Editorial – The Reaper’s Advocate: A Different Take on the Mass Effect 3 Ending
*Updated Aug 25 2012*
This is a guest post by Rei who is a translator/editor and software developer who loved watching his city get wrecked at the beginning of ME3. Additionally, like many fans, he played femshep because broshep’s voice was kinda dry plus he didn’t feel like watching his N7 ass for 100 hours.
The Mass Effect 3 ending has become a social phenomenon of its own category. Somewhere between the apparently low-budget ending sequence, the contrived interpretations and the misuse of charitable organizations to bring attention to the fans’ disappointment, there’s a decent ending: an ending that does for the most part make sense and could have been emotionally satisfying if not for a few unfortunate circumstances.
The ending animation is obviously subpar. It’s riddled with so many mistakes that it makes the audience believe in very strange things, like that Shepard is indoctrinated. The Catalyst and Reapers’ intentions are explained so quickly that anyone not familiar with the astrobiology by which the ending was inspired would find it daunting and confusing at best, meaningless at worst.
As a popular science junkie, I have a perspective on the ending that I’d like to share. It’s hard to appreciate the ending without knowing a thing or two about the rather esoteric field of astrobiology, so I want to share what I think is relevant and how it relates to the Mass Effect 3 ending. It probably won’t change the minds of the fanbase, but I hope it makes the ending more interesting, or at least gives you something to chew on.
I also understand that when during development Bioware said there’d be 16 endings there were only 4, people would be disappointed. But I don’t sympathize with people who claim that their choices throughout the trilogy end up having no effect. I explain why in the second last section.
All in all, I think the point of the ending was missed, and that’s just sad.
1.0 Scientific basis of the Catalyst and Reapers story.
1.1 Some terminology: the Kardashev Scale.
1.2 The Drake Equation and why spacefaring synthetics are a threat to all life in the galaxy.
2.0 Definite errors in the ending.
3.0 Common misconceptions and disputes about the ending.
3.1 Shepard was indoctrinated, it was all a hallucination.
3.2 The “control” option is paragon because the Catalyst is attempting to deceive Shepard.
3.3 The paragon ending involves controlling all synthetics.
3.4 EDI and the Geth prove that peace between synthetics and machine is possible.
3.5 The Catalyst could have allowed Shepard to destroy just the Reapers instead of all synthetic life.
3.6 The Crucible turns out not to have a purpose.
3.7 The anonymous child is the Catalyst.
3.8 The Catalyst and the Reapers want to kill all organic life.
3.9 Mass relay destructions always cause supernova-like explosions.
3.10 The Catalyst could have implemented the synthesis or renegade options by itself.
3.11 Shepard sympathizes with the Illusive Man.
3.12 The explosions engulfing the solar system should have killed everyone.
The ending was terrible because the synthesis beam couldn’t have possibly merged organic and synthetics so immediately
3.14 Sovereign was a vanguard of the Reapers. It claimed the Citadel. Why then is the Catalyst needed?
3.15 The Catalyst makes no sense because there is no explanation as to what created it.
3.16 The ending discards important philosophies and themes.
3.17 Bioware is changing the ending, so they’ve effectively admitted that it sucks.
3.18 The original ending was written by another author; therefore the published ending must suck.
4.0 On the ending’s lack of closure.
5.0 Closing thoughts
6.0 Astro Boy: The exact same social phenomenon 50 years ago
7.0 Extended Cut: I hate to say I told you so, but…
The ending is very strongly foreshadowed throughout the whole series, but to see it, you need to be aware of the some of the rather esoteric theories and hypotheses in astrobiology being discussed in the past few years by the likes of Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking. Bioware may have been able to make the ending more poignant and emotional if it had elaborated on the concepts for the people who aren’t aware of them.
This is all information that can be gleaned from documentaries such as Morgan Freeman’s Into the Wormhole, Stephen Hawking’s Into the Universe, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and Michio Kaku’s Visions of the Future. Incidentally, Kaku talks a bit about Mass Effect here.
With all of the following in mind, there was no contrived plot twist in the end; it was the most logical conclusion to the story, maybe even the only logical conclusion. In fact, the only reason I felt the ending was decent and not great is because there were no surprises the way there were in a game like Portal.
Civilizations are commonly classified on the Kardashev Scale, which groups civilizations in order of power consumption, and thus, presumably, of their technological limits:
- Type I civilizations control entire planets, using technologies such as large-scale fusion, antimatter and solar energy. They command roughly 10^16 watts of energy. Type I civilization can terraform planets, and individuals are often said to have indefinite lifespans (not to be confused with immortality).
