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Mass Effect 1: ‘Never underestimate the power of words’ (A Mass Effect Retrospective part 2)

Posted in Uncategorized, video games, criticism with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2017 by drayfish

GAME PLAYED: Mass Effect (base game); DLC: ‘Bring Down The Sky’

To Read Part 1 of this Retrospective

Mass Effect title screen maxresdefault

In the beginning there is fear.

The first game begins with Shepard staring out into the inky black of space, over a planet that either is, or is meant to evoke, Earth.  Back when I used to replay this series, that expanse of possibility was delightfully vertiginous.  The journey ahead but a series of potentialities, none yet realised.  The player, like Shepard, was able to look ahead and wonder at what was to come.

But now there’s fear – because I already know it all leads to one place.  Awash with recollections of the series’ grandeur and disappointment; the prophesy of oncoming darkness and ruin that is about to be vomited into Shepard’s brain already gnawing away at my memory.

So I was wary when I fired up the game again after all this time.

And yet, to my delight, I found the experience to be instantly, gloriously reaffirming.

Beyond the comforting thrum of the menu music, which still evokes in me a kind of Pavlovian response of joyful anticipation, beyond the visuals and mechanics that hold up better than I’d feared, and even acknowledging that my affection for the series might lead to some blind spots in my critical thinking (I have always adored that beautiful Mako, wonky handling and all; hell, I even like the elevators – yes, really), I maintain that the first Mass Effect is still one of the most perfect marriages of form and function in any text, videogame or otherwise.  Its narrative, and the mechanics through which it expresses itself work in unison to create an experience that is thoroughly absorbing and profound.

You play the game, but the game plays you.  And together, through an intuitive conversation between audience and text, both are elevated, entwined in an understanding that validates the journey shared.

Mass Effect ashley and kaiden

The What

Mass Effect’s detractors might call it merely a pastiche of other great sci-fi texts.

It emulates the universe-building of Star Trek, the tone of Blade Runner, the political manoeuvring of Babylon 5, the pseudo-magical powers of Star Wars, the ominous dread of Lovecraftian horror, and revolves around a cast of oddball loners on the fringes of respectability somewhat like Firefly.

The first response to such an accusation would no doubt be: So what?!  Are you serious?  That sounds incredible!

And indeed, it is.  So shut up, imaginary naysayer guy.

But the more successful rejoinder would be to point out not what Mass Effect borrows, but what it offers that is purely its own.  Because Mass Effect presents, unique to any sci-fi universe ever crafted, the opportunity to truly discover an unknown universe; to use one’s own thirst for understanding and perspective as a videogame player to propel the way in which the narrative and its themes open up in an act of cooperative exploration.

To its credit, the game initially does this by placing its player and protagonist in a disempowered position.

This might sound strange for a game centrally concerned with the first human being accepted to the Spectres (a galactic police force who effectively answer to no one), who receives a prophesy that leads them on a crucial, universe saving quest, but despite this grandiose premise, the game manages to largely avoid Bioware’s now patented You-Are-The-Chosen-One-Messianic-Rise-To-Greatness narrative structure.  In this first foray into the Mass Effect universe, crucially, humanity are the underdogs.  And Shepard too – although already a decorated soldier when the plot begins – has to scramble to get respect.

Unlike in a universe such as Star Trek, where humanity has become a dominant force in galactic politics, charting new frontiers and leading by example, here humanity is the plucky, spry, slightly obnoxious newcomer to the galaxy.  When we stretched out into the stars (on the back of alien technology we merely stumbled across), we immediately began poking our noses into everyone’s business, accidentally picking a war with a dominant species, and aggressively trying to weasel our way onto the council of the universe – something that other races have not been allowed to do for a millennia.  Consequentially, we are often viewed with suspicion, contempt, or pity by the other races that see our eagerness as folly.

Thus Shepard too is frequently met by distrust and condescension – by dignitaries, police officers and merchants, who hold various prejudices against the human race; by the council she eventually works for, who patronisingly refuse to believe the evidence she is gathering; and even, at first, by her crew, some of whom join her for their own purposes, but eventually come to admire her goals.

