[Originally posted on PopMatters]
In case the title of this article hasn’t made the contents obvious: there are spoilers about the ending of Mass Effect. If you haven’t played any of the games in the Mass Effect series, go do that. They are three very different but very good games to be enjoyed. If you don’t have time, make the time. If you aren’t able to play the games even at the lowest difficulty, find somebody that can play them and watch them go through it. Seriously, these games may be the most important works of science fiction of the decade1 so get on it. When you’ve done that, return for a spoiler-ridden commentary on the fan-engineered “controversy” surrounding the ending.
There, now that it’s just us N7 veterans, we can be candid. Many of you are apparently upset with how the story concluded. But I hope that with a little reflection you’ll be able to appreciate that conclusion as the best possible way that it could have wrapped up2. The final mission of Mass Effect was extremely heavy and dark. Shepard’s final goodbye to her past and present squads, the push through the smouldering apartments and cafes, the desperate stand against overwhelming forces while a reaper destroyer inches its way closer, the culminating charge through the destruction, only to be blasted away a few meters from the objective, all of this is enormously powerful and vindicates what the game has been saying all along: you won’t make it, but you have to try anyway.
It’s appropriate that the final boss of Mass Effect is a conversation. Shepard is critically wounded, her charred armour seared to her skin, and her will circumvented by an ambitious lunatic. Unlike in the previous two games of the series, Shepard is powerless. Nowhere more than the final standoff is Shepard’s strength and influence nullified. She may have punched out a dozen walking mechs an hour earlier or shot down a space fighter with a shotgun an hour before that and brokered a peace treaty between ancient enemies even an hour before that. But in her last moments, she has only her rhetoric, her charisma, and her beliefs. As she dies, her commanding officer gives her a last order, and as she quietly bleeds out, she’s determined to her last breath to bring peace to a galaxy being ripped apart.
Then she floats up on a platform up to heaven where she talks to God about being the next robot Jesus or something like that.
If reading that felt jarring, then you can imagine how playing it felt. The moment that Shepard collapsed, I expected that the weapon that she died activating would fire and wipe out the Reapers once and for all. I expected streets full of people to cheer with a rapture tinged with regret for those that didn’t make it. I expected a somber celebration for Shepard by those she loved attending her wake. I expected previous decisions to impact who in Shepard’s crew survived and what kind of world they could go back to. I expected Shepard’s lover to send a bittersweet farewell as the credits began rolling. But in the final five to ten minutes, those expectations were thoroughly shattered.
In those last minutes, Shepard is pulled deeper into the citadel and made to choose whether to control, destroy, or merge with synthetic life at the cost of the mass relays that the galactic community depends on. No matter what you choose, a wave of energy will blast outward and resolve the reaper threat, you’ll get a last shot of your squad and the game will end. It’s never said whether that last decision made with the catalyst is to be taken literally or if it’s a hallucination in Shepard’s last moments. Perhaps the experience is an attempt by the reapers to indoctrinate Shepard while she’s still wandering deliriously on earth trying to make it to the conduit or maybe the catalyst is God telling mankind’s new saviour that His plan needs a rewrite and Shepard’s sacrifice has inspired Him to permit life in the universe to continue.
It’s unclear, unsettling, and unsatisfying. It’s also exactly the ending that this series needs to wrap itself up neatly. The whole point of Mass Effect is that every decision that one makes will have an effect—a massive one. It’s empowering but terrifying. The first two games have ended on strong notes because players knew that there would be more coming, the stakes would be higher, that we would have to face the consequences of what we’ve done and will have to continue making harder choices. In essence, it is a series about surviving now to create possibilities. But the third game creates consequences and further choices that we don’t get to see. It brings forth a world that Shepard (and the player) won’t get to live in.
At the end of Mass Effect Shepard creates a whole new galaxy of possibility. We just never have to reap the consequences of the new world. Shepard, whoever Shepard may be to each player, must put his faith back in the world that he’s already done so much for and let the survivors negotiate the coming possibilities. Without knowing who or what is left, Shepard (and the player) can only trust that the kindness or fierce pragmatism that he’s shown to the universe will be an example for the coming generations. Just as he’s always done, Shepard must adopt a new piece of information and use it to decide what’s right for everyone.
This is not Mario saving the princess, this is not the lifestream trickling out of the planet’s core to repel a meteor, and it’s not liberating the little sisters from Rapture. It’s staring into an abyss and having faith that you’ve given people the strength to climb out of it. It’s knowing that we’re insignificant but finding meaning to continue anyway. Bioware could have given us the hero’s farewell that we got from Knights of the Old Republic or from Dragon Age Origins, but in Mass Effect, the developers kept the tone and purpose of the series, even if it made its audience uncomfortable.
In the last ten years, Bioware has made some of the most moving, intellectual, and artistically nuanced games ever made. Mass Effect has changed the medium, and the ten minutes before the credit reel won’t undo that regardless of how much fans demand a rewrite. And if somebody from Bioware happens to be reading this, I hope that you decide not to give in to a little sound and fury echoing from your fans (what do they know anyway?). I hope that you stand by what decisions you’ve made. I know that I wouldn’t expect anything less from Commander Shepard.
[update: Not long after submitting this article I came across a compelling, if lengthy, video arguing that the entire ending sequence is Shepard and Harbinger duelling for control over Shepard’s mind. According to the so-called “indoctrination theory,” if the player chooses to control or synchronize with the Reapers than they are submitting Shepard to Reaper indoctrination. Whether or not Bioware intended this interpretation to be canon, it provides them with a get-out-of-jail-free card that a well-crafted DLC campaign could exploit. The video and some more thoughts on the matter can be found here3.]
1 Munkittrick, Kyle. “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation.” Pop Bioethics. February 17 2012.
2 Ma, Adam. “Mass Effect 3‘s Ending Was Perfect.” Gaming Union. March 20 2012.
3 Tassi, Paul. “Did the Real Mass Effect 3 Ending Go Over Everyone’s Heads?” Forbes. March 21 2012.
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