So I am on Spring Break, and to celebrate I played Mass Effect 3. I’ve written about Mass Effect before, and as I’ve said, I’m partial to the series. I was excited for ME3, though I’d heard some things about it after its script leak that made me wary. The good news, I suppose, is that the game itself is very good. I am going to talk it about it now, a lot, and there are going to be some pretty MASSIVE spoilers, for all three games, so you are warned.
There are still some questionable things that initially worried me: the series has always been kind of screwy with regards to sexuality and gender, and while the representation of some sexual relationships (especially male homosexual relationships) has some bright spots, there’s also the problem of EDI’s sexy robot body, and the general egregiousness of the sex scenes I’ve come to expect. But I’m not going to focus on gender for this post. Rather I’m going to focus on THE ENDING.
Oh, yes, the ENDING. The ending three games in the making! In case you haven’t heard, it’s quite controversial. If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’ve played the games and will know what I’m referencing, so I’m not going to bother explaining a lot. Instead I’m going to make a fairly concentrated post on how I think this ending fails, not just narratologically (which it does, as other people have explained, though demanding a new ending is not my plan of action). The thing about this ending, for me, is that it fails aesthetically and philosophically — to put it another way, by being so bad narratologically it fails to bring the franchise and videogames as a medium closer to art.
This mostly has to do with the principal villains, the Reapers, which when they were introduced I might have described as “giant spaceship Cthulhus.” They stopped being this somewhat in the second game, and very definitely stopped being this in the last five minutes of Mass Effect 3, when their purpose was very much explained and, upon scrutiny, didn’t make any sense. I personally think the Reapers should rather have been presented as more recondite in origin/function, something we had to grasp at on our own. I really dig the current body-horror angle they have (and loved the Prothean massacre flashback in ME1), and the idea that they are a technological singularity dedicated to ensuring another singularity never gains traction is a compelling germ of an idea, but it was all handled very clumsily and incoherently. While it might have done well otherwise, the end of Mass Effect 3 — wherein you are forced by some consciousness in control of the Reapers into a false dilemma among three separate choices that all have practically the same effect on the end of the game — really screws this up.
Before I continue with all these words I will add, yes, I know, this is a lot to expect from a videogame, and probably more than a bit goony. But dammit, if we don’t expect some sort of deep thinking from the medium, even if it’s pulpy space opera, how can we ever hope for it to finally meaningfully comment on human experience.
Essentially, I think there was a really cool subtext and a recurring theme of the games in general that could have been played with a bit more. The Reapers embody the philosophical knot at the heart of the series, because (as we know from the first game on) they completely override the subject’s ability to choose. At the same time they claim all power for themselves — Sovereign claims each Reaper is its own nation, and hell, that specific one is even named Sovereign.
As it currently stands the Reapers reserve the “right” to condense entire species into a homogeneous entity that is, paradoxically, sovereign unto itself but also subject to the greater Reaper collective (or that dumb little kid AI or whatever). The Reapers we encounter are so convinced of their self-sovereignty that they basically tell us “We do what we want, and your understanding or consent are not required” multiple times.
The catch is that full sovereignty — a complete state of exception — is impossible, as the above paradox of the Reapers’ thinking shows. Every individual is subject to something — if not a sovereign, that is if you are the sovereign, then you are subject to the social conditions which uphold your own sovereignty.
This is what makes Shepard important, because as a player you are ostensibly in control of the game and what happens; you are sovereign as player, but still subject to the game abstractions to get what you want, though they’re divvied up via a ridiculous morality system. The current ending even underscores how ridiculous this is by collapsing the moral distinctions that the player has come to depend upon. You are forced to recognize the conditions of your own sovereignty.
This is pretty goddamn cool. In theory. It’s actually just infuriating, poorly written, and an anticlimax. I think the better way to have handled it — the way I was hoping it would pan out — was that the ending would simply have no choices to be made. You simply defeat the enemy (or not) and see what happens (or not). You would, finally, see only the consequences what you’ve, the things that have resulted from or contributed to your sovereignty.
When defenders make the claim about how the ending is “deep” I almost want to think this is what they’re seeing. But maybe not, because I’ve been looking for it since the first game and all I see is a weak, shallow gesture at what could have been.