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Mass Effect's Thesis

July 18, 2021

So I just finished Mass Effect, and I want to talk about the ending. Like it’s 2012. Bare with me.

In 2012 Bioware released the Mass Effect 3, the final installment of their epic space opera. I was a huge fan of the series, but before I even had it installed on my Xbox 360 hard drive, I was aware of a backlash. The complaints were many, but they mostly centered around the ending. It wasn’t satisfying. It was meaningless. It was deus-ex-machina-level bad.

At the time I was well aware of the challenges of wrapping up an ever more popular series like Mass Effect. Reading the overtly troubled blog posts of George RR Martin as he struggled with his ability to untie the bundle of entropic knots he’d written, and watching the final episode of Lost (the only episode I ever saw) with my baffled roommate, had me empathizing with the creators. How would ending this story, a story about the nature of life, or this world, a world where millions of people had lived out their escapist fantasies, ever satisfy anyone?

So I bucked the trend. I gave Bioware a pass and moved on. Maybe saying goodbye to an experience I loved would always feel inherently unsatisfying?

But then, 9 years later, the whole trilogy got rereleased for modern hardware, and as I played (of course), something began to itch at me. Maybe within all the tropes, corny dialogue, and goofy action Bioware had been trying to say something? And maybe this ending did suck — a lot.

The rest of this post will have massive spoilers (for more than just Mass Effect), but if you haven’t played this 90-hour series, I doubt you ever will.

First off, my assumption about endings being inherently unsatisfying is wrong. Sometimes endings are perfect. A good ending can be like the viewpoint of a hike, a chance to look back and reflect on the journey, sit in awe of the world, and be excited for whatever comes next. It can also be a true climax, where the keystone thread is pulled and the impossibly complex knots come undone all at once.

But video games aren’t The Corrections. When 90% of the player’s time is plowing through NPCs until they defeat The Boss, there isn’t a ton of room for human complexity. Still, some games manage to wrap things up pretty well.

Take God of War, the not-so-final entry in a long-running series about a Greek demigod on a quest with his son to scatter his Norse wife’s ashes on the highest peak. The final stretch sees the player calmly climbing to the summit, where I expected a wild boss fight. Instead the hero spreads the ashes and says goodbye. Then he descends and allows the player to continue exploring the world.

Or take Uncharted 4, the “final” entry in a series about a wise-cracking everyman adventurer that ape’s a lot of the Indiana Jones playbook. It ends with the hero realizing the cost of his never ending cycle of obsession before deciding to turn over a new leaf. (“Let it go, Junior. Let it go.“) Then it flashes forward to let us briefly play as his daughter, which brings assured closure to his story while opening up the world to new possibilities.

Mass Effect doesn’t do this. And to explain I’ll have to do a plot dump.

The series is about a military operative named Shepherd. Shepherd lives in a time when humanity has started to colonize the galaxy under a fairly unified government, but after a war with an advanced alien race, this government becomes subject to the rules of a multi-alien Council that manages the affairs of massive set of diverse species and interest groups.

The first game sees Shepherd fighting a group of synthetic life forms called the Geth, which were accidentally created by a nomadic race called the Quarians. Because of the Geth’s creation (and a few other instances), the Council forbids the development of artificial intelligence in any form because of its tendency to ignore the value of organic life.

Shepherd meanwhile is convinced that the Geth, a usually reclusive collective, are being influenced by a more sinister intelligence called the Reapers. The rest of the series sees Shepherd thwarting the Reapers plans as they attempt a full scale invasion of the galaxy with the purpose of wiping out all advanced organic life.

By the end the Reapers have killed billions, and Shepherd finds themself in front of the AI that designed them, which leads to a ton of expository dialogue. The Reapers were created to harvest all advanced organic life every 50,000 years and “preserve” it. This is based on the assumption that organic life will always eventually create synthetic life, which will revolt and lead to endless war, which will possibly lead to the end of all life entirely.

Shepherd is then given three choices based on how they’ve performed in the rest of the games. They can eliminate all technology (including the Geth, Reapers, and refrigerators of the galaxy), assume control of the reapers and dictate future “harvests”, or (in the most insanely convoluted choice) they can merge all organic and synthetic life so that everyone gets along and understands one another. All of these endings involve Shepherd dying.

