.

    Instead I’m going to do what Mr Owen should have done and take into account the revelations made way back in Mass Effect, by everyone’s favourite musical VI – Vigil. Those pertaining to the tactics used by the Reapers in order to cleanse the galaxy. Tactics totally in-keeping with their, then, role as a Lovecraftian menace. Reapers pour in through the heart of galactic civilization, the Citadel, a technological beacon in the void so tantalizing it never fails to become the centre of galactic civilization each cycle. They do so in overwhelming force cutting the head from their foe. They shut down every Mass Relay in the galaxy thereby eliminating transgalactic travel and communication for any but themselves. They leave the terrified peoples of the Milky Way cut-off from one another. They then use the census data kept at the heart of galactic governance as a check-list to systematically annihilate every sufficiently advanced race in the galaxy; using a mix of 2km long sentient death-machines, indoctrinating people and turning them against their allies and transforming the dead into twisted pseudo-mechanical abominations and hurling them back at their families, loved-ones and friends as expendable shock troops.

    Firstly, I fail to see how such a tactic is conducive to creating a united galaxy. One might even say it seems to have been specifically designed to ensure such an event never takes place. Secondly, I truly fail to see any benevolence in this strategy. Any defence mustered is one made in desperation and short-order, there is no guiding hand at work.

    With that, the argument falls apart. For someone that is writing an analysis shortly after completing a full trilogy playthrough I cannot see how the argument even started, let alone, coalesced within the cognitive dissonance the Catalyst’s statements engender.

    I did enjoy reading another take on the ending, I just wish Mr Owen’s analysis had been more substantive and his musings on the future of the series hadn’t somehow managed to tick all my personal narrative loathing and sci-fi irritation boxes. I do however approve of his attempt.

    The feeling I was left with after reading the articles was one that bugged me at the time of ME3’s release. That of the central conceit of the Catalyst’s purpose. Leaving behind the jarring narrative shift from, ‘overcoming the inevitable through co-operation in spite of our differences and in so doing discovering that it is said differences that make us strong’ to ‘please solve the metaphysical conflict between organic and synthetic life’ that we all got intellectual whiplash from. Leaving aside the horrific notion that the last billion+ years of systematic genocide has been motivated by the potential for worse to happen, a hypothesis come to with no prior examples of its occurence, leaving it an extrapolation from 0. We are left with the Catalyst’s declaration:

    “The created will always rebel against their creators.”

    A statement I found to be entirely fallacious. I feel it has been worded in such a way as to artificially create a sense of moral complexity to the situation. More accurately worded it should read:

    “The enslaved will always rebel against their enslavers.”

    It seems like far less of a moral quandry when placed in those terms doesn’t it?

    It is a declaration that I not only find more intellectually honest but one that I have found to be more readily supported by Mass Effect’s narrative both in broad and personal strokes.

    – The krogan rebelling against the yoke of a civilization they have been dragged into before they were ready. Enslaved to the ideals of others, ideals antithetical to their biology.
    – The rachnii at Peak 15 on Noveria.
    – The geth against the quarians.
    – The crew under Jacob Taylor’s father.
    – David Archer rebelling against the enslavement of his mind via Project Overlord.
    – Miranda fleeing the oppression of her machiavellian father.
    – The Shadow Broker superceding his predecessor, a man that viewed him as property.
    – Damn near every race that came into contact with the Protheans and did not aquiesce to their terms.
    – The synthetic creations of the species under the thrall of the Leviathans. In a galaxy where organic minds are controlled and wholly subservient to the whims of this dictatorship, synthetics are beyond their control. It seems entirely appropriate that sentient beings that cannot be shackled by the whims of the Leviathan species would rebel. In all honesty they sound like freedom fighters in such a totalitarian mind-state. They would be the heroes if said events were detailed in a story.

    I’m sure I’ve missed a number of other examples but those were the few I could muster on short notice. It is my assessment that such a sentiment was deemed ‘too shallow’ by whichever Bioware writer was in charge of the Catalyst’s horrific little screed (I know popular consensus holds Casey Hudson and Mac Walters to account for this, I’ll not deny that their post launch behaviour made them effective scapegoats and justified targets, but I have always felt that their involvement has become ‘fact’ by virtue of enough people repeatedly stating it to be so). Alas, as your penultimate paragraph so wonderfully articulates, such is the fallability of humans.

    Well that was more ranty than I had expected it to be at the start!
    Once again, this is a wonderful article, I look forward to your 2013 retrospective!

    PS – Thank you very much for the shout out and praise, you made my Monday!

    • Great comments, as always, Tom – and my absolute pleasure for the shout out. (I really can’t stress how much I loved your Doctor Who posts.)

      I’m glad that my babbling wasn’t the complete incomprehensible drivel that it felt as I was writing it.

    • melindasnodgrss Says:

      Wow, this was an amazing response, Tom. My hat’s off. I have loved this franchise because of its sense of hope and love and optimism. Virulent enemies find common ground and a common cause. Shepard is there to help midwife these discussions, but it’s the basic sense of decency that links all the various species in this wonderfully complex galaxy. Then all that cooperation is simply thrown away at the end, and these nihilistic choices are all that is offered to us. As Colin knows from my posts on the BioWare site an in private emails — the problem began way back in game one when they didn’t figure out initially how they were going to solve the situation.

      I was sickened by the endings, but I’ve always thought I might have tolerated it a bit better if there had been foreshadowing of the glowing kid much earlier in the series. Instead it felt like a desperate grab to finish a project that was behind schedule.

      Having just finished playing Knights of the Old Republic and getting another person hooked on the brilliant Dragon Age: Origins, it points up all the more the tremendous failure of the Mass Effect series. I frequently argue with my friend George that the journey isn’t enough. The ending has to be worth it too.

      • Tom Painter Says:

        Thank you for your kind words Melindasnodgrass, they are very welcome. From the moment Sovereign made his declaration of intent on Virmire, ‘You exist because we allow it and you will end because we demand it’, I knew that any attempt to explain the Reapers origins or motivations was going to, at best, fail at being satisfactory and at worst fail miserably (that Bioware somehow exceeded the latter is a testament to just how throughly the ball was dropped). To paste wholesale my thoughts on dealing with such an antagonist within a narrative from another site:

        – As much as the Elder God inspired ‘we are beyond your comprehension as our are motivations’ creates a wonderfully grim-dark foe to face, it does increase the possibility of bemusing your audience should you decide to elaborate further.