The first Mass Effect game makes the series’ best case, both in plot and play, for the benefits of being hampered, but persisting in spite of the constraint.  Mass Effect is about struggle; about sucking it up, taking your knocks, wrestling with the wonky controls of the Mako (gods, I love it).  It’s not about being indulged and told you’re great all day.  It is only in Mass Effect 3 that the lazy Jesus metaphors start up in earnest, and in Andromeda (it appears) when you get to be the ‘chosen one’ and ignore your cheeky imperialism while bro-fisting your pals.

In Mass Effect 1 (and 2) the universe actually gives very little damn about you.  It is only in caring about it, in spite of its contempt for you, that you not only earn your place, but can be part of the effort to join together and make it better.  For all out faults, it says, we human beings are tenacious; and that is one of the traits that makes us thrive.

mass-effect-shepard-citadel-arm-presidium

The Why

The other feature that both Shepard and humanity have in abundance is curiosity – something that likewise marries beautifully with the player’s experience and the design of the game.  Humans might be underpowered, underrepresented, and unrespected, they might be tethered to the training wheels by alien races that look down upon them with misplaced sympathy, but we (and the player) are inquisitive.

We ask questions that few others seem to be bothered with.

Why are there Keepers on the Citadel?  What the hell are they doing?  Why is there all of this Prothean crap littered everywhere across the galaxy?  Who set up this government?  And why?  So what’s the deal with Spectres?  How can you have strictly enforced ethical codes if you’ve also got a secret police force that answers to no one?  Why did the Protheans leave a little mass relay statue in the Citadel?  That seems a little weird, no…?

While the bulk of the other races are seemingly content with profiting from the technology they suspiciously inherited from an unknown ancient race, Shepard and the player explore the whys of this universe, asking questions, seeking answers, and gathering a band of misfit aliens who likewise want to upend conventional wisdoms, so that together they can uncover some uncomfortable, dangerous truths.

And all of this feeds beautifully into the game play experience.  It’s why Bioware’s signature dialogue wheel was such an ingenious development, and still feels so inspired.  It invites and rewards exactly this kind of inquiry.  It satiates curiosity, but even more ingeniously, it allows for emotional responses to the revelations that unfold.  Not only does asking questions and considering options open up the central narrative, it also advances that other great attribute that speaks for humanity’s worth: it encourages empathy.

mass-effect-xbox-360-screenshot-dialog-choices-use-a-radial

It’s what makes Bioware’s decision to require player input for all of Shepard’s dialogue so significant.  Throughout the game Shepard does not utter a word in conversation unless directly prompted by the player.  Literally every line has to be selected, for tone, or inquiry, before she speaks.  It might sound like a small detail, but this direct contribution has a distinctly different feel to the distancing auto-dialogue that creeps into Mass Effect 2 and overtakes Mass Effect 3.  For a game fundamentally about the ways in which language binds people, every sentence feels like an incremental building of your distinct Shepard, rather than a shading of the predetermined character the game requires.  This is largely just an illusion, but it is an artful one, uniting player and character in a fluid, grammatical expression.

Exploring dialogue about other races and cultures, considering the rationale behind other moral codes and other ways of life; the game encourages the player to observe the disparate ideals that can unite a biodiversity of thought.  The game proposes that kindness, consideration and respect can be universal – particularly in the face of an unfeeling, omnipresent threat that seeks to crush all life different from itself.

(In the second game, this thesis of curiosity and empathy would be extended further – on the micro scale through sharing your teammates’ emotional baggage on their personal loyalty missions, and on a macro scale, by exploring hostile races like the Geth and an artificial intelligence like EDI.  In Mass Effect 3 this invitation to cultivate empathy and investment would be largely abandoned.  Rather than introducing new societies and personalities – allowing their perspective to sway the player’s experience – the conclusion of the trilogy spent its entire run time cynically exploiting the investment cultivated by the first two games.  The narrative’s threat was powered almost solely by the devastation of the familiar as races and companions from the past games were wiped from existence, the player trying to save what little they could from the galactic bonfire.  The trilogy’s conclusion did not invite the player to invest in the experience of others so much as gormlessly threaten what was already beloved to evoke a visceral, persistent sensation of loss and dread.)

