Archive for Thematically Revolting

‘This is the way the world ends’: A Response to Mass Effect 3’s Extended Cut

Posted in video games with tags , , , , on November 23, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Bioware

[As will be almost immediately evident – this post was originally written (but not published here) back in July – but there’s nothing like fermented heartbreak, so please endulge me.  And it should go without saying: spoilers, spoilers, spoilers…]

Huh.  Well that was a hell of a thing.

Depending on who you ask, last week (26th June) Bioware, the creators of Mass Effect 3, either ‘caved to fan pressure’, ‘corrected their ham-fisted, hurried storytelling’, or ‘wanted to provide closure for those who appreciated their vision’ by releasing an Extended Cut of the concluding game of their trilogy.  From whichever angle it was viewed, this free downloadable addition to the current game was a direct response to months of criticism directed at the game’s plot holes, inconsistencies and sloppy design – all elements that even the creators themselves came to admit needed clarification lest the confusion continue.  Many have found these revised and expanded endings to be satisfactory (if not outright brilliant) additions to the Mass Effect lore, which is no doubt a good thing.  I however will have to admit right out of the gates – before the tenor of my response drifts into inevitable sorrow – that I was not one of those people.  So if you are (quite understandably) sick of hearing people whine about these endings, it might be a good idea to pass on by right now…

Many (myself included), had criticised the game’s original ending for its thematic, character and logical inconsistencies, and although a great deal of effort was exerted to justify these problems in the new cut, it is odd to note that so many narrative absurdities still litter the work – this time arguably even more pronounced as they work overtime to clear up the jarring details left hanging the first time around.

Now, crewmates that were once somehow mysteriously transported onto the Normandy are shown in the process of being bundled onboard – despite the fact that this involves the ship parking itself right directly front of a giant Reaper, a creature that was spewing a volley of devastating lasers that were only moments before annihilating objects as small as scampering humans with surgical precision.  The Reaper, Harbinger, seems to take a mystifying coffee break while Shepard evacuates her team: ‘No, you guys have your conversation.  I’m just gonna fill in this crossword for a minute and –  Oh?  You’re done?  Well: Laser!  Laser!  BLAM!  Mmwoah Ha Haaaa…

Similarly the ship’s pilot Joker no longer runs off during the battle and abandons you without a reason; he is shown being ordered to do so by Admiral Hackett because – well, because…  Just because. You know what Admirals are like.  And although Joker looks momentarily conflicted, fan-favourite character Garrus leans over the console to agree with the call and tell him to scram.  So now you are no longer abandoned by the guy who earlier in the game promised never to leave you, you’re also abandoned by the guy who promised that he’d walk into hell with you and order a beer.  So that’s two people off the Christmas list.

Perhaps the most extraordinary addition to the work, however, is the further elucidation of the Catalyst character.  Previously your standard deus ex machina (literally a God from a Machine) through expanded conversational choices he is now revealed to be a sociopathic Artificial Intelligence, designed several eons ago to solve the ‘inevitable’ problem of synthetics and organics eventually slaughtering one another.  Having watched The Matrix and Terminator 2: Judgement Day one too many times, the Catalyst used his dispassionate machine logic and decided that the best way to stop the bloodshed was to just kill all advanced species himself and save them all the time.  He therefore rolled out a swarm of killer space-locust who turned everyone to goo, and to make ever more machines of slaughter out of their remains.  You know, as you do.

Once again players are not offered the opportunity to point out that they may well have already solved the synthetic versus organic conflict that has him worked up in such a tizzy; synthetics and organics are currently working together right now, knocking on the outside door to come in and kick his ass.  Likewise we still get no explanation for why he’s decided to wear a dead kid’s face to have this conversation; nor do we know why he’s so eager to tell us the best way to wipe he and his creations out, despite arguing that his is the only solution.

