Mass Effect - "A Personal Journey"
[The following review was originally published in 2012.]
My introduction to science fiction was through the eloquent writing of Frank Herbert in his Dune series. In those books, an intricate weave of characters, plots, worlds and histories was fleshed out so delicately and with such an extreme attention to detail, presented in a manner which fully captivated my attention for years as I read through each subsequent addition to the saga. I was immediately sucked in and immersed in the amazing worlds that Herbert had created, thrown into a galaxy in political and existential turmoil. I felt as if the places I was reading about were real, the events occurring in real time as I read, as if with each turn of the page I myself was propelling these character’s very real journey.
Mass Effect took this notion and blew it completely out of the water. Instead of a cosmic hand propelling the pacing of the story, I was fully involved in it. I was allowed to play out all of the actions performed by Commander Shepard as he journeyed through the galaxy encountering alien races, learning to properly relate to them, developing relationships, sharing personal victories and defeats, and eventually revealing a secret apocalyptic cycle the galaxy plays host to stretching back millions of years into the history of the Milky Way galaxy.
The plot was intense, the galaxy which Bioware had established was involving, and the whole experience was very, very real. Every character had more life within them than any other characters I had seen to date in interactives, and in interacting with them I no longer felt as if I were making conversation with a computer. These were real people and real alien species.
Immediately, dialogue and conversations with my crew and people on various planets and stations took priority over the thrill of combat, the usual draw for an interactive such as this. When the first title released, I was amazed to find that I was not only spending more time conversing with the denizens of the galaxy than killing them, but that I was actually enjoying it more than any other experience a developer has ever shaped for me.
Fast forward a few years. Commander Shepard has halted an attack on the inter-galactic political hub (known as the Citadel) by an ancient, Lovecraftian machine-god (known collectively as Reapers), launched a blind suicide mission into the heart of the galaxy to stop the harvesting of humans by a mysterious alien race known as the Collectors (working with the Reapers), and – depending on the choices you as the player made – lost more than a few close friends along the way. Oh, and at one point Shepard also died and had his consciousness rebuilt in a new body. As all of this takes place within the course of 3 in-universe years, I think it’s fair to say that Shepard has had more than his fill of stress and pressure from the galactic community.
But come Mass Effect 3, the galaxy is not ready for him to quit. The Reapers have arrived. The end of this galactic cycle is at hand, and only Shepard – having been gifted with advanced knowledge of the Reapers from the Protheans (the race which dominated the galaxy during the last galactic cycle) – has the knowledge necessary to stop them.
Over the course of Mass Effect 3, Shepard must command the Normandy-SR2 around a galaxy which is slowly being decimated by near-invincible forces, making not only allies for himself, but political alliances that will allow him to defeat the Reapers in the final no-holds-barred battle. The stakes are high, and many sacrifices will be made.
As the first Mass Effect unfolded, I found myself in a universe that revolved entirely around my interactions with other species. I saw an indecisive human force, for which I was the representative, struggling to come to terms with interactions amongst a society of aliens, both literally and figuratively. As I quested through the galaxy and met both aliens and humans alike, I came to find that things had not changed much over the course of the last ~200 years (the Mass Effect series is set from 2183-2186 CE). While today we struggle to deal with prejudice and miscommunication amongst ourselves, 200 years from now our perspective has been widened, but our inclinations have not. While humanity was, at this time in the Mass Effect universe, far more united than at any point during human history, the need to judge others and to find inefficiencies amongst those surrounding us had projected onto a galactic society of aliens. Instead of racism, what was most readily apparent was that many humans displayed a form of speciesism, looking down upon those which would, for all intents and purposes, be our galactic equals. As the story unfolds, you take point in humanity’s inter-species politics, interacting with creatures that range from the familiar to the outright unimaginable (for example, a race sentient arachnids that communicate only by possessing the bodies of a creature capabel of speech). All of these interactions frame the story for the first Mass Effect, and by the time I reached the end of that journey, I felt that I too had evolved, become a more aware individual… more accepting of others and ready to lay down my life for those that cannot even call themselves human.
