I Know You Have a Little Life in You Yet: Ending Mass Effect 3

By | March 26, 2012


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I get a lot of comments about my writing making people cry. It used to happen here periodically, and it now happens on xoJane with an impressive regularity.

I’m never sure how to respond. Though I can honestly say that I never set out with that purpose in mind, I take this as the highest possible compliment to my work. I take it as such because it means I have made someone feel something, and is there anything so immediately resonant of the importance of human connection than being made to feel something — to the extent of being moved to tears — by another person? That is communication working. That is my invisible hand reaching out through the ether and touching yours. That is all of us feeling less alone.

I am not a frequent crier myself. It takes something enormous to make me cry, although once it happens the effect will often last for a day or two. The last thing I cried about with such untempered sorrow was the loss of Oberon, my excellent kitty soulmate of almost 14 years, and I cried over that for almost a week, with breaks for getting work done and leaving the house. The most recent thing, as of this weekend? A video game.

 

*****SPOILERS HENCEFORTH*****

 

Some of you are aware of my deep deep love for the Mass Effect series of video games. My obsession began when I watched my husband play the first installment in 2007, and has not flagged since. It comprises an epic (both the noun and the adjective) hero’s journey, a monomyth set in the distant future where humans have extended themselves across the galaxy and found that even a universe filled with curious aliens is still damn familiar, riddled with conflict and war, some brand new, some thousands of years old.

It is a story told in millions of colors and shades of grey, but where nothing is black and white. No answers are right or wrong, and nothing is objectively good nor bad; there is only emotion, and circumstance, and experience, and legacy, and it is the player who finds their way through it all, bringing their own personality and perspective to the story like one might bring a torch to a cave. Those tunnels may be limited by the way the rock has formed, but every explorer will see them from a different angle, and no two will ever tread the same path.

This weekend, after years of participation in my own Mass Effect story, I came to the end of it. The very end.

The ending has not been without controversy. I may unpack the details of the mechanism that brought about this ending at another time, but for now, my response to it has not shifted one iota from the moment of its in-game revelation.

There were three choices. One choice involved enslaving the enemy Reapers to stop them from destroying all organic life, managing this possibly only temporarily, with no balance applied, no way to know what the long-term consequences would be, and making our hero Shepard no better than any of the enemies she’d been fighting.

One choice involved destroying the Reapers and with them all artificial life, including life that I had, over the course of the game, come to be convinced had a right both to survival and to self-determination. Had you asked me, or my surrogate Shepard, at the beginning of this third installment what I would do if given the option to destroy all synthetic life in the galaxy, I would have taken it without a second thought. But by now, I wasn’t so sure.

That is an impressive, and subtle, narrative feat.

When the third option was revealed — synthesis, in which all life in the galaxy is fused into equal parts organic and artificial, albeit at the cost of Shepard’s life — I didn’t hesitate, but sent her, injured and bleeding from her final battle, hobbling down the middle path.

As she drew near the end, she stopped, and turned around. There’s nothing wrong with looking back, I thought, I’m just looking back, just once, to where the catalyst stood, and I thought — She could just destroy them, you know, she could just destroy artificial life and live out the rest of her days, knowing that the inevitable cycle would not repeat itself for tens of thousands of years, and at that point would be someone else’s problem.

Of course, she’d be totally isolated from everyone she cared about by the necessary destruction of the mass relays, the system by which interstellar travel was possible. And she’d have to live with the knowledge that leaving a final solution to someone else could create room for error. She’d have to live knowing that it had to be her; someone else might get it wrong.

And Shepard would never do that, would never leave a job undone just so she could live a little bit longer. After all, technically she’s already dead.

I looked around, in that moment, and in the windows overhead, just outside the Citadel, I watched a Reaper taking down an Alliance ship; I wondered if this small scene was placed there on purpose, to fortify my decision — it had to be. I thought, What kind of ending leaves room for this to continue?

