Sunday, October 14, 2012

Why the ending of Mass Effect III was bad

Hoo boy. Here we go.

In case you don't follow video games (hi, mom!), Mass Effect III is the highly-anticipated sequel to Masses Effect I and II. It's the third and final part of a massive, sci-fi space-opera trilogy that's garnered massive critical and audience acclaim, won dozens of awards and made piles of money, and is regarded as one of the best video game franchises of all time.

And then the third one came out, and now it's getting more hate than Richard Nixon and herpes combined, mostly due to the ending. Dozens of video game reviewers and anonymous YouTube commenters have already expressed their opinions on the end, but I might as well add my voice to the chorus, because, why the hell not?

Probably unnecessary warning: this post will have various massive spoilers for the Mass Effect series.

Some basic info, first. In Mass Effect (the first one) you are Commander Shepard, whose first name and gender are mostly irrelevant. You're a well-known soldier of the Alliance military—the Systems Alliance being humanity's representative political body on the galactic stage—and are up for consideration as the first human Spectre—basically a member of the galactic police who's proven they can do Whatever It Takes to Get The Job Done, etc. You get the job, then start investigating evidence of a race of super-evil space robots known as the Reapers. The alien-led Council—the galactic UN who still think humans are too young and untested to be a member race—think Reapers are just a rumor. In the end, you end up preventing a full-scale galactic invasion and obtaining a seat at the big boys' table for the human race—but it's made very clear that you've only won a battle, not the war, and that the Reapers will keep trying to destroy all organic life until they succeed.

Now, that's a pretty standard action-hero narrative. It's a perfectly serviceable video game narrative; certainly there have been plenty of games with worse stories. It functions well as an introduction to the universe BioWare created: Shepard is a member of the human military, which means s/he already has awesome skills, but hasn't seen much of the rest of the universe and doesn't know much about alien societies and culture, meaning the player gets it explained to him/her. It also clearly sets up sequels and makes you want to know more about the universe and all the crazy aliens that live in it. You won't be asking any deep, profound questions about the meaning of life when you're done, but as a story, it hangs together just fine.

The second game, imaginatively titled Mass Effect 2, takes things in an interesting new direction. Shortly after the events of ME1, Shepard dies. Two years and several billion credits in bleeding-edge technology and research later, s/he is brought back to life by a secretive, morally flexible, para-military, pro-human organization known as Cerberus, who've tasked you with finding out about a mysterious race known as the Collectors who appear to be working for the Reapers. To do this, you have to assemble a team of operatives and take them on a suicide mission (the game literally calls this last level "Suicide Mission") to destroy the Collectors.

What I love is that this is a distinctly different type of narrative than ME1. If the first game was an action-adventure, this one is a heist film, or maybe a cross between The Dirty Dozen and Seven Samurai. (Which would be, what, The Dirty Eighty-Four Samurai?) You recruit allies with the necessary skills to analyze, infiltrate, and destroy your target, and depending on your choices not all of them will make it back alive. In the first game, Shepard had the authority of the Alliance behind him/her; now s/he's funded and led by an ethically questionable group that sends you to much darker and seedier corners of the galaxy. Your boss, the Illusive Man (voiced by Martin Sheen!), is literally cloaked in shadows every time you speak to him. You're not necessarily the "bad guys," but you're no longer definitely one of the "good guys." Your potential allies include a mercenary, a cat burglar, a brilliant Special Forces geneticist who's partly responsible for the ongoing slow extinction of another sentient species, an ex-cop-turned-vigilante, an unstable psychic ex-con, and (one of my favorites) a character I can only describe as a cross between Dirty Harry and a Zen monk. In trying to find out more about the Reapers, Shepard is thrown into murkier territory, and s/he's given more leeway in deciding what to do. At the end of ME2, Shepard leaves Cerberus and rejoins the Alliance, though his/her reasons for doing so are partly up to the player.

