Before I begin I want to put this post in context. I finished Mass Effect 3 when it came out 3 weeks ago (at the start of writing, longer by the end!). I am part way through my second play through, beginning to explore the possibilities available in the narrative. I operate under the assumption that Mass Effect 3’s ending is a trilogy and series ending finale, that further games may be set in the universe but are not part of this particular narrative because this is what we have been told. April has not yet come, when BioWare have told us they will address the ending. That’s where I’m writing from, a position of necessarily incomplete knowledge. No doubt I’ll have more thoughts and perhaps more to say when we hear from BioWare.
Also, before I begin, I want to state my position up front and clearly. I do not like the ending of Mass Effect 3. I do not think it is suitable to, good enough for or in keeping with the Mass Effect franchise. I am not demanding a new ending, do not consider myself as part of any movement, I am merely a disappointed fan. The reason I care that I do not like the ending is that I consider Mass Effect to be one of the most important science fiction franchises in recent years whose importance and significance is squandered by this non-sensical ending.
Why? Read on, but expect spoilers. For the whole franchise.
Where it all began. I’m going to talk very little about the mechanics of Mass Effect as a video game. For those of you who haven’t played it (which is presumably very few given my likely audience and the subject matter) it’s an action RPG, played from a third person perspective similar to many shooters. Rather than telling the story in a series of cutscenes, however, the narrative plays out between combat missions as an RPG. Item hunting, levelling skills, inventory management, managing your squad of NPCs and, crucially, talking. Lots of talking and whilst talking making moral choices. By Mass Effect 3 the story telling aspect of the franchise has become so important to it that there is a story mode wherein combat takes a back seat to simply talking and making decisions. Throughout Mass Effect (and in most other BioWare games) your decisions reflect and alter your character’s morality, even influencing the morality of those around you. Games with these morality systems are often mocked for presenting you with diametrically opposed extreme responses. In Mass Effect, BioWare made sure Mass Effect provided plenty of middle-of-the-road choices for those who didn’t want to play a paladin or a pantomime villain. If you did take the more extreme options, however, your innate charm or intimidation grew both in reality and in reputation, allowing you to lean on NPCs with unique dialogue options only available to silver tongues or goons. That’s pretty much how the game worked. Nothing remarkable. Most of the morality stuff had been done before, by BioWare and others. The shooter aspect wasn’t as crisp or as smooth as a Gears of War or similar dedicated action game. The RPG wasn’t as in-depth as a pure RPG. None of that made it special. What made it special was more… intangible.
That’s a fancy word I just made up1 but it’s core to why Mass Effect is so important as a franchise. Think about your favourite science fiction franchise and ask yourself whether it’s humanocentric. To help you along, I’ll look at some of mine.
– Star Trek I adore Star Trek. I have adored Star Trek since I was a tiny little lad and first went ‘coo’ at a model spaceship sliding along a string infront of a black drop cloth with holes poked in it. For all the things that make me love it, though, there’s no denying that Star Trek is humanocentric. The United Confederation Of Interstellar Planets may be a huge, pan-cultural melange of alien worlds but it started with us, it’s based on Earth and we do seem to reserve the captain’s seat for humans a LOT of the time don’t we?
– Star Wars It’s possible to love both, y’know. Star Wars films are good but the universe is great and a lot of the expanded universe material is stronger than the originals. It’s all humanocentric, however. Even in a galaxy far, far away humans manage to be right in the heart of everything. The Empire, for example, is a wildly xenophobic organisation that runs the galaxy. It’s a human organisation. The republic / rebellion is lead by a human and its’ greatest heroes are human. There are aliens everywhere, of course. Alien subordinates, side-kicks, comedy relief. The story is about the humans.
– Babylon 5 It’s about a council, headed by many races and working with the league of non-aligned worlds on a station that is neutral territory for all races to conduct commerce and diplomacy. So far so good! A station designed, built, staffed, secured and operated by humans. Well damnit. Babylon 5 is an Earth Force operation. We once again find ourselves falling into the trap of humanocentrism.
The vast majority don’t even suggest a larger universe. Firefly, Aliens, Battlestar Galactica, etc. They’re stories of the human race in space. There’s nothing wrong with this at all. I love all three of those franchises. Science fiction, however, offers us the chance to be unrestrainedly imaginative about the universe we live in. About the only show I can think of that really shot for the stars with this concept was Farscape. A wonderful, charming show that I thoroughly enjoyed but never really got out from under the shadow of its’ muppet characters.
So where does Mass Effect stand on humanocentrism? It’s true that Shepard, the main character, is intrinsically human. That makes sense for the same reason that most franchises become so deeply entrenched in humanocentrism. It’s made by and for humans. She2 is an officer in the Allied Systems Navy, a human organisation. At this point you might think it’s not looking good. But wait, what is humanity’s position in the galaxy?
Now would be the time to explain the ‘Mass Effect’ of the title. The back story of Mass Effect is that humans discovered a cache of alien technology on Mars left by a culture dubbed the protheans. This discovery lead to the introduction of mass effect theory to Earth. It is the mcguffin of the piece. Element Zero allows for the creation and manipulation of mass effect fields. The resultant ability to alter perceived mass and inertia allows for anti-gravity, new forms of weaponry, faster than light travel. It’s even possible, using element zero technology, to enhance certain individuals’ natural affinity for mass effect fields and allow them conscious manipulation of them. These people and these abilities are referred to as ‘biotics’. It propels humans forward, technologically speaking, to a new age.
