F*ck You It Is Awesome: Mass Effect 3 (2012)
By Alex Cranz
To be fair this column is usually reserved for films from the last thirty years that get a bad rap and need a half-hearted defense. Yet I’ve been seeing so much anger lobbed at Bioware’s latest game that I decided to bend the rules a little. Who knows, maybe the next column will explore my unabashed love for Final Fantasy VIII (and with that more than half of you click away. FAREWELL FFVIII HATERS).
Spoilers for the entirety of Mass Effect 1-3 follows. Do not continue unless you are prepared.
People are upset over the ending. Horrified that they’ve spent five years with these characters only to see them snuffed out or abandoned to the far reaches of space. Their fates are unavoidable. Every action. Every bad decision and every good decision culminates in one distinct ending. Whether you remake the world and end the cycle or you perpetuate it by siding with man or machine you will always die and your friends (those that survive) will always be stuck on some jungle planet.
But here’s the thing–the crux of my argument outlined in the title above. Mass Effect was never about choices. It was about living and ultimately dying. It was about what you do between birth and death. Like all good science fiction it was about something more profound that a battle with aliens.
Death terrifies me. It is a dark specter looming over my life every moment of every day. When, as a child, I first realized the inevitability of death I was shocked. Stunned. I sat there on the ground letting the realization wash over me and I could not move.
We are all going to die.
But I learned to squash those feelings of mortal terror that rise up. I learned not to think about what would eventually come.
It came back in a rush when I was 15 and going to driver’s ed. We had to watch video after video about the dangers of driving. The fear of fate rooted me to my seat. At night I’d go home and stare at the ceiling and wonder how I could possibly drive a car. Anything could happen behind the wheel. Someone’s tire could explode and debris could smash into me. Or I could sneeze and veer into oncoming traffic. Or maybe I could just sit at the stoplight when another car does not.
Thus the greatest tragedy to me–the one that elicits the biggest emotional response–is that of the heroic death. When a person gives up their very existence so that others might live.
To the thanatophobic there is nothing more noble or more terrifying. Could you do it? Be snuffed out of existence so others might live. Forever say goodbye to creature comforts and loved ones?
At its core that is what the entire Mass Effect series has been about. A few brave souls sacrificing their right to continue on this mortal plain so that others might have a few more days, weeks or years.
Look at the first two games. They were about one person facing ever more impossible odds. Twice Shepherd went into a situation that guaranteed death and twice she escaped by the skin of her teeth. It is no accident that both games see the hero nearly die after battling the final boss. Both times Shepherd risked everything, but did you feel the risk? Was it palpable to you in that first game? Probably not. We’re so accustomed to playing heroes that live–especially in megabudget AAA games. While nature dictates we all must die in the end; in games we have eternal life at the flick of a switch. Mass Effect 2 tried to end that. “You could die,” they warned us. “You could lose everyone.”
And it raised the stakes. That final battle. Rushing through the Collector’s ship I often found myself tossing up a little prayer. The reasons were two-fold. The completionist in me simply wanted all my little toys to make it out unscathed. The other part of me just wanted to hold death at bay–even for two-dimensional characters I had that desire. It was exhilarating in those final moments as Shepherd leapt across the chasm into the arms of the Normandy. We’d made it out okay. We all survived. We pushed death back.
And we should have all seen it in this final game. The warning signs were there. Obliquely they referenced our fate in promotional material. In the game itself it was not some much those oblique references as stunningly obvious foreshadowing. Each mission was about finding some old friend and then, often times, watching that friend sacrifice themselves. Sometimes they still beat the odds. Grunt crawled out of the rachni lair. Miranda survived a gut shot. Ashley/Kaidan barely survives being crushed by a robot. In other instances there was no way to avoid it. If you wanted to do the right thing then someone had to die. If you wanted to finally cure the Krogan than Mordin had to sing his way into oblivion. And then there were some who could not escape. No matter what you did Thane would pass away before your eyes. It was unavoidable (and as his name is so closely related to thanatos entirely foreseeable).
And it was Bioware’s warning to us. Death is inevitable. We cannot escape it. These characters cannot escape it. That’s where the real bait and switch so many people are upset about lies. Bioware offered us choice, but reminded us of fate and brought it screaming down upon our heads in those final scenes.
But you know what? It was worth it. As I’ve said, sacrificing one’s life for the well-being of others is a terrifying and tragic and noble prospect to me. It’s counter to ever bone in my body. When it comes to fight or flight I will always fly. So suddenly being forced to fight. Being set on a path I cannot escape short of shutting off the television? It stunned me. At every turn in those final minutes I hoped that something would happen. That there would be a sudden surprise. But then Shepherd and Anderson collapsed to the floor and looked out upon the pitched battle happening in space and I knew it was over. Shepherd’s story was ending and in the most final way possible.
Like the great heroes of Greek mythology Shepherd’s story followed his greatest triumphs and his ultimate defeat. What I was seeing was Achilles shot through the heel by Paris’s arrow or Odysseus disappearing into the distance with an oar over his shoulder. It was a hero ending their life as they had lived it.
People have grown so consumed with the ending. The friends and allies stranded light years from home. An earth in ruin. Nothing to tell us of the future but an old man narrating the tale to some child. It seems so slapdashed doesn’t it? As though they simply could not muster the drive to finish the story. Except the ending is meant to be–and succeeds at being–universal.
No matter what happened. No matter how cruel or kind, how ruthless or magnanimous, your Shepherd will always be remembered as a hero. Someone who finally brought an end to a cycle that began before recorded history and would have continued for an eternity. The universe is altered by the choice of one small human. The entire breath of existence changed by you.
How is that not thematically relevant? So many of our choices throughout these games changed the little things. The large things were constant. Defined. Unalterable from the get go. Yet in the end you’re demanded to make that ultimate choice and in the process you are forced to end Shepherd’s story in a crushing instance of finality.
Yes, there may be things that could have been executed more satisfactorily, but not that ending for Shepherd.