Monday, 9 July 2012

Mass Effect 3 Endings Post Extended Cut DLC - What's the Right Choice?

So, following on from my review of the Extended Cut DLC for Mass Effect 3 (read it here), I wanted to discuss the (now four) different endings in a little more detail, taking into account how the Extended Cut has affected them. Warning – this will be a LONG post. When I mentioned all the speculation in my bio, I really wasn’t kidding. 

Obviously, massive spoiler alert! I'm going to talk about the ending to Mass Effect 3 in depth, Extended Cut DLC included, so if you haven't played it yet, get away now while you can!

First off, Indoctrination Theory now seems to be completely out of the window, as I always thought it would be (though it was a really great theory; kudos to those who came up with it). This means we can’t justify anything in terms of indoctrination or as ‘it’s all really in Shepard’s head.’ So what we see is what we get.

(N.B. from here I’ll refer to Shepard as ‘she.’ This is because I played her as a woman, but if Shepard is a man to you, just replace ‘she’ with ‘he’ in your head.)

Photo from Paula, on Arte and Fotografia

Red – Destroy

Yay genocide! But seriously, why would anyone choose this option? What about the Geth? What about Edi?!

Well, actually, this is probably the ending that makes the most sense in terms of Mass Effect and in terms of how Commander Shepard behaves. Not that she’s a loony who loves murdering whole species. Just that from the minute she first became aware of the Reapers, she has had one single purpose, one mission in life: to stop the Reapers. She has demonstrated how far she is willing to go to do this; she will defy the council, side with the morally reprehensible Cerberus, perhaps even withhold the genophage cure from the Krogan in order to get the Salarians on her side (I didn’t do this, but some players will have).

Shepard has seen what the Reapers are and what they will do. She knows that the fate of all advanced life in the galaxy is in her hands. She will not let them down. However you play Shepard, this is the core truth that remains the same. Whether Renegade or Paragon, Shepard is still obsessed with destroying the Reapers, still a soldier who gets things done.

The galaxy, every species, all your friends, Earth, the human race; they are all relying on Shepard to destroy the Reapers. And when it comes down to it, Shepard knows this is what she has to do.

Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. Shepard might have fought hard to save the Geth, and even if the player did not choose this option, there is the friendship of Edi to consider. Shepard has helped her blossom into full sentience, has helped her to realise that she is alive, and that all kinds of life have equal value. Can Shepard now turn around and say that it is worth sacrificing synthetic life for organic? Is organic life, then, ultimately more important, despite everything she has said and stood for? Or perhaps, you argue, you are merely sacrificing the few for the many - organics vs synthetics has nothing to do with it.

But there's a problem with this too. There are several points in the game where the player can choose to have Shepard voice her disgust for this kind of numbers game. Sacrificing huge numbers of people to save more might be the practical way to win, but can it really be considered 'winning'? I remember having a conversation with Garrus about this very concern earlier in the game. I remember saying that if I were forced to choose to let huge amounts of people die to save the rest, that I would be no better than the Reapers, and so what was I even fighting to save? Interestingly, Shepard can take the other option in this conversation and tell Garrus that she will do whatever it takes. Stopping the Reapers is priority number one. So perhaps Destroy only makes sense for a highly practical, Renegade Shepard?

But! If Shepard is only concerned with stopping the Reapers, why not pick one of the other two colour options? They all end with this 'victory', but, in the case of the other two options, with considerably less bloodshed...

Blue – Control

...Control! That sounds good. Right? Well, maybe it would, if Shepard hadn’t just minutes earlier seen The Illusive Man attempt this and fail. If Shepard hadn’t seen Saren controlled like a puppet. If Shepard hadn’t been aware of how powerful Reaper mind control is, and that their tried and tested tactic for this is convincing humans that they can control Reapers. If any of the options stinks of ‘trick! It’s a triiiiick!’ it’s this one. There is absolutely no way my Shepard would have chosen this option. And I doubt anyone else’s Shepard would either, really. It doesn’t matter that the player knows it actually works; there is no way Shepard is going to trust a Reaper A.I. that claims you can control them and then pleasantly shows you how to do it.

