I finished Mass Effect tonight. Not just the third game in the trilogy, but the trilogy itself. The essence of what Mass Effect has meant to me for the last five years, ever since I became enamored with the first game in 2007. The story has been concluded. And this trilogy has just been written into my personal history books as one of the best game trilogies of all time. Better than Halo. Better than damn near anything. And now I can’t go to bed until I get this off my chest. It’s physiologically impossible.
My opinions are all subjective, of course. That’s why I said “my history books”. I’m a sucker for sci-fi. For stories that tease us with the origins of the cosmos, have us unravel a mystery of such enormous age and scale as to be nearly inconceivable. Mass Effect did all that, right up until the very end. And then it…ended. I’m still trying to decide how I feel about that ending. That’s why I’m writing this, because maybe I’ll figure it out by the time I’m finished.
In case you hadn’t heard, the Internet went absolutely apeshit over Mass Effect 3’s ending. I believe that it contributed almost single-handedly to the fact that Electronic Arts was chosen as the Consumerist’s Worst Company in America for 2012, which is nigh unbelievable and certainly ridiculous in the grand scheme (I mean, worse than both Bank of America and Walmart? Really?). When the gamer rage over the ME3 ending broke out, I largely refused to wade into that shitstorm. Mostly because nothing good ever comes of such an act, but also because I hadn’t yet finished the game myself and didn’t want to comment on something about which I had no experience.
Well, now I have experience. And I will say this, if BioWare wanted us to really feel something about the way the story ended and take it very personally, they succeeded at least where this author is concerned.
Following are some serious spoilers, so take appropriate action.
First, a mini-review of Mass Effect 3 itself — the 36 hours that I played leading up to the final battle. There’s no need for me to go into much detail here; the game was simply a masterwork. Although the main plot was perhaps less compelling (due to its more straightforward nature) than that of Mass Effect 2, the game was played out in such an epic scale that I felt like I was living through the most wonderful, engaging and emotionally rewarding sci-fi film of all time. All of those choices I’d made since the very beginning in 2007, all of those characters I’d met…they were all touched on in some way, affecting my missions and relationships, my successes and failures. People I’d saved years ago showed up to take a heroic stand when it counted. Groundwork I’d laid in prior installments reached a payoff as I brokered peace between the quarians and geth, who had been at war for centuries. Pride rose within me as I saved Wrex and his entire race from death by curing the genophage, losing a former teammate and friend during a bittersweet moment along the way. It was all so incredibly grand, and I’m sure I’ll never forget the experiences I’ve had during this game.
The mechanics of the game itself — the gunplay, the cover-based shooting, the environments and the missions — were all, again, top-notch. Seeing (and hearing) so much of the once-enigmatic Admiral Hackett, voiced by my personal favorite Lance “Bishop” Henriksen, was great fun. Scouring every system in the galaxy, finding all those war assets and racking up all those points put me on the edge of my seat as I watched the numbers pour in, realizing that we actually had a shot at beating the death-bringing reapers once and for all. The only question was how it would play out. I enjoyed every last second of the road I traveled on the way to finding out.
And then I found out.
It all came to a head on Earth, during the final battle as my squad and I made a desperate run for the conduit that would take us to the Citadel. Before we could reach the conduit, Harbinger’s lethal beam struck. My screen turned white, and I thought I was dead. Did I not react fast enough? Did I fail to dodge out of the way? As it turns out, this outcome was intentional and inevitable.
I then watched in horror as the Commander Shepard I’d created from scratch arose weakly from the ashes, alive but only just, his armor slagged, unpowered and half-melted to his battered body, realizing that his days as a combat vehicle were finished. But I still had to get to the Citadel, had to activate the Crucible and destroy the damnable reapers. How was I going to do it like this? And where were Liara and my good friend Garrus? I had hand-picked them for this mission to fight alongside me, representative of two of the galaxy’s other prominent races, in this melting-pot of sacrifice and resistance that hoped desperately to save each other’s burning worlds. Were they…dead?
Shepard staggered toward the conduit, armed only with a pistol. Nearby was an Alliance soldier, wounded but conscious; I made my way toward him, time dilating around me as I shuffled with agonizing slowness. Some cannibals attempted to rush me; with a wavering arm I put two bullets in each of them and watched them fall. By the time I returned my gaze to that Alliance soldier, he was dead. I soldiered on.