And so, unswayed, the Catalyst, ultimate face and voice of the Reapers, goes ahead and explains his new options to resolve the conflict, each of which remain precisely as they were in the original ending, and all still carrying the arbitrary price of death:

Firstly, you can Destroy the Reapers, but by doing so also wipe out all sentient life forms, thereby committing genocide on a race of creatures that have been proven to respect life and fear the implications of death, and who in most case are fighting alongside you at that very moment.

Secondly, you can Control the Reapers, dissolving yourself to overtake the hive mind of the Reapers, brainwashing them to do your will (something that you’ve been trying to stop people doing for three straight games).

Thirdly, you can choose to merge all organics and synthetics together as one race, thereby destroying all distinction and diversity and removing (in the Catalyst’s rather eugenically-perverse vision) all cause for conflict.  Essentially you pull a reverse King Solomon, employing his wisdom in some ugly, monstrous reverse: ‘Can’t decide which is better, robots or fleshbags? Well just smoosh them together, natch!’

If anything, the three conclusions become even more twisted and unappealing, because the source of these options is better understood: each is the product of an incomprehensibly deranged mind; the most successful, pitiless mass-murderer in all of existence is offering you three choices that will fulfil his ultimate scheme, and you get to pick one to help him out.  …So yay?  In your name you get to impose his will upon the universe, become a Reaper yourself, and decide how all life will be lived in the future.

But for three games we have been invited to investigate the myriad examples of when authority is unwillingly exerted over another species – when decisions of how another sentient being should live their life is unceremoniously stripped away: Indoctrination, the Geth, the Krogan, the horror of the Batarian slave-traders, Protheans misguidedly dominating other species under their rule, the mass slaughter perpetrated by the Reapers.  Every race we meet seems to be healing from some kind of atrocity in which their autonomy was maligned or abused, and in every instance – every single one – the writers present these acts with all the grim moral ambiguities that such domination evokes.

That’s not to say that they are always depicted as outright wrong (one may of course side with the decisions to keep the Krogan sterile; to wipe out the Geth wholesale), but at no point in this universe is it appropriate to say that ‘I-will-force-my-will-upon-you-because-I-know-better’ ever ends happily.  There is always resentment, there is always horror, and the game invites (does not compel, but I would argue encourages) you to fight against the arrogance of such dominion.

Until the end.

In the end you are directly responsible for making such a choice.  After years of wandering the universe sweeping up the wreckage of a hundred such abuses – from the thuggery of pirates, to the persecution of entire species – the game forces you to become the thing you have fought.  To me it felt like I was not only becoming a Reaper (embracing at least one of their nut-bag visions of the universe), but I also had to be a bully.

Playing through this ending I felt all of this impotent frustration over again – but then I realised there was something new.  Because here, newly added to the Extended Cut, a direct response by the creators to the fan’s critical outcry, was a fourth option.

I cannot express the glee I felt at discovering that this fourth option existed.

We did it, I thought.  The fans and Bioware connected.  They saw what was wrong!  They felt the pain.  They never wanted to put their audience through all that!  Force those who despised the endings down a cattle grid of moral slaughter.  Suddenly it was clear that they were going to offer a new way: perhaps not necessarily a better way, but new.  For those who remained unnerved by the endings, here was the alternate path; the means to preserve what had meant most to them about their Shepard, and to still defeat the big bad.  To stand up and glare it down.  To maybe take some hits, but to never acquiesce, not aligning ourselves with the enemy and embracing their psychosis.

And so, in spite of the emotional devastation of her last experience tottering on that spot, my Shepard rallied.  She rose: a resounding, towering figure.  A silhouette amidst the blaze of ruination around her.  Damn right we will not bend, she seemed to be saying.  We will not lose faith.  We’ll fight on – in a universe of cruel, dispassionate violence and hate, we will forge a path of unity and reassert our indomitable will.  We will not be terrified and bullied into submission to some sacrifice of virtue.  You cannot lay us on an altar and cut the very heart out of our spirit.