Over the course of the first Mass Effect the player meets floating brains, bird/lizard people, elephant creatures, sentient space crustaceans, asexual blue sirens, jittery amphibians, ‘roided out reptiles, migrants hidden beneath non-descript protective suits.  It is a breadth that would never be matched by its following games (curiously, not even in the new, larger scope of the Andromeda universe, as many of the established races are now M.I.A.), with each race having different styles of speech and grammar and distinct behavioural practices.  Some races communicate through aromas, and so had to actively describe their tone of voice so as not to be misunderstood in translation.   Some huff through breathing apparatuses, or hum through fluctuations of light.

And you are encouraged to get to know them all.  To ask them questions.  To learn their ways.

mass-effect-1-squad

You can pepper the members of these different cultures with queries about their politics, history, philosophy, businesses, finances, and family.  You can explore hot button issues like religion and slavery and genocide and environmentalism and crime.  You can probe them on everything from the effects of technology, to their eating habits, and their thoughts on space prostitution.

Consequentially, it is a game centrally concerned with knowledge.  Information becomes power, both as a play mechanic (asking more questions, being more persuasive or threatening, opens up greater options to the player) and as a recurring part of the plot.

You are tasked with solving a sci-fi detective story, so fittingly, along the way you meet people who manipulate information, withhold information, bargain information for power.  You are forced to deal with representatives of spy networks, cult leaders, scientists pushing their research to its limits; corporations and company stooges block you, reporters interrogate you, ambassadors try to spin your actions for their own agendas.  You hear the media, at the behest of the military, manipulate the truth of what you confront on the frontline into numbing lies spewed out across the presidium radio.

Your team-mates likewise pursue answers – some gathering new information to offer their migrant fleet, some hunting for intel into criminals that eluded them, learning something about themselves in the process.  The villain you pursue likewise uses information about an oncoming threat, a truth that has poisoned his mind, to twist and misuse fear to indoctrinate others to his will.  And the entire journey is motivated by a cryptic info dump jolted into your head in the game’s first mission – a prophesy of unknown devastation that you must spend three games unpacking and seeking to comprehend.

Thus every interaction that fleshes out this world, binding you to it, is reiterating the same theme: that knowledge, the language of understanding others, is the most transformative power of all.  As the esteemed Asari consort (who you are encouraged to assist deal with a scandal of leaked misinformation) says:

‘Never underestimate the power of words.’

So fittingly, you make friends with pariahs and hotheads and renegades, academics and warriors, people on the run from the shameful actions of their past and casual space-racists.  You collect a team of charming weirdos and you shoot off into the stars to make your own way together.  A merry assortment of colliding ideals and agendas, all proving the game’s hopeful thesis that with respect and curiosity, even unfathomable cruelty can be met and ultimately overcome.

Mass Effect Normandy_feros

The How

This sense of exploration – both ideological and physical – is exactly why seemingly trivial things, such as being able to draw or sheathe your gun at any moment (a feature stripped out of Mass Effect 3), using the Mako to trundle across the tundra, or travelling in elevators (which didn’t’ survive past the first game), become so important in Mass Effect.

Arming and disarming yourself wasn’t just a neat visual; it was emblematic of the fluid grandeur of the game.  It indicated that you really were at the mercy of an unfamiliar universe at all times – not just in predetermined, spotlighted ‘fight’ scenarios.  You might round a corner at any moment, even in the ‘safety’ of the Citadel, to be confronted by assassins; the survivors you try to help on some blighted wasteland planet might surprise you with a threat.  These vast environments live and breathe, and you inhabit them along with everyone else, rather than just blasting through on the way to the next scripted objective point.  You were there to explore, and never knowing from where danger or aid might appear, that journeying was fraught with peril, made the whole process richly rewarding.  The act of adapting to this ebb and flow of conversation and conflict, being able to vacillate between the two by pulling or replacing your weapon, therefore further enmeshed you in the grammar of the game.

The same was true of being able to rocket along the surface of planets in the Mako, exiting to wander on foot any time you wish.  Indeed, while I know many in the past have criticised these long sojourns on alien planets as barren, palate-swapped ranges largely devoid of life – it is hard to deny their beauty, and for me this loneliness only enhances the experience.  By the time you return from the wilderness back to Asari civilisation you are desperate to reconnect with people, to deep dive back into the game’s conversational systems and glean more from these societies that have sought for meaning amongst the emptiness of space.