I made it to the conduit, which rushed me like a miniature mass relay to the Citadel orbiting overhead. My jaw fell open and probably didn’t close for another five minutes as I found myself in a dimly-lit, choking corridor filled with half-slagged human bodies, bodies piled everywhere like a landfill of corpses. Admiral Anderson was talking to me on my headset, apparently having made it to the conduit just before I did. Through the horrible and macabre corridors I stalked, losing blood and barely keeping conscious until I found the control room. And Anderson. And the Illusive Man.
The Illusive Man was, by now, half-reaper. Indoctrinated by that evil force, just as I had long suspected, he used his newfound powers to force Anderson away from the console that would have activated and fired the Crucible. In the tense conversation that followed, I used all of my reputation points to try and talk the Illusive Man down. He shot Anderson in the gut, but failed to deal the killing blow, thanks to my own power of verbal persuasion. In the end, as my words bestowed enough clarity of thought upon the Illusive Man for him to realize he was being controlled by the reapers, he found it in himself to put the next bullet through his own head. The avatar of Cerberus was dead at last.
I engaged the Crucible’s firing mechanism and slumped down on the floor next to Anderson, watching the destruction unfold around us as the reapers fought the galaxy’s combined fleet in orbit around the burning Earth. Anderson confessed that he was proud of me, then died quietly of his wounds. I thought that this might truly be it, that I was going to die up here with him after pushing the final button that granted the galaxy its salvation.
But it wasn’t as simple as that. The Crucible wasn’t firing. Hackett was screaming at me on the comm to do something. I tried to make it to the control panel but passed out. And then…
…I woke up in a new location at the top of the Citadel tower, and there before me was what I can only refer to as the star-child. A highly-evolved being of light which took the form of a young boy, he explained to me that the reapers were his own creation some hundreds of thousands of years ago, a creation meant to prevent galactic chaos. His assertion was that synthetic life — artificial intelligence, androids, creations like the geth — would always and inevitably rebel against and destroy the organics who created them. In order to prevent all organic life in the galaxy from being permanently extinguished, he created the reapers — themselves synthetic life forms — to wipe the galaxy clean of advanced civilizations once every 50,000 years, while leaving intact those lesser races that had not yet evolved. The lesser races would, over the next several millennia, take the place of those advanced races that had been exterminated. They would invariably create synthetic life of greater and greater complexity, until the cycle of cleansing would repeat all over again. The reapers’ sole purpose seemed to be as a controller and manager of entropy.
But this solution would no longer work, the star-child reasoned, for I had finally found my way to his secret lair, proving that the organics had gotten hip to his little scheme and would find a way to pass that knowledge on to the cycles to come. He placed in my hands the ability to choose a new solution, a new way to prevent the inevitable extinction of all organic life at the hands of the synthetics that we would create. There were three options:
- Destroy the reapers as I had planned to do from the beginning. This would destroy all synthetic life in the galaxy, even the geth (who had recently begun to work together with their creators, the quarians) and EDI, the self-aware AI from my ship who had become quite attached to its human pilot. Organic life would be allowed to live on, but the star-child assured me that without the reapers to cull the flock every 50,000 years, we would eventually all be destroyed at the hands of our own synthetic creations.
- Control the reapers, as the Illusive Man had wanted to do. This choice would place me, Commander Shepard, in the role currently held by the star-child. The reapers would obey my commands. I could simply tell them to get the hell out of our galaxy. But control of such vast and powerful beings is a tenuous thing, and I saw how lust for it had corrupted the Illusive Man. Was it too dangerous a path to take?
- Synthesize a new form of life by irrevocably combining all organics and synthetics. Humans, turians, asari, quarians, salarians…we would become part synthetic, and synthetics like the geth would become part biological. We would have free will. The cycle of destruction would end, for it would no longer be necessary. Organic and synthetic beings would all become one and the same.
I agonized over the choice. The game’s climactic music thudded in my ears, Shepard’s lifeblood leaked slowly onto the Citadel’s cold metal decking and I racked my brain trying to decide which solution to choose. It all came down to this. The entire galaxy would be upended by whatever I decided to do next.