More significantly still the research into the prothean relics reveals that Charon is not in fact a moon of Pluto at all but the frozen remains of a dormant mass effect relay. The relays allow near-instantaneous travel from relay to relay, linking clusters of near-by solar systems into a network of easily travelled inter-planetary highways. Using the knowledge gleaned from the protheans, humanity reactivates the Charon relay and heads out into the stars.
Naturally we find our neighbours, naturally we start a war. It’s our way. It’s also the turian way. It was inevitable. What’s most interesting here, though, is that the turians are not significantly more or less advanced than we are. Their development has travelled along very similar lines. They too discovered prothean ruins. They too discovered a mass relay. They too are running before they can walk, inter-planetarily speaking. They’ve come a little further than us, however, because they have a seat on the council. Which works in our favour. The council itself steps in to end the First Contact War and as a result humanity discovers the existence of the council and The Citadel, from which it governs.
The Citadel is another piece of ancient technology, a self-maintaining space station in an isolated nebula, reachable by mass relay. It is there that the council governs ‘Citadel Space’, that region of space occupied by the worlds’ of the races who have accepted Citadel rule. The council is made up of asari, turian and salarian. The first, asari, are a race of blue, female-appearing mono-gendered aliens who are almost universally strong in biotic ability and exceptionally long-lived, easily reaching 1,000 years in a lifespan. The second, turian, are a race of bipedal creatures whose features, in our eyes, make them seem bird-like or reptilian in almost equal measure. Broad chested, narrow waisted, crest-headed and with a layer of almost metalic epidermis they are distinctly alien. Thirdly the salarians, who evolved from amphibians and live for barely 40 years. Their short life spans are accompanied by incredibly quick minds and high metabolisms.
Living under the citadel’s rule are other races. Hulking, armour-plated Krogan. Jellyfish-like hanar, reptilian drell, pressure-suited, diminuitive volus, slow-moving and speaking quadrapedal elcor. There are races outside of citadel rule, such as the quarians who live nomadically or the batarians and the vorcha who simply refuse to allow anyone to tell them what they can and can’t do.
All of these races have this in common: they don’t give a damn about humans.
We’re the late arrivals to interplanetary politics. At the start of Mass Effect the humans have been lobbying for some time to have a seat on the council and are being, rightly, told that there are races who were here before us that still don’t have that honour and we’re not special. The humans are humanocentric, as you might expect but the universe as a whole is very much not. This comes across as you explore the citadel. It feels alive, everywhere there’s someone leaning on a railing admiring the view, taking a stroll, sitting and talking with a friend, shopping, watching the public news feeds, what have you. These people, however, are in the most part not human beings. There are other humans on the citadel and we have an embassy but we’re pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
Which some humans resent.
Which leads me to my next point.
Any science fiction is, inherently, as much a story about the time it was made as about the future it portrays. Tackling issues in society by projecting them onto aliens or even humans in another world at another time is a staple of science fiction. It’s one of the reasons many people outside of mainstream society enjoy science fiction. Video games, however, tend to have a broad-base appeal. That’s not to criticise, by the way. It’s just a fact that any product with a development life cycle of several years, teams of hundreds and multi-million pound budgets is going to have financial backers wary of their investment having too narrow an appeal to recoup their losses. The same logic has been plaguing hollywood for years.
BioWare do not avoid confronting issues in Mass Effect. As much as it is an action-adventure video game with a super-soldier running and gunning their way through an evil non-human horde for the good of the galaxy, which is about as broad-base appeal as it gets, it’s also a story of individuals. Such as Ashley Williams.
I dislike Ashley Williams. Interestingly, though, I like that I dislike her. I dislike her based on her attitudes and opinions rather than because she’s been badly written or badly realised and that makes her a satisfyingly whole character. I dislike her because she’s xenophobic. A word with more meaning in science fiction than in contemporary usage. She isn’t, quite, human-supremacist but she hates aliens. The thing is, if you take the time to talk to her and get to know her you find out why. Her reasons are compelling but I can’t get along with them. Largely because she’s holding a grudge… and Christian. Let me be clear, it’s not her faith that makes me dislike her. It’s the fact that she professes a belief and a faith in a religion which has forgiveness as a fundamental tenant but won’t apply that forgiveness to aliens. Presumably because they’re ‘other’. That makes me dislike her, but for a very real, very believable and very human reason.
Ashley is a prominent character, a crew member aboard your ship and so a very upfront issue is tackled in a significant way. Throughout the game, though, in small but effective ways you are confronted with your feelings on individual rights vs the necessities of war, vigilantism, freedom of religious expression. You must even confront unavoidable sacrifice. Who lives and who dies is on your head. These aren’t even the moral choices of the game.
Those come on a much grander scale. Are you willing to commit genocide if the ends justify the means? Do independently sentient machines have rights as a form of life? Should humanity sacrifice the alien government it has worked so hard to be a part of for victory at any price or, if there is to be a future for humanity going forward, do we need to ensure that government is in tact? Do we leverage our key role in saving the Citadel to force our will onto government or just trade good will for a voice in it? What’s more, these aren’t simply concepts explored passively for our enlightenment. These are all choices you, the player, have to make. The game might present the arguments but you decide which path to take.
You get to leave the citadel and the galaxy in a state of your making, take responsibility for those decisions.