        Personally, I have always felt there are two options when addressing such an ephemeral narrative instigator:

        Either break it down, revealing it to be a ruse to mask a very – for lack of a better word – human motivation. Obfuscating mundane motivations with rhetoric is a common method of justifying atrocities throughout history. In the case of the Reapers their motive is purely domination. Subjugation of lesser species, using sentient beings as livestock, in the same way sentient beings use ‘lesser’ animals as just that. Proving superiority through dominance but ignoring how horrifically you stacked the deck in your favour in order to do so.

        Conversely create a reason that truly does baffle the audience. By this I don’t mean having Harbinger say ‘kittens’ as the why for the harvest (though that makes as much sense as what we got *hyperboly police coming*). I mean make their reasoning contingent on their fundamental nature. In the case of the Reapers, they are functionally immortal, a billion plus years and counting, there are vessels in that fleet that have watched entire stars form and go supernovae during their ‘lives’. You could tie their motivations into their longevity. We already know that the millenia long lives of asari result in them making decisions beneficial for themselves and not others. A plan that takes 300 years to take effect is fine for them, not so much turians, batarians or humans but their concerns don’t register. Extrapolate that to eternity. For an eternal being all is irrelevant except that which could stop their existence. In this case the heat death of the universe. If they harvest to increase their numbers in order to escape/fight/reverse an event 100,000,000,000,000 years in the future, I would believe that such a concept would be beyond the comprehension of mortal beings. It goes against the fundamentally short-sighted nature of organic thinking, evidenced throughout the history of the ME universe. All this suffering is so that something might happen in a hundred trillion years? It could also feed back into the first point, ultimately this is a very personal goal, that of self preservation, but also one fundamental to living beings. They aren’t fighting to save the universe, at the time of their goal’s completion the universe will be nothing but vaccum and radiation thus not making it a needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few quandry. Just a possibility.

        There is a third that is much trickier. Providing multiple possible reasons with varying degrees of believability. I’ve seen this rarely work in fiction, often leaving people annoyed without concrete answers and others satisfied because an answer they like is one of the possibilities. For me I’ve only seen this work (kind of) in the comic series ‘Y the Last Man’ with the one caveat that the answer to the central conceit of that series that I find most believable is still based in pseudo-scientific hokum long since debunked. However, within the universe presented, it was not enough to cut suspension of disbelief. It’s that last part that I feel can make or break this third type of ending. –

        My thoughts, during my original playthrough of ME3 as to the nature of the Crucible and the Catalyst have been perfectly executed upon in Koobismo’s work ‘Marauder Shields’ which has taken mere internal musings that I had, shown me I was not alone in thinking them and run off on a fantastic and ultimately consistent alternate ending. Which I very much look forward to seeing the conclusion of.

        The Reapers were never a complex enemy Their intentions were simple. But simplicity does not necessitate shallowness. Their intention is nothing short of armageddon, a feat that antagonists in narative mostly attempt once and fail. The Reapers have been doing it, unimpeded, for over a billion years. They have the systematic annihlation of the greatest civilizations life has to offer down to a science, nay an art form. Attempting to add emotional complexity, personal nuance or philisophical naval-gazing on top of such horrifically bombastic goals is an exercise in futility. It never had to happen, leave such musings to the downfall of Cerberus, with the road to hell and all that.

        They should never have attempted to explain the Reapers. Let their mixed messages of dispassionate logic and barely disguised hatred of organic beings (seen in the words of their vanguards and their methods of war) provide veiled evidence for their possible motivition. What they presented was THE threat to life in the Milky Way. A proven one. A threat of such magnitude that the war crimes and internicine strife of the peoples of the galaxy seem petty in comparison. The only force capable of galvanising individuals and empires in allegiance to a common cause – nothing more or less than survival. The driving force of life itself.

        All Hells-a Coming, they can decide to die on their feet, fighting their fate or die on their knees, accepting it. This cycle can decide to ignore the adantage the last gave them, squander the one hope of a dieing civilization, or they can show the galaxy that even gods can bleed.

    • Heaven Smile Says:

      “I know popular consensus holds Casey Hudson and Mac Walters to account for this, I’ll not deny that their post launch behavior made them effective scapegoats and justified targets, but I have always felt that their involvement has become ‘fact’ by virtue of enough people repeatedly stating it to be so”

      If you know where to look, you can see where it all started:

      But there is more definite proof on the downloadable app named “The Last Hours of Mass Effect 3” by Geoff Keighley (a gaming “journalist”). It mentions how the creation of the ending was handled, how the players “dont really NEED all the answer to the Mass Effect universe”, how Mc Walters made this paper with a vision of “The First Matrix movie” (but given the fact that we have a conversation with a Godlike puppeteer, he may be referring to The Architect from the SECOND movie) and down below says: “Lots of speculation for everyone!” (http://i.imgur.com/yTeXw.jpg), and its the same app where the following video and the infamous meme of “Having a final boss is so video-gamey” come from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16AHDT4POZc

      You may want to take a look someday. You have to pay for the app, but given the fact that they dont deserve our money, you may as well torrent it.

      • Tom Painter Says:

        I have seen the above information source, it was quite the damning piece of evidence against both men’s abilities at effective story construction. However, I would wager that the larger factor which played into the accusations against them, and the true instigator of the rumor, came from the what were alleged to be Patrick Weeke’s statements on the Penny Arcade forum under the moniker ‘Takyris’. In which the finger of blame was pointed squarely at these men. Patrick has at all turns vehemently denied that this post was made by himself and his twitter account at the time revealed nothing but support for ME3’s conclusion.

        Is it possible the ending is the narrative equivalent of a brown note as a result of the hubris of two individuals? Possibly. Is any of the evidence put forth actual confirmation of such? Unfortunately no.

      • Heaven Smile Says:

        Given Bioware’s track record of pulling an Orwellian Retcon everytime something they dont like happen (as stated by drayfish on how they silence people’s opinion about anything on a public forum, even if the discussion is making the endings look good like The Indoctrination Theory), their violent denial just makes it more damning.

        From the days of Hepler, to ME3 ending:

        I assure you, Tom, that the App more or less shows those 2 were in charge of everything. The videos inside it even shows that they refer to each other (Casey and Walters) rather than any other member of the writing team (when reffering to anything related to the ending. So its clear that they WERE and still ARE the masters behind the ending.

