So let’s get one thing out of the way first: I didn’t love the ending of Mass Effect 3.
(Warning: comprehensive SPOILERS for the Mass Effect series to follow)
To fight house-to-house in the liberation of London, like besieged Allied troops in the best WW2 flick, was plenty. To hold off unending waves of Reaper aliens while waiting for a missile emplacement to lock on target was more than enough. To limp desperately through the remains of the Citadel was gripping, poignant, and a fitting end.
The conversation with the “child A.I.” was a bit twee, especially since this was the same “child” that had been showing up in Shepard’s nightmares up to that point. Bioware’s dialogue writing has been better than most video games, but is still raw enough to highlight the limits of the genre, and their tendency to reveal plot through dense blocks of expository dialogue is the company’s biggest weakness. As such, a conversation wherein one character reveals the Secret Nature of the Galaxy to the protagonist is par for Bioware’s output, but hardly laudable.
That, I had a problem with. But the rest of the ending, not so much.
(Yes, there is the plot hole of how the two crew members who came with you to the siege of London failed to make it aboard the Citadel, yet somehow made it back to the Normandy in time to escape the destruction of the Local Relay. So that’s a bit sloppy. But I don’t think that’s the source of the Internet’s outrage)
For those of you who weren’t otherwise familiar, there was a massive controversy surrounding the ending of Mass Effect 3. Thousands of fans petitioned Bioware to include more uplifting endings, or at least the possibility of such, in a new cut of the game. Fans in the U.S. even took the fight to the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau, alleging that Bioware had engaged in false advertising.
I think those tactics are a bit extreme, but it is true that the two distinct outcomes of the original version of the game aren’t that, well, distinct. In both endings, Shepard’s actions result in the destruction of all Mass Relays throughout the galaxy. With this, interstellar communication and transport come to an end. The peace and prosperity that was known throughout Council Space is wiped out. The fleets that followed Shepard to Earth are presumably stranded – although, in the case of the turians, quarians, and geth, it’s not as if they had a real home to return to anyway.
Instructions from NPCs in-game make a big deal of building up your “effective military strength,” or EMS rating. This comes from both recruiting other races of the galaxy to your cause, which requires both tactical mastery and diplomatic aplomb. But it also comes from fighting back against Reaper forces in various hotspots in the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer. Either of these tasks can soak up hours of time. In the end, however, the only difference a high EMS rating makes is whether Shepard definitely dies or maybe survives. Either way, the galaxy is getting shut down.
In the interests of being charitable, I imagine I’d be pretty angry if I invested dozens of hours in online play, as well as sweating over the best offline scenario to bring every race to the table, only to find that I had the same depressing outcome as if I’d played straight through. So I see where some of the rage comes from. That’s not the situation I found myself in, though. I played straight through and got the damned but dauntless ending: cursing the galaxy to a new dark age in order to free it of Reaper tyranny.
And I was fine with it.
Maybe this was a function of having read the source material that (very likely, but not certainly) inspired the ending of Mass Effect 3: Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos. In this critically acclaimed sci-fi series, Simmons tells the story of seven pilgrims traveling to the distant world of Hyperion. The pilgrims are all citizens of the Hegemony of Worlds, a galactic web of planets linked by teleportation gates called farcasters. These farcasters are a gift of the TechnoCore, a collective of AIs that “seceded” from the human race centuries earlier, following the destruction of Earth.
(SPOILERS for The Fall of Hyperion, obviously)
What the pilgrims discover, in the course of their pilgrimage, is that the TechnoCore has manufactured an invasion of the Hegemony through a false race of cybernetic organisms (“cybrids”). These cybrids are invading and overtaking the Hegemony through the farcaster network. The chief executive of the Hegemony, upon being confronted with irrefutable proof of this conspiracy, does the unthinkable: she orders the destruction of the farcaster network.
The effect is nearly instantaneous, propagating through the galaxy faster than the speed of light:
Thousands of people were caught in farcaster transit. Many died instantly, dismembered or torn in half [...] Some simply disappeared. [...] After seven centuries of existence [...], the datasphere [...] simply ceased to be. Hundreds of thousands of citizens went insane at that moment–shocked into catatonia by the disappearance of senses which had become more important to them than sight or hearing. [...] Millions of people died when their chosen habitats, accessible only by farcaster, became isolated deathtraps.
Dan Simmons, The Fall of Hyperion
And that’s only the immediate casualties. The economic loss, caused by the implosion of a system in which instantaneous transport across worlds was not only feasible but taken for granted, is incalculable.
And yet the human race survives. Faster-than-light travel is still possible, through a very small number of starships, so people can reunite with their distant families, albeit after decades. Since all the worlds of humanity were somewhat close to Earth in climate, self-sustenance is possible (though there will likely be continued losses as infrastructure adjusts). It’s a radically fractured vision of humanity, but it’s humanity nonetheless.