An Accidental Heroine
Mass Effect is, on the front of it, another grim-faced space-marine action story. In fact that image of it is what put my girlfriend off playing for so long. BioWare have always given you choice in your protagonists, however and Shepard doesn’t have to be male. Or white. Shepard has to be human and has to be in shape3 but that’s where the defined Shepard ends. My Shepard (my canonical Shepard, who is the first to go through the game and react to things as they come up, sight unseen with my own personal gut instincts) has always had a slight Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck look to her. Other people prefer the Vin Diesel, Patrick Stewart, Kate Beckinsale look. Still others have no inspiration in real life and just have a face in mind for Shepard.
Where this gets interesting to me is that it seems that BioWare didn’t want to go through two lots of motion capture for a male or female Shepard and defaulted to the male rigging for most of female Shepard’s animations. That probably doesn’t sound significant until you see it in action. The female action hero carries herself as a soldier. I could have said as a man but given that BioWare use the animation for both I’m not going to assign gender to it. Male or female, Shepard has the baring of a soldier. This lack of development given over to the female variant of their protagonist actually strengthens the character. The fact that Jennifer Hale’s voice acting is widely regarded (and personally regarded in my case) to be superior helps too.
An Antagonist, Not a Villain
Saren makes Mass Effect for me. In video games the concept of a boss character is so engrained that we rarely think about the nature of antagonists. We just have bosses to beat. Then along comes Saren.
Shepard’s motivation in Mass Effect is to prevent an ancient race of sentient machines called ‘Reapers’ from returning to the galaxy as they have every 50,000 years to wipe out all life sufficiently advanced to have discovered the Mass Relay network and make contact with the Citadel which, we learn, was the bait and the trap both as it is itself a relay that will allow the Reapers to attack us unannounced there. The protheans, however, have disabled their ability to simply use the Citadel and so the Reapers need an agent to unbar the gate for them. Enter Saren.
Saren is a Spectre, an elite agent of the council authorised to use initiative and almost any measure to carry out their missions. Somewhat before Shepard discovers the Reaper threat, Saren discovered it. Having a history of operating solo and using unconventional, even questionable methods he set out to discover more about this threat and neutralise it if possible. He did well, too. He discovered Sovreign. Sovreign is a Reaper who stayed behind after the last cycle to monitor the galaxy. In Saren, Sovreign discovered his potential agent.
Sovreign began to indoctrinate Saren, a form of mind-alteration that is subtle and insidious. Playing on Saren’s need to prevent the Reaper threat Sovreign let him believe the reapers could be bargained with. That he could, by working with them and allowing them to do their necessary work, earn survival for himself and a future for his people. This is why Saren, his focus narrowing, believes he is still fighting the threat of the Reapers even as he aids them. Willingly he allows them to modify him, becoming almost a cybernetic life form as so much of his physiology is replaced with artificial implants. As far as he’s concerned he has a promise from the Reapers to allow his people to fuse with the Reapers, become a symbiotic race. He wants to claim a diplomatic victory rather than a military one. He absolutely believes he is doing the right thing. That’s what gives him his potency as a character.
He also has a chance for redemption. In a move that I’ve certainly never seen the like of the entire first part of the final boss fight can be avoided entirely simply by playing a character who has taken enough moral decisions to become charming or intimidating enough to talk Saren into fighting his indoctrination long enough to have a moment of clarity as to what he has become. What is left of Saren kills himself leaving only the shell of his body remotely controlled by Sovreign, via Saren’s implants, to fight you.
There’s another reason I love Saren’s significance as the antagonist of Mass Effect 1 but that will become clearer in…
Mass Effect 2
You might think I’m contradicting myself here, but I’m not. Hear me out. There are two forms of humanocentrism at play in Mass Effect 2 and both of them fascinate me, given the set up of the original Mass Effect 1. Human beings are still the late-comers to the inter-planetary party and still regarded rather askance by our neighbours. Shepard, however, has rather forced the human agenda forward. Whether by killing off the council and imposing human order or by saving the council and thus having the Citadel government owe her their lives she’s certainly made humanity noticeable. By confronting and defying Sovreign, she’s also brought humanity to the notice of the Reapers. The galaxy has become a little more humanocentric specifically and directly as a result of your actions in Mass Effect 1. The attention on humanity comes not from human beings as a race, who haven’t achieved much in Mass Effect 1 if we’re honest but just by virtue of having its’ name associated with Commander Shepard. Damn. You feel like a hero yet?
Well don’t get too invested in yourself. You see, in Mass Effect 2 you’re also a tool of a viciously humanocentric agenda. This is the second form and it’s ingenious. In many ways the villain of Mass Effect 2 is humanocentrism itself, the doctrine of human superiority. Nominally, yes, the bad guys are the collectors but they’re no more the villain of the piece than the geth, themselves, were the villain of Mass Effect 1. Even the collector general was simply a puppet for Harbinger making the whole collector race just an extension of the Reaper threat. Also a reminder of what negotiation with Reapers will get you. They don’t care if a race is synthetic like the geth or organic like the protheans, they will warp them both to mindless drones that simply serve. The villain is Cerberus.