        I should re-install the App at some point and take more screenshots next time. I only have these 2 for some reason, and they are the last 2 pages:

        The quote “I want to be in control of where i am going, what i am there to do and the choices that i am making.” followed by Geoff own quote “And that, right there, is exactly why players feel the way they do about Mass Effect.” seem at odd with one another. If they both know that the series is loved for the feeling of agency one has over the world, then why in FUCK would you inflict an ending that does NONE of that?

        What is worse is that we cant even blame EA for this fiasco. It seems Bioware had authorial control over most of the series all along. Meaning that there were doing all this under their own hubris: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/123200-EA-Gave-BioWare-Complete-Creative-Control

        Then again, EA could have forced them to say that, sinking their reputation even further. But then again, who accepts such order without storming off the company? If they are innocent, they will just go away than destroying their image.

  5. concernedgamer82 Says:

    I agree with you on most of the points you make, Tom. I do, however, disagree about Cerberus. I have never thought Cerberus had good intentions. I’ve believed, since before the release of Mass Effect 3, that The Illusive Man was always someone that was going to make a power play at the most opportune moment. I believe he suffered the same delusion that Saren did: He believed he could take control of the Reapers before they completely took control of him.

    I agree that the Reapers were mishandled. In the first game Sovereign seemed to imply that they were the masters of themselves, and all they surveyed. That implication continued in Mass Effect 2, with the Collectors being revealed to be servants of the Reapers (Harbinger specifically). This made the Reapers seems even more menacing than they were in the original Mass Effect. The last few minutes of Mass Effect 3 changed the Reapers from being a dark, virtually all-powerful menace to being nothing more than lapdogs of a malfunctioning, (the only logical explanation I can glean from the circular illogic of the Catalyst) deceitful AI.

    One other explanation I can glean from the Catalyst is that the Catalyst does not really exist, but is rather a holographic illusion speaking lies to Shepard to get him/her to commit to some sort of action (which is irrelevant, because it was going to happen regardless). This explanation only makes sense if you think about the fourth “Refusal” ending when the Catalyst’s voice changes to that of a Reaper. Anyway, this is simple speculation on my part, and doesn’t really have any further evidence to support it beyond it’s addition to the game post-Extended Cut, and, as such, would lend itself to the same post-ending retcon arguments (it was added after release, making it irrelevant, much like the DLC) that I have already seen, and largely agree with.

    I went on Youtube earlier to view the endings again, and it occurred to me that the endings seem like something I’ve seen before. The original Deus Ex game had such endings (though sufficiently more involved and unique). These endings were Destroy, Control, or Merge (Synthesize).

  6. melindasnodgrss Says:

    Okay, wow again. And Even Gods Can Bleed is an awesome title. If you don’t use it may I? (I suck at titles.) 🙂

    I think the disappointment was so keen and so deep because they had raised the stakes from game 1 to game 2. Harbinger was terrifying to me — especially when he started calling out Shepard by name and threatening in that particularly malevolent way. The fact that this god-like ship had noticed a small, squeaking organic was horrifying. If you didn’t play smart you lost people, perhaps even your Shepard, but you could win. Too late for hundreds of thousands of people, but many more had been saved by the defeat of the Collectors.

    As Colin can tell you my blog is littered with posts about Mass Effect and the stunning failure that the series ultimately proved to be. They made promises all through game 1 and 2 and then yanked the rug out from under us at the end of 3. You can’t build up reader/viewer/player expectations in that way then fail to keep the promise and not expect people to scream. They had taught us we could win, that unity through diversity was a potent combination, that people of good will can make a difference, that love can grow in ashes and fear. Then they told us to pick a genocide (both the green and the red choices amounted to that for me) or a dictatorship. I always felt the afterthought fourth choice was a big poke in the eye to the fans, and I have no respect for people who show contempt for their fans.

    The first job of a creator is to entertain. If we succeed in that effort then we can think about perhaps also making people think, but we have an obligation to the people who lay out money for our books, movies, TV shows or games to make it worth the expense. Or as Heinlein once said (paraphrasing) “You’ve got one page to convince people to buy your book instead of the 6 pack of beer.” All in all I would rather have had the beer when I got to the end of ME3.

    I’m a huge Dr. Who fan. My signature on emails is Craig Ferguson’s wonderful quote in praise of the Doctor so I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on the show.

    • Tom Painter Says:

      Thank you once again Melinda, you are too kind. You can certainly use ‘Even Gods Can Bleed’ as a title, I was adapting from a wonderful line back in Mass Effect 2 aboard the derelict Reaper. A line that very effectively maintained the Lovecraftian-horror inherent within the, then, notion of what the Reapers were and/or represented, “Chandana said the ship was dead. We trusted him. He was right. But even a dead god can dream.”

      It was a line that has stuck with me, perfectly encapsulating the supreme ‘otherness’ of the Reapers. That even in ‘death’ the threat they represent to all that is good in the galaxy is still present. That unlike in the grand tales of heroism from our collective past, the Herculean task of slaying these demons may still not be enough.

      I’m glad to hear that there is another ‘Whovian’ frequenting these boards. Mention of the good Doctor now has me musing on how a conversation between the 11th and the Catalyst might play out. Hmmm …

      • melindasnodgrss Says:

        The good Doctor would crush the foolish child. Point out the circular logic, stress the horror of all three choices, particularly synthesis in one of his epic rants. How is that any different than the Daleks or the Cybermen except instead of changing individuals it’s changing all living things in the galaxy? He would then go after the innards with the sonic screwdriver, dust off his hands, and stroll back to the Tardis.

      • This. Is. Fantastic.

        I agree completely, Melinda. Indeed, forgive me for reusing some comments I made a very, very long time ago about the same topic, but thinking of the Doctor turning up in this universe again highlights my largest complaint with the ending of the game…

        Because the Doctor, when confronted with the Catalyst’s nihilistic little hate speech, when offered his three ‘solutions’, the Doctor would have immediately (well, maybe he would have paused a moment to wring his hands an straighten his bow tie – but immediately after *that*) turned his back on the Catalyst and figured out a fourth option.

        Because exactly as you have said, any time the Doctor is presented with unwinnable, morally suspect scenarios, he finds a way through, always by thinking outside of the false parameters presented to him. Give the Doctor two choices: death or moral corruption, and he will select, and deliver back to you, a third. Much like Shepard was (before the conclusion of the game) the Doctor is an interloping arbiter into other people’s conflicts, but he (like she) would never violate the sanctity of another’s right to live and be free. The death of the Geth and EDI would be utterly unacceptable for him, becoming a god would be repellent, and forcing people to change their very being against their will, simply because he knew better than they did how to live, would make him no better than the Daleks. So he would find another way.

