Mass Effect 3 Ending-Hatred: 5 Reasons The Fans Are Right
2) Key Philosophical Themes Are Discarded
When bringing a beloved story to a close, it is inevitable that a creator will fail to please all their fans. Writing what you believe to be the natural outcome of the world you’ve created, regardless of how pleasant the experience is, will naturally cause people to fluster. Just ask any random person how they feel about “19 years later” and you’ll see what I mean. But when an author uncompromisingly ends their story as they see fit, yet still manages to honor the themes they’ve explored and the universe in which the story is set, love or hate the ending, you still respect where they went with it. When they fail to do so, it can make it impossible to enjoy revisiting that world.
This is what makes Mass Effect 3′s ending particularly galling. After years of forcing players to wrestle with surprisingly complex issues ranging from bigotry, sexual freedom, religion, political corruption and personal moral compromise – especially in the final game – it ultimately disregards all of them in order to force a tired twist ending on players who have seen far too many movies and played far too many games to be surprised. That the ending also requires the player to act contrary to their own actions as established by the series and even Mass Effect 3 itself is just bitter icing on a stale cake.
When trying to understand why players are outraged, here are some of the series’ key themes that are entirely jettisoned in service to a gimmick.
* Tolerance and Unity
Arguably, the overreaching thrust of Mass Effect from the first moment you meet Shepard to the landing of forces from all over the galaxy on Earth is tolerance. Humanity has worked to find its place in the galaxy, overcoming old prejudices to work forward toward a common future. Each game has Shepard putting aside the issues of his crew with one another and with him in order to get a job done, and everyone is better for it. While Shepard can choose to take the side of one person or race over another in many instances, often condemning one side to destruction, the theme at work in all cases is one of finding a place in the universe among all the other races. Even if you choose to be intolerant, the very fact that tolerance or intolerance is the choice at hand builds on the theme.
The theme is extended even further throughout the games as Shepard brings together a team of various species who carry a lot of emotional baggage and problems with each other from a historical, cultural and racial standpoint. Unifying them, turning them from enemies to allies, is dealt with repeatedly in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2; by Mass Effect 3, it’s extending to include the entire galaxy. Shepard is literally solving long-standing problems of hatred and violence between several groups of people. He helps them learn tolerance, and later, unity.
The Illusive Man stands against these themes as a symbol of hatred and racism, pushing humanity backward and separating it. And the Reapers stand against these themes, unyielding in their belief that organic life must be wiped out/harvested/ascended/whatever. But where tolerance has always been an option in the games before, and has always been achievable before, it is discarded wholly in the end. There is no tolerance permitted among the Reapers or by the Guardian. And in fact, the synthesis ending dismantles the idea of tolerance and unity altogether by forcing homogenization on all the life in the galaxy, synthetic included. The control ending forces the Reapers to tolerate you, with the assumption that eventually, synthetics will ruin everything again through their lack of tolerance; the destruction ending, as the Guardian claims, will mean the eventual destruction by all synthetics.
Mass Effect continually asks “Can’t we call just get along?” and as Shepard, players can work toward that end for three full games. But the ending totally undoes your work toward galactic unity by undervaluing it, then throwing it out altogether, almost as though it were intended for another story. So what that the races of the galaxy have come to value and understand one another in a way never before possible as they unite against a common enemy: not possible with synthetics and organics, the Guardian proclaims. That’s just an immutable fact. So you’re forced to choose a solution that discards free will.
But the very fact that Shepard is where he is means he has already chosen a solution — unity; tolerance. In the end, Shepard is forced to make a decision that implies that unity, working together, tolerance on a galactic scale — the very things he has been working toward and accomplishing over the span of the entire game (and all three games, really), at every step — are inconsequential and in fact incompatible with the reality of the game’s story. Doesn’t matter how many alliances you broker or how much understanding you cultivate: it makes absolutely no difference.
* Synthetics vs. Organics
To say that the Guardian’s assertion about the never-ending and inevitable battle between synthetics and organics comes out of left field isn’t quite fair. Plenty of times and in plenty of very large ways, we’e seen the creators and the created go to war with one another. Even though the ultimate evil of the game has always been the Reapers, the ultimate conflict has never been one of “machines bad, meatbags good.” And even if you want to argue that point in reference to the first Mass Effect, which was awash with bad guy AIs, the argument breaks down in Mass Effect 2 immediately with the mention of one word: Legion.
Legion immediately changes the synthetic/organic debate when you gain him as a character. Rather than furthering a Matrix-like view of a world in which machines eventually kill their creators, Legion proves that all forms of life can and do have value, and that it is absolutely possible for synthetic and organic life to co-exist peacefully. Throw in EDI from Mass Effect 3 and the debate changes radically again — now synthetic and organic characters aren’t just not killing each other, they’re actively hooking up of their own free will.
That doesn’t sound like a world in which the cylons are destined to nuke the humans. Mass Effect 3 even gives you a chance to redeem the quarians and the geth in their struggle and reunite creator and created, parent and child. These events, in the very same game, are fundamentally opposed to the philosophy of the ending and the themes it represents.
* Free Will and what it means to be alive
One of the series’ strongest themes is an exploration of what it means to be a living being. This ties very closely the concept of free will, and both ideas are defined by contrast to the Reapers. Reapers see other beings as material resources, and their most insidious trick is that before destroying organic life, they rob it of independence. In Mass Effect, the struggle to maintain control over oneself at all costs, even if it means dying in the process, is an important concept. This is further developed in Mass Effect 2, first in Jacob’s loyalty mission ( his father is discovered to have used the side effects of an indigenous plant to turn female coworkers into sex slaves as a means of survival), and with Legion’s, where it’s revealed that the Geth are actually a complex people who simply want the freedom to go their own way without fear of being destroyed. This creates a moral environment in which the crew of the Normandy isn’t just fighting to save Organic life from evil machines, they’re actually fighting for the right to exist on their own terms.
These themes are escalated dramatically in Mass Effect 3. In the mission that can unite the Geth and Quarian, we actually see memories of the original Geth rebellion. The Geth, actually tried to stop the war, and only pushed the Quarians from their home system to keep from having to kill them. As if this wasn’t enough, there is even a moment when Legion says “organic life forms rely on hope to sustain them through periods of uncertainty. We admire the concept”. There’s also EDI, who having been unshackled in Mass Effect 2, is now able to inhabit a body of her own. Throughout the game, she explores the idea of existing as an independent person and even enters into a romance with Joker. Near the end of the game, she offers an extremely poignant summation of the difference between the races of the galaxy, and the Reapers. In essence, she concludes that the Reapers are selfish, and lack empathy, further that they are obsessed with self preservation at the expense of all else.
Both moments are riveting, and they appear to set up a final, brutal philosophical conflict three games in the making. Unfortunately, they do not matter at all. The concept of free will is alluded to, sort of, in the final conversation with the AI, but it has no bearing on any of the (identical) outcomes. Instead, much like the victims of the Reapers themselves, the player is robbed of all free will or even the chance to make the case for it. They must do as they are told, and choose.
And the number one reason is…