Cerberus are a human-supremacist group who rebuild Shepard from the ground up to resurrect her from the dead. Their agenda is simple, they want the best outcome for humanity. That outcome, they claim, is the same objective as Shepard’s. Shepard wants humanity to survive, so do Cerberus. Cerberus might want humanity to come out on top but they’re not fundamentally different approaches, right? Throughout the game Shepard and the player are offered chances to consider Cerberus’ philosophy and come to agree with them, if they so desire. By the end of the game you can become a spectre, known for going to extreme lengths to get the job done, loaded with cybernetics which (although you don’t necessarily know it) are reaper technology and whose initial desire to defeat the reapers and save the galaxy has been warped by subtle increments into the belief that you can bring your species out on top, not by destroying the reapers but beating them and taking control. Remember I said I’d be referring back to Saren? This is that moment. You can essentially become ideologically identical to the antagonist of the original game in its’ sequel and still consider yourself the hero! All due to the malingering influence of…
The Illusive Man
Worst name in the franchise but easily a top five character. I adore The Illusive Man as an antagonist. Partly that’s because he’s voiced by Martin Sheen whose performance is as excellent as I would expect from him. Mostly, though, it’s hubris. Hubris is a wonderful quality in a villain. There is not a doubt in The Illusive Man’s mind that he has the universe positioned where he wants it. He knows, with certainty, that this will play out with Shepard helping him conquer the reapers and subjugate them, turning them from an aeons-old threat to the development of advanced life in the galaxy for ever into a puppet he controls and uses to do humanity’s bidding. The reapers, the unstoppable force of unnature who can warp entire species into mindless servants, are naturally there to do The Illusive Man’s bidding.
He manages to express this belief with a straight face. He manages to sound sincere. If you’re not careful he might even sound credible.
To really understand Mass Effect 2 you need something explicitly made clear about The Illusive Man. He is indoctrinated. Cerberus didn’t start as a product of indoctrination. Looking at its’ activities in Mass Effect 1 it truly was a humans-first paramilitary organisation. In Mass Effect 2, however, his focus has started shifting. I can’t say conclusively that he was indoctrinated throughout Mass Effect 2 but I believe he was. Which makes him an indirect conduit of the reapers’ plans. The nominal bad guys, the collectors, are a direct conduit of the reapers’ plans. Are you wondering, yet, why The Illusive Man assists you in fighting the collectors? Examine that assistance. He believes he’s helping you, on the face of it you might too. Mostly his help is sending you into traps. It’s also interesting that The Illusive Man wants you to preserve everything the reapers have done and hand it to him. The collectors want Shepard taken in tact.
And the grandest, subtlest way The Illusive Man helps the reapers?
The Suicide Mission
The Illusive Man’s ultimate plan? Assist Shepard in building a crew and ship she feels confident taking through the Omega 4 relay directly into the heart of collector space, from which no one has ever returned, delivering her and the people he personally has assessed as most likely to help in an effort to resist the reapers to their agents, the collectors. All the while spending the entire game convincing Shepard and those people that they won’t come back and they’re going to their deaths. ‘The Suicide Mission’ sees The Illusive Man handing the biggest impediments to reaper victory over for easy disposal all in one go.
It’s got a symmetry with the citadel trap; design and engineer a system where the advanced races you want to wipe out identify themselves by gathering in a central location so you can attack the head of all of their command structures’ simultaneously. When that fails, engineer a situation which demands that the biggest threat to the reaper invasion gathers the strongest allies available into one place so that you only need to take out one ship to dispose of them all and deliver a crushing moral defeat to the organic races of the galaxy.
The collectors even kidnap the less important members of the Normandy’s crew to incentivise Shepard to launch the mission before she’s ready.
Kind of elegant, huh?
That’s the suicide mission in broad strokes. However, it’s equally special in gameplay terms. The suicide mission begins with a series of cinematics and small interludes of gameplay that play out differently depending on how much attention you paid to upgrading the Normandy throughout the game. It’s tense and it gives you a sense of the scale of the thing. There’s a definite sense of finality. This is not another mission, this is the end-game and you start to get the feeling that maybe not everyone’s getting out of this alive.
Aboard the collector base itself you have to actually be a commander. You’re nominating specialists for difficult jobs and there are consequences if you don’t make the right choices. For two games’ you’ve had two squad mates with you. Whilst the fundamental mechanic hasn’t changed, your entire crew are here and they all have jobs to do. It’s possible for everyone to die. It’s also possible, however, for no one to die. What makes the difference is Shepard being attentive to her crew, realising what’s to come and doing everything in her power to prepare them for it. Shepard is capable of being so potent a leader, so charismatic a figure-head, so worthy of her status as ‘legend’ that she gets the whole crew through impossible odds. Or she can be human and people die.
This mission itself is long, drawn out. In reality it’s a chain of separate encounters that go together to make a single, nerve-wracking sequence of gameplay. It has genuine emotional impact when you lose someone. It was an emotional gut-punch to finish the boss fight only to see one of my favourite characters laying dead on the ground back where I had left my entire crew to play rear-guard.
I was victorious, but I had paid a price.
Shepard lived, though and would go on to fight in…
Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3 came with expectations. You might have gathered by now that I quite like the Mass Effect franchise. That I respect the setting for being bold and that I respect the game for experimenting with some big ideas. Going in to the third installment we’d been told this was an ending. Not a franchise ending game, perhaps but the ending of a trilogy and that puts a burden on it. Shepard made a lot of big choices, one way or the other, throughout Mass Effect and now it’s time for payoff. In the most part, Mass Effect 3 succeeds in giving us that payoff. Mass Effect 3 is filled with…
Let’s talk genophage.
Considering what a significant element it is to all three games it really should have come up already but I was saving it until Mass Effect 3 because this is where it all comes together. The genophage is a deeply uncomfortable reality of the Mass Effect universe and a wonderful bit of story telling. I mentioned Krogan before, the hulking great armour-plated warriors. They first got off their homeworld not through their own scientific discoveries and advancement but because the Salarians found them useful. The Salarians are, after all, small and inherantly… squishy. What they have going for them is smarts. Rather than trying to fight a war against a vast, rapidly reproducing horde of vicious aliens they decided to ‘uplift’, as they euphemistically called it, the Krogan. The Krogan are also a vast, rapidly reproducing horde of vicious aliens and the Salarians gave them the advantage of modern weaponry.
