So, I seem unable to shut up about how much I like Mass Effect, and how great the ending is, and fuck everyone who didn't like it. Well, maybe writing an overwrought blog post will fix that. Probably not, though. I'll try to keep it short (har, har), and I'll let you know before we hit spoiler territory.
Oh, also, because of how I relate to this game series (I really buy into the fiction), there's going to be a ton of narrative infodump here. If you haven't played the games, it's going to read a lot like a kid who's excited about something ruining it by telling you what happens in the most boringly enthusiastic manner. So, heads up.
What genre are we in, here?
I'm not going to point to the series as breaking any new ground. Mass Effect isn't groundbreaking science fiction, and it isn't about introducing new and unforeseen ideas into the genre discourse. It's about taking classic genre themes and putting them into a really enjoyable, really satisfying, popular audience space opera package. In other words, Mass Effect is playing in roughly the same league as Star Wars.
It's a role-playing game, motherfuckers. Roleplay it.
The story will look very different depending on how you played the game -- what choices you made, what relationships you formed, and, more importantly, what fiction you built for yourself around those choices and those relationships.
That really matters in Mass Effect. It's not the kind of RPG where you can just manage stats and chase points all day long. If you don't build that additional layer of fiction between yourself and the character -- if you don't fucking roleplay at least a little -- then you're not going to get all that much out of these games.
This does mean, however, that my experience won't be transferable to everyone else. I once heard a lecturer talk about Marx (at least, I think it was Marx), and he had to pause and clarify that when he talked about Marx, he was talking about his Marx -- meaning his reading, his interpretation, his understanding of Marx. His Marx worked. His Marx was relevant. But not necessarily everyone else's Marx. Similarly, my Mass Effect is fucking awesome. I can't guarantee yours is.
Little Beau P
So, let's talk about My Mass Effect. More specifically, let's talk about my Shepard. Well, I have two, but the canonical one is a dude-shep, Beauregard P. Shepard.
Beau P. is modeled roughly on me, only if I were an ass-kicking space wizard, which, despite whatever rumors you may have heard about me, I AM NOT. But here's where we are alike:
- We're mostly polite, at least to people's faces
- We're both known for being annoyingly scrupulous
- We both have the cheek structure of a furry woodland creature
- We're both overthinking wafflers
Beau P. Shepard, despite being a hardcore Paragon, has a history of questionable decisions.
And again, that intermediate level of fiction really matters here. It's not just whether I picked the right or wrong dialog branch (although yes, every decision can be reduced to that), it's why I picked them, and in what mindframe. It's the story I've built around that choice -- along with the story the writers have built around it, of course.
Some of Beau P's decisions were right on. Some were outright mistakes. Some were gambles that paid off, some were gambles that did not. Some were principled decisions with terrible consequences. And some were leaps of faith.
(Oh, by the way, SPOILERS)
One of the most interesting choices, in my Mass Effect, was the decision to preserve the Collector base and hand it over to Cerberus at the end of ME2. My logic in doing so was -- well, maybe it will help fight the reapers, and if not, if Cerberus goes from bad to eeeviiille, then I can just kick their asses and take the technology back.
Almost immediately, I regretted it. This was, of course, reinforced by the general disapproval of the other characters. It wasn't a good idea. It wasn't the right thing. Beau P Shepard had been naive to choose that path.
Funny thing is, in ME3, you know what happens? Cerberus goes bad, and then you kick their asses, and take the tech back. And if you preserved the Collector base in ME2, that positively impacts your "war assets" -- the game's metric for assessing your preparation for the final fight with the Reapers.
Another choice, that went the other way for Beau P, was the decision to destroy data gathered by Maelon, a rogue medical researcher who put his victims through horrible tortures to try to cure the Krogan Genophage -- a bioweapon that reduces the fertility rate of Krogans. Beau P destroyed the data both because torture science is creepy and because he was unsure whether it was even wise to try to cure the Genophage at all -- since the Krogans are super-grumpy killing machines with insanely high fertility rates in their natural state.
Well, this decision proves to be just awful -- because in ME3, not only do you have to cure the Genophage (or, alternately, trick the Krogan into thinking you cured the Genophage, or some such), you meet the sole survivor of Maelon's research -- a Krogan female shaman with an insight and perspective that could temper the worst in Krogan society, and guide the species into a new and more civilized era. Except that if you chose to destroy Maelon's data in ME2, she dies -- and the fate of the Krogans and their neighbors in the universe to come is much more unclear.
Which is a total bummer, but which is also an important moral lesson in the Mass Effect narrative -- really, part of the same lesson as the Collector base. If you come to Mass Effect with faith in your fellow beings and a willingness to risk your pride and righteousness and the fates of everybody on that faith -- you're rewarded with greater possibilities for building a better future, even when specific people don't live up to the same standard.