Glowering at the TV screen, I felt like the Synthesis ending was being dangled over my head like a carrot. Presented as a kind of “best of both worlds” choice. A choice in which everything would change, in which all life would become homogenized and inextricably blended. And it all stemmed from the star-child’s premise that organic and synthetic life could not possibly coexist. The latter would eventually destroy the former.
This seriously rubbed me the wrong way. Had I not just proven that this premise was flawed? I had convinced the quarians and the geth to end their centuries-old war and work together. Hell, the geth were helping the quarians rebuild their homeworld. Furthermore, my ship’s AI, EDI, had “evolved” into a self-actualized synthetic life form with free will — she was even pursuing a romantic relationship with the ship’s freaking pilot! How did this prove that organics were doomed to extinction at the hands of synthetic life?
On the flipside, I had to consider that these two examples — EDI and the geth — were only coexisting with their creators because of the influence of reaper technology, a technology that is at its core a combination of organic and synthetic life. Both EDI and the geth became self-actualized only when reaper technology was allowed to either infiltrate or gain control of their higher processes. Did this mean that they were now representative of the new form of life that would be created if I chose the “Synthesis” option? It seemed as though this was the diplomatic solution, the perfect compromise, the choice that would have made a man like Jean-Luc Picard proud. The choice where nothing will ever be the same, but where everybody apparently wins.
Unfortunately for the reapers, I have always been more of a James T. Kirk.
My Shepard is a soldier, both by description and by class. He’s a master-at-arms. He has access to four different ammo powers. For God’s sake, he took his gunnery chief and fellow Spectre to bed. This is not a man who compromises with the opposition. He’s a man who destroys it.
I used my last bit of strength to charge at the Crucible’s power conduits and fill them with mass-accelerated lead until the enormous super-weapon fired a burst of pure, concentrated annihilation. I had spent the last five years and three games fighting. Fighting this enemy, staving off what everyone had told me was the inevitable. Watching as the reapers torched my world and the worlds of my friends, burned and slagged and melted and assimilated millions upon millions of innocent lives. I wasn’t going to reason with this shit. I wasn’t going to mind-meld with it. And I damn sure wasn’t going to merge with it. I was going to fucking kill it.
The reaper capital ships all vanished in a flash when the Crucible unloaded, falling to ruin all across the galaxy as the fiery red shock wave spread everywhere. The star-child, too, vaporized in the ensuing destruction. Earth itself was completely unharmed by the blast, the Alliance soldiers on the ground raising their assault rifles in shouts of victory as the reaper destroyers fell lifelessly to its surface. The mass relays that connected every corner of the galaxy self-destructed, sealing away each star system in its own isolated pocket of the universe once more — and stranding the entire combined fleet of the galaxy’s surviving races in orbit around Earth! Holy shit, what?
And now here’s my ship, the Normandy, in slipspace…trying to outrun the shock wave from an exploding mass relay? Huh? Where is my ship going and why is its crew running away? Aren’t they going to try to save me from the self-destructing Citadel? Aren’t Garrus and I going to have that drink on the beach and make a killing off the royalties from the vids? The shock wave catches up with the ship, and…
We see the Normandy’s crash site on a deserted garden planet, one very much like Earth some hundreds if not thousands of years ago. The hatch opens, and out steps Joker, shielding his eyes from the sun…he’s followed by Ashley, my fricking girlfriend, who I guess left me to burn back there in Earth orbit? How fucking kind! And she’s followed by Javik, the prothean who’s the star of the From Ashes DLC mission that I found so compelling. It’s appropriate, somehow, the lone survivor of the previous reaper cycle some 50,000 years ago, ending up as one of the lone survivors of the next.
There’s a slow pan across the wreckage of the Citadel to the body of who we are to assume is the fallen Commander Shepard. A close-up on his slagged armor and N7 dog tags. It looks as though he’s dead. The unkillable Commander Shepard, KIA at last.
And then he inhales sharply, suddenly.
Okay, I need a moment here.
Actually, let me take an additional moment and tell you how much I love the end credits music. It’s by the Canadian electronic rock band Faunts, who also wrote the incredibly awesome end credits theme from the first Mass Effect (which was titled “M4 Part 2”). Whatever you thought of the game’s ending, the music that played over the credits makes it all worth it in my estimation.