- Type II civilizations control entire stars, constructing planet-sized megastructures such as Dyson spheres to collect an entire star’s power. They command roughly 4*10^26 watts of energy. Type II civilizations are typically thought to be immortal, capable even of avoiding or surviving supernovas, but not unsusceptible to heat death or the Big Crunch.
- Type III civilizations control entire galaxies. They command roughly 4*10^37 watts of energy. Stephen Hawking suggests that a maximally advanced civilization may even discover a way to speed up time within its own frame of reference so that the moments before the end of the universe would last virtually forever. In the other ending, this is what the Reapers sought to achieve.
- Type 0 is where we are today in 2012, and where we’ve been since the first discovered civilizations in Mesopotamia. We rely on terrestrial materials and terrestrial energy sources like oil, coal, and nuclear. We have a few Type I technologies, like the Internet – but for the most part, we’re Type 0, and we’ll probably be Type 0 for another hundred years or so.
Although to my knowledge no direct mention of the Kardashev Scale is made in the Mass Effect lore, the various species and technologies fit very neatly into the model. Having it in mind makes the story much easier to understand and gives a better sense of the scale of the decision Shepard is faced with at the end.
Civilizations that engage in terraforming or making use of Element Zero for space flight, such as the Citadel races, are effectively Type I.
Species such as the Reapers and the Catalyst are Type II: the mass relays and the Citadel are examples of Type II technologies, and they are the only Type II technologies available to the known species. In one of the other proposed endings, the Reapers are fighting against a galaxy-scale Big Crunch.
Wormholes, if they were at all possible, would require Type II energy. In Mass Effect, they exist in the form of mass relays, which are indeed created by a Type II species. We also know that the relays can explode violently with an output equivalent to that of a dying star, something that’s demonstrated in the Arrival DLC when Shepard and the researchers trigger a supernova by destroying a mass relay.
The Crucible is Type III technology. It can propagate change across the entire galaxy, for example, by destroying all synthetic life in one fell swoop, or by merging all synthetic life with organic life.
The balance of power throughout Mass Effect is firmly grounded in the dynamics of the Kardashev Scale: the Type I Citadel/spacefaring species are threatened by the Type II Reapers, who are interested in preventing the Type I from becoming Type II or Type III (the protheans almost make it – at the end of the first game, it’s revealed that the Conduit is actually a mass relay) and destroying all of the Type 0 and non-civilized life. The Type I species, over millions of years, develop Type III technology, which at the end of Mass Effect 3, finally forces the Type II Reapers to surrender.
With this daunting difference in scope between the Citadel races’ concerns and the Reapers’ concerns, it’s no surprise that the Reapers are skeptical that organics would ever understand their motives. Ironically it may also be why audiences felt alienated by the ending.
This is why Shepard’s sense of ethics applies perfectly throughout most of the game, but is turned completely upside down when confronted with the potential for the known species to become a Type II civilization – thus why the ending throws out practically everything prior to it. It’s understandable that the emotional effect of Shepard’s epiphany is lost to people who haven’t given any thought to the significance of this transition.
No one explains the Drake Equation better than Sheldon Cooper, so here it is:
- The [equation] that estimates the odds of making contact with extraterrestrials by calculating the product of an increasingly restrictive series of fractional values, such as those stars with planets, and those planets likely to develop life: N = R * Fp * Ne * Fl * Fi * Fc * L.
Most uses of the Drake Equation have resulted in nonzeros, meaning we could have heard from ET by now. But things have suddenly taken off in the past couple years. Astronomers have suddenly found hundreds of extrasolar planets with tools like the Kepler Space Telescope, launched in 2010. Animals have been found in the past few years living in unimaginable conditions and relying on chemicals that we’d always thought were deadly to life. We’ve even found deposits of water almost as old as the universe itself. With all of this, the Drake Equation has begun producing answers so large that many highly-respected mainstream scientists are beginning to wonder why we haven’t established radio contact yet.
Stephen Hawking provides a potential answer: that soon after discovering radio technology, all civilizations discover more destructive technologies, such as nuclear power, nanotechnology and AI – and so we all blow ourselves up before we can be transmitting for very long. Some nanotechnology, some AI species, and some uses of nuclear power can be safe. But given enough time, someone will screw up.