The most powerful woman in the galaxy decides that millions must die, in order that trillions may survive. She does this by detonating the network of transporters that united the galaxy – a source of tremendous economic uplift, but also a trap laid by a malevolent race of AIs that would be used to destroy all life.
Yeah, it sounds pretty obvious when spelled out that way.
The reason I point out the comparison between Mass Effect 3 and The Fall of Hyperion isn’t just to show off how much I’ve read (really!), but to cast the whole context surrounding Shepard’s decision in a new light. Coming at the end of a video game, it can feel like a letdown. We’re used to video game narratives in which triumphing over a series of increasingly difficult enemies leads to either the renewal of the status quo or the creation of a new, optimistic world. In Mass Effect 3, fighting to the end yields you … two shitty choices. We play video games for many reasons, but one of them is usually to see our efforts rewarded.
And on top of that, calling them “choices” may be a misnomer. Shepard can choose the tone of the new galaxy – one full of docile Reapers or one free of Reapers – but not the ultimate direction. Either way, sentient life is once again scattered across the stars, barred from the communion of souls it briefly knew. If it’s a victory, it’s a really hollow one for those closest to it.
Yet what is the alternative?
Two important caveats: we’ve never held that being a critic requires you to come up with works of art in the field you’re criticizing. To say that a critic’s input is invalid because he hasn’t created anything of his own belies an ignorance of the role of critics, to say nothing of the role of an audience. So you – the Mass Effect fan, consumer, player – are fully within your rights to criticize the ending of Mass Effect 3 as a disappointment, even if you can’t come up with a better ending yourself. Have at it. You will never find me standing in your way.
Second: I know that, given the media involved, the answer to my hypothetical could be “literally anything.” We’re talking about a video game, in which player agency is presumed to be sacred. We’re talking about a work of fiction, in which nothing is possible or impossible until the author gives it voice. And finally, we’re talking about a work of science fiction, in which the conventional limits of the possible can be stretched with some exposition and special effects. It might offend our sensibilities for the game to tell us, “Shepard, you have to push the Destroy All Reapers button before it’s too late!” But we might have an easier time with the game telling us that the Citadel had catalyzed a quantum flux reaction that would neutralize all activity on the Reaper’s hyperspatial wavelength.
So, all that aside, keep up with me.
Gamers, by and large, did not seem to be satisfied with an ending in which Shepard must choose, either joyfully or reluctantly, to destroy the mass relay network. But I presume a more heroic alternative – Shepard stabbing Harbinger in the head with an omni-tool spike and sneering “Reap this,” then being elected Queen of the Galaxy – would have been equally unsatisfying. It would have jarred with our prior expectations of the series.
Recalling the first two games: this is a universe in which hypersentient AIs are lingering in dark space, having seeded the galaxy with tempting technology to lure organic life onto other worlds. Once life becomes sufficiently advanced, these monsters return, pausing first to warp the minds of a select few creatures into serving their needs. When the AIs return en masse, they harvest all intelligent organic life, create a new generation of AIs in the form of the races they just slew, and withdraw for another fifty thousand years.
That’s pretty twisted. What’s more, it’s pretty twisted in a highly systemic way.
The mass relay network that Shepard destroys is the beacon that lures the Reapers out of dark space. It may have brought wealth and peace to the galaxy, but it was also, literally, a trap. Not only was destroying the network a smart play, destroying it centuries earlier would have been even smarter. Humanity and the other Council Races would have been trapped in their own local systems, but they could have continued developing without the interference of malevolent space monsters.
This isn’t just a hard choice. For most people, it might be impossible to act on without going insane. Imagine you had a vision of the future – as certain of a vision as you would need to convince you of its total accuracy – that the human race would die out in a thousand years from overpopulation unless the number of humans on Earth dropped by one billion in the next century. Then suppose that someone put in your hands a button that would kill a billion people. Nuclear explosions, setting off a chain of volcanos, your pick.
Forget for now whether or not you could or would do it: who would you go to for guidance? Who is the experienced leader, the wonder counselor, who would know how to handle such a dilemma? We as a race have ethical guidelines for a variety of interpersonal situations, and we’ve taken some stabs at practices for larger conflicts, even on the scale of war. But what code could guide you in a decision that would render all codes of behavior invalid? Conventional morality withers in the face of a person who’s seen the future and can make a billion people die.
When the system itself – the network of mass relays – is the source of your ills, the only solution is to smash the system. But this revolutionary mindset is never comfortable. The comfortable, pragmatic solution favors the status quo, since the status quo is where all the roads and books and power sources come from. But in the case of Mass Effect, this status quo is also literally killing all advanced organic life in the galaxy every fifty thousand years. It can’t be overcome by safe, conventional choices. The solution is to smash the system. Break it all down. Start afresh.
All that said, is there still an optimistic ending possible to a crisis that’s guaranteed to destroy the galaxy? And could this ending still have preserved the elements of player choice that make Bioware so loved? Let’s hash it out in the comments!