        …And its not just because the addition of a sonic screwdriver would allow him the fiddle with the Crucible itself (although, how I longed for something sonic to jam in the Catalyst’s face); it’s because the thematic drive of his universe would never allow it.

        Because the Doctor chooses hope. Every time. That’s who he is. It imbues his every adventure with wonder and promise. Hope, and the betterment of life. And that’s what was fundamentally missing from the end of Mass Effect 3 – a theme that had been present in every aspect of the preceding two and three quarter games. A belief that by respecting others, by celebrating their unique qualities, there are other options beyond controlling and destroying those we disagree with.

        [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER: skip the next paragraph if you have not watched the spectacular ‘Day of the Doctor’ 50th anniversary special]

        Indeed, we are shown that the only time the Doctor ever faltered in this hope was during the Time War crisis, and then his actions were so repugnant to him, and so psychologically scarring, that he had to eventually (I thought beautifully) rescue himself from his profound mistake, and again find another way. To hunt out that fourth option for himself.

        [End of Spoileriness]

        The cheeky way to mock Doctor Who is to suggest that when things look grim he just pulls a Get-Out-Of-Danger-A-Tron from his pocket and fixes everything, but in the real stories, in the ones that matter, he is taking the circumstances he has been dealt, but finding an entirely new perspective from which to view them. He thinks through a situation and uses his limitless well of intellect, imagination and (most importantly) compassion to find new valid, but as-yet-unconsidered possibilities – options that once they are voiced seem profoundly simple and elegantly true.

        He is, after all, the ultimate alien observer – he’s the outsider who can see (and has seen) the big picture, the galactic scale – putting it into contexts we can scarcely comprehend. And the great beauty of the Doctor, the most romantic, evocative thing, is that even though he’d seen it all, even though he’s lived countless years seen countless atrocities and heartbreaks: he remains hopeful. Throughout his ageless life he constantly reaffirms that it is in the smallest acts of kindness, forgiveness and love that one can find the most worth. And it is almost always these attributes – the things that bind us, that define us as human beings, creatures with the capacity to search for meaning beyond the borders of ourselves – that he spins new options to outwit the plans of villains who can think only in terms of division, death and dominance.

        And that’s why I know he could never Synthesise, Destroy or Control. He’d do something far more marvellous than boring old doing-what-he’s-told-by-the-bad-guy. No doubt he’d laugh when the Catalyst laid out his options. He’d amble about like a giraffe for a moment, probably slap his forehead and chortle, but he would never just agree. He would never simply comply. Because in imposing his will upon others he would cross a line from affirming to altering life. And he would never even consider that an option.

  7. Excelent post!!! I have to say that you were a bit harsh to Phil Owen (in the end he is just a fan trying to make any sense of the disaster called ME;3), but I totally agree with all your points about the rogue Catalys AI and his war crime endings as explained by ME3 and the “Extended Cut”.

    BTW, I tend to think that if most Shepards are presented with the choices the Catalyst gives, they would choose the “Control ending” to do one thing: Order all the Reapers to throw themselves into the nearest black hole (or leave the Galaxy or simply shut down). Yeah, Shepard is dead, but at least he proved the Illusive Man was also full of it.

    The first time I played and didn’t know yet the ending would be that bad (should have seen it coming), I totally expected Bioware to give me this option and then congratulate me for thinking (what I thought was) the obvious way to outwit the Starchild and end his BS, even at the expense of Shepard. (I also thought Bioware would show Liara pregnant as the personalization of the future Shepard secured for all new generations, but noooooo, they had to get Buzz Aldrin in there for PR and end with the shape of a boy nobody cares about and his quasimesianic “tell me another story of the Shepard”).

    I forgot, some idiots think my issue with ME:3 is that I can’t appreciate a “tragic, dark ending”.

    • Thanks Rodrigo, that’s very kind of you to say.

      I do hope it didn’t appear like I was trying to be hard on Phil, though. It certainly wasn’t my intent to call him out or attack him or anything. So if it appeared that I was attempting to slam him specifically, I do unreservedly apologise – both to Phil and to anyone else who might share his interpretation. Disagreeing with someone should never be about trying to belittle them – and if it appeared that I was, then I failed in communicating my meaning.

      I saw what I felt were flaws in his analysis, sure, but my issue was (and I suspect always will be) with Bioware for forcing players like Phil to (as you so rightly said) try to dig through the wreckage of that ghastly ending to find something – anything – palatable. It is they who are the target of my contempt, not anyone still willing to afford them the benefit of the doubt.

      And I know precisely what you mean about being labelled incapable of handling a ‘dark’ ending. Personally, my issue was never about the death and the tragedy. The entirety of Mass Effect 3 (arguably the entirety of the series, starting from that decision about who should survive on Virmire in ME1) has been about loss, about coping with what must be sacrificed. And I certainly went in to ME3 (as I suspect most people did) with no illusions that Shepard (at the very least) was going to get out alive. So it was incredibly frustrating, in the early days after Mass Effect 3’s release, to see countless people, whenever they tried to raise an issue with the ending, get shouted down as just being crybabies who wanted a ‘Disney’ happy ending.

      I even recall snarky gifs of Care Bears and a whole ‘blue babies’ riff:

      ‘Um, isn’t it kind of weird that the Catalyst has to terrorise the universe with the threat of death to get them to do the “right” thing? Shouldn’t Shepard want to do it if it’s so self-evidently great?’

      ‘Shut up! You just want Shepard to live forever and have blue babies with Liara!’

      ‘Wait – so they found the plans for the Crucible under a rock, and everyone just started building it, without wondering who designed it, what it was, or what it might do? Isn’t that the same kind of trap that the Reapers have been pulling for, like, literally the last several billion years?’

      ‘You just want to ride a unicorn across a rainbow with child safety seats attached to the back for all your little blue babies.’

      ‘…So exterminating every Synthetic life in the universe because they are less important than Organics, somehow proves that Synthetics and Organics have an equal right to life?’

      ‘You must just want to apply for several day cares in the local area so that they’ll be your safeties in case you don’t get accepted at that one really good (but kind of more expensive) toddler day care centre that has the better carer-to-child ratio …FOR YOUR BLUE BABIES!’