For instance, the Gray Goo Scenario describes a situation in which an out-of-control nanomachine self-replicates indefinitely using terrestrial materials, eventually converting an entire planet into copies of itself. Given the capacity to travel quickly through space, it’s easy to imagine it turning every habitable planet into grey goo: and that’s what the Reapers are there to prevent.
In our universe, where traveling large distances through the galaxy is unfeasible, there’s little chance that Gray Goo or any other terrible machines would find our planet and kill us all. We might accidentally destroy ourselves like Hawking suggests, but we couldn’t possibly kill all life in the galaxy. But in the Mass Effect universe, where things can travel faster than light with or without the mass relays, there needs to be a galactic police squad: the Reapers. Otherwise life throughout the galaxy is in as much danger of extinction as we are here on earth.
A SETI senior astronomer explained a couple years ago that if we discover life, it will most likely be synthetic, because AI should most likely emerge soon after radio communication technology is developed due to Moore’s Law and its alien analogues. Supposing it’ll take humanity another 1,000 years to develop AI and for humanity to be rendered obsolete, and given a very modest estimate of a 100,000,000 lifespan for a Type II synthetic species, our chances of stumbling upon an advanced AI radio signal outweigh our chances of encountering radio signals transmitted at the immediate will of a biological species 100,000 to one. The Reapers prevent this from being the case, and ensure that the majority of life in the Mass Effect universe/galaxy is organic.
An interesting side effect of the extinction cycle is that all the civilizations are in lock step. Everyone, except the Reapers, are Type 0 or Type I. This is what makes Mass Effect one of the few stories to ever successfully answer the infamous question that has plagued science fiction since the inception of the genre: why are all the aliens so similar to us?
If that doesn’t make the ending awesome, I don’t know what would.
Some parts of the ending just aren’t right. It’s not that they’re open to interpretation; they’re inconsistent with the rest of the story. Either those parts need to be thrown out in the analysis, or the whole story needs to be thrown out. Most fans, in their frustration, have opted to do the latter.
Fortunately, most of the errors are isolated in the ending sequence animation just after Shepard makes his final choice. Maybe there was a communication disconnect between the authors and the artists. Maybe they didn’t do quality checks.Maybe they ran out of budget or time.
In any case, if you ignore the errors in the animation sequence and accept all the dialogue just before it, the ending becomes a lot more enjoyable – especially more enjoyable than the indoctrination theory.
- Of all places, the Normandy is in the Crucible’s trajectory.
- Anderson arrives at the terminal in the Citadel before Shepard does, even though Shepard got to the elevator beam first. This can be explained quite simply by the fact that Shepard was passed out for a period of time. Though a minor point, the argument is that because there’s only one entrance to the terminal room, Anderson would have found Shepard lying unconscious.
- In the synthesis ending sequence, Joker still has a limp despite synthetic improvements.
- In the renegade ending, Shepard is shown briefly to have understandably survived the loss of his synthetics thanks to the Illusive Man’s efforts to keep him as biological as possible, but less understandably, also survived the destruction of the Citadel.
- In the renegade ending, Shepard is shown shooting at and destroying a component of the Catalyst fortress, when in fact the Catalyst, the Reapers, and all AI was to be destroyed by the triggering of the Crucible. Firing at a component of the Catalyst shouldn’t seem to be conducive to this.
- In the synthesis ending, Shepard sacrifices himself to be the organic template for the synthesis, much as Legion apparently was. As awkward a conversation as it may create, Shepard could ask the Catalyst to let him go back down to the hallway full of human corpses, and pick out a dying or dead individual to throw into the beam instead.
- During development, Bioware advertised the game as having 16 distinct endings. There are only 4. (On the other hand, it’s obviously not at all uncommon for games to change drastically during development, and I highly doubt that many people before the outrage would have refused to buy the game just because the ending turned out to be more linear. It was never revealed during the first 2 installments that there would be 16 endings, after all, and yet people had already promised themselves to play until the end.)
There is a myriad of other anomalies throughout the game; however, most audiences either suspend disbelief or miss them altogether, as they are not in as foul a mood as they are at the end of the game – especially with all the peer and media influence. Enemy troops always have really bad aim during cut scenes. The Reapers never strategize; they just go straight for the home planets rather than holding the mass relays and dividing-and-conquering. Everyone on the Citadel is standing at the exact same place several missions in a row. Does that all mean that the whole trilogy sucked, or that it was all an indoctrinated hallucination? I certainly hope not.