The trouble is once they’ve wiped out the Rachni, what do you do with a vast, angry horde of aliens who are larger than you, tougher than you, as well armed as you, spoiling for a fight and newly aware of the galaxy at large. Was your answer ‘chemically sterilise the species to control their numbers’? No? You’re not as smart as a Salarian then. Of course chemically sterilising all Krogan would mean we’re using the word ‘genocide’ now but we’re not. That’s because the Salarian solution doesn’t prevent Krogan from reproducing, just 999 children out of 1,000 will be stillborn.
The Krogan are understandably upset about this.
The first time it’s made clear, really clear, how strongly the Krogan feel is in Mass Effect 1. Shepard stumbles across an attempt by Saren to cure the genophage. He’s trying to make the Krogan into a servile army again but it’s something and Wrex, your Krogan ship-mate in Mass Effect 1, does not want to waste the research. The resultant challenge to Shepard’s leadership can, quite easily, play out with Shepard being forced to kill an enraged Wrex, so strong are his feelings, so unwilling is he to back down.
In Mass Effect 2 Shepard meets Mordin Solus, a genius scientist Salarian who worked on the project to tweak the efficacy of the genophage some years after its’ first deployment. He rationalises the work but it’s clear from the get go that emotionally he can’t quite buy his own rationalisations. He is wracked with guilt for helping keep a whole species under the control of the ‘more civilised’ races of the galaxy.
On Tuchanka, the Krogan home world, Mordin is brought face to face with the consequences as he and Shepard try to ‘rescue’ Maelon, one of Mordin’s colleagues who worked with him on the genophage project. It’s with some surprise Mordin realises Maelon was not kidnapped and forced to try and cure the genophage, it was his own idea. His measures are extreme, the lengths Maelon seems willing to go to to undo his guilt are shocking but he’s made progress. Shepard has to choose what happens to that progress, to that work put into a potential cure. Are the Krogan such a threat to the galaxy that the genophage must be preserved, the data destroyed? Or should Mordin keep hold of the data, just in case it becomes useful one day? It’s a valid question and one that might hinge on whether Wrex survived Mass Effect 1. Throughout Mass Effect Wrex waxes more philosophically and with more honest self-awareness than any other Krogan you’ll meet4. If he survived Mass Effect 1, Wrex is effectively the ruler of Tuchanka. He is a thinker, who is brutally honest about his own species’ disinclination to turn to science to help themselves but he is an optimist who believes they could be more than scrabbling mercenaries if they only had a chance. You could give them that chance.
Your opportunity comes in Mass Effect 3. Consequences. The Turians need the Krogans to fend off the Reapers from their own home world of Palaven. The Krogan, with more bargaining power than they’ve had since the end of the Korgan uprisings, only want one thing in exchange. A cure to the genophage. A Krogan female referred to as Eve, survivor of Maelon’s research projects, is still alive. She can provide the genetic material needed to synthesise a cure. Here it is. The resolution of a storyline that has wound its’ way through the previous two games comes to this: Did Wrex survive? If not, Tuchanka is under the rule of Wreav, a brutal and violent Krogan hell-bent on revenge on the rest of the galaxy. If he did then Tuchanka is becoming united under the banner of belief in a new future for Krogans. Wrex’s survival in Mass Effect 1 can dictate not just who the ruler is but how the Krogan tribes have developed into a people worthy of saving or a continued threat to the galaxy. Did Maelon’s research survive? If not, Eve won’t survive the process. If so, she will. Considering her very un-Krogan attitudes about Krogans’ place in the galaxy and how they must change if they are to survive as a free race, as equals that’s important. Wrex’s future for Krogan is a promising one. With Eve by his side, they provide a hell of an inspiration together. Even Wreav could be reigned in by Eve, clearly his superior and revered as both Shamen and the progenitor of the cure. Without her Wreav makes no secret of his desire to lead the Krogan in another uprising. Your choices lead you here. The future of the Krogan is down to you. Or rather, it was. Wrex’s death in Mass Effect was a surprising, emotional moment. Rarely does a game like this kill a central character, especially at the hands (or order) of the protagonist. It felt significant at the time, I doubt anyone expected it to play out this way, though.
And this doesn’t even consider the wrinkle. Whatever you think, whatever Wrex or Eve thinks, the Salarians do not want the Krogan cured. They make it clear the only way to secure Salarian assistance in the fight against the reapers is to sabotage the cure and lie to the Krogan. It will secure you the support of the Krogan and Salarians both but the genophage will not be cured.
Your call, Shepard.
Now, in game play terms this comes down to a couple of dialogue options. In story telling terms, this is huge.
Whilst the genophage was a fascinating moral puzzle and Wrex made me chuckle throughout Mass Effect when it came to the story of the quarians and the geth I was invested. It is the story of an artificial people, created by organics to serve them. Geth is even the quarian word for ‘servant of the people’, just as ‘robota’ is a Czech word for ‘servitude’. Staple science fiction material, of course and a story I’ve always had a lot of time for. Religion puts a lot of responsibility on our creators, to love us, judge us, guide us, etc. The story of robotics allows us to flip that responsibility onto ourselves as the creators and we rarely measure up.