      It became really tedious – indeed, equally as tedious and reductive as when people shout, ‘You’re not meant to think about it, it’s just a game!’ – a way of shutting down all conversation that was particularly hypocritical when many of the people offering this patronising insult were trying to argue that it was such a ‘deep’ ending that ‘made you think’.

      You could ‘think’ about it, apparently, but if you tried to ‘talk’ about it you were a crybaby hater who just didn’t get it.

      • Tom Painter Says:

        I have always felt that the accusations thrown at disappointed fans of Mass Effect just wanting their ‘unicorns and rainbows ending’ to not only be a reductive argument designed to halt discussion before it starts but to indicate two separate failings, one of the accuser and the other of Bioware.

        For the person casting such a childish aspersion it indicates that they did not fully comprehend what occured during ME3. The events of that game were not a war, they were Armageddon. The end of days. Ragnarok. If Shepard had survived, or the Reapers been defeated by ‘conventional’ means I fail to see how it lessens the horrors inflicted on the people of the Milky Way during the course of the narrative; Earth is still an ashen, post-apocalyptic wasteland, Palaven is still a burnt shell, Thessia is in ruins, Sur’Kesh, Tuchanka, Dekkuna, Kaje and Irune still burn, the Citadel is still a charnel house, the people of the galaxy were still made refugees, were still conscripted into armed service, were still made orphans and widows, people still watched family members twisted into cybernetic abominations and turned back at them as shock troops and the batarian species is all but extinct. These are the cliff-notes of the state of the galaxy before the Catalyst even enters the frame. I fail to see how any victory in this situation can truly be considered a ‘happy’ ending let alone one with rainbows and ice cream.

        Which brings me to Bioware’s failing, they were guilty of the cardinal sin of visual story telling (add it to the list): they told, they did not show. So much of this information is located in either background conversations or within the Codex (Which had found itself in a new more hidden location so that a control scheme could take front and center as part of the bizarre ‘ME3 is the perfect place to start.’ advertising mantra, but I digress).

        The codex goes into great detail about the horrors of the war, the death tolls on Earth and every other planet attacked. Half-heard news broadcasts in the Citadel elucidate on the terrible consequences of the Reaper invasion. The genuine state of the galaxy and the people within is there, but it is pushed to the periphery in favour of spectacle and base enjoyment.

        Upon a repeat playthrough I started to listen to all of the ambient conversations that were taking place on the Citadel, only then realising, that upon their completion, certain ones provided Shepard agency over their respective situations via the Spectre terminal which directly fed into the War Asset system. It was a feature that I found really worked, even if the mechanics of it were half-baked. Within this mechanic I found some of my favourite stories within the narrative of the Reaper war. They acted as a perfect example of Bioware’s schizophrenic storytelling style during ME3. The story of tha asari commando that was forced to kill a little girl in order to survive and the later reveal that this was most likely Joker’s sister is one of the most well known, and exemplifies that this war is not without horrors.

        For me, the conversation that stands out the most is one of a human soldier at the embassy help desk attempting to get her asari daughter into a secure location. Her family won’t take her because they are intensely prejudiced, so she is petitioning to get her daughter fast tracked to Thessia. A petition that is successful. This takes place a mission or two before the fall of the asari homeworld. Bioware took the time to write a story of a mother’s hope and a child’s safety assured to then have it completely destroyed by the realities of a war with such Eldritch abominations. That in an attempt to safeguard her child this soldier sent her right into the path of monsters.

        This is the reality of the war that Bioware should have shown. Terrible events both large scale and personal. No one in this galaxy will leave the events of ME3’s narrative unscarred. Bioware lacked the conviction to be more open about the terrifying cost of the Reaper invasion and certain fans never picked up on it. Leading them to make false accusations of, ‘You just hate it because you wanted a happy ending!’ that we all butted our heads against nearly two years ago.

        At some point in the production of ME3, Bioware knew that victory would not equal a happy ending. Shepard’s survival would not equal a happy ending. The cost was too great, but the cost of defeat was infinitely greater. The galaxy would never be the same again, it did not need a war-crime trifecta machine contingent on self-sacrifice to hammer that nail in with the broadest brush stroke possible.

        Subtlety and complexity were sacrificed on the alter of bombast and spectacle. There are hints of such nuance hidden in the darker recesses of ME3 but they are few and far between. I can’t help but lament the game that could have been one in which Bioware had had the conviction to show this war for what it was. That in reality there is no happy ending to such a conflict.

      • Once again, beautifully put, Tom. And thank you for that exquisite summary of the mother and daughter asari. I’m ashamed to say that in my play through I had missed the full impact of that particular decision, and Shepard’s direct, though unintended contribution to their loss.

        …Although in my defence, the enormity of that tragic irony slipped by me for exactly the reasons you have stated: there was just so much tragedy, so much desperate scraping to survive, that sometimes the individual sorrows risked getting lost in the din.

        Which, as you also so wonderfully noted, makes a ‘Disney’ ending, as it was described by those who wanted to shut down all criticism, utterly impossible.

        Sure, Simba’s dad might have died (belated spoiler warning for a twenty year old film*), but he didn’t watch whole races driven to extermination, watch friends and planets burn, and seen the dessicated husks of innocents twisted into grotesque abominations (or maybe he did – I haven’t seen the stage play version).

        The game could have LITERALLY concluded with Shepard riding a unicorn over a rainbow, licking a chocolate ice cream and giggling, and it would still be just one glimmer of (rather ludicrous admittedly) levity amidst an unceasing barrage of devastation. To me, the fact that Bioware chose, after thirty or so hours of unbroken torment and torture, to simply grind the player’s face into more, stripping away the very last of their hope and morality by having them betray the universe itself, isn’t a sign of any intellectual or emotional depth. It’s just the same note played louder. And without variation and tonal shifts you don’t have music, just noise.

        * Although, it’s based on Hamlet, so the dead father thing is pretty much a given (belated spoiler warning for a four hundred year old play).

      • melindasnodgrss Says:

        Yes, yes, yes, oh God, yes. For both of you. I felt crushed and battered by ME3. Thane’s death had me in tears. The little stories in the background of children lost, of parents lost. The little girl on the Citadel still waiting for mom and dad to show up was heart breaking. The Batarian who couldn’t bear to listen to the human talking about his near escape on Earth when his worlds were gone. When I wrote my story (just to take away the bad taste) I ended up writing about PTSD and survivor’s guilt because even if Shepard lives the damage both physical and emotional shows it wasn’t a “clean” win. The upside (in addition to banishing the game) of writing this was I ended up creating a psychiatrist that I’ll probably use in one of my “real” books or scripts so it wasn’t just a catharsis for me.