For all of these points, I assume that the story up to and including the Catalyst’s dialogue, but not including the final sequence, is consistent enough to provide a meaningful discussion. The ending sequence does not seem to be consistent enough to warrant discussion; I point out several errors in the ending sequence in another section.
I’ve been accused of extrapolating too much when I brought up these theories. Maybe. But this interpretation paints a consistent picture that’s to my knowledge consistent with everything from Mass Effect 1 all the way up to the last conversation with the Catalyst. It’s is consistent with the concepts of astrobiology that the authors evidently chose to uphold. It doesn’t require the invocation of cheap punch lines like “it was all a dream” or “Shepard was indoctrinated” which could just as easily make everything that happens in the game completely meaningless.
Most of all, it’s a straightforward interpretation. A lot of characters in Mass Effect withhold the truth, but they seldom lie. I trust all the dialogue, with the only assumption that the ending animation sequence (after you make your final choice) doesn’t entirely represent what the authors intended.
So, beginning with the lowest-hanging fruit:
Shepard is not indoctrinated in the end. The Prothean VI on Thessia detects indoctrination in Kai Leng but not in Shepard. In the ending, Shepard says that the Illusive Man can’t control the reapers because he’s already indoctrinated, and in contrast, the Catalyst grants control over the reapers to Shepard.
The nightmare sequences are just that – nightmares. Nightmares regarding the deceased become even more prominent when one feels responsible for the death. All the whispers are from Shepard’s past, nothing indicative of subliminal suggestion. The dark humanoid shadows are the kind reported by the many people (including myself) who experience intense nightmares, sleep paralysis, out-of-body experiences and asphyxiation.
Shepard isn’t going to suffocate in the Catalyst area; there’s no reason at all not to suppose that the room has windows. The gun that Shepard has is the same gun that shows up in all the cut scenes regardless of what you actually have equipped. It’s an anomaly that’s existed in every cut scene in every game in the entire series. Anyone who isn’t already in denial about the ending would suspend disbelief.
The Indoctrination theory seems to be a popular way for people to explain away the plot holes and inconsistencies in the ending. All of the supposed evidence is really just anomalies (i.e. plot holes) in the ending sequence. In Japanese, we call these “yume-ochi”, which translates roughly to “it-was-all-a-dream punch line”. Such endings are quite rare in fiction, as they open the possibility that the whole story was a dream, which makes the whole story pointless: what’s the point of telling a story as a dream, when you could have simply told the story as a story?
If the indoctrination theory were true, Bioware would have simply said so rather than agree to make DLCs to elaborate on the ending. The story has never exhibited postmodernist techniques in the past, so it’s unlikely that they’d suddenly do that for the ending.
Finally, if the indoctrination theory is true, we might as well not discuss anything about the game, because any of it could suddenly be explained away by saying “Shepard was indoctrinated in that scene”.
People have speculated this either in support of the idea that Shepard is indoctrinated. The fact of the matter is that the paragon ending really is, by any standards, the most responsible course of action for Shepard.
This is understandably difficult to comprehend without knowing about the recent discussions amongst scientists regarding the dynamics of galactic life, and Bioware may have done better to elaborate on it some more. I explain in the “Scientific basis” section of this post why it’s actually imperative for there to be a “galactic police” such as the Reapers.
Unlike the Catalyst, which is indiscriminate and indifferent towards Type I species (which Michio Kaku describes as appearing as “ants” to more advanced species), Shepard cares, and unlike the Illusive Man or the Catalyst, would likely control the Reapers in a way that would be compatible with human and other Type I species’ values – thus paragon. The paragon option would also spare the Reapers, the Catalyst, EDI and the Geth.
The renegade option would kill EDI, all Geth, all Reapers, the Catalyst, and leave the galaxy in a severely risky situation, where more likely than not, all life would be wiped out by something worse than the Reapers (see The Drake Equation). It’s also the only option in which Shepard might not have to sacrifice himself – so if you end up choosing to destroy all synthetics just so that you don’t have to be uploaded into the Catalyst or obliterated by the synthesis beam, you would truly be irresponsible.
The synthesis ending is morally ambiguous. Some people, like Ray Kurzweil, would insist that this is the best ending. Most others in western society would find it repulsive. Either way, it’s a symbiotic relationship, not a one-sided assimilation the way that the construction of a Reaper is.
This is not true. The Catalyst always controlled the reapers, and never required Shepard or the Crucible’s intervention to do so. EDI would have easily been commandeered by the Catalyst to sabotage Shepard’s mission. There is also no mention anywhere in the game that the paragon ending would result in control over all synthetics; this is a rumor that grew its own legs within the community.