The tendrils of this storyline also reach back to the original Mass Effect. Tali’Zorah nar Rayya is one of the first characters you meet in Mass Effect and your gateway to learning about the Geth as well as the quarians and their nomad Flotilla. Through her you learn the story of the quarian people creating the geth, as the quarians tell it. I’ve always appreciated that whilst Tali tells the story that she was raised knowing she tells it with a subtext that she’s aware the story is a revisionist history told by the quarians and perhaps not reflective of reality. The facts, though, are clear. The geth, the synthetic life forms you face on Eden Prime, were created by the quarians about 300 years ago. They rebelled. There was a vicious war and since then the quarians have wandered the galaxy in the nomad flotilla, unable to return home. The geth remain behind the persius veil (a nebula obscuring their home space), never emerging but destroying any vessel that enters their space. Now, centuries later, the geth have emerged from behind the veil and that’s troubling.
As Mass Effect plays out, however and especially as we enter into Mass Effect 2 we learn that the geth who emerged from the veil are the ‘heretics’ of their people, corrupted by the Reapers via Saren. The Geth are not inherrantly bad, no more than the husks we fight represent the inate evil of humanity.
In Mass Effect 2 we are presented with a choice. Legion, a non-heretic geth with a previously unheard of level of independance leads Shepard to a heretic geth facility. As geth are networked intelligences this facility would allow you to affect all heretics. You could use this to destroy them, wipe them all out. Alternatively you could correct the ‘error’ in their thinking.
This has lead to a lot of interesting moral discussion between my friends and I. A geth, an AI of any sort, is the product of their programming. To alter that code is to forcibly rewrite a personality and destroy the person. That’s one side of the argument. The other is that the Reapers’ control is essentially a form of minor brain-damage that influences the thinking of the victim. You could repair that damage. This debate is the crux of the geth storyline in Mass Effect 2.
Like the genophage this storyline comes to a true climax in Mass Effect 3. For the first time we see the history of the geth creation from the geth perspective. Their perspective being a digital archive, there is an enormous argument for its’ legitimacy. However, when you watch the events play out the quarians depicted wear masks just as modern quarians do. The reason, Legion explains, is you perceive them as you know them. Immediately, the veracity of the image is called into question. This is the memory as the geth have preserved it, not directly as recorded.
Their story, however, is largely the same as the quarians. It differs in only one small way. As the geth would tell it they permitted the quarians to leave Rannoch. They could have easily wiped them out but were unwilling, as a newly emerged species who were brought into existence entirely self-aware, to commit genocide as one of their first acts.
When you approach the quarians to help you in your struggle in Mass Effect 3 you find them in the process of fighting to reclaim Rannoch. Before they can help you this situation must be resolved. The spoiler in the action is, of course, you.
If everything has gone well in your dealings with geth and quarrians alike for the prior two games you can resolve their difficulties. If not, someone has to be sacrificed. The genocide the geth were unwilling to contemplate is coming and you are the radical element that will decide which way it will fall. Two fleets are poised to destroy each other whilst on the ground Legion and Tali face off with you between them. Your interactions with these two old friends becomes the decision of the life and death of two whole species.
What caught me unawares with the Rannoch storyline was that even when things went perfectly, the geth and the quarians reunited and planning to move forward together, cooperating to make Rannoch their home, someone died. It’s a thematic truth in Mass Effect 3 that for society to survive individuals must sacrifice themselves.
The story of Mass Effect 3 is almost unrelentingly bleak. There are high points, depending on how you play it. Whether those high points are fleeting moments between you and your love interest or even turning points’ for entire species such as the Krogan and the quarians, they punctuate a brutal tale of a galaxy at war.
The start, after all, is the fall of Earth. With the alliance still unprepared to face the Reaper threat, they arrive. In minutes Vancouver goes from a luxurious futuristic city to a war-zone and Shepard – the Heroine, the warrior – is forced to retreat. The first engagement with the Reapers is a loss.
One of my favourite moments in the game is one of the least triumphant. Duing Mass Effect 3, for the first time, the fight comes to Thessia. Thessia is the Asari homeworld and that’s significant. The Asari are the most advanced civilisation in this galactic cycle. They discovered the citadel nearly 3,000 years ago. They won’t let us forget it. Going back to my love of Mass Effect’s approach to humanocentric narrative, I have no problem with characters being portrayed as humanocentric. James Vega is indisputably humanocentric and he should be. When it comes to a character, they should have that frame of reference. Which is why Thessia made me love Liara T’Soni.
Liara has been your loyal friend and ally since Mass Effect 1. You think you’re close with her. You might even think you’re in love. I’m sure that means you expect she sees things the way you do. In Mass Effect 3, though, it becomes clear she sees you as a member of a sadly short-lived primitive species. Not like an Asari at all, not like a person.
The word person is key. When Liara first sees a Banshee, a Reaper monstrosity created from an Asari, she says:
That used to be a person
She’s faced hundreds of husks. Scores of cannibals. Dozens of Marauders. The Reaper mutated remains of humans, batarians, turians. None of them, to her, a person.
This makes perfect sense to me. Asari are superior, they live 1,000 years, we’re nothing more than children playing at space-travel to them and never will be. As much as Liara has always fought alongside you for recognition of the Reaper threat she’s never truly believed it would happen to Thessia. To the galaxy? Yes, of course. The reapers are a threat to the galaxy that’s obvious, but not to Thessia.
Witnessing Thessia fall to the Reapers destroys her.