  8. melindasnodgrss Says:

    The one time I made it to the end I picked destruction because you can’t show me Anderson at that red console and not tell me I’m not supposed to do my duty. And the entire — it will kill all the Geth and EDI too (a la Wicked Witch of the East) was just so nonsensical that I simple ignored it. They were programs downloaded onto physical platforms. Was the death of the Reapers going to destroy all computers and computer programs too? If not then you just build new platforms. Between the “vision nightmares” and the idea that all computer programs were going to die the universe had slipped from science fiction into fantasy and the Reapers and the Star Child were more akin to wizards than anything else.

  9. Heaven Smile Says:

    The only way Casper The Genocidal Ghost would be right is if all these variables exist simultaneously, and properly addressed by the story:


    And of course:

    If they are the “Order” to oppose the “Chaos” of Organic Evolution, then may as well identify it as “The Will-To-Live” of Schopenhauer.

    Then again, Arthur made it clear that organic and inorganic are driven by The Will, so its just as pointless.

    • Heaven Smile Says:

      “Nihilistic hate speech”
      Have you ever found a speech like that which was actually convincing enough in a work of Fiction (or Real Life™)?

      Maybe if Kefka from Final Fantasy VI had know about the information i posted on the link on my previous comment he would a solid case to destroy all life, beyond just “feeling” that its…wrong?

      Actually, the information over there is more of an argument against Free Will than an argument in FAVOR of Nihilism. But, since we dont really have a choice, and our thoughts and man-made concepts are nothing but the manifestation of our body’s Will (all our actions are evolutionary self-serving, and therefore selfish), who tries to rationalize its own meaningless existence by manipulating us into coming up with an excuse (like “The Ubermench” of Friedrich Nietzsche or “The Knight of Faith” of Soren Kierkegaard), then that STILL could be used as an argument for Nihilism. The choice is not coming from us as free individuals, but as puppets of forces beyond our control.

      A force that is our own body, who is capable of convincing us that something as Altruism and Compassion are “selfless” actions, when in reality they are not. That is what the George Price research demonstrated. He used several mathematical and biological models to derive a mathematical equation that predicted that altruistic behavior and kindness do not actually come from true selflessness and concern for others, but are only naturally selected in order to promote one’s own genetic heritage (people are more likely to be altruistic towards individuals with more similar genetic makeup, which explains why people often care more about their family than others). This theory predicts that there is no inherent selflessness in humans, and the altruistic acts are actually evolutionarily self-serving.

      See, with that kind of information a villain like Kefka could just wipe out anything he finds with a clear heart and a smile on his face. All those “self-help book” speeches? they are not made out of the Free Will of the protagonists, its actually the body manipulating them. Its like saying “I am free of all control” while wearing a brain slug from Futurama, its just too obvious to be fooled at all.

      The old saying of Rene Descartes “I Think Therefore I Am” is kinda moot when something is whispering in your head telling such thing as if it is true, instead of coming up with it on your own.

  10. Tom Painter Says:

    That argument has made a distinction between the body and the mind in order to create a conflict that can therefore be used to negate any of the actions of the latter. That because the origin of an ephemeral phenomena can be derived from evolutionary principles the concept itself is without worth. That somehow, acts of altruism cannot be described as such because the mechanism by which social species interact with one another finds its roots in the billions of years it took for said species to reach fruition.

    The mind is a product of the brain, it is affected by the same biology that formed it. There is no duality to the two. How one gets from that flawed concept to there being no free will I’m at a loss to explain. If altruism is this hypothetical biological fabrication hoodwinking a seperate entity that is the mind and the latter does not comply with the former (not driving to pick up a family member from a late night party in favour of a personal benefit ie sleep, not diving into a burning building to save a close relation thus favouring personal survival etc) then has a choice not been made? In situations such as these, altruism was an evolutionary imperative, commands from the brain slug we are unable to deny, which is what makes them not of our choosing, and therefore fundamentally negating their concept as ‘good’ actions. Yet they can be denied or agreed to. An exhibition of free will. Were we truly beholden to the whims of fundamental biology there would be no Fire Fighters, no people for whom the defeat of fear, that primal survival drive within us all, is a pivotal aspect of their daily life. People whose actions are entirely devoted to the help of others. Not just those with whom they share close familial bonds.

    Evolution is driven by surviving individuals, Those individuals better adapted to survival live longer and have a better chance of passing on their genes. Within this concept of an inherently selfish driving force for a fundamental process of the natural world there existed a dissonance with the existence of social species and the acts of kindness exhibited by the individuals within. The motivation behind these apparently paradoxical actions was found to be within that same driving force. The evolutionary imperative to pass on genetic information to the next generation extended to familial relations. Then the question became how to explain such altruistic actions directed at non-relatives: within social groups the strength of the whole would keep the individual alive for longer hence the stronger the bonds between strangers and the greater the timespan individuals within the group could remain alive through cooperation the greater the probability that these individuals would produce the next generation. The apex of such behaviour is found in entirely eusocial species, in which individual identity and goals are almost entirely subsumed within the gestalt entity that is the hive; wasps, bees, ants, termites and naked mole rats etc (also the rachnii to bring this conversation back to the topic originally being discussed).

    These are a set of behaviours that proved beneficial for species for whom natural selection was an external factor. Humanity stepped beyond those confines a long time ago, as had every sentient species within the ME universe (even the krogan and they had to deal with Kalros on a daily basis). With the ability to mould the natural world into an artificial one of your choosing the evolutionary process slows dramatically. Any future changes will be the result of artificial selection unless there is an enormous paradigm shift that brings all of a species’ achievements to their knees. In such a world individuals are left with philisophical quandries and musings on the nature of right and wrong when the major driving force of the world in which they live are the consequences of choices made by them and others of their species.

    The social group became larger, now it encompasses the planet. More than 7 billion human beings in one global family. Were altruistic behaviour intrinsically linked to close genetic similarity then there would be no charity. No Red Cross, no Oxfam, no Help the Aged, no Cancer Research, no Children in Need, no RSPCA, no IFAW etc. Actually those last two are important. They aren’t charities designed to assist members of our own species, they’re designed to help other species, animals more distantly genetically linked to each of us than any of the aformentioned 7 billion people with which we share this mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. There is no evolutionary benefit to the assistance of members of another species, in actuality it represents an evolutionary detriment, it boosts the profile of a potential competitor for natural resources. However, as previously mentioned, humanity stepped outside the confines of the natural, outside the foodchain. An act that has afforded us the luxury of applying our sentience towards the intangible. Towards concepts that unify us. Towards empathy and extending that empathy towards all living things. Taking that original impetus to survive, combining it with the freedom our intellect forged for us, to alter the variables. To understand that our actions have ramifications that extend beyond our families, beyond our species, that affect the lives and wellbeing of other living things. That will affect the lives of those yet to come. We make choices that are detrimental to us now but will benefit life that has yet come to pass. In that lies the pinnacle of altruism.