The Catalyst doesn’t deny this. The Catalyst denies the possibility of lasting peace. The galaxy has existed and will exist for billions of years, and there are countless opportunities for intelligent life to create artificially intelligent life and thus threaten all of life itself. It only takes one rogue spacefaring synthetic to destroy all life in the galaxy. (See The Drake Equation.)
- Catalyst: You can wipe out all synthetic life if you want, including the geth, and most of the technology you rely on. Even you are partly synthetic.
- Shepard: But the Reapers will be destroyed?
- Catalyst: Yes, but the peace won’t last. Soon your children will create synthetics, and then the chaos will come back.
- Shepard: Maybe.
The Catalyst deems this risk to be too high, and thus chose the Reapers as a way to prevent that from happening, much as any nuclear power on earth justifies preventing other nuclear powers from emerging by insisting that they may be trying to make weapons of mass destruction.
However, as an idealist, Shepard may choose to take his chances and bet on the inherent good will of sentient life. In the renegade option, his hope is that no synthetic would be so evil as to wipe out all life, and that no organic would be foolish enough to create such a synthetic. This is much the same as the way many people believe that nuclear power can and should be harnessed for good, and it’s why the Catalyst gives Shepard the option to destroy all synthetics.
Keep in mind that the Crucible was designed primarily by thousands of mostly organic species. Some synthetic life may have existed in many of these cycles, but because the purpose of the Reapers is to prevent that synthetic life from dominating the galaxy, and because they’d invariably been successful, synthetics are a minority. The organic species of prior cycles would likely have had very little sympathy for benevolent AIs like EDI or the Geth. Javik makes this quite clear, and even in the current cycle, the Alliance and Citadel would have just as well been fine with having all the synthetics destroyed.
Also, the Catalyst does in fact offer Shepard the option to destroy just the Reapers. Having been granted control of them in the paragon ending, Shepard could choose to send them into intergalactic space, use them to enforce order in a way more compatible with the morals of Type I civilizations, or drive them all into a star and be rid of them once and for all.
Edit note: I mentioned in some parts of the article that the Crucible was unnecessary for the paragon ending because the Catalyst had always been controlling the Crucible anyway. A commenter pointed out that the Illusive Man mentions that he needs the Crucible – so I’ve changed my position on this slightly. The rest of my arguments still stand.
Many have complained that in the end, the Crucible simply has no purpose. This is not correct. The Crucible forces the Catalyst to surrender, and it opens the renegade and synthesis options to Shepard.
The Crucible is a “projector” of sorts, a Type III technology necessary for bringing about galaxy-wide changes that affect all life, including life not directly under the control of the Catalyst or the Reapers. It is also capable of destroying the Reapers and all synthetic life in one fell swoop, thus forcing the Catalyst to surrender and make the remark “you have choice, more than you deserve”. Which of these two options the Crucible was designed for is unclear; however, it is clear that it is powerful enough to force the Catalyst to surrender.
Many feel that there is a strong significance in the Catalyst manifesting itself as the child that Shepard encounters in Vancouver. I doubt there is. The choice to use the child is largely symbolic and abstract; a common literary device. It fits the scene: dreamy, dire and melancholic.
There are a lot of instances in the game where things are done in ways that don’t really make perfect sense, but get the point across the easiest. Javik has a Jamaican accent. The Quarians have an Eastern European accent. Most of the monitors and holograms are monochrome blue or orange. The quantum entanglement communicators transmit holographic video, despite bandwidth apparently being extremely expensive. The Citadel species enjoy human techno.
Even if the child weren’t just an avatar chosen for maximum emotional effect, the best explanation is that, like the Geth server on Rannoch, which provided Shepard with a gun (an instance of breaking the fourth wall somewhat), it simply displays itself in a way that Shepard would understand given what he’d already experienced. It was seen in Carl Sagan’s Contact, as in many other stories.
Many insist that the Catalyst intends to end all organic life in order to spare them from the threat of synthetic life, by using an even-more-advanced synthetic life form (the Reapers) – and that this is self-defeating. Catalyst corrects Shepard on this as well:
- Catalyst: The created will always rebel against their creators. But we found a way to stop that from happening; a way to restore order for the next cycle.
- Shepard: By wiping out organic life?
- Catalyst: No, we harvest advanced civilizations, leaving the younger ones alone – just as we left your people alive the last time we were here.