I must have stopped Shepard a centimeter from where the story took control of her away from me again, because when I swung the camera back around, both distraught and certain, the final cutscene began to play, with Shepard throwing herself, confident as ever, into the beam and being slowly disintegrated, in her final moments remembering her friends.

The result, naturally, is that Shepard dies, but she also lives, as her sacrifice puts a piece of her in every living thing in the galaxy. Watching Shepard die is devastating, because while Shepard is a character in a story, for some, Shepard is also us, a better version of ourselves, the hero we all want to believe we’d be if we found ourselves in similar circumstances.

But she was always going to die; in the third installment alone, we spend thirty or forty hours (or, in my case, sixty) intermittently talking about the ruthless calculus of war, the simple fact that not everyone can be saved, that some will die so that others can live. That sacrifices will have to be made. The story tells us that absolute freedom is an illusion, or at least it was — and although Shepard may have cheated the Reapers of another harvesting cycle, there is one reaper no one escapes.

There’s been a lot of deep thinking and desperate analysis from people who needed a happy ending, who needed an option in which Shepard and her love interest FTL-jump into the sunset, needed it with the same single-minded passion that we all need connection and closure and for the things we do to have some meaning and purpose — they needed answers. Some are very, very angry about it. Some have concocted an alternate explanation and I don’t begrudge anyone that. Some are actively lobbying Bioware for a new ending “fix” and I don’t begrudge them that either.

This entitlement is rooted in the fact that we don’t want games to be realistic, many of us. We want games to give us control; we want games to tell us the stories we want to hear, not the ones we are forced to live every day, and we want games to give us clear ideologies and straight answers, not pepper us with more questions that terrify us with their unanswerability.

But no matter how invested we are, no matter how much we want things to go a certain way, we are no more the author of Shepard’s fate than we are our own; at some point life will present us with difficult choices, and inevitably, we will someday die, and if we are very lucky, we will lie back in that moment and know that our life meant something.

Who wants to be reminded of this simple truth — that we all end — in a game? I do. I wept — an embarrassing sort of crying, not a quiet welling-up, but an overwhelming convulsion of sorrow and relief, replete with shuddering sobs and maybe even a subdued wail or two — throughout the ending, because Shepard knew she was not going to walk away from this, and I knew it too.

As benign and pleasant as a happy-ending option might have been, I like that this game made me cry; I like that this series forced me to invest so deeply in a story and in characters that their loss is something I feel almost as keenly as I would that of a living friend.

I like that my response was to feel a tidal wave of emotional need, a longing to grab all of my family and friends and even strangers in wild enthuiastic hugs, to tell them all how much I love them, and that our time is too short to do anything but fight to be the best people we can be, and to fight to make our world the most just and sacred and beautiful place we can imagine. To take risks. To treasure every moment, to remember that when tragedy strikes — as it inevitably will — there will be no time to spare on regrets, things we should have said, promises we should have kept.

I was sharing this video around all last week; it illustrates the oft-quoted idea that we are all made of stardust, which is a literal truth: the atoms that comprise our very bodies came from the exploded stars of long ago. In it, Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “We are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us.”

As a result of Shepard’s sacrifice, a piece of her lives on in every single life form in the galaxy. This is not an idea unique to Shepard, nor to the fictional world of Mass Effect where she resides; we are all connected in ways both meaningful and mundane, we all share this world together, and the best of all of us is in us already — we just have to find it and hold it up for others to see.

That is why I cried. I cried for the ending of a story that was made all the more meaningful by its definitive conclusion; I cried for all the time I waste not being loving and kind to everyone I meet, and I cried because I sometimes forget how marvelous and incredible life really is, even when it’s drowning in sorrow and loss.

We only mourn the loss of what is meaningful and dear to us, and for all the sadness the void brings, I would never trade the joy that makes the pain inevitable. My Mass Effect story is over, and lucky me, I got the ending I needed: the one that reminded me how precious our time here truly is.