The second Mass Effect presented me with a new problem. With my view of galactic society cemented, I ventured forth into the galaxy yet again, although the second time around it was a much more familiar place. In this installment, what ended up presenting itself as the primary struggle was actually in holding on to the relationships established over the course of the first Mass Effect. With a two year stretch of time between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, during which I was for all intents and purposes very dead, many of the friendships established during our missions in the first Mass Effect had to move on, pursue new lives. In reconnecting with them after my resurrection, I found that they were distant, having lived through the horror of losing one of their best friends and coping with that loss. While it may have seemed like a few weeks to me, it was a long two years for them. They changed, the political face of the galaxy was altered, and as a result I was forced to become a new person… once again reacclimatizing myself to a now-unfamiliar galaxy. The stakes, as it turned out, were much higher. My resurrection was deemed necessary for the salvation of the galaxy, and I was resuscitated, my consciousness being revived in a body assembled from what remained of my old one combined with synthetic circuitry and machines. And with the high stakes of this new galaxy in mind, I became a new person… much more ruthless, willing to make sacrifices for the greater good. I allied with a xenophobic force with a "humans first" philosophy, assisted the mysterious Illusive Man (who seemed to be far more power-hungry than he claimed), and accepted that even my own humanity was being lost in the process. But along the way I made more friends, friends who were even more ruthless than I, but--at their core--more alive than any I had met previously. For example, Legion… a synthetic being (known as a Geth), whose networked intellect served as a smaller part of his organism’s collective whole. From the moment I met him it was clear that something was different. Immediately noticeable is the fact that he has repaired himself using parts from the armor I was wearing when I died at the beginning of this interactive's story. When questioned about the purpose of these modifications, Legion cannot reply with a logical answer. For such a logical being, a response as emotional as attachment to physical items and assignment of superstitious emotionality to such trivial items is foreign. And yet, even as we see Legion struggling to grasp the significance of an action he himself completed for no discernible reason, it became clear to me that he was simply experiencing emotion, a new and alien concept to him, just as his lack of emotion can be seen from the opposite perspective by us. If the first Mass Effect was about discovering what more there is to life other than humanity, the second was, to me, about losing that humanity as I in turn found it buried in those around me.
Before moving on to my points regarding the ending of Mass Effect 3, I would like to highlight a minor moment in the third installment which nonetheless had significant impact and meaning for me in regards to my overall Mass Effect experience. During one of the few moments the crew had for shore leave, I found myself in a discussion with my pilot (Joker, voiced by Seth Green) regarding his affection for EDI, a self-aware Artificial Intelligence which had recently been moved from a shipboard computer to a mobile frame. Their relationship had developed over the course of the Mass Effect 2 in a very natural and organic fashion; at that time however, EDI was only capable of being stored on the ship’s computers. She was a disembodied voice, visualized only by a vague holographic display of three-dimensional shapes, but who nonetheless developed significant character and became a valued member of my crew. When he posed the question to me inquiring about my thoughts on his feelings and the potential for their relationship, I was immediately taken aback. This man was asking me for my opinion regarding his genuine love for a robotic personality which was created by his own race to serve them. My initial reaction was “Really?” (perfectly captured by one of the dialogue options available to me). My thought was that he could do much better. But then, I reflected back on the entire journey I had made since venturing out into the galaxy for the first time at the beginning of the first Mass Effect. I thought about the people who I had met and made genuine friendships with, human and nonhuman alike. I reflected on Legion, an embodiment of the synthetic consciousness of the Geth collective and his strange behaviors instigated by no logical survival mechanism--his hidden emotions. And finally, I thought about myself… a man who, if it weren’t for the aid of advanced synthetic technologies, would not be standing here to give my good friend advice. And after thinking it over, I encouraged him to pursue a relationship with the woman who EDI had become.
This situation stands out as the stronger of many presented throughout this series, encapsulating experiences which are too emotionally and philosophically powerful and too numerous to accurately recount. And besides, even as I was making this personal journey through my own intellectual feelings, the galaxy was still dying all around me.
After rallying as many forces as possible across the galaxy, I returned to Earth, ready to win the fight at any costs. Making my way into the Citadel (now repurposed by the Reapers as a massive tool used to collect the denizens of each planet it visits), I knew that I would not be coming out alive--I was hurt bad and bleeding out.. As I reached the pinnacle of my intense journey, dying and alone, a voice reached out to me and touched my mind. In it, I found comfort and peace… solitude and relief from the pain of my physical form and the chaos of the galaxy; a higher perspective of life than the petty view we inferior races had. Pulling from my memory the image of a young boy I witnessed being killed as Earth was invaded at the beginning of the story, the entity--which revealed itself to be the Catalyst--allowed itself to be projected upon by this image I had of innocence and peaceful intentions. The presence took form as a pleasant light, shaped in the form of this young boy. It spoke to me, whether from my mind or from some external source, it did not matter, for I knew that this being was real. After it detailed the reasons for its creation of the Cycle all of those millions of years ago, it then presented me with a choice, an extended part of the Cycle which was created to allow only those worthy enough to reach it the option to end the Cycle altogether. I was the first to reach this critical point.