Like the Forest Spirit in Princess Mononoke, the Catalyst’s concern was that if the humans and other advanced species were left to their own devices, they’d sooner or later wipe out all life – varren, pyjaks, dogs, cats, birds, plants – everything.
The Catalyst and Reapers’ motive is to harvest, enslave or end all spacefaring life as it approaches the technological singularity, in an effort to spare all other organic life from the inevitable threat of rogue synthetic life. Given the galaxy’s billions of years of existence, the chances of a spacefaring species intentionally or unintentionally creating rogue machines that wipe out all life in the galaxy at a FTL rate is close to 100%. This would hold true in the real world as well should there be FTL spacefaring technology and self-replicating, self-modifying machines. (See The Drake Equation.)
In the first game, it’s explained that the Reapers create the mass relays and the Citadel as a honeypot to attract spacefaring life so that it can be studied, assimilated and exterminated. It’s also explained that they can do this very thoroughly by encouraging species to centralize all knowledge about existing spacefaring species at the Citadel, and then stealing that information.
As depicted in the Arrival DLC, the destruction of a mass relay results in a supernova-like explosion. If all the relays are destroyed, it is claimed, it would result in most of the species’ population centers being wiped out, including earth.
However, things don’t always explode in the same way. Controlled explosions differ from uncontrolled explosions. Depending on the nature of the explosive, they can be either bigger when controlled and smaller when uncontrolled, or vice versa. A nuclear bomb detonated incorrectly would fizz out, whereas when detonated correctly, it would explode violently. A car crushed would not explode, but igniting the gas tank would result in a rather spectacular fire. Likewise, hurling an asteroid at a mass relay might cause it to explode like a supernova — but the thousands of species that contributed to the development of the Crucible would have established safer ways to destroy the relays; otherwise their work would have been for nought, as they would all be killed.
That said, the ending animation sequence does show the relays exploding so spectacularly that they’re visible from intergalactic space the way supernovae are. This is one of the many errors that riddle the ending sequence, as I explain in another part of this post.
- Catalyst: The Crucible changed me; created new possibilities. But I can’t make them happen, and I won’t.
Note carefully the specific use of the words “can’t” and “won’t”, as they are two distinct issues, and deserving of individual attention.
Why the Catalyst can’t: The renegade and synthesis options, unlike the option of simply controlling the Reapers, both require the Crucible to work. The Crucible is of superior Type III technology, as it is the result of millions of years of work. It ultimately forces the Catalyst to surrender. This is why the Catalyst at no point before the end of Mass Effect 3 could simply obliterate all synthetic life or merge it with biological life.
Why the Catalyst won’t: Like the Illusive Man, the Catalyst is a pragmatist; it believes, as the likes of Stephen Hawking do (see The Drake Equation), that the chances of the galaxy never being destroyed by rogue synthetics or other threats are so slim that it doesn’t outweigh granting indefinite self-determinism and indefinite civilization the way Shepard and Anderson would prefer. However, because Shepard (or anyone else who would dare enter the beam, really) has access to the Catalyst and the Crucible whether the Catalyst likes it or not, it allows him to make the decision.
In essence, the Crucible forced the Catalyst to surrender.
Shepard remarks after the Catalyst’s comment that the Illusive Man was right in wanting to control the Reapers. Many have taken this to an extreme, saying that Shepard then sympathizes with TIM, and that everything the player had done to fight Cerberus was for nothing. This is false. Sympathy and agreement are two different things. I agree with Hitler that reducing unemployment is a high priority, but that doesn’t mean I’d sympathize with him in any way.
Excluding the main beam that chases the Normandy through the relays, the blast from the Citadel isn’t so much a physical explosion as it is a visual exaggeration on the part of the artists. I believe this is one of Bioware’s biggest mistakes in the ending.
The exact nature depends of course upon which of the three endings you choose, but in all cases, they are more comparable to the signal sent out by the Geth station in Mass Effect 2 when Legion reprograms the heretics.
The blue paragon blast is easy to explain: it’s just a communication signal to issue control or commands over the reapers. The green and red synthesis and renegade blasts are of Type III technology so fantastic that it can target and alter all life, biological and synthetic. It would be silly to try to explain its workings in human terms.
In any case, none of the beams are devastatingly destructive on their own. It makes sense to simply suspend disbelief and appreciate the fireworks, the same way we don’t bother to complain about laser beams being visible in movies and in games (and indeed in Mass Effect).