14 Comments

erylin on March 26, 2012 at 2:29 pm.

First off GO GIRL GAMERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I have not played the mass effect games myself, tough i have watched my husband play the installments and plan to play them. I just have to finish the epic game which is skyrim (i know im behind…i have kids DONT JUDGE ME!) with similar shades of black, white and grey in the game play. I must say this. Bravo for companies making adult games with better narrative. Its not all just special effects and lazers now. I have cared about the story line in games since the days of FF2, and really have enjoyed watching the whole thing evolve, even as i matured. I feel honored just to have lived at the point in time, and have gotten to watch it happen.

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Alex on March 26, 2012 at 4:47 pm.

I chose the same thing, and had a very similar reaction. I finished the game around 4 am on Saturday and just sat there snot-nosed, bawling my eyes out. I don’t think any media has ever made me cry that much, although Mockingjay came close.

It’s interesting that you connect Shepard’s end to Mordin’s. I didn’t think of it at the time, but that is a great parallel. I connected it to Legion, and I think if it hadn’t been for Legion I would have chosen to destroy the synthetics (I never even considered Control). Legion single-mindedly pursued the salvation of his people, up to and including sacrificing himself completely without hesitation in order to make it happen; now every single Geth carries him with them. Same with Shepard. To destroy all the synthetics so that Shepard can live? What an insult to him. In stories, I am hardly ever convinced that self-sacrifice is the way to go; there’s always another way, and I love it when characters stubbornly pursue that other way. But this game convinced me, and it hurt, and it was amazing.

There are certainly some things about the very end that don’t make much sense, or could use clarification. (Destruction of the Mass Relays doesn’t REALLY mean the entire population of the galaxy is stuck in Sol, right?) But in the moment I just didn’t give a fuck, because this woman who had done so much, so so much for so many people dropped her weapon and ran into that beam of light and her fight was finally over, and the galaxy was a better place at last.

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Lesley on March 26, 2012 at 5:00 pm.

Yeah, I was willing to overlook a lot of the details — odds are good that this evolutionary leap would probably expedite rebuilding the mass relays, or building something even better (STARGATES!!!) — because this choice was really a long-view scenario. It wasn’t Shepard wanting to ensure a future for Love Interest X or the human race alone, but was about bumping the whole galaxy forward, with a payoff likely measured in millions of years.

That’s why I felt so perplexed by folks who were so distracted by those questions, which seemed so small to me in the broader scheme of things.

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Alex on March 28, 2012 at 7:41 am.

Yeah, exactly!

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Alan Richardson on March 27, 2012 at 12:38 am.

(NB: This comment turned out to be so long, I posted it to my tumblr after I finished writing it.)

I hate the ending. I don’t mind that Shepard died.

I just can’t take any option presented by the Machine Satan at face value.

This Thing, that dares to present itself in the image of a boy whose death it is responsible for, invented the Reapers. The Reapers that lay waste to civilizations, that enslave with mind-destroying technology, that melt down living and conscious creatures en masse.

It offers, as its excuse for the monsters it has authored, the same proposition that led the Quarians to attack the Geth in their infancy. The same lie told Reaper of Rannoch. I’d told it to fuck off and die, which it did, and turned around and proved it wrong.

The player is clearly expected to follow suit. This supremely guilty being is presented as a reliable narrator, a thinly veiled mouthpiece for the designers of the game. The conversation is a last-minute twist which is supposed to turn everything you thought you knew on its head, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny and comes off as too similar to the expressions of various indoctrinated characters. (In the sidequest to save the Hanar homeworld, the indoctrinated Hanar believes that the Reapers will grant the Hanar ascension to a higher state. If you let the scientist from Saren’s base live in ME1 and ME2, you receive an E-mail informing you that she gave her life to kill leading Asari, on the grounds that they were obstructing the Reapers’ efforts to bring the Asari ascension. The Thing describes compulsory conversion of species into Reapers as “we help them ascend.”)