    Narrative antagonists always proffer reasoning behind their madness. Utilizing philisophical debates such as the ‘artifical nature of good’ within the universe as motivation to enact their scheme, is no more or less valid than any other. It uses a fundamentally flawed concept to justify an action in such a way as to make any assessment of it inherently neutral. If the antagonist truly accepted such reasoning behind their decision they would have no need to justify it. They would be stuck within the cognitive dissonance of the action. Either they are performing the action at the behest of fundamentally selfish imperatives or are attempting to rectify said universal ‘truth’ by acting counter to it and thereby rendering it no longer a ‘truth’ thus torpedoing their own motivation. They’re either adding to the problem or negating it’s very existence.

    One might as well provide the antagonist solipsism as the motivation behind their actions. It would at least be fitting for such staggering levels of narcissism to provide a bedrock for the decision making process behind ‘destroy all life’ as their eventual goal. My personal take on solipsism is wonderfully summed up by these gentlemen:

    If I were a solipsist these rambling responses of mine would be the most horrifically masturbatory endeavours.

    • Heaven Smile Says:

      Since this post its going to be long, i will probably break it down to more than one post. While you sit though this, have some music:

      “The mind is a product of the brain, it is affected by the same biology that formed it. There is no duality to the two.”

      And the brain is a product of your genes. Who, as The Selfish Gene elaborated (because i am not going to use George Price as the ONLY thing backing me up), have way more control over us that we can imagine:

      “In describing genes as being “selfish”, the author does not intend (as he states unequivocally) to imply that they are driven by any motives or will, but merely that their effects can be metaphorically and pedagogically described as if they were. The contention is that the genes that get passed on are the ones whose evolutionary consequences serve their own implicit interests (to continue being replicated), not necessarily those of the organism (you). Bringing the level of evolutionary dynamics down to the single gene, or complementary genes which work well together in a given type of organism, Dawkins categorically rejects the school of thought which contends that evolution operates on the level of groups.

      This view is said to explain altruism at the individual level in nature, especially in kinship relationships: when an individual sacrifices its own life to protect the lives of kin, it is acting in the interest of its own genes.”

      And that is just a simple link i already provided to the Wikipedia article. Among other things, it also mentions that there ARE times when the genes and the host (AKA the organism. AKA you) are in odds with one another but only on intelligent beings.

      “Power Struggles Are Rare: In fact, the claim is that there isn’t much of a struggle because the genes usually win without a fight. Only if the organism becomes intelligent enough to understand its own interests, as distinct from those of its genes, can there be true conflict.”

      Which goes back the Nihilistic Hate Speech of the Reapers/Casper/Harbinger (or Ramblinger as i like to call him). For all the “intelligence” human like organisms (like in tehe Mass Effect setting) they are still driven by things they do not comprehend on their own bodies, which influences 99% of every action they take. It doesn’t matter if you are self aware or not, you are STILL doing it. You are STILL following the will of the body one way or the other. For the Reapers, you are like an animal STILL driven by instinct. Such concept is not alien to humans because of Arthur Schopenhauer (which i already provided) saying, among other things, that: “Rationality is sustained only through brief periods of time, while the will perpetually drives us. Humanity’s intellect is no different (nor better) than animals”

      “how to explain such altruistic actions directed at non-relatives”
      When i say same genetic make up, it means just that. If same genetics then you will act more altruistic toward that person. Relatives and family JUST HAPPEN to have your same genetics (duh), but in reality as long the condition is meet, you can be altruistic. So for all you know, that random stranger might be a distant relative.

      “Were altruistic behavior intrinsically linked to close genetic similarity then there would be no charity.”
      Considering that people who donate “feel good” about themselves or being useful in some way, i would say that its selfish rather than true Altruism. They ARE getting something out of it. Hell, helping people for the sake of making a better world STILL benefits you in a evolutionary sense, since a more safe world means that your children (direct relatives i might add) will survive much better. So conscious or not, you are STILL acting selfish.

      “Actually those last two are important. They aren’t charities designed to assist members of our own species, they’re designed to help other species”
      So? for every Panda you save, you squat thousands and thousands of Mosquitoes. Most likely out of reflex than choice, and i remind you that we are supposed to be the most evolved ones that “stepped outside the confines of the natural”. This supposed act of kindness is nothing when you consider that, once again, you might be doing it for selfish reasons. Nothing says “you are a good person” by the public than helping endangered species. Its like this bit on this video:

      As it says: “You have to show the world you care about these issues enough to re-post them, but not enough to do a 10 second Google search to immediately discredit them.”

      And lets face it, just like the Mosquitoes example, if you faced these animals appearing in your house eating your food and giving you diseases by just being there, you will probably find your axe as a more kindred spirit.

      “There is no evolutionary benefit to the assistance of members of another species, in actuality it represents an evolutionary detriment,”
      Then explain this being done by creatures that are not our intellectual equals:

      If the scientific information i provided is 100% infallible, then writing a villain like The Reapers under this premise makes them more terrifying, because they are not acting out of generic “We are better than you because [Insert “fundamentally flawed logic that conveniently exist so they can be defeated by debunking it in the last minute of the saga/trilogy/whatever” here]”, they are doing with authentic reasons behind it. To deny such truths is denying reality itself, and therefore it would be the speech of madness, not reason.

      Imagine Ramblinger speaking to Shepard and telling him/her/it flat out that:

      *clears throat* ejem:








      (charges eye-beam)”

      Now, that right there is not an attempt of fixing ME3. Its more of an attempt to make a Nihilistic Speech with Transhumanism undertones. It mixes the original motive of The Reapers in ME1, the ideas i brought up here, and a bit of forced Transhumanism that Synthesis represents in ME3. Actually, i call that ending “BRODYQUEST” ending instead. Given that the ending is suspiciously similar to that music video to the point of being uncanny:

      As for a using Solipsism as a motive for an antagonist, lets just say that he will have NO reason to oppose the protagonist or do ANYTHING. He already thinks we are figment of his imagination, so why would he oppose what cannot harm him or do anything of substance? They will most likely commit suicide that for them is just “waking up from the dream”.