And so, after months of being haunted by that moment, I got to tell the face of all the Reapers to go screw off.  Got to tell him right to his smirking little face that his endless, cyclical scheme was madness, and that he was but an unhinged monster on a witless rampage.  No matter what his original intentions had once been, he was nothing but a ghoul now, a husk devoid of purpose, bringing darkness and pain wherever his shadow was cast.  A mockery to the very life he was trying to ‘preserve’.

And so, my Shepard selected the fourth option, and I readied myself to watch the Reapers feel what happens when the downtrodden bite back…

But instead, the whole goddamn universe ended.

Was wiped out.

I saw a galaxy of life get flamed away in an instant – even after the cause of all that devastation had agreed with me that his ridiculous plan no longer worked.  I had shown the villain the flaw in this scheme; he had admitted that his solution was no longer acceptable; but he decided to go and do it anyway.  What the hell?  The gasoline was already spilled.  Why waste it?  Like a frenzied child he lit it up because I refused to obey, because I wasn’t willing to perpetuate his narrow vision of existence.

To be honest, it was the most heartbreaking meta-textual moment of narrative I have ever experienced; final proof that the whole promise of individuated interaction that drew me to the Mass Effect universe in the first place (and that was repeated ad nauseum in Bioware’s marketing for half a decade) was a complete misinterpretation on my behalf.  This was not my story.  This was never my universe.  I fell in love with these characters, but I was never fighting beside them.  I really was just looking through the window as they talked amongst themselves, imagining what I might say if I was there.  I never talked Samara out of killing herself; I never helped Thane reconnect with his son; I never tempted a traumatised biotic to reconnect with the world; I certainly never stared down a Krogan ready to rip me to shreds.  I pressed buttons.  I stared at a screen.  Watched polygons dance.

For months I’ve been hearing critics who decry the fans that have voiced their displeasure at the ending say ‘Why are you getting so upset?  It’s just a game’.  And not only could I not agree with this sentiment, but on many levels, I literally couldn’t even understand what such a sentiment meant.  It wasn’t just a game.  It was a world in which you were invited to project yourself: to participate in and influence.  It was a reactive agent, and you were –  Well, you were any other term than the ‘Catalyst’.

Or it was.

I guess the final message of Mass Effect, the message its creators went to extra pains to communicate, was that yes: it was just a game.  There was a structure and there were parameters, and unless you agree to the win-scenario in its absolute moral vacuum, you forfeit your right to success.

Because I refused to play according to the rigid, objectionable rules that Bioware laid down in the final moments of the game, I watched a galaxy of beauty and grace annihilated, and got to acutely feel that it was all my fault.  Hell, I was even told I failed by the companion tasked with cataloguing my fight for the ages.

I tried to play by my rules (the rules I had been led to believe up until that point were at the heart of the experience), and was punished for it.  Foolishly, I tried to hold on to the beliefs that I thought made human beings more than automatons.  Critical Mission Failure.  You lose.  What a jerk I turned out to be.

Instead I got to watch the galaxy spin on until someone else was willing to come along and push the button I couldn’t.  Either way, the only way life perpetuates in this narrative is through an act of fear and moral compromise.  Life will go on, but the standard of that life is proved irrelevant.  The principles upon which it is now founded are genocide, domination, or the arrogance of compelled mutation.  Three games, all leading up to a final thesis of moral futility.

And to add the final insult, it all still gets credited to ‘The Shepard’, even though the thought of such an eventuality literally killed her.

A whimper, not a bang.

Yay nihilism.

And so, if Star Trek is about hope, and Firefly about defiance, and Star Wars is about the balance of good and evil (and infuriatingly stilted dialogue), and Battlestar Galactica is about cycles of self-destruction, and our capacity to alter that inevitability, then in its final moments Mass Effect reveals itself to be wholly about compromise.  What are you willing to sacrifice in order to succeed?  For some that’s everything.