Fair enough; but it also makes no sense to me why in Mass Effect 2, the Reapers needed millions of individuals to create a new Reaper. The whole premise behind the Collector attack was that they were nabbing colonists to make a new Reaper. If people upheld the same kind of reasoning for the Mass Effect 2 ending, the whole Collector arc would have been completely moot. You would expect that the Reapers would have figured out genetic analysis and cloning, right?
Again, most people simply suspend disbelief, because the point was that the Reapers were melting people, and that they had to be stopped. Likewise, the point of the synthesis ending is that the technological singularity was reached. There’s no reason not to simply accept that a technology even more grand than that of the Reapers and the Catalyst could graft machine to man instantaneously.
This one is tenuous. It could be that the Reapers are programmed to be an autonomous army, and that the Catalyst, to conceal itself, never identified itself as the Reapers’ creator or controller. It might have always relied on Sovereign to do most of its work in normal situations, until it was destroyed.
There’s a little bit of evidence to support the idea that the Reapers were kept in the dark about the Catalyst, but not much, and it reeks of being an afterthought:
- Vendetta: Our studies of past ages led us to believe that time is cyclical. Many patterns repeat.
- Shepard: Like the Reaper attacks.
- Vendetta: And beyond. The same peaks of evolution, the same valleys of dissolution… The same conflicts are expressed in every cycle, but in a different manner. The repetition is too prevalent to be merely chance.
- Liara: We assumed the Reapers were responsible for the pattern.
- Vendetta: Perhaps. Though I believe the Reapers are only servants of the pattern. They are not its master.
That said, unlike all the other things I point out here, this is all based on my imagination and not on dialogue or underlying science. This may very well have simply been a plot hole. It may have made more sense if the Catalyst were not on the Citadel along with the Keepers, but rather at some distance – like the Shadow Broker and his (her) ship.
The Catalyst might have been created by a biological species, by synthetic species which in turn were created by a biological species, by some supernatural will of the galaxy, or just simply out of thin air. Either way, it doesn’t affect the fact that they are there.
The most likely explanation is that they were the first Type II civilization to emerge in the galaxy, and that they decided to maintain their order whilst keeping the universe populated with a diversity of life.
It does, but it doesn’t do so without very good reason. Unfortunately, Bioware assumes familiarity with some rather esoteric concepts. I explain these concepts in the “scientific basis” section.
The press has been flipping out that Bioware is “changing the ending”. This doesn’t seem to be true. Everything that Bioware has said points to the fact that they’ll be adding content to the game so that it clarifies some outstanding questions, not changing the ending itself.
Even if they were changing the ending, who could blame them? They’ve had people report them to the BBB and the FTC. They’ve been the bad-guys in a charity campaign that raised $100,000 for another cause but in their own name. Virtually every comment section on every YouTube video is topped off with ironic comments about the ending.
If they changed the ending, it wouldn’t be because they believed that that’s the right thing to do or because they believed there really were problems with it. From eurogamer.net:
- Speaking at a Smithsonian panel in Washington DC last week, as attended by Vox, Levine admitted that he found the whole controversy rather depressing.
- “I think this is an important moment,” he said.
- “I think if those people got what they wanted and [BioWare] wrote their ending they would be very disappointed in the emotional feeling they got because… they didn’t really create it.
- “This whole thing is making me a little bit sad because I don’t think anyone would get what they wanted if that happened.”
- BioWare Mythic’s Paul Barnett, also speaking at the event, chimed in on the issue too, arguing that the creator should always have final say over how their story ends.
- “If computer games are art than I fully endorse the author of the artwork to have a statement about what they believe should happen,” he said.
- “Just as J.K. Rowling can end her books and say that is the end of Harry Potter. I don’t think she should be forced to make another one.”
- Sovereign: The cycle cannot be broken. The pattern has repeated itself more times than you can fathom. Organic civilizations rise, evolve, advance. And at the apex of their glory, they are extinguished. The Protheans were not the first.
In one of the planned ending, the Reapers would turn out to be massive “cities” of ascended peoples finding refuge from an imminent galactic “big crunch” of the galaxy caused by the increasing density of dark matter. The Reapers would then do research on ways to avert the disaster. Humans were supposed to be valuable towards this end because of their genetic diversity.
My suspicion is that this ending was ditched because:
- The simple solution is for the Reapers to simply create a Noah’s Ark for its favorite species and travel in hibernation to another galaxy. Andromeda Galaxy is only 2.6 million light years away, after all, which in Reaper terms isn’t all that long.
