The first two Mass Effect games were among my favorites of this console generation. Despite that, I’d been rather ambivalent about the approaching third installment in the series for the last year, ever since Mass Effect 2‘s Arrival DLC. Arrival took a series that had always allowed me to express optimism about doing the right thing, that had always allowed me to behave in a way where I could look at myself in the mirror, and removed that choice from me: it turned me into the angel of death for millions, leading me to a position where my character in game would have had the option to decide otherwise and then taking that option away from me.
The choice I wanted to make, had it been allowed, would arguably have had horrific consequences within the game’s world. Showing those consequences could have been something very powerful in its own way, which in turn points at a weakness in the series’s storytelling: the good choices never hurt you. They don’t hurt you in the short term, they don’t hurt you in the long term. (Hardly a unique problem in video games, c.f. BioShock.) So perhaps the game’s developers had painted themselves into a corner here: the Reapers’ arrival was too important to be treated as anything other than an immediate existential threat, but without allowing real consequences, they in turn couldn’t allow the player a choice at all. And they resolved that conflict by taking a sharp tonal shift.
There’s also the political statement that’s implicit in Arrival: that when matters get serious, the only solution is to go macho and little the ground with corpses. And I’m not going to argue that solutions like that are never necessary, and indeed the hypothetical situation the game presents us with might be one. But I am a citizen of the United States in the beginning of the twenty-first century: it’s been two thirds of a century since my country (which is, of course, not BioWare’s country) has faced a threat to which such a response has been appropriate, and during those 65 years the United States has brought the capacity (and very real threat) of annihilation of human life to the world, we’ve invaded country after country after country, we’ve propped up dictatorships. And we’ve responded to a horrible attack that led to the deaths of thousands of innocents by invading countries and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands (at the very least, much more likely millions), by attacking our civil liberties at home, by removing any pretense of judicial review of our government’s actions in that war. In that context, if a work of art uncritically suggests that our problem is that we’re not acting macho enough in our foreign policy, then that artwork is part of the problem, is abdicating its responsibility.
Still: until Arrival, I’d been quite impressed by the series. Especially when it wasn’t acting so grand and macho: it wasn’t until I wrote specifically about my Mass Effect 2 romance that I realized how strongly that part of the game had affected me. Also, the DLC raised the possibility that Shepard was going back to earth to be tried as a war criminal: perhaps the game wasn’t going to uncritically accept the necessity, the virtue of such slaughter? The series’s developers have done a lot of good, they’ve earned some goodwill. While Arrival made me a lot less excited about Mass Effect 3 than I had been, there wasn’t any realistic chance that I wasn’t going to play it, and indeed play it soon after release.
Those hopes were, of course, dashed as soon as I started playing the game. No directly addressing how to treat Shepard after her actions in Batarian space: instead, we jump to the Reapers’ arrival on Earth, lamenting only that not enough attention was paid to Shepard’s warning. And this machismo carried over to other aspects of the third game: in particular, the character models were significantly different, significantly more sexualized. (Jumping ahead a bit, I was quite unimpressed by EDI’s new sexy robot body as well.) Character models weren’t an area where the series needed change, needed improvement; and the changes they made definitely weren’t an improvement.
But even at the beginning of the game, there were touches that impressed me rather more. Even since I realized I wouldn’t be able to be with Liara in Mass Effect 2, I’d assumed that the game would set up some sort of soap opera choice between my Mass Effect 1 lover and my Mass Effect 2 lover, making me re-romance one of them while setting up some sort of showdown with the other. And I wasn’t looking forward to that at all: Liara was clearly my character’s love, but I certainly didn’t want to treat Thane badly.
To my surprise, however, the game got this out of the way right up front: Liara
appeared in the first mission, we talked after that, and got things squared up. Surprisingly cleanly; a little odd considering my behavior, but then again it’s not like she’d been pining for me over the last four years herself. So we’d both considered other options, we both came to the same conclusion: we were there for each other.