One of the rather nice additions that the Extended Cut DLC offers is the slight suggestion that Shepard becomes corrupted if this path is chosen. Shepard begins to speak of herself as being like a god, and it can’t be long before that much power goes to her head. And even though she actually has succeeded in controlling the Reapers, in doing so she has become a Reaper A.I. She’s basically the new Catalyst, right? How long is it going to be before she comes to the same conclusions and begins the reaping again? Something to consider.

There is another major concern with Control. Imagine you are one of the other races. After you’ve finished celebrating the fact that the Reapers have been stopped, how long will it take you to realise that, holy crap, Shepard has control of the Reapers and Shepard’s loyalties are to humanity and so now the humans are in control of the Reapers? What happens in our world when one major power gets a super weapon that the others don’t have? The others start building and inventing quick, that’s what. Arms race! Cold war in space! Is anything going to advance the rate of synthetic and A.I. development more than this? New Geth? New Reapers?

Or perhaps the other species will all come to similar conclusions at once, join forces and blow the humans out of space in the hopes that we haven’t had a chance to get the hang of the whole Reaper control thing yet? Whichever way you look at it, the implications of the Control option are extremely worrying.

Green – Synthesis

So now we have Synthesis. On the surface this is the best option. No-one dies, everyone is happy, evolution jumps forward, sunshine, rainbows...


Blend all synthetic and organic life so that everything is the same? Isn’t this what the Reapers were doing in the first place? Harvesting advanced civilisations to turn them into Reapers: part machine, part living thing. Against their will. It’s all pretty horrific. They were killing species they didn’t think were worth their time, and they certainly didn’t seem too complimentary about organics (we’re insects to them, we can’t possibly comprehend them, etc). So it does kinda seem like this was their master plan all along. Less of the “we’re doing it for organics’ own good, look how lovely and happy we all could be” and more of the “we’re doing it for your own good because you’re pathetic as you are now so shut up and become one of us.” Deal with the embarrassing squishies by making them less squishy and more like us. ASSIMILATE! RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.

This is why we were fighting them. Remember? Good.

Not to mention how insulting this ‘mass homogenisation to stop racism’ (sorry, organicism??) idea is. Not to mention how much Shepard champions the differences that make us unique and promotes peace through respect rather than fear of what is different. Not to mention that no-one actually wants this! You have the support of every species in the galaxy on the understanding that you stop the Reapers, not side with them. They are willing to die for this. They are not willing to be cyborged, however cool the idea of cyborgs is.

So why on earth would you actually choose this option?

And yet. And yet... what if it works? What if this does actually create peace? It’s the option with the least death, no slavery, and might actually achieve harmony. In Utilitarian terms, it does seem like the best option. Can it be justified? Were the Reapers *gasp* actually right? This is, I firmly believe, what the writers expected players to think. I believe they thought it would be awesome to make the player fight the Reapers, then change our minds to actually side with them at the end. Only, this didn’t quite work. Most players didn’t respond this way. Most of us still think the Reapers are terrible, and we hate this option, in many cases more than the genocide one, which is really saying something. The problem is, when people are willing to die for a cause, they have already drawn a line. And that line is the Reapers.

Players who choose this ending have decided to cross that line anyway. And this is fair; it’s their game, their choice. But this is certainly not the golden answer that the developers seemed to think they were giving us.

Not to mention, this option is also flawed. It is supposed to be the only answer to preventing the ‘inevitability’ of organics create synthetics -> synthetics wipe out organics. But it isn’t a long term solution at all. Now that all life is a hybrid synthetic-organic, we’re all supposed to get along? Firstly, naive. Secondly, what is to stop this hybrid species from creating their own synthetics? Hybrids are the new organics, and why did organics create synthetics? As a form of servant, really. I don’t see any reason why hybrids will not also do this. Synthetics make life easier; they do work so organics don’t have to, and they fight for them so organics do not have to die. This is why the Geth were created. This is presumably why the Reapers were created.

Same deal with hybrids. They’re going to want the exact same things. And don’t tell me hybrids won’t ever go to war with each other. And don’t tell me they won’t create synthetics because they can identify part of themselves with them. Ancient civilisations were perfectly capable of seeing that their slaves were human, like them, but it sure didn’t stop them.

