About a year ago, I played through the entirety of Mass Effect. All three games, first time, no preconceptions.
I had been exposed to some unavoidable cultural contamination; nothing spoilery, and certainly nothing I understood. Flashes of Mass Effect 3 as my partner played, exposure rage online at the Mass Effect 3 ending.
The first two games were, by my initial estimations, brilliant. Reams of lore, interesting and diverse quests, the passionate romance of Melody and Liara, out of this world excellent.
Enter the third game. The introductory sequence was quite sub-par and didn’t match up with what I’d experienced of Mass Effect 2. It turns out I’d missed the Project Overlord DLC that bridged the games.
During the game, the writing was excellent, and I was hooked. So many brilliant pieces, so many painful, wonderful, and meaningful ends to the stories of my dear friends. Melody and I had saved the Citadel, fought the Collectors; we all knew the stakes when the Reapers finally came, we knew how much we’d lose.
And then, that Ending.
I never played the original-original ending of Mass Effect 3; my first pass was after the “fix” DLC. I was furious. After everything I’d been through, my team had been through, it was achingly awful to watch that ending, the three colours of “ending.”
I took “Destruction” as my ending; to the bitter end Melody would not let the Reapers win, no matter what the cost. I held to the ideals of Indoctrination Theory1, believing that this could not have been the ending, could not be her fate. Words could not describe my disgust, my rage towards EA and Bioware.
Why it was So Important
For me, much of my rage against the end of Mass Effect was the depth to which the story mattered to me. As a lesbian woman, seeing Melody and Liara, with some of the awkwardness of not knowing how to initiate things, just have an unquestioned relationship and get on with their lives was incredibly empowering.
There were no snide comments; nothing remotely like the bile and bigotry surrounding the gay marriage debates.
Just people, living their lives. I could identify, accept, and feel all the more part of the story, become more strongly engaged.
A friend of mine recently asked if she should play Mass Effect; I hesitated. Did someone else deserve to suffer through the ending? Should EA be supported for their gross mistakes in the ending of a world that meant so much to me? In thinking of the answer, I questioned my own rage against the ending, why I reacted to the game so strongly.
I was angry because the ending took the world from me; took the things that mattered in my choices and threw them away for a small variation in colour.
I was angry that everything I identified with, every part of feeling included was thrown away.
Through discovering my answer, I started to see the ending as something different.
Mass Effect 3 is a story of loss; loss of Earth, in the opening act. Loss of friends, the loss of civilisation, the loss of strength and purpose. Seeing that loss through the eyes of a Prothean, how the Reapers took everything from him in the end.
Mass Effect 3 isn’t the story of how we won against the Reapers, or saved the galaxy. It could never be that story; the Reapers don’t lose. Even when they don’t destroy us, they win. Even when we destroy them, they win. Instead Mass Effect 3 is story of how we lose absolutely everything fighting back, and we still can’t win.
Everything’s a Loss
The ending we’re pushed towards is the “Integration” ending; Shepard joins with the Crucible and everyone in the universe is forcibly converted to a biological machine.
Re-read that sentence; forcible conversion. Everything biologically essential about entire peoples is erased against their will. As with the Reapers devastating their civilisation and requiring a change in the social order, so too does a forced upload constitute re-examining who and what we are. By choosing that, the Reapers won, and we lost.
In the Control ending, Shepard becomes the Reapers’ central intelligence. The Reapers have, by this stage, destroyed much of the infrastructure of the galaxy, ended countless lives, and everyone is expected to just “get along” now.
Shepard loses everything; her self, her desires and goals. She becomes the central intelligence to the Reapers, guides them to help and aid. What she was, the heroism and strength, is gone. What remains is unknowable and inscrutable, the weakly godlike nature of a transhuman being. Furthermore, the Reaper presence does not abate; they remain, and integration would never be easy.
In Destroy, we lose our own ideals. If we had saved the Geth, they are expected to pay with their lives. We shatter the galactic community, damaging the Mass Relays. In the years before the relays can be repaired, much-needed relief for Earth and Palaven (the turian homeworld) can never come. Millions more would suffer and die.
Finally, Rejection is the death of Shepard, and the systematic obliteration of the Reapers. Everything that mattered to us, lost, with only Liara’s beacons to guide the next cycle.
Coming to Grips
Once I came to grips with the inability to win, Mass Effect 3 was easier to reconcile. Shepard and Liara could be together for those years, their love burning brightly in the universe. We could fight together, face our deepest fears and demons together; share our deepest trusts together.
That in the end we lose everything, does not rob our story of meaning, nor does it tar it with failure.
To me, it means I have an answer; I know how far Melody was willing to go in order to defeat the Reapers. I know the prices she was willing to pay to save her galaxy, how much it cost her to stand there and be asked “How do you choose to lose?”
In the end, Melody loses; the galaxy loses, and the only ones who ever win are the Reapers.
While nothing awful has happened in my life, the ideas are the same; sometimes, in the end, no matter how hard we fought or how just we were, we lose. It doesn’t mean that what we did has no meaning.
In the end, all we have are our choices, and our willingness to fight. I can identify with that, with my Melody.
My friend bought Mass Effect, and I hope she loves it as deeply as I have.
I? I get to play Mass Effect again. Garrus, Liara, Mordin; all my friends are waiting for me, and even though we can never win, we can always, always choose.
Indoctrination Theory is the idea that what Shepard experiences at the end of ME3 is the result of constant exposure to Reaper indoctrination fields. See http://www.gamefront.com/mass-effect-3-ending-analyzing-the-indoctrination-theory/ for more.↩