Mass Effect 3 starts off with a bang, as the Reapers not only invade, they show up in the skies over Earth and decimate the planet in a matter of minutes. Shepard is tasked with bringing in as much support as possible from the various alien races, organizations, and individuals s/he's met over the course of the last two games, in hopes of retaking Earth and destroying the Reapers once and for all. This first part of ME3 is everything I wanted it to be: after setting up dozens of characters, potential conflicts, interesting situations in the first two games, now this third game finally paid off on all of them. We get to see long-simmering tensions finally cool off or come to a boil; characters with tragic and troubled pasts finally find redemption or revenge; we decide the outcomes of conflicts between entire species and have a chance to shape the galaxy for centuries to come.

And then it goes cosmic.

Kind of hard to explain what I mean by that term, particularly in a series that already takes place literally in outer space, but here goes. What I mean is that, rather than continuing to focus on the personalities of the individuals involved, the game suddenly decides to thrust the player into deciding the fate of the galaxy on a vast, impersonal scale. It turns out the Reapers aren't just the Giant Evil Alien Robots they've appeared to be all along; they're actually trying to prevent the inevitable conflicts between organic and inorganic life that occur every few millenia or so. (Why they do this by destroying entire planets and forcibly turning billions of individuals into hideous mutant robot monsters is never adequately explained.) Either Shepard destroys the Reapers (and with them, a large part of the technology necessary for interstellar travel), enslaves the Reapers (again, damaging the necessary tech), or synthesizes all organic life in the universe with inorganic life (...somehow) (yet again, at a cost to interstellar travel). No matter which option is chosen, all life in the universe is irrevocably affected, forever, and the galaxy becomes vastly different, almost unrecognizable.

This is a problem, at least for me. I inherently distrust and dislike any narrative with such eschatological overtones; it smacks of laziness, of a deus ex machina, in which all complications and nuances in the story can be swept under the rug by (God/aliens/space lasers/time travel/ascending to a higher plane of existence/etc). It makes all the work of the protagonist(s) effectively meaningless, thanks to the pressing of the Cosmic Button. All my hard work resolving the millennia-long conflict between the Quarians and their artificial creations the Geth is rendered pointless by the way I saved the universe. (I leave it up to you to decide whether I feel this way because I'm an atheist, or I'm an atheist because I feel this way, or there's no connection between the two at all.)

Perhaps more important to the publisher, BioWare: by giving the end of this trilogy three very different possible endings, they have completely eliminated the possibility of any further stories in the Mass Effect universe. They can tell prequels, or interquels, but they can't set anything after the end of the Reaper conflict, because there's three incompatible universes they could set it in. They've locked themselves out of further meaningful stories, which seems, to me as an author, really dumb.

If they'd let the story end more simply—for example, by simply having Shepard destroy the nasty ol' Reapers—they could've continued to tell stories in what is, I'll be honest, a pretty dang interesting universe. There are ethical dilemmas in the Mass Effect universe that have played out over thousands of years; even after Shepard forces long-antagonistic races to work together to beat back the Reapers, there's still plenty of bad blood that could be spilled.

Part of the greatness of the Mass Effect universe comes from its complexity. No conflict is ever as simple as Good versus Evil; there are deep ethical and moral considerations to take into account with every decision. This may sound like I'm praising the writers for going with a resolution that wasn't so simple, but I'm really not. An obviously evil, large-scale enemy made for a perfect background against which to set more complex, "ground-level" conflicts with no easy solution or "right answer." If the Reapers had simply been Giant Evil Robot Aliens which you had to Blow Up Good, then your choices in smaller conflicts would carry much more emotional weight. (In fact, they did carry quite a bit of weight, up until the ending, in which the Reapers suddenly turned out to be more than just Giant Evil Robot Aliens. This is another reason I dislike the structure of the ending; it only gets posed as an ethical dilemma at the very end of the last game.) It strikes me that perhaps the writers were trying too hard to come up with an Interesting Twist for the end of the game, and what they came up with ultimately undercuts the thrust of the whole story up until that moment.

I've got other problems with the way the series treats ethical decisions as a whole, but that can wait for another day.

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