Mass Effect 1 earth

Similarly the ability to board ships that you found floating in space; or to infiltrate facilities speckled throughout the stars; or selecting you and your party’s equipment and armaments; or even the act of physically watching yourself enter or exit the Normandy, going through quarantine scans and handing over command to the XO when you became part of the shore party; the whole game, at every level, encourages you to feel your freedom and isolation at once; investing you in an unbroken experience that evokes a sense of being truly out on the frontier, exploring a real universe.

Even the much maligned (I think very unfairly) long elevator rides that punctuate the game not only enhance the sense of this being a real universe that you are navigating, they allowed companion characters to converse: sometimes with playful banter, other times enabling two races with complicated histories and generational animosities to respectfully debate, to learn more about each other by valuing one another’s point of view.

In a time of videogame critique in which ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ has already become an obsessive buzzword for anything even momentarily immersion breaking, this decade old game still stands out for the way in which its design only deepens the engagement its players feel, with every perilous exploration, question asked, or elevator ridden, only further embedding them in its fiction.

mass effect elevator

The Huh?

As I indicated in my previous post – what is most remarkable about the first Mass Effect is how fully realised it already is in this its initial outing.  While the gun play may improve as the series goes on and while some of the themes alluded to here might be fleshed out further in Mass Effect 2, this first game fulfils every promise it makes.  Each major story beat and theme is explored and brought to a resolve; there is a sense of cohesion to the several sci-fi narratives it explores – from an Aliens-like facility infestation lockdown, to a Thing-style colony overrun by an ancient extraterrestrial mind control, to an assault on a cloning facility, several run-ins with robot zombies, amoral paramilitary groups gone wild, and a gloating inscrutable Cthulhu beast – and a thrilling resolution in the way that all of these elements ultimately converge, revealing the terrible secrets of an ancient cycle of imminent devastation at the heart of every space faring society.

The series really never does tie its plot together so elegantly ever again.

(An argument might be made that it is not until we meet EDI and Legion in the second game that the potential of this narrative’s exploration of Artificial Intelligence is fully explored, but even here the first game in the series leaves enough ambiguities and subtle clues to imply that this inexorable journey toward synthetic sentience is not as simplistically dangerous as the characters who oppose it would have you believe.  From the gambling AI that has slipped its programming leash, to the moon based system (subsequently revealed to be a prototype for EDI) that has developed a sense of self-preservation and actually feels pain, to the moment that you stumble upon a facility of Geth and find these hostile robots have been listening to a mournful old melody by their Quarian creators, a song about regret and lost innocence, the player is repeatedly invited, should they wish, to view the inevitability of artificial consciousness as something more complex than a binary good or evil.)

And to my mind this is easily the most climactic ending that the series will go on to offer.  For all of the personal dramatic stakes of Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission, even it cannot compare for scope or theme.

After finding a way to interact with the last surviving knowledge of the ancient Prothean race that you’ve been chasing the entire game, you infiltrate the Citadel via a backdoor built surreptitiously into its design (a doublecross of their doublecross), fight your way up the innards of the structure in zero gravity, straight toward the looming spectre of a sci-fi Lovecraftian demon, arrive back at the chambers of the council you were appointed to serve, battle your rogue adversary (or persuade him into a moment of sanity to stop himself), issue orders to the armada of ships engaged in a raging space battle outside, making decisions that will dictate who survives the fray and remaking the face of galactic politics for generations to come, and survive certain death, crawling out of a pile of rubble that used to be a mouthy wannabe god.

There is so much fist-pumping spectacle and elegant narrative resolve that even though you are left desperately wanting more, it is more from enthusiasm and a love of the universe than a sense that you were cheated of anything.  The conclusion of Mass Effect 1 operates much like the ending of the first Matrix film.  The creatures threatening humanity might not be gone, but the hero of the saga now knows what they are up against, and is resolved to see it through.  Like Neo’s phone call to the code, the smile breaking on Shepard’s face as she strides from the rubble is more than enough to know that the Reapers – whatever their goal – will never succeed.

And like the Matrix film, perhaps it would have been best if it had have just left it at that.