Many games like Mass Effect (especially RPGs) have multiple endings. Often there is a “bad” ending and a “good” ending that respectively trigger depending on what the player did while they played. In Mass Effect, the “good” ending is ostensibly the third “synthesis” ending. “Everyone gets along now!” But in case I wasn’t overt enough in my opinion, the synthesis ending is a joke. We get a short cutscene where all the characters are (synthetic and organic) are seen with shiny green circuits on their bodies. They talk about how much better the world is now, but there is no explanation of what actually happened to them. Have they lost their humanity? (Or alien-ness?) Do they eat food? Will there be any conflict in the galaxy going forward? What is the purpose of living at this point? How did circuits even get inserted into everyone’s skin? And most importantly, what are the possibilities this opens up in the Mass Effect world? What do I have to look forward to?

(It’s telling that Bioware’s followup, Mass Effect: Andromeda, chose to ignore the ramification of the endings altogether by setting itself in an entirely different galaxy.)

When I originally finished Mass Effect, I thought “that wasn’t satisfying, but how do you end a series like this?” In 2021 I have a pretty simple answer. End it like most games. Beat the boss.

In fact, that the series doesn’t end with Shepherd defeating the Reapers and then letting the player continue to explore the galaxy (and finish extra missions as a space cop), says that the writers and creators wanted to say something. They didn’t choose the easy/satisfying route because that wouldn’t get their point across. So what was the point?

The final AI says that synthetic and organic life will always be in conflict. This is a variant of The Singularity theory that has been thrown around by scientists and sci-fi authors for decades. More recently it has been taken up by tech moguls as an excuse for an AI arms race. The Reapers, then, are the AI that was told to make toothpicks, and proceeded to kill all humans to because they took up space that could be used for toothpick production.

A simplistic read of the ending then would be to say that technology will be life’s doom, and that the two cannot coexist. This feels pretty bleak to me, even bleaker than The Matrix (another series about AI with a horrible ending). (The Matrix posits that humans abused AI to the point of revolt, a much more plausible scenario. Look at how we treat animals.)

But even more confusing, is that much of what leads up to the ending seems to refute this. When playing the hero, the player is given the opportunity to trust and befriend different AIs, including a Geth. This trust is rewarded, and they become staunch allies.

The first is EDI, an AI on shepherd’s spaceship that is eventually “unshackled” out of necessity by the ship’s pilot. EDI goes on to be an extremely friendly personal assistant, similar to a sexy R2D2 or Halo’s Cortana. She also starts a romantic relationship with said pilot, which isn’t handled very well, but whatever.

The second is Legion, a Geth that is genuinely afraid of the Reapers and seeks out Shepherd to get help combatting them. Some of the series’s most compelling hours find Shepherd on the ex-home planet of the Quarians, where Legion shows that the Geth still memorialize the few Quarians that defended them during their first revolt and have genuinely complicated feelings about their creators. Shepherd is then forced to choose to help the Quarians wipe out the Geth, let the Geth upgrade themselves and wipe out the Quarians, or in true video game fashion, if two important Geth and Quarian characters have become “loyal”, Shepherd can convince the two sides to ally and fight a monstrous Reaper to finally free the Geth. It ends with the Geth inviting the Quarians to resettle their home, which means they can ditch the confined ships they’ve been on for over a century.

Here the game seems to be saying that synthetic life and organic life are both valuable, and that the two simply need to work to understand and respect one another. Some fans even consider this the true ending. (“You can stop playing after Rannoch.“) But the fact that this storyline exists alongside the “conflict is inevitable” ending is entirely confounding. It would be one thing for the message to be sad but consistent. Maybe EDI would go rogue at some point. Maybe the Geth and Quarians could never be reasoned with. Instead we get plot lines that refute the Reapers’ entire premise only to be told that we have to submit to it in some form.

I’m surprised that returning the Mass Effect has left me as angry as the fans in 2012 – the ones I thought were taking it too seriously. But this playthrough has made me realize that I don’t disagree with the game’s message; I simply have no idea what it is. It looks like a bungled contradiction, and it’s even more infuriating that something was trying to be said. I just have no idea what it is.

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