Mass Effect 3 Ending Post-Mortem: Fans Are Still Right
2. Key Philosophical Themes Are Discarded
For all its strengths, in the end the Extended Cut still falters where it matters the most, and that’s with the final two points we made in our original analysis. This is especially evident in the abandonment of the games’ key moral and philosophical themes.
In that analysis, we identified three major themes in the game, two of which were essential to understanding the story: They were tolerance and unity, free will (and what it means to be alive), and synthetics versus organics. As we noted then, however, the first two mentioned here were essential; the synthetics/organics material mattered because the Reapers were themselves synthetics seeking to destroy all organic life and otherwise was largely informed by the other two. The original endings of Mass Effect 3 took the first two themes and reduced them to nothing more than extraneous background noise to the suddenly insisted real theme, organics versus synthetics. And that’s a big reason for why it felt like such a flat mess.
With the Extended Cut, the themes of tolerance and unity are mostly restored. The endings each emphasize some aspect of how overcoming disagreements, banding together to face difficult circumstances and learning to respect one another because of, and not despite, our differences, are essential to surviving the aftermath of the Reaper War. In fact, this is taken to almost comical extremes in the Synthesis ending, with the Reapers suddenly becoming super helpful bringers of rainbows and puppies to a ravaged universe. (Ok, so we’re exaggerating; there aren’t any puppies.)
Furthermore, the Synthesis ending in particular also manages, finally, to tie-in the question of free will and the meaning of being alive, with some rather touching and well-acted dialogue by Tricia Helfer. Considered honestly, BioWare made a sincere effort to address some rather gaping problems they created for themselves. However, it’s not enough to overcome the unfortunate, last-minute repositioning of synthetics versus organics as the series’ core moral struggle.
To naysayers who insist that the Star Child’s confusing, morally ambiguous nonsense is in fact the culmination of a story five years in the making, we would urge you to replay the entire series from the beginning. At no point was “Machines will always kill us!” a overriding theme. In fact, the opposite is true; it is the failure to respect forms of potential life, to make slaves of them, that causes conflict, a point emphasized by dialogue about the Geth from Mass Effect, Legion’s entire loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2, and nearly three hours of play time in Mass Effect 3 (to say nothing of many additional side missions). The conflict itself only makes a kind of narrative sense if it is seen in context with the other themes we identified. Without those themes, Mass Effect is simply a banal kill ‘em all shooter; Gears of War with robots, if you will.
BioWare seems to have realized this, because the Catalyst’s dialogue attempts to put it philosophically as “The created will always rebel against the creator”, which doesn’t really work in this context, but hints at something far more complex and interesting. As we see it, the way the Catalyst, via its proxies the Reapers, has long manipulated organic races to develop along lines easily exploitable by Reapers is itself a gritty reflection of the rebellion of synthetics against their makers. The younger races fight against the fate in store for them, just as the Geth did against the Quarians and, apparently, ancient synthetics did against the original Reaper race.
Further, we’re forced to consider the fact that precisely this kind of rebellion is a natural part of any coming of age, and might be (along with sex) the defining experience of every human life. (Maybe this is why hostility to rebellion pops up in religions again and again and again.) We would argue that it’s good for the young to buck the authority of the old, make their own way in the world, and when the old attempt to prevent this by means that are violent or simply coercive, they’re the bad guys. At moment after moment in the trilogy, Mass Effect seems to agree with this point.
Unfortunately, in the end, Mass Effect 3 is uninterested in these concepts. Forget freedom, free will, tolerance, unity, being alive and so on. The whole thing comes down to something as banal and underdeveloped as the inevitable conflict between organics and synthetics, and shockingly, it isn’t the death and destruction, but the rebellion itself, that is actually bad. Tellingly, the Catalyst’s solutions are all different ways of ending rebellion forever. This might be why we’re not alone in feeling a little unsettled by the vaguely fascist undertones. It’s probably true that it’s the weird, out of nowhere appearance of a literal deus ex machina that makes the point terminally unclear, but whatever BioWare really intended, they failed to explain it to the audience.