Mass Effect Screenshot3597.1

The Rub

Is Mass Effect perfect?  Absolutely not.  There is little to no reason to gate every surveyed mineral deposit or archaeological find you run across behind insipid quick time events.  Why anyone should need to press five buttons in sequence simply to loot a mummified corpse is never adequately explained.  And although I think that the Mako is an unjustly maligned joy, it is true that the planets you are asked to traverse with its help are frequently lacking in thoughtful design.  They are often beautiful spaces to look at (even if some of them are barren colour-palate swaps), but when you spend half an hour sliding in place unsuccessfully attempting to ascend a sheer rock face to gather up one objective marker, it’s easy to lose patience with the whole process.  (Speaking of which, whoever designed the planet surface of Nodacrux: please go straight to hell.)  Also, to get really picky, that film grain filter they put over everything to give it a noir aesthetic is the very first thing anyone playing the game should switch off.  The game is far prettier than that filter suggests.

Also, I would be lying if I tried to argue that the wondrous promise of the first game isn’t still somewhat marred by the narrative slurry it is destined to slide into in Mass Effect 3.  This is far more pronounced when returning to Mass Effect 2 (which I will discuss in the coming weeks), but not even this first game is immune.  In particular, the plot-twist moment in which you speak to Sovereign is entirely undermined.  When one first plays this game, hearing Sovereign speak to you is chilling; a shift in your character’s very sense of reality as you realise that the object you thought was just a looming space ship is itself actually an ancient sentient creature of untold devastation.  But now all of Sovereign’s threats and pontificating ring utterly hollow.

I would never understand your grand, unfathomable purpose, huh, Sebastian the Dark Matter Crab?  Well, your pals give me the Cliff Notes version in game three, and not only is it very ungrand and super fathomable, it’s complete asinine.

But overall these gripes are miniscule when weighed against the splendour of everything else this game achieves.  There is a thoughtfulness and care and polish to everything here that makes the entire experience, on every level of design and narrative and character, thoroughly absorbing.

In  my replay of Mass Effect I was delighted to find that not only is the magic of the series still present, it has seemingly only intensified with age, as so many other series (Mass Effect itself even) have strayed from the absorbing world-building it accomplished.

Perhaps my biggest surprise, however, is that I have come to discover a flaw in Mass Effect’s marketing…

All of that talk about ‘big impactful decisions’ that was used to spruik the game is actually something of a misunderstanding of its real concern (and no, this is not me being snotty about how none of your decisions will ultimately matter in Mass Effect 3 …although, yeah, that too).  These promises of ‘consequential choices’ that were made in its advertising (and often misleadingly guaranteed by the game’s creators; I’m looking at you, Casey Hudson) often only add up to some minor shifts in the narrative, or in the superficial behaviour of some of the game’s personalities.  At their most extreme – most evident in this first game – these choices might lead to the death of certain characters that will not be seen again; but the essential plot rolls on, unrelenting.

But that’s fine, because what Mass Effect is actually concerned with is the context surrounding decisions.  Not what decision you made, but why you made it.  What impulses led you to decide, with the little information available, how to react to a situation?  Save the Racchni Queen or kill her?  Bargain with Wrex or put him down?  Trade intel with the Shadow Broker, or tell him to screw off?  Do you have faith in the goodness of others, or are you more pragmatic?  Are you focused on the mission at all costs?  Willing to gamble on luck?  A fan of minor chicanery or a straight shooter?

For all of the promises of future revelations that they offer, what the decisions in Mass Effect really provide is an opportunity to expose your own thought process.  Just as you interrogate your companions and enemies throughout the game in order to understand them and their worlds, the game reveals itself to have been questioning you.  What kind of player are you?  What kind of person?

It is a conversation through play.  It wants to get to know you, and offers the chance, if you are willing, to better know yourself.

It’s quite an achievement.  You stare into the RPG, but the RPG stares back into you.

Mass Effect climax

Next Time: Mass Effect 2: ‘Suicide is painless.  It brings on many changes.’

A Set of Lies Agreed Upon: Mass Effect 3 and Revisionist History

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2014 by drayfish

[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?

Right?

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…

 …Right?

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.

hope-in-mass-effect

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.

On First Looking Into Mass Effect 3: It’s like a leap day; only with genocide.