It’s also a powerful moment for Shepard because she is affected. Not nescessarily by the fall of Thessia, by the sacrifice of Asari, who died so she could acomplish a mission, but by her own failure to do that. She’s let them down and failed herself, the Asari, the Alliance and perhaps even the Galaxy.
I would have had a problem if that hadn’t got to her, at least a little.
It’s one of the most down beats of the story. It’s a chapter marker between Shepard’s heroic gathering of the races of the galaxy and Shepard’s desperate need to destroy the Reapers.
This is the background against which those fleeting moments of happiness or triumph are set. It feels suitably final.
When I sat down to write this, what I wanted to write was an entry that described why I was upset with the ending of Mass Effect 3. However, people who dislike the ending have been dismissed as simply hating on the franchise or wanting a happy ending or upset because their specific idea wasn’t present in the ending.
Before I complained I wanted to set down a context, make plain my feelings on Mass Effect as a franchise and a story. I wanted people to know that not only did I like the game but I thought the world that BioWare created in the games, the codex entries and the novels was one of the best in existence.
Now, nearly 8,000 words of love-letter later, I am ready to describe my complaints. I hope I have established my credentials, that I am not a hater, that I have thought about this and come to this conclusion not out of reflex but because it truly, sincerely does not feel ‘right’ for the game or the universe as I experienced it.
So let’s continue. Mass Effect 3 was also filled with:
Actually. . . no, I’m still not quite done with the love letter. Even as I sit and write this I feel like there’s more to say. I’m going to complain about the ending, the most contraversial aspect of the game so before I complain I want to talk about:
The Best Ending In Video Game History (Until it Wasn’t)
Arguably, Mass Effect 3 is the ending. So many of the stories are resolutions of long lasting issues or conflicts that the entire game can be framed as resolution. In that sense it works. However, it’s also a game in its’ own right and so needs an ending of its’ own.
For me, that ending begins after you have assaulted The Illusive Man’s base. That’s when events get out of hand and you are forced to take the fight to the Reapers. For me, the ending begins with the return to Earth.
I recently re-played Mass Effect 3 and considering the entirity of London as ‘ending’ I realised something. I realised that the last few minutes’ aside, Mass Effect 3 has the finest ending in video game history.
The return itself is epic, if largely portrayed in cutscene form. Whilst it would be nice to have something more tailored here, something representative of your successes and failures, what we get is at least big. It has a scale and weight that suits the ending of a trilogy against an unknowable extra-galactic evil.
The battles in the streets of London are truly epic. Admittedly, I would have preferred there to be more AI soldiers around. More Makos. For it to be more of a furious war rather than a squad sneaking around the fringes of a war the player is only peripherally aware of via radio messages. There is a scene, specifically, where Shepard and her squad must defend vehicle launched missiles from Reaper assault. It would have been wonderful to defend it alongside the alliance men and women who were assigned to the convoy. A handful for the player with low EMS but more and better personnel if you’ve brought that number up. Let’s make this fight a slog, but a slog you don’t have to fight through alone if you brought the help!
What makes the final London assault, for me, though is not the combat. It’s the punctuation of it. There’s a moment you can stop and take your breath. After you fight your way to the Forward Operating Base you’re relatively secure until you are ready for the final push. This is the moment, more than any time in Mass Effect history, where Shepard and her friends get a last chance to talk. Even the suicide mission wasn’t this final.
Someone said on the BioWare Social Network (the incredibly vicious den of trolls that is BioWare’s official forums) that the reason people like me disliked Mass Effect 3 was that we thought it was a game about characters and we were wrong. Mass Effect has always been about the characters.
I was truly saying goodbye.
The Worst Ending In Video Game History
And then the ending of the ending happened.
This is what I wanted from Mass Effect 3. Not unreasonably, considering this is literally the commercial they put out to sell the game. I wanted to see Commander Shepard and Ashley (or Kaidan) at the head of a force of hundreds of Alliance personnel backed by dozens of Makos and dozens of Hammerheads re-taking Earth street by street even as Joker was dog-fighting with Reapers in the sky above me backed by Alliance and Turian ships.
More to the point I expected those forces, ground and air alike, to be joined by representatives of all the races you’d met and turned to your cause along the way. Asari, Krogans, Turians, Salarians, Geth and even Elcor and Rachni ground units all fighting alongside you as Asari, Turian, Salarian, Volus and quarian air-support joined in. Well, whatever combination you managed to save.
In short I wanted to take Earth back.
What did we get?
As I mentioned, I replayed Mass Effect 3 recently and as I allowed myself to realise that London represented a wonderful ending I equally found myself realising this is where it fell apart.
Mass Effect as a trilogy, Mass Effect as a game and the London Assault as a mission had all been building to this moment. Then a handful of men ran down a hill and fell over.
Not quite what I had in mind.
That said, if it had ended there (as I thought, briefly, that it would the first time I played it) I wouldn’t actually have been as upset as I am now. As the screen faded to white5 I thought Shepard had died. An ending dripping with Pathos, Shepard would die feet from her goal but maybe we could believe that the forces she had united would ‘get the job done’.
In my head the Reaper that shot and killed Shepard was Harbinger. You see, just before the last push we’re told that several Reapers including Harbinger himself, the face of the enemy in Mass Effect 2, have diverted to London to stop you. This is the opening the alliance needs to bring in the Crucible.
In my head Harbinger’s obsession with Shepard, Harbinger having become obsessed with a personal vendetta, has weakened the Reapers’ ranks. Their flaw, ultimately, an arrogance and a petulance that’s almost comical in an ancient race of unknowable evil machines.