The options presented to me were as follows:
Merge my consciousness with the ancient machine’s collective, destroying myself in the process but pacifying the Reaper forces by controlling them.
Destroy not only the Reapers, but all synthetic life in the galaxy for good (this would mean EDI, Legion, and even myself).
Or my last option was to merge my essence with the fabric of reality itself, propelling all life in the galaxy towards the next stage of evolution. This was Synthesis, the merging of organic and inorganic life into one.
The many choices I had made along my journey through the last three installments weighed heavily upon me. What was the right choice? I thought about the lives of all those who I had befriended… both synthetic and organic. I knew that destruction of all synthetics was not an option. Control of the Reapers? It was what the power hungry Illusive Man was attempting to achieve when he became indoctrinated. It appeared to be the preferable choice, but it was likely because of this that I felt unease about it… as if I had not been made fully aware of the full truth regarding this option. It was the path that lead the Illusive Man to indoctrination and so, following my heart, I steered away from it, and headed towards the middle choice: Synthesis.
My journey had revealed to me that no matter where a person may come from, what they may look like, or how they even perceive the galaxy, they are still a person. They have a right to live, and a right to struggle and make mistakes. And they have a right to triumph over adversity. Synthesis would extend that right not just to organics and synthetics… but would place each on equal ground, ready to face the new galaxy together.
And so I leapt into the beam.
A short while later, after the immense shock wave swept the galaxy along the way to a higher existence, a visibly shaken Joker emerges from the downed Normandy. Where he was downed and why he was in flight rather than continuing the fight does not matter. In the face of elevation to a higher level of existence, it becomes immediately clear that all of our past struggles were petty and of little consequence compared to what more the galaxy and existence itself has to offer. As Joker emerges onto an unexplored world, representing the fresh slate all of life has been given by my sacrifice as Shepard, it can clearly be seen that his skin has circuitry running through it, and that he has a slight inorganic glow. And as he looks out onto the surface of this brand new start for the galaxy, a woman emerges from the Normandy behind him. Joker smiles as EDI places her hand around his waste and her head on his shoulder. They are ready to face this strange new world together.
But the story does not end there. Indeed, even as many ended the Mass Effect series with different symbolic outcomes or moral experiences, the majority of fans were vastly disappointed. Things had not made sense. Why was the seemingly evil choice, the one which had corrupted the Illusive Man and caused his indoctrination, lit by a blue light (blue for “Paragon”, the morally-conscious class of players defined by their good deeds) while the supposed good choice, outright destruction of the Reapers, lit by a red light (red for “Renegade”, the morally-ambiguous class of players defined by getting the job done at any cost)? Why did this advanced being choose to be represented by an innocent child? Why were we not shown the fate of the galaxy after Shepard’s sacrifice? Why was the ending so linear after such a long choice-driven plot? And, why does one ending result in an additional shot of Shepard briefly taking a breath amidst the rubble of collapsed buildings?
Some fans decided to take their confusion with the ending a bit further, to delve back into the story to attempt to discern a more complete truth of the larger picture. And what they found changes everything.
If the Indoctrination Theory is correct, then this ending can stack up against some of the most successful audience manipulations in media history. It presents us with an ending that, if left as is, could be analyzed and over-analyzed, debated and flat-out argued for years to come, ranking among some of the most talked about symbolic meaning ever displayed through an interactive. For, as it is displayed through not only the context of a story, but through the story's highly emotional ending, it manipulates the players into experiencing Shepards slipping grip on reality and, realizing that, allows us to see the true threat that the Reapers pose to life. For if Shepard cannot triumph over evil at the end of his journey, and if we as players cannot triumph… perhaps the struggle is futile after all.
Perhaps the message is to just find comfort in the journey… that how it ends doesn’t matter. That it may just be enough to be content with the special connections we’ve made along the way. For it may be those that truly last forever.
Addendum: In the wake of the “Extended Cut” DLC, few things have changed. Although the Star Child is no longer open to interpretation as a superior being projecting itself onto Shepard’s consciousness, the dialogue spoken by characters during the extended Synthesis option now add a vast depth of emotion to the already intense ending. Although (in my opinion) unnecessary, the extended ending did manage to take something with significant thought and depth behind it and make it even better. EDI’s last line of dialogue from this will forever stand as the emotional summary of my entire Mass Effect experience, both supporting the moral purpose of the story as it stood for me and mirroring my feeling about life in general within the best interactive series to date: "I am alive, and I am not alone."