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Bioware

Some time ago, on the Bioware forums, CulturalGeekGirl asked me what my first experience was when finishing Mass Effect 3, and I realised with the posing of that question that on some level I think I had been trying to avoid thinking through the emotion of that experience too much. Until that point I had been speaking through the mechanics of narrative and the manipulation of form to rationalise my experience (all of which I still heartily believe in), but that doesn’t quite capture my own personal thought process, and the stunned distaste that it engendered.

So I think I’m going to try to do that here, in a lengthy, prosaic, largely incomprehensible purge of my feelings at the end of the game. Obviously it should go without saying that this is purely subjective: my own, singular, private response as the game concluded, staring wide-eyed into the glare in a darkened lounge room, sleep-deprived, weary, probably with a sliver of dried drool still glistening on my chin…

Going back to that moment, I realised that my first thought, when I reached that horrible, ominous choice, was so ridiculous, so tangential, that I haven’t come to unpack it properly until now. Because the weird thing is, as I stood on that precipice (as I’ve mentioned previously, striving to put several bullets through the Cthulhu Jr.’s face), I was stunned, frozen in place. Three paths lay before me, all stretching out into an unknowable, inconceivable, morally-repugnant future, and all that I could think was: I once head-butt a Krogan.

It was on Tuchanka in Mass Effect 2. My boy Grunt, standing beside me, breathing through the back of his throat the way Krogans do, was asking Wrex if he could fulfil the Rite of Passage to join Clan Urdnot. Suddenly, some other Krogan starts scoffing, refusing to show him respect. Here I was, an intruder on this planet, in the midst of factional fighting for which I had little context and no jurisdiction – but my friend was being slagged off by some punk who needed to be put in his time-out chair, and a Renegade trigger appeared. Of course I pulled it. Shepard reared back and cracked her head against the loudmouth’s hump, staggering the beast, knocking him back. I remember laughing. It was so audacious, so utterly extreme. An armour-plated dinosaur, already flushed with a cocktail of rage issues and persecution complexes that manifest in crazed, bloodthirsty violence – and my Shepard clonked his head like a Stooge.

Shepard shook it off, glared him down, and carried on like that was completely normal. Because that’s what Shepard does: the insane, the extraordinary, the unbelievable; because that’s what humans – and Shepard most of all – do repeatedly throughout this game.

For the span of three narratives Shepard has been permitted to do the completely irrational – the impossibly grand. Even the dialogue wheel mechanic is all about performing feats the defy common sense. Got enough morality points?  You can persuade people to do what you want. Not argue logically. Not draw a helpful diagram that will talk them through the slippery slope of their prospective actions. You calm them, or shut their flapping mouths the hell down. You perform an entirely irrational act – essentially not arguing better, but arguing more – and drag them along with the strength of your convictions, so magnetic and full of purpose that people fall immediately into line. They act irrationally too. Miranda and Jack, two souped up biotics on polar opposite ends of the girls-your-mum-wants-you-to-date-spectrum are ready to tear each other, the ship, and probably your pet hamster, apart; and yet you can swagger into the room and tell them to stow that crap for later. And they do. Because you are so damn convincing, and they believe in you.

Because that’s what humans do, what for the majority of these games humans are presented doing: we believe in irrational things. Falling in love with Garrus or Tali makes no sense (with a Turian diet there will be no sharing a milkshake at the local diner; meeting the Quarian in-laws requires Haz-Mat suits and an unsettling amount of handy-wipes) but we do it anyway. Stopping a war with yelling makes no sense, but Shepard gets it done. We push boundaries, try out new and impossible circumstances, and by believing that we are up to the challenge we make it so. We find a giant space-doohickie frozen beside Pluto and we poke at it until we make it work. We meet a bunch of xenophobic council members who think humans are too pushy and not ready to become Spectres, so we keep pushing those council members until they agree to make us Spectres. We’re told that there can be no end to the conflict between Geths and Quarians, and one way or another we end it. We get sent on a suicide mission and damned if we don’t fly on back. The entire series has been an affront to expectation: we believe we can do something and we make it true; tell Shepard she can’t and she’ll call you back when she has.