How far will you compromise those ‘ideals’ that pushed you along the whole time?  Or do you even need to sacrifice your beliefs at all?  Because if you never saw Synthetics as people, then gravy.  Not only does the game force this compromise upon you for victory, but it only rewards you for making a choice that gives you over to your enemy’s point of view.

But what I don’t understand, what even now fills me with bewilderment and genuine shock, is why, if the whole theme was compromise, did they kept insisting that the central thrust of the game was ‘hope’.  Liara even throws the term out to future generations in the opening of her holo-log in the ‘Refuse’ ending.  We offer you hope.

…No we don’t.  We hoped and failed, remember?  We didn’t do what apparently needed to be done.

And the word hope is not just a trump card that you can slap own amidst a cavalcade of despair to pretty up the carnage.  As silver linings go it’s pretty flimsy.  Just four little letters, more a puff of air than a declaration.  It has to be attached to something.  There has to be something to hope for.

So why on the whole way to those final choices was everyone blathering about hope?  I mean, all the ‘I’ll-see-you-after-this-is-all-overs’ were heartbreaking enough, knowing what was to come, but to then have everyone praising Shepard for sticking to her beliefs, a litany of platitudes about how magnificent it was that she never sacrificed what defined her, how that fortitude was a beacon for the peoples of the galaxy.  And what for?  To be called an abject failure for continuing to stick to those beliefs when it counted most?

In his farewell Javik told my Shepard that she was the ‘avatar’ of all life.  That everyone and everything in the universe was looking to her and at her at that very moment.  That She was a symbol of all that existence could, and will, become – it is from her metaphorical blood that a new generation will emerge.  Even the Illusive Man, while cursing her name in a video feed said that he respected that Shepard’s beliefs never wavered.  She would do what she believed in, no matter the cost, no matter what the circumstance.

And then the game places before her three atrocities cooked up by the guy who has been strangling the life out of the universe and demands that she go along with one.  Her legacy is to be a sycophant to the sociopath who eons ago lost himself down a perverted path of malformed altruism.  Not to shut him down.  Not to expose the horror of his actions to him, nor argue him back to sense.  To agree that his ways (destruction or control) or his wildest fantasies (* sparkles just-makes-everyones-the-sames rainbows *) are the only way forward for life.  We’ve spent hundreds of hours fighting against such twisted ideals, and now we must not only suffer one of them, but wholly embrace it.  Make it our own choice.

The Reapers get to stand over us – even metaphorically in their deaths – shouting ‘Stop hitting yourself!  Stop hitting yourself!  Stop hitting yourself!  What?  Gonna cry?’

Hope it aint.

To give them credit, Bioware did ultimately let me reject the three endings that I continued to see as repellent, but the price was that I was no longer permitted to exist in their world anymore.  Indeed, they vowed to torch it all down rather they let me spend another second there: ‘The universe ends now.  You can see your own way out.’

As the credits rolled and I saw the creators names pass by all I could feel is that it would have been nice if they had have let me know all this three games ago: that I, and my dorky little ideals, weren’t welcome.  Bioware disabused me of my misconception that I was even part of their vision.  I guess I was just fuel for that purging fire that the Catalyst wanted to unleash upon the galaxy – too mired in my primitive hopes and faith to exist in his new galactic order.

But I guess if I hadn’t taken the ride I would never have enjoyed such rich characters.  And it’s true: you can’t grieve for something if you didn’t love it first.

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:

Thematically Revolting: The End of Mass Effect 3

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , on August 16, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Bioware

Putting aside all of the hanging plot threads that rankled me when first playing through the ending of Mass Effect 3 (where was the Normandy going? why did my squad mates live? Anderson is where now? wait, the catalyst was Haley Joel Osment? etc), I would like to take a moment to explain why, when I was offered those three repellent choices, ‘Destroy’, ‘Control’, and ‘Synthesise’, I turned and tried to unload my now infinite pistol into the whispy-space-ghost’s face.