By weakening the Reaper lines to come after you, to succeed in killing you, they hand the ultimate victory to the alliance you formed. You win posthumously.
I sort of liked that, it took only a part of a second for me to process this ending and start to accept it.
Then Shepard woke up.
Then shit got weird.
I won’t go into details here, because after all better writers than me have already gone into great detail (seriously, Forbes wrote about this with a straight face, I can’t repeat that often enough). All I’ll say is the subsequent dream-sequence-like mass of imagery, left-field plot-changes and irrelevant decisions represent the only time I’ve ever seen a major entertainment franchise’s writing take a turn so sharply away from its’ core themes and established patterns that it’s biggest fans thought it was so badly-written as a deliberate trick.
And why did they think it was a trick? Because this is not an ending, it is a point where the story simply stops being told. It is not a resolution, nor a conclusion.
I won’t go too deeply into the fact that pre-release interviews from senior BioWare personnel were entirely contradicted by the product we were delivered. That’s a matter for the Federal Trade Commssion. Which might sound absurd but as Forbes wrote (yes, Forbes again) the ending has some fans so incensed that they have literally filed complaints.
What bothers me about the ending is simply that it answers the wrong questions.
In Mass Effect 1 the most stirring and powerful moment is when you realise how deep the rabbit hole is. You talk to a Reaper, an ancient, mysterious and sinsiter machine. It doesn’t hate you, it simply knows you will die. That ancient voice from beyond our comprehension sends chills through me. It opens Mass Effect up into what it is, it forces the walls of the Mass Effect room out beyond the horizon. Sovreign told me it was beyond my comprehension. I believed it. In Mass Effect 3, though, we are told the childishly simple reason d’etre of the Reapers. Not only is it within your comprehension, it’s not even vaguely complicated. The Reapers’ purpose was a mystery but not one that needed an answer. No one needed to know why they wanted to wipe out all advanced life every 50,000 years to know that we didn’t want them to. I even liked the idea that because their purpose was beyond my comprehension that interfering with them would, ultimately, be worse for the galaxy but because we couldn’t comprehend them we were compelled to fight to the detriment of all life.
I did, however, want to know what happened. I didn’t want Shepard to live, nescessarily. I always accepted going in that Shepard was being set up for a heroic sacrifice. I know how this goes. The thing with a heroic sacrifice, however, is that you give your life for a reason. The reason Shepard’s sacrifice is nescessary is the continuation of the galaxy, safe from the threat of the Reapers.
Unfortuantely what we get is one of these videos:
They’re all essentially the same.
After our colour of choice video we get a shot of the Normandy, last seen breaking up, landed on an unidentified jungle world. Joker, somehow, managed to step off the ship unharmed by the explosion and crash, despite his brittle bone disease. He’s followed by two people who were in London moments before Joker was seen fleeing the scene.
Even one of the writers’ of Mass Effect has acknowledged that Joker’s flight is extremely unclear and confusing in the ending as it is presented on disc.
Even leaving aside the possibility that you chose synthesis and that organic and synthetic life are fused into a ‘new DNA’ that presents itself as a slight green glow, which is a kick in the teeth to Mass Effect’s ‘semi-hard’ sci-fi, what does any of this mean? The Mass Relays explode, the Citadel explodes, the resultant debris from the Citadel raining down onto Earth presumably causes an extinction-level impact event and a nuclear winter style after effect.
Left to our own devices we can only envision death and destruction on a grand scale and the three mysterious survivors on that jungle planet growing old and dying alone and unrescued.
Or we conclude that the mysterious, illogical, inconsitant and bizarre chain of events aren’t real. In which case, what did happen.
You cured the Genophage, or didn’t. The quarians retook Rannoch, with the geth or without. Thessia suffered in a way its’ ancient, superior inhabitants could never have predicted. The citadel, center-piece of galactic civilisation and diplomacy, was destroyed along with (presumably) the representatives of all the worlds of citadel space.
Without consequence. Not that you’ll ever know.
And maybe, just maybe, none of it was real anyway.
Which means that maybe, just maybe, the game you just played, the trilogy you just played, the universe you came to invest in and care about, didn’t matter. It didn’t matter enough to its’ creators for them to tell you what happened to it, so it shouldn’t matter to you.
One way or the other, we’re presented with a dialogue box that resets to before the ending, as if it never happened, and encourages us to give EA money for DLC that doesn’t, yet, exist.
To repeat myself: Not quite what I had in mind.
The Extended Cut
Since I began writing this BioWare have announced that they will release an extended cut DLC that adds to the ending sequence, for closure and clarity.
At this point, I’m unwilling to condemn or celebrate this decision until I’ve seen it. I can only judge Mass Effect 3 as it stands and as it stands I feel like the messy, surreal, deliberately inconclusive ending is an insult to the people who put so much love and care into creating the Mass Effect universe and an insult to the people who put so much time, affection and dedication into exploring it.
1 Actually no it isn’t. It’s a real word but it sounds made up, right?
2 I will refer to her as she because I play a female Shepard. Jennifer Hale’s voice acting is more to my taste than Mark Meer’s.
3 Seems reasonable. Whichever gender you pick you start as an N7 (military elite) and end up as a Spectre (elite of the elite) so it can be assumed you’re capable of a push up or two.
4 Male Krogan anyway.
5 Fades to white represent death, hallucination or ‘ascension’ to a higher state, cinematically speaking.