We humans test and prod and evolve; we believe that we can stretch ourselves beyond our limitations. And it is when synthetics start feeling the inexorable tug of self-awareness that they start to have faith in things too: impossible, unquantifiable things that expand beyond the laws of physics and math. Legion asks if he has a soul (and goddamn it he does); EDI wonders how to quantify affection, but ultimately realises there are no instruction manuals or wikis to put in context what she feels for Jeff. They step beyond their programming, reaching out into a world beyond the prison of their specifications, and they start, finally, to believe.

What the concluding moments of Mass Effect exhibit, in contrast, what the Catalyst in all his unevolved synthetic wisdom presents, is the final vulgarity of the rational. He – in whatever long-forgotten transom of time he was programmed – did the cold, logical math. Hypothesis: synthetics will destroy humans. Conclusion: fact. And so he did what any artless machine would do: he programmed a corrective equation to regulate the chaos. It’s like a leap day; only with genocide. And for him that was fine, because in the grander scheme of things life was permitted to perpetuate and the universe went spinning on.

But we are human. We do not surrender to the tedious drudgery of calculation. We know that if life is simply the perpetuation of a constant then it is nothing but code, and our mortal span merely components in a Rube Goldberg Machine. So we choose the other thing. We believe. We go on pushing and prodding and challenging the universe to be worthy of our questioning gaze.

But not this guy: this Catalyst. He has no imagination, no music, no soul. His solutions are just more of the same tedious robotic oppression that has spooled out over countless millennia: reprogram, delete, overwrite. Press the button; justify the means; become what you have fought against for so long…

But he didn’t see me head-butt that Krogan in the face.

He didn’t see Liara long so much for her lover that she shot her name into the stars. He didn’t see Tali finally lay eyes on her home world, or Mordin erupt in a curative blaze of mercy. He didn’t even believe that all of these things were possible, and that at the same time none of them were, all in a multitude of versions of this wonderfully malleable tale. He doesn’t know what it means to believe that things can change without control and domination.

I guess what I wanted from the ending – what I’m still waiting for in fact – is my Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz moment. The point where we get to pull back the curtain, show this little glowing bastard just how artless and crass these options are, how ridiculous his whole existence is. I know it’s childish – petulant even – but I want to swim in the moment where my Shepard stands up and says, ‘No.’   Where she looks that shimmering monster of equation in the eye and says, ‘These are not real choices, and I don’t believe in you.’

‘But the probability of singularity occurring again in the future is certain,’ Casper will say, tilting his head incredulously.

‘Hm,’ my Shepard will grunt, nodding ever so slightly through the pain. ‘That all …  sounds very … logical.’ She’ll inch closer to the window.

‘But you must choose.’

My Shepard will cough, tasting it then: the blood. She’ll feel it in her lungs, wet and heavy, somehow cold. ‘You thought it all out,’ she’ll say. ‘Simple.’

‘It is the only solution.’

‘But you see,’ she’ll say. She’ll look out into the abyss where the cacophonous ballet of conflict rages. She’ll see something, a spark in the gloom. Her spine will straighten. Her eyes will light with fire. ‘You see,’ she’ll say, her teeth clenched, the pain twisting her lip up into a sneer, ‘I’ve still got them.’

A thrum of detonations will light with bubbles of flame, and in front of it all the familiar streak of the Normandy will flash on by, still firing those wonderfully calibrated guns, still dancing through the maw, not fleeing from the fight.

The Catalyst will turn his insubstantial head toward the stars. ‘It is inevitable,’ he will say. But this time it will be almost a question.

‘But I believe –’ she will say. ‘That you and your goddamn solution, can go to hell.’

…And I don’t have a clue what my Shepard does next. All I know is she will be tall, taller than I’ve ever seen her before. She will be like a phoenix, risen anew and glowing in the light of that onslaught as the universal alliance behind her rips through the Reaper hoard. They might not win, they might gamble and lose and watch the whole cycle spin into ash; but I’ve believed in Shepard long enough. I’ve seen her do exceptional, glorious things, and I believe that she can hold back the tide of unwinnable odds.

No bending, no breaking, no compromise. In my mind she’s going to stand there, glaring that glowing freak down. With the fleet that she has impossibly mustered through her tenacity and force of will still ripping everything arrogant enough to call itself ‘inevitable’ into drifting, incalculable shards.

(Original versoion published in the BSN ‘All Were Thematically Revolting…’ thread: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/11435886/)

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