The Quarians and the Geth
The most important story arc in my Mass Effect is the story of the Quarians and the Geth -- and of Shepard, Tali, and Legion.
The Quarians are a race that is collectively living out of its car -- the "Migrant Fleet" -- because they lost their homeworld to an AI civilization that they accidentally created, the Geth. When you first encounter the situation, it seems to be a classic "robots gone bad" scenario -- the Geth turned violently on their creators, are dangerous to organic civilization generally, and eventually get caught up in the Reapers' genocidal campaign to harvest all organic civilizations.
As you go through the series, however, you learn that there is rather more to it than that. The Geth's conflict with the Quarians was precipitated by fundamentally inhumane behavior on the part of Quarians who did not appreciate the moral significance of having created (even if accidentally) an independent intelligence with free will. And in ME3, you learn that there were Geth sympathizers among the Quarians, who tried to protect the early Geth and who were violently suppressed by the Quarians in power. And you come to understand the appeal of the Reapers to the Geth, which is motivated by a combination of Reaper "indoctrination," synthetic common interest, and the fact that the Reapers can give the Geth a level of intelligence and -- ultimately -- selfhood that they could not otherwise have achieved.
(BTW: The Geth are of particular interest to me because in their natural state, their society is differentiated largely by perspective -- aside from the effects of indoctrination or other kinds of tampering, all Geth are basically the same in how they process information and what kind of priorities they set. What distinguish one group of Geth programs from another is access to different data -- in other words, all diversity in Geth opinion and choice follows from variety of experience.)
Tali and Legion
In ME2 and ME3, you have opportunities to intervene within and between the Quarian and Geth civilizations. You can modify or wipe out pro-Reaper Geth, and you can encourage Quarians to adopt more or less warlike stances. You relate to each civilization primarily in the form of race representatives Tali and Legion, both of whom are "squad" members who can go on missions with you, and whose loyalty you can win and lose. Tali is also a romance option. (And the romance option I chose -- most of the other ladies in ME2 are kind of annoying.)
One of Beau P.'s highest priorities was to ensure that both Quarian and Geth civilizations survived. This is tricky, because unless you have either a high renegade or high paragon reputation, you won't be able to persuade both Tali and Legion that you're on their side in ME2. (If you're Paragon, you can bring the two characters to a tentative alliance; if you're Renegade, you can persuade Tali you're on her side and then tell Legion you lied to her.)
If in ME2 Beau had been forced to choose between Tali and Legion, or if he had not turned Legion on and gained his loyalty in the first place, or if he had sold him to Cerberus as scrap (a real-ass option in ME2), or if he failed to secure Tali's place in the Quarian political structure, then the pivotal moment in the story of my ME3 playthrough would have been gone badly wrong.
(When I say "badly wrong," I mean in a way that would create both a more tragic outcome -- not necessarily bad -- and an outcome that would differently and perhaps less satisfyingly inform my understanding of the end of the game -- which would definitely be bad, and I think maybe is part of what contributes to the widespread dissatisfaction regarding ME3.)
That pivotal moment would also have been impossible if I had not garnered sufficient reputation and done a bunch of different things the right way in ME3.
More importantly, it was also necessary for me to develop critical parts of my side of the fiction -- to internalize the lesson of Beau's mistake with the genophage, for example, and to prioritize trust and faith in allied characters. There's also a mission in which Shepard and Legion have to decide whether to kill or unilaterally reprogram a portion of Geth society -- which is important foreshadowing, and which is the subject of an interesting moral dialogue between Legion and Shepard across both ME2 and ME3.
So, what's this "pivotal moment" that I keep yammering about? It's the moment at which it becomes clear that Legion has appropriated enough Reaper code to achieve independent identity -- and significantly enhanced functionality, and thus greater strategic threat -- and that he intends to disseminate that code throughout the Geth. This fact, in conjunction with a turning point in the battle between the Quarians and the Geth, creates a situation where your decisions could bring about the end of one species or the other.
Or, if you do it just right, you can save both of them. As I mentioned before, there's a whole slew of details that goes into determining whether or not Shepard can actually pull this off. It's really quite bonkers how many variables are involved.
(BTW: I didn't realize how many until I actually looked it up online. The reason I didn't realize this at the time is that I was so busy worrying about getting it right to serve my side of the fiction, my role-playing a character who was defined by his commitment to these people and this situation. At the time I assumed this was just the role-playing side of things, i.e., mostly in my head.)
Beau P did everything "right," or at least right enough -- I was able to save both species. I allowed Legion to upload the code, and then I saw that, in order to finalize this process, he had to sacrifice himself -- basically distributing all he was, his newly minted "soul," across the whole of the Geth. Messiah city.
If I didn't allow that upload, it would have meant killing Legion -- and then, in the ensuing battle, all the Geth would die. If I allowed the upload but couldn't also persuade the Quarian fleet to pull back, they could die -- in which case, Tali would kill herself right there. (Holy shit!)