And then the game followed it up with the character creation music, which is my other favorite track in Mass Effect 3. Brilliant.
There is an after-credits scene that needs to be mentioned. In it, a beautiful snowy landscape of some decidedly non-Earth planet is shown. In the distance two silhouetted figures walk through an ice-covered field, one of them an old man, the other a young boy (judging by their voices). “Did that all really happen?” the boy asks. “Yes, but some of the details have been lost in time,” says the old man. “It all happened so very long ago.”
“Tell me another story about the Shepard,” the boy requests.
The game ends.
Some have postulated that the ending scene is actually an elderly Commander Shepard telling stories to his grandson. I don’t buy it. Everything about the way it’s written suggests that it truly does take place a very long time after the events of the Mass Effect series proper. Whatever race and culture the old man and the boy belong to, they have romanticized the legend of Commander Shepard to the degree where they now refer to him as the Shepard. It’s kind of awe-inspiring, at least to me. The events of the games themselves take place so far in this fictional future, and now suddenly this scene catapults us far, far further than even that — making the game’s future a distant past in the blink of an eye. It’s like narrative vertigo. But I like it, honestly.
In the end, there are some things I wish I knew more about. What happened to the fleet after they were stranded in the Sol system? (And how did the quarians and turians survive, since all human food is toxic to their metabolisms?) What happened to Garrus and Liara, my trusted squadmates? What happened to the crew of the Normandy, and why the hell were they headed out-system when the mass relays self-destructed? What happened to Commander Shepard? Why was there that teaser scene at the end where he takes a breath, proving that he survived, and why was that scene so important that it is only shown if you complete the game with over 5000 points in war assets?
Apparently BioWare is gearing up to provide some answers, potentially to some of those questions, with the new “Extended Cut” DLC that they’ll be releasing for free this summer. They’re producing this in response to the huge Internet shitstorm that I mentioned at the beginning of this article, because apparently a lot of people are very, very pissed about the ending. They complain that all the choices they made while playing all three Mass Effect games basically had no effect on the ending beside the color of the explosions, who stepped out of the crashed Normandy, and a few other minor details. And there was almost no explanation for many of the points I mentioned in the previous paragraph.
While I would like some additional closure and am interested to see what the “Extended Cut” DLC adds in that regard, I have to admit that I was profoundly affected by the ending as it exists because my mind filled in the blanks. Or at least, it immediately ran wild filling in every possible blank that it could get its hand on, extrapolating the aftermath of Commander Shepard’s story down so many paths that it was like I was writing a whole new follow-up trilogy in my mind’s eye. It’s staggering, all the potential ramifications of the choice I made. The fact that BioWare didn’t show us a single damn one of them doesn’t mean I don’t have the capacity to imagine what they could be. Perhaps that was their intention? We may never know.
I’m perhaps more disturbed by the rumblings I’ve heard, which claim the original writer of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 did not intend for this kind of ending and had in fact planted seeds in the first two games that were supposed to lead to an ending that involved dark matter and the decay of the galaxy. Here’s where I start to get a little skeeved, because now I feel like the author’s original intent for the story may have been ignored or outright tossed. Because there was potentially a much deeper and engaging ending in the works — or at least in the writer’s mind — at some point, makes me disappointed that we may be missing out on what could have been.
However, the ending as it stands does nothing to detract from the incredible experience that the Mass Effect trilogy has been. I’ve enjoyed it so much, I fear that it’s going to be one of those trilogies that I have trouble playing more than once, only because I’ll remember how it ended and I don’t want it to end again. It’s like how I don’t enjoy watching the final episode of my favorite TV shows, knowing that this was the end and there was never any more to the story afterwards. Mass Effect has been an absolute masterpiece, and I’m sad to see the legendary Commander Shepard’s story come to an end. Especially because he was my Shepard, with an appearance and backstory of my own design, who made choices based on what I would have chosen for myself.
For now, I’m going to put the game away and revisit it this summer when the “Extended Cut” DLC arrives. Until then, I’ll continue to churn over that ending in my mind, wondering if I made the right choice, wondering how it all worked out for the survivors, wondering what became of my friends and comrades.
And I’ll continue to be in awe of just how damn terrific Mass Effect has been.