In a funny way, I actually missed the romance on the ship: I stopped by her office every time I wandered around the ship, and she was surprisingly distant then. Not that I wanted a full-blown romance, and I certainly preferred how it unfolded to going through a second courtship. But I wish that the game had allowed the underlying, unconditional affection that I felt to come out in our words, our greetings. Still, it let me believe that that affection was there, which is ultimately what was most important.
And, as it turned out, a real showdown with Thane was never in the cards: he was stuck on the Citadel, close to death. My first encounter with him was the only time in the series where I can remember intentionally not choosing a paragon interrupt: I didn’t quite trust the game’s designers to not have me somehow fall into his arms if I went that direction, and I definitely didn’t want that. So we got matters settled with no drama: not quite what I would have chosen, it felt like a cop-out (on my part? on the game’s part?), but much better than the soap-opera drama that I was expecting.
But again I was underestimating the game. Because, while Thane isn’t in any shape to travel with you, he shows up again in a sequence on the Citadel halfway through the game, helping you save the council from assassination. Shortly after which he dies, with Shepard and his son at his side, reading him a prayer that turns out to be a prayer of forgiveness for Shepard. It choked me up when I watched it; and Thane aside, I love the power of the compassion in that scene, forcing you to even be compassionate to yourself. (To acknowledge the need of acting compassionate towards yourself, of the stresses that are lurking behind she shell that you have to maintain! Much more so than in the prior two games, I frequently found it easy to make renegade choices: shit is going down, and despite my laments about the machismo at the start of the game, my Shepard has no patience with people who don’t recognize that. I won’t say that those renegade choices were an act, because that’s definitely how she would have behaved in such a situation: but behind that surface, there’s a part of her that would have been appalled at some of the actions she had to take. But there’s a still deeper core within Shepard behind that, one which is able to acknowledge that buried pain, to regard the person forced/choosing to take those actions with compassion.)
In many ways, the Citadel was the emotional core of the game for me. The scene with Thane was an outlier in that regard, because of the way in which it tied directly to the larger events of the game; but the Citadel was full of side conversations for you to eavesdrop upon, progressing as you returned to those areas of the Citadel again and again. At first they were mostly a sideshow to me—I was amused by how an early one tweaked my heterosexist assumptions in my misidentifying who in a triangle had two lovers—but they got rather more serious as the game went on. A half-dozen variations of families being torn apart by war, tragedies unfolding in slow motion, tragedies that were inconsequential in the grand scheme of the war but that were everything to those involved in them: bringing home the evils, the horrors of war in a way that statistics never do. And showing individuals making choices over and over again: in the face of war, how are they willing to act, what kind of people are they willing to be, what’s the bedrock that their morals rest upon?
Choices that you have to make, too: in particular, after the council attack, the Citadel is full of micro-missions where Shepard is asked to come down on one side or another of an argument. The first time I ran into these missions, I refused to do them: who am I to choose between a shopkeeper and a customer, between two cops? Ridiculous reluctance, considering the relative equanimity with which I decided the fate of species, the fate of an entire galaxy. But still: it felt wrong, those weren’t my choices to make, and even if I wanted to cast myself as a teacher, it’s the wrong way to approach the situation, part of teaching is letting other people make choices, even mistaken ones. I eventually gave in, though I’m not sure if that was the right choice or not: my justification is that, as a leader, I was helping other people find what was best in themselves, and if that was the clumsy way in which the game allowed me to express that, so be it. Still, questions I’m not used to asking about my actions within a game.
Those are the small-scale choices that the game confronts you with, but of course the ones that get the press are the big ones. And while, in the small and medium scale choices, I was frequently happy to make renegade choices, when it came to the large ones, I never did: I always made the “good” choices, the optimistic choices, the ones that expressed the way I wanted the universe to be. No throwing the Krogans under the bus, either overtly or behind their back: the Salarias can attempt to use the fate of the galaxy as blackmail, but I won’t go along. (Patricia Hernandez makes the case that I should have been at least as uncomfortable with that choice as with those choices on the Citadel.) No going along with the Quarians’ attack on the Geth, even though the latter were one of our main enemies at the start of the series and the Quarians are only attempting to regain their homeworld: there’s something going on there that doesn’t feel right, and it’s not just that it’s a distraction from fighting the Reapers.