When I first listened to this bullshit, I was thrown out of the fiction. My investment in Shepard’s fate, my sadness for Anderson’s passing, my emotional high when Hackett desperately asks you to activate the Crucible: deflated.

I fell back on metagame reasoning, figured that Synthesis was what high war score earned me, and took it. Then I saw some shit involving the Normandy which was flatly impossible. All I could say to my closest Mass-Effect friend: “Well that was dumb.” I ruminated for a week.

There are holes in Indoctrination Theory, e.g. the Prothean VI thinks Shepard is clean. More importantly, the theory holds that the story has not actually ended.

That kind of tin-foil hat conspiracy theory (“the final length of the game is an illusion, which is not revealed as such afterwards, we have not seen the real ending”) shouldn’t be less of a stretch than a straight reading, but it is. It answers more questions than it raises.

Now, if I refuse to simply dismiss the whole thing as a literary failure, I have to assume that the Thing is untrustworthy, and that no course save the one it clearly disfavors could possibly mean an end to the Reapers’ cycle.

The Thing claims that Destroy will end all synthetics, “even the Geth,” and by implication EDI. Even Shepards who destroy the Geth (no Shepard I’d play) would value EDI. This is clearly intended to be a deal breaker for Shepard, and for many players it is. But in light of the untrustworthy source of this information, I cannot be sure whether the Geth and EDI will die, or that this claim is a lie designed to dissuade Shepard.

The other two options are echoes of plans put forward by indoctrinated individuals. Control is the The Illusive Man’s hope. We’ve just confronted him, so there’s no hiding that. But the origin of Synthesis is concealed by omission: it’s Saren’s equally false hope.

I don’t conclude that the events are hallucinatory, but I do believe that Shepard is being subjected to rapid indoctrination, intended to either compel him to desist or destroy his consciousness, before he can destroy the Reapers.

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Alan Richardson on March 27, 2012 at 12:52 am.

Reading over the comment while it’s in mod queue (am thankful for that feature) I noticed that an entire paragraph is missing from the middle of it. As far as I can tell, there’s no way for me to correct the error.

The paragraph is present in the tumblr version of the post.

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Veronica on March 27, 2012 at 7:01 am.

This makes me want to start playing video games. I don’t know how you do it, Lesley, you have a way with words, everytime I read something you’ve written I feel connected to you(r thoughts on the subject).

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Lesley on March 27, 2012 at 12:20 pm.

Thank you so much for this. :)

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Corker on March 27, 2012 at 7:40 am.

I so, so, so hope you’ll play Dragon Age: Origins next.

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Lesley on March 27, 2012 at 12:20 pm.

ALREADY STARTED. Last night.

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Corker on March 27, 2012 at 8:45 pm.

Yay! Cannot wait to see what you blog about this.

(And I have to ask: Which origin?)

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Weetzie on May 10, 2012 at 11:17 am.

My wife and I have been playing this side by side – I’ll take a turn with my Femshep and then she’ll take a turn with her Broshep – and we both finished up yesterday. FLOODS OF TEARS AND EXCITEMENT.

I went with Synthesis, she went with Destroy… and immediately wished she hadn’t. Seeing that little gasp that Shepard takes in the Destroy ending, she was positive that her Shepard killed himself from the guilt as soon as he was able to lift a gun to his brow.

I really, absolutely don’t understand the disappointment in the ending. Stages of grief, really, starting with denial (Indoctrination Theory) and heading on downwards. I loved the ending, but I totally spent the rest of the day mourning the death of my Shepard, and finding a tiny amount of comfort in reading that turians have a similar lifespan to humans, so at least Garrus won’t have to live for centuries without her.

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Weetzie on May 10, 2012 at 11:24 am.

I should also say, you’re the entire reason I picked up Mass Effect to start with. Your Garrus!Shepard article sold me on it completely.

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