It was not because I was unhappy that my Shepard would not get to drink Garrus under the table one last time, or get to help Tali build a back-porch on her new homestead, nor that I was pretty sure no one was going to remember to feed my space fish – it was because those three ideological options were so structurally indefensible that they broke the suspension of disbelief that Bioware had (up until that point) so spectacularly crafted for over a hundred hours of narrative. Suddenly Shepard was not simply being asked to sacrifice a race or a friend or him/herself for the greater good (all of which was no doubt expected by any player paying attention to the tone of the series), Shepard was being compelled, without even the chance to offer a counterpoint, to perform one of three actions that to my reading each fundamentally undermined the narrative foundations upon which the series seemed to rest.

In the Control ending, Shepard is invited to pursue the previously impossible path of attempting to dominate the reapers and bend them to his or her will. Momentarily putting aside the vulgarity of dominating a species to achieve one’s own ends (and I will get to complaining about that premise soon enough), this has proved to be the failed modus operandi of every antagonist in this fiction up until this point – including the Illusive Man and Saren – all of whom have been chewed up and destroyed by their blind ambition, incapable of controlling forces beyond their comprehension. Nothing in the vague prognostication of the exposition-ghost offers any tangible justification for why Shepard’s plunge into Reaper-control should play out any differently. In fact, as many people have already pointed out, Shepard has literally not five minutes before this moment watched the Illusive Man die as a consequence of this arrogant misconception.

The Destroy ending, however, seems even more perverse. One of the constants of the Mass Effect universe (and indeed much quality science fiction) has been an exploration of the notion that life is not simplistically bound to biology, that existence expands beyond the narrow parameters of blood and bone. That is why synthetic characters like Legion and EDI are so compelling in this context, why their quests to understand self-awareness – not simply to ape human behaviours – is so dramatic and compelling. Indeed, we even get glimpses of the Reapers having more sprawling and unknowable motivations that we puny mortals can comprehend…

To then end the tale by forcing the player to obliterate several now-proven-legitimate forms of life in order to ‘save’ the traditional definition of fleshy existence is not only genocidal, it actually devolves Shephard’s ideological growth, undermining his ascent toward a more evolved conception of existence, something that the fiction has been steadily advancing no matter how Renegadishably you wanted to play. This is particularly evident when the preceding actions of all three games entirely disprove the premise that synthetic will inevitably destroy organic: the Geth were the persecuted victims, trying their best to save the Quarians from themselves; EDI, given autonomy, immediately sought to aid her crew, even taking physical form in order to experience life from their perspective and finally learning that she too feared the implications of death.

And finally Synthesis, the ending that I suspect (unless we are to believe the Indoctrination Theory) is the ‘good’ option, proves to be the most distasteful of all. Shepard, up until this point has been an instrument though which change is achieved in this universe, and dependent upon your individual Renegade or Paragon choices, this may have resulted in siding with one species or another, letting this person live or that person die, even condemning races to extinction through your actions. But these decisions were always the result of a mediation of disparate opinions, and a consequence of the natural escalation of these disputes – Shepard was merely the fork in the path that decided which way the lava would run. His/her actions had an impact, but was responding to events in the universe that were already in motion before he/she arrived.

To belabour the point: Shepard is an agent for arbitration, the tipping point of dialogues that have, at times, root causes that reach back across generations. Up until this moment in the game the narrative, and Shepard’s role within it, has been about the negotiation of diversity, testing the validity of opposing viewpoints and selecting a path through which to evolve on to another layer of questioning. Suddenly with the Synthesis ending, Shepard’s capacity to make decisions elevates from offering a moral tipping point to arbitrarily wiping such disparity from the world. Shepard imposes his/her will upon every species, every form of life within the galaxy, making them all a dreary homogenous oneness. At such a point, wiping negotiation and multiplicity from the universe, Shepard moves from being an influential voice amongst a biodiversity of thought to sacrificing him/herself in an omnipotent imposition of will.