And, in a few generations, hybrids may begin to consider their organic component to be what gives them true life. They may not even consider synthetics to be real people. How could they, since all examples, all differences, have been removed? They would have no Geth to show them that synthetics can be alive without an organic element. They would have no experience of ‘the other’ and so would actually be more likely to treat it badly. Their created synthetics might therefore be even more likely to rebel, and so to keep the cycle turning. In fact, this could very well have happened before. Our brains work like computers; our bodies are like machines; perhaps life has already been synthesised long ago. This synthesised life may have grown and evolved until it became the race that created the Reapers, who themselves rebelled against their creators, and so kept the cycle turning.

In other words; this could have happened many times before. The Reapers think they are outside of the cycle, but they could in fact be one small part of a larger cycle that even they cannot see. For anyone still with me, it might look something like this:

Organics create synthetics -> synthetics rebel -> An A.I. is created to stop this -> The A.I. creates Reaper-like beings as the ‘solution’ -> (organics become advanced enough to create synthetics – Reapers reap – organics become advanced enough to create synthetics – Reapers reap – organics become advanced enough to create synthetics – Reapers reap – and so on) -> organics build Crucible and merge it with the A.I. -> choose synthesis -> synthesised life begins -> synthesised life begins to see itself as the only kind of life in the Universe, is capable of making machines and so calls itself organic in order to distinguish itself from them -> organics create synthetics -> synthetics rebel -> An A.I. is created to stop this -> The A.I. creates Reaper-like beings as the ‘solution’ -> and so on.

All this demonstrates that maybe the Catalyst has not thought things through enough. We do not know how it was programmed, or the limited view with which it might see the Universe. The player has no proof that the Catalyst is telling the truth, but worse, the Catalyst may think it is telling the truth but actually be wrong. It is not the voice of God, however much it presents itself that way. To take its words as literal truth seems the worst kind of folly.

Image from Bobble Superlikee blog

Bonus Hidden Ending – Refuse

Which leads us nicely on to the fourth option, introduced by the Extended Cut DLC. And here’s why this option is so awesome. Shepard has no reason to trust the Catalyst. Wait, actually, Shepard has every reason not to trust the Catalyst. It’s a Reaper A.I. for heaven’s sake. Why would it help you? Why would it show you how to control the Reapers? Why would it show you how to destroy the Reapers? How many players had alarm bells going off in their heads while the Catalyst calmly listed our three options? Heck, this is half the reason why the Indoctrination Theory was so popular.

And if you don’t meta-game (i.e. play with foreknowledge of what will happen), then Shepard is really stuck. Does she trust the Reaper A.I. and pick one of the options? Even picking Destroy could be a lie. For all Shepard knows, the Crucible really is a superweapon against the Reapers after all, and shooting that cable could destroy it, along with the galaxy’s last chance of defeating the Reapers.

First time around, there was no 'distrust' or 'refuse' option. We simply had to choose one of the three colours. I chose Destroy mainly because it was the one the Reaper seemed to not want me to pick. I didn’t know if the Reaper was lying, and in fact, various things at the end of the game suggested it might have been. Now, there is another choice. Players can refuse. Refuse to choose one of the options, or shoot the Catalyst, and a voice (which sounds like Harbinger) will say ‘so be it.’ Cut to Liara’s time capsule, insinuating that all attempts to stop the Reapers failed. Everyone in this cycle has been destroyed/harvested, though it seems the next cycle does actually succeed, thanks to Liara’s warnings and information.

So this is very grim. This isn't the 'right' choice, and it certainly isn't the 'win game' choice. To many players this ending feels like a punch in the face from Bioware. Don’t like our endings? Dare to reject them? Then everyone you love dies! *evil laugh*  This could be the case, I guess, but I think it’s missing the point. If you don’t use the Crucible and the Catalyst, then you have very little hope of defeating the Reapers. We knew this even before we first heard of the Crucible. It was dues-ex-machina time or nothing. So choosing refuse does indeed doom all the species you care about. If Shepard knows this, it does seem unlikely that she would choose it (though perhaps an extremely morally uncompromising Shepard might). However, this is a big ‘if’. It requires meta-gaming.

In reality, all Shepard knows is that a Reaper A.I. is standing in front of her, giving her three crappy options. She doesn’t like it; she doesn’t trust it at all. She has a gun. Hello secret option number 4. 

Hey, you made it to the end of my speculation, well done! *insert cheesy gamer joke about stamina here* Now it’s your turn - which ending did you choose and why?

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