But Beau P. Shepard pulled it off, he kept both species alive, and he kept Tali alive. (And not even super pissed at him.) The Geth and the Quarians began to both fight the reapers and cooperatively repopulate Rannoch, the Quarian homeworld -- not only that, but Geth also uploaded themselves into Quarian environmental suits to help them overcome the congenital immune deficiency they've acquired from living outside of a real ecosystem for generations. (Remember when I warned you about the info-dump? Yeah.)
This seems like a small thing, but it's important -- within the fiction, it's a kind of intimacy that carries great weight, and more importantly, it's a synergy/symbiosis that foreshadows the game's conclusion.
So, about that conclusion. Here's how it played out for me: I went up to the Citadel, and I had a little confab with the Illusive Man. I got him to realize that he's been indoctrinated, and he killed himself. There are some nice details here, but I'm going to skip straight to the important bit.
So, I got pulled up into the...decision chamber, or whatever. I met the child-avatar of the consciousness which directs the reapers, and I heard his story: the reapers are a compromise solution to preserve some form of organic life in the face of a seemingly endless cycle of violence between organic life and synthetic life. And the creepy holo-kid dropped this choice on me: I can destroy the reapers -- and all synthetic life along with them -- or I can make like the Illusive man and try to control the reapers, to call off their attack, or I can do something new: I can take my cyborg body and hurl it into the magic beam of light, which will remake the universe in my image and change all life into an organic-synthetic hybrid.
Obviously I wasn't going to kill off all synthetic life. I couldn't. I had already invested an incredible amount of effort in preserving and making peace with the Geth. There was no way I was going to turn around and just wipe them out.
My initial impulse was to go for control. This might seem counterintuitive, since Beau P is a goody two-shoes, and not the sort of guy who would normally be willing to arrogate that kind of power to himself. But he's also someone who's learned to take absurd risks when the situation calls for it, and he's learned to value the power to safeguard the people he cares about. What's more, a decision to control the reapers is really far less presumptuous than a decision to remake all life, in contravention of the right of each species (and individual) to be self-determining.
The way you register your choice in this matter is that you can choose to walk down one of three literal-ass paths. I got about halfway down the path toward control, before I stopped and turned around, and walked back to the intersection. And walked instead down the path to hybridization.
My reason was this: I remembered Legion. I remembered what he did, what he chose -- and the choices I made with him and about him. And the conversations we had about selfdom and self-determination. And the way that his willingness to sacrifice both others and himself and to disseminate himself across the Geth was the prerequisite for not just peace but for a level of cooperation and symbiosis between the Geth and the Quarians -- which is not only awesome, but which is also Beau P's signature achievement, the one thing he set out to do right and by damn, he did right.
Beau P. wouldn't forget that. The example that Legion set would stick with him. It would shape his behavior in the face of future events. And there is no way he would not follow that example. So he went down the middle path, jumped in the giant magic beam of light, and turned all life in the universe into an awesome, explodey mashup of hope.
There are lots more details around about here, but I don't think they really matter. Nor does it matter that the cutscene is sort of the same no matter what, blah blah blah. Nor does it matter than this three-way choice is not substantially different no matter what. None of that matters, because the payoff of the game -- of the whole series -- of "my" Mass Effect -- was not delivered in goddamn cutscenes.
Remember when I said it was a role-playing game, motherfuckers?
The payoff was in the moment I understood that all my experiences leading up to that point really had been building up to this, providing the necessary context for this decision to mean something. Because that's the thing: it's not about getting it "right," it's not about playing an optimal game, it's not about maxing out your reputation and determining your own destiny. That's all mechanics. It's about seeing how a world came together to give meaning to a choice and an idea. It's about that intermediate layer of fiction that I've built along with the game's story.
If I hadn't been building that fiction across my interactions with the series, and if I hadn't taken that at least a little seriously, and let it shape my choices and my interpretation of those choices -- well, then I'd probably be pissed at the ending of Mass Effect, too.
And I'd be a fucking douchebag for it.
But like I said, that's my Mass Effect. I don't know if I would have been able to make that leap, to feel something useful and interesting about that final choice, if I hadn't been able to make things come right in the Rannoch mission. If I'd lost the Geth, or if I'd lost Tali and the Quarian fleet, would I have been left with a meaningful tragic story, or would I have been left with just a meaningless bummer?
I'm not at all sure, but it makes me wonder -- if people get their way and get a new "ending" to Mass Effect, will it really solve the problem? My suspicion is that the problem is one or both of two places -- in the way they played ME2 and the first half of ME3, or in the way they've interacted with the series overall. And in neither of those cases will a different ending really fix the problem.
(BTW: The ending of Mass Effect 3 is a lot like the ending of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The difference is that Deus Ex did a piss-poor job of building the story in such a way that it provides the necessary context for the final choice to have real meaning. And that is precisely where Mass Effect succeeds.)