Which is where I felt a shift in the game’s tone: it wasn’t a game about a species-threatening, galaxy-threatening war, it was a game about multiple perspectives on conflict, about the possibility of reconciliation, about a belief in the fundamental good within us. And Mass Effect 3 brought this home by attacking the conflict that leads off the series, namely the conflicts between organic and artificial form of life. It does this on the medium scale, by revisiting the roots of the Geth/Quarian conflict; it does this on the small scale of human relationships with artificial intelligence by EDI’s and Joker’s relationship. (There’s a lot more to EDI than I expected when I first saw her sexy robot body.)
And, of course, it does this on the grandest of scales, by reconsidering the Reapers’ conflict with all of organic life. The recordings of the start of the Geth/Quarian conflict make the Quarians look a lot less like blameless victims than they’d appeared; Javik teaches us that the Protheans are a lot less noble than we’d believed. (Than Liara had believed, certainly!)
Of course, it’s one thing to bring the Protheans down to earth (to Earth?), it’s another thing to make the Reapers look sympathetic. But the game accomplishes that, showing them as necessary to allow new species to flourish in the face of the Protheans and their ilk. The compassion that Thane and his son taught us returns in full force here.
This isn’t just a redirection of the game’s theme: the mysticism that’s always been present in the game (in the name Shepard!) erupts. It’s always been a series about salvation, but one that involved heroism of a fairly banal adolescent game nature. But the recurring nature of the Reapers harkens back to the eternal recurrence of another one of my favorite adolescent game series, namely Zelda; to Nietzsche, that favorite author among a certain type of adolescents (of people who haven’t yet escaped from adolescence, no matter their age; and yes, part of me is in this group); but also to Buddhist notions of recurrence of ages.
That recurrence is, I think, more of a Hīnayāna Buddhist theme; I see Mass Effect 3 as putting a Mahāyāna spin on it, with its insistence on the possibility of breaking the cycle of recurrence for all sentient beings. Which leads to the ending; though I enjoyed reading and respect both points of view, I’ll side with Kate Cox over Sparky Clarkson and end up satisfied, pleased, impressed by the ending.
That starts with the sequence on Earth. I came in wondering how I would feel about the final battle, wondering whether I’d be afraid of losing a companion in that sequence the same way I’d been afraid of that prospect in Mass Effect 2. As it turns out, though, I was at peace during that battle: too much was at stake there, any of us could die, I could die, it would be worth it. I can’t think of another game that had me facing death (my own and others’) with such equanimity.
And I also can’t think of a recent game that treated the final boss battle so courageously. My only comparison in that regard is Shenmue II glorious third act; that game went considerably farther than Mass Effect 3, and did so to great effect, but I don’t think the final game of a trilogy would have been able to carry off the same solution. Certainly the vast majority of games would have ended with a big battle against a monster; the final battles on Earth were difficult, but not in a boss monster style, and the final scenes on the Citadel were nerve-wracking, emphasizing your fragility, your vulnerability, the contingency of all of your actions while studiously avoiding undercutting that vulnerability with a boss battle that would have brought your martial powers back to the fore. As Roger said in this month’s School of Athens podcast, the Mass Effect thematizes gamespaces and the choices underpinning them in ways that few other games do; that’s the final fight the game ends with.
Which, perhaps, turns into a bit of a mess in the execution; and the adolescent grandeur in any game about a hero comes out full blast here, indeed levels up to reach new heights. But it’s a scene about transcendence in a series that has, in retrospect, focusing all of its powers for years towards that end; transcendence is impossible to represent faithfully, and (as with my feelings about Catherine‘s asking of questions), in a situation like that, perhaps missing the mark broadly is better than aiming more closely and having your failings leave less room for productive tension of interpretation.
It’s been four and a half years since the first game came out; I have the utmost respect to BioWare for bringing the trilogy to a conclusion in such a short amount of time and with such power and coherence. To all who worked on this series: I salute you, I thank you, I am in your debt.