(And lest we forget that the entire character arc of Javik (the ‘bonus’ paid-DLC character that gives unique context to the entire cycle of destruction upon which this fiction is based) is utilised to reveal that a lack of diversity, the failure to continue adapting to new circumstances, was the primary reason that his race was decimated. …So I guess we have that to look forward to.)

This bewildering finale felt as if you had been listening to a soaring orchestral movement that ended in a cacophonous blast, the musicians tossing down their instruments and walking away. I find it hard to conceive how the creators of such a magnificent franchise could made such a mess of their own universe. The plot holes, thematic inconsistencies and a deus ex machina that was unforgivable in ancient Greek theatre, let alone in any modern narrative, all combine to erode the foundations upon which the rest of the experience resides. (It’s a disturbing sign when apologists for such an ending have to literally hope that what they witnessed was just a bad dream in the central character’s head.)

And to hear Bioware and sympathetic critics arguing ‘artistic integrity’ as an excuse to hide from their audience’s criticism, or to arbitrarilly dismiss the idea of a re-writing of the end, seems a juvenile escape from valid critique. One can immediately think of Charles Dickens being alert to, and adapting his writing in response to the floods of letters he received from his fans in the serialised delivery of stories such as The Old Curiosity Shop; or of F.Scott Fitzgerald extensively redrafting Tender is the Night for a second publishing after receiving negative critical feedback. Indeed, whatever you think of the final result, Ridley Scott was able to reassert a definitive vision of Blade Runner in spite of its original theatrical release. Despite what critics might burble about artistic vision there is innumerable precedent for such reshaping, even beyond fundamental industry practices such as play-testings and film test-screenings. If a work of art has failed in its communicative purpose (and unless angering and bewildering its most invested fans was the goal, then Mass Effect 3 has done so), then it cannot be considered a success, and is not worthy of regard.

And for those who would respond that I, and fans like myself, are simply upset because the endings do not offer some irrefutable ‘clarity’ that would mar the poetic mysteries of the ending, I would point out that I am in no way against obscure or bewildering endings: if they are earned. In contrast to a majority of viewers, I happen to love the ending of The Sopranos for precisely this reason – because, despite the momentary jolt of surprise it engendered, that audacious blank screen was wholly thematically supportable. The driving premise of that program was a man seeking therapy (a mobster, yes, but a psychologically damaged man) – indeed, the very first beat in that narrative was Tony Soprano walking into a psychiatrist’s office. The principle thematic tie of the entire series was therefore revealed to be a mediation upon the underlying psychological stimuli that produces identity: whether the capacity to interpret and understand one’s impulses can impact upon the experience of one’s life; whether one can attain agency over one’s life.

That ending might have been agonising, but it was entirely fitting that the series ended with a loaded ambiguity, inviting a myriad of interpretations in which we the audience were now placed into the role of the psychiatrist, suddenly compelled to reason out the ending of those final thirty seconds with the cumulative experience of the preceding six years of imagery. Did Tony die? Did he have a second plate of onion rings and enjoy his family’s company? Did Meadow ever park that car? In its final act The Sopranos gives over the interpretive, descriptive function of its narrative to its audience, intimately binding the viewer to Tony Soprano’s own (perhaps failed) attempts to comprehend himself and attain authorship over his life. …But the only reason that they could even try this is because every minute of every episode to this point has been propagated upon the notion that Tony Soprano was a man with a subconscious that could be explored, and that motivated his actions whether as a loving father or brutal criminal.

The obscurities in the ending of Mass Effect 3 have not been similarly earned by its prior narrative. This narrative has not until this point been about dominance, extermination, and the imposition of uniformity – indeed, Shepard has spent over a hundred hours of narrative fighting against precisely these three themes. And if one of these three (and only these three) options must be selected in order to sustain life in the universe, then that life has been so devalued by that act as to make the sacrifice meaningless.

And that is why I shall go on shooting Haley Joel Osmont’s ghost in the face.

(Originally published in the ‘All Were Thematically Revolting…” thread:

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