      I will have to elaborate on the “villains having fundamentally flawed concepts right on the get go” later.

      • Heaven Smile Says:

        I just noticed that this comment system doesn’t allow for my links to be displayed AS links alone, without opening up as videos and occupying space. No matter what, i cannot make it stop doing that. Also, it ignored my links with an specific time frame i wrote on the link. That one from Tumblr was supposed to initiate at 1:41

  11. Tom Painter Says:

    Further to our musings on The Doctor taking none of the Star Brats nonsens lying down a la Shepard. The internet is a wonderful melting pot for all things geeky I give you the closest we’ll ever get to that particular mental exercise: http://crabcatindustries.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/pleasedontbesidesways.jpg

  12. Heaven Smile Says:

    You will never escape, Dr.dray. The shadow of Mass Effect 3 shall remain with you forever. In every corner, every conversation, every rant is going to mention ME3 at some point. Its infamy now is mainstream as the rants against Star Wars prequels.

    Hell, all we need to complete the comparison is for ME3 to have a documentary like “The People Vs George Lucas” (2010) and we are all set. Oh wait, it already happen: “EndGame: Mass Effect 3 (A Documentary on the Ending, the Extended Cut and “Gamer Entitlement”) ”

    But wait, there is still something missing. Just like the fan that made a defense for the prequels in form of a 117-page rebuttal of the Phantom Menace review of Mr.Plinket (from Red Letter Media), ME needs to have something like that as well. Turns out the opposite happened. It seems that a fan of ME3 made a Fix Fic (so to speak) of the entire game:

    Unfortunately, it was quite shit. Casper is removed but The Crucible nonsense and the 4 endings are still there via EMS score and PR score check.

    Did the fan think this was the best approach? Did he genuinely believes that this isn’t the same as the original, all problems included? Or could it be that no matter how much effort you put into ME3, the story is so broken that trying to find a way around it without removing everything will turn out to be crap no matter what?

    Well, i guess you could say….LOTS OF SPECULATIONS FROM EVERYONE!

    (Everyone here says: “BOOOOOOOOOOOO”)

    • Unfortunately, I fear you might be right, Heaven Smile. It’s certainly not something that I try to linger upon (all evidence to the contrary here), but the disappointment of Mass Effect’s narrative endpoint does still linger.

      Just yesterday I was revising some notes about Greek theatre and the notion of the deus ex machina, and the Crucible still leapt into my head as the most literal, overt manifestation of that concept ever committed to fiction. It’s a real shame that such a noble narrative experiment had to sputter out on the oldest, most hackneyed literary convention ever conceived.

      They may as well have had Shepard wake up screaming in bed, her alarm clock buzzing as she let out a long, weary sigh: ‘Thank goodness, it was all just a dream… And you were there, Jack. And you were there, Kaiden. And you were there, giant floating space cuttlefish…’

      • Heaven Smile Says:

        But i think your suffering may be appeased with something more interesting, albeit momentarily.

        Maybe this link to Game Design Forum can give enough material to ramble about anything else BUT Mass Effect 3. http://www.thegamedesignforum.com/

        Keep in mind that i am not trying to give you a taste of that terrible illusion people know as “Hope” with this distraction. The hope that you can FULLY escape this tragedy shouldn’t cross anyone’s mind. One must learn to live with this disaster but also not be fully engulfed with pain and suffering, or else we will not be able to move on. Also angsting all day is boring and shit never gets done either.

        Lets see if that information in the link gets you all fired up for some ramblings.

  13. […] literature, film, games, television, art, music …batman « A Set of Lies Agreed Upon: Mass Effect 3 and Revisionist History […]

  14. Thank you. And that (“that” being the essence of your analysis) is why I use MEHEM. And after finishing the game with it, I load up a late save and play the Citadel DLC with the Happy Endings mod.

    Yeah, it’s not a “real” happy ending, but given how “official continuity” is pretty much broken, anyway, I don’t much care anymore. At least it gives me an emotional resolution where I don’t feel like jumping outside the window after finishing the game.

    So I got a way of making the ending more palatable. What still irritates me a lot is that the whole narrative of how we should defeat the Reapers was boiled down to “build a superweapon”. Especially one about which we knew next to nothing outside of it doing… stuff. I really had hoped that the writers could come up with a way in which we could defeat the Reapers conventionally, but that was just handwaved away from the beginning. Instead of building the Nostril of Palpatine, we could have been hunting down better weapon systems or shield technology for the different fleets.

    One other thing I want to mention, I still resent the blatant emotional manipulation BioWare went for with presenting the Catalyst as the dead kid from the beginning of the game. Given the narrative you laid out so carefully here in your post, using Hitler would have been more appropiate (whom I can free invoke once per day on the internet with my superpower as a German historian ^^). But of course then nobody would have listened to the genocidal maniac in front of them. Better to use the image of a small child for the genocidal demands.

  15. Ah, has it been two years? Just yesterday I a co-worker was wearing a Tali hoodie. I had just spent a weekend at GDC talking about how Garrus is one of the most well-written male romantic interests of all time. Had my wounds healed enough to allow me to buy some merch?

    I still don’t know. A while ago I was reading an article about scurvy, and what the disease tells us about wounds. In the extreme late stages of scurvy, the collagen that binds wounds closed begins to dissolve; old scars reappear, and open. Even if the skin is unmarked, the wound may wait, an invisible memory of weakness.

    Ok, so yeah, that’s a pretty melodramatic metaphor for video game complaining. I’m in an odd and nostalgic mood today. To me, Mass Effect is a monument to the risks we take when we engage in collaborative storytelling: both as creators and participants.

    Still, I got some good arguments to show for my scars, at least.

    (P.S. I just sent you an email at some ancient address I have no idea whether you still check.)

  16. […] and no one (including me) wants that.  Besides, I’ve banged that particular drum plenty of times in the past.  […]

  17. […] Colin Dray, ”A Set of Lies Agreed Upon: Mass Effect 3 and Revisionist History”, THEMENASTICS, https://drayfish.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/a-set-of-lies-agreed-upon-mass-effect-3-and-revisionist-hi… (accessed June 7, 2017). 7. Marcus Schulzke, “Moral Decision Making in Fallout”, Game Studies, […]

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