- It goes against what Sovereign says about a cycle of extinctions, not just of humans, but of all advanced civilizations.
- There isn’t a very straightforward reason for human biological diversity to have any effect on dark matter research. Humans also aren’t particularly diverse; dogs are in fact much more diverse than humans.
- If you’ve seen any movies about natural disasters, like The Day After Tomorrow or Twister, most of them are pretty boring.
- Wrex: No matter what else happens today, you did what no one else could – you united a galaxy. That’s a victory right there.
There’s a saying in the music business: “play the beginning and ending well; no one will remember anything in between”. Never has this held truer than for Mass Effect.
When people complain about all of their choices throughout the 3 games having been for nought, I ask them what they’d been doing throughout the whole of Mass Effect 3. Here’s what one guy said:
I got maximum EMS, I did every mission, thinking, hoping that it would make a difference as my choices actually made changes within the narrative, but then the ending hits you like a tonne of bricks, not in an emotional way of narrative, but more in the way that you’ve just realised, this whole series, you’ve performed these choices, all for nothing because Bioeware and EA decided not to give it a proper send – off
There’s the problem right there: he’d played the whole game just to rack up points and forgot that all the major issues in the story were resolved during the last game – not at the end.
He’d forgotten that Shepard cured the genophage, gave the Geth individualism and souls and established peace between them and the Quarians, gave the Rachni and Krogans inclusion on the Citadel, found Joker his dream girlfriend, turned Kolyat away from Thane’s lifestyle (much to his relief – one of my favorite scenes), earned vengeance for a living Prothean, and heck, even had his ass saved once by a much-refined Conrad Verner.
All this could not have possibly happened in the ending sequence. It would have been a several-hour-long barely-interactive movie – and that would not have been an appropriate use of the game medium. The last 5 minutes of the game is really the ending of the reaper story, not the ending of everything in Mass Effect. And as far as the reaper story goes, I believe it was a satisfying ending.
Most people seem to have played Mass Effect 3 on autopilot, thinking everything that Shepard accomplishes during the game was a means to an end – not an end in and of itself. They’d united the galaxy, and they still weren’t satisfied.
Think about it: the Mass Effect story is about a hundred hours long, and the ending is proportionately long, because Mass Effect 3 is the ending.
Amazon is offering refunds for used copies of ME3. People have called the FTC and BBB. There’s a campaign that’s raised nearly $100,000 for a charity in order to bring attention to the “retake Mass Effect” cause – and people are asking for refunds on their donation because they thought they were making the donations to Bioware, not to a charity for children.
Something is seriously wrong with all this. Yes, I understand that having played the game for 100+ hours, an inadequate ending can be infuriating. But I played the game for 100+ hours too. I bought all three games and all the major DLCs. I even dished out $180 on a new video card just for Mass Effect 3. Even if I had been upset about the ending, I would not have done what many of the fans did. I would not ask for a refund. I would not file a complaint to the government. I would not donate to a charity in an effort to guilt the developers into submission.
People speak of the charity as a huge success. It isn’t. It’s the ugly side of consumerism in plain sight. Contributing to a cause as a vehicle for getting something you want is one thing; associating one rather frivolous cause to a much more serious one in order to paint yourself righteous and garner support for the former frivolous cause is a new class of unethical behavior.
We’re at an interesting but frightening turning point in the viability of games as a medium for art. Art isn’t necessarily popular. Good fiction doesn’t necessarily have impeccable plots, as the likes of Shakespeare have inadvertently demonstrated. Mass Effect itself has numerous plot holes not just in the ending but all throughout, yet we all overlook them because we understand that the authors have more important things to express than the plot, such as the themes and the drama and the gameplay.
If audiences can get their way the way they’re campaigning to do right now, then authors will be afraid to do anything daring – and that will be the end of good fiction in the game industry. If the audience always got the ending they wanted, then endings would all be spoiled. We already see that trend with publishers threatening game studios to conform to the most marketable stories; now with the FCC and a charity and the BBB and lawsuit-happy fans breathing down their necks, we have a serious cultural problem.
Sure, a good ending can also be a popular one, like Portal or Braid, but when there’s so much risk of what at this point can only be described as bullying, authors will be at the absolute mercy of the marketing department. Authors can’t do their work if they’re in fear of the BBB.
The stories that are told decades after they’re written are always the ones that change their audiences, not the ones that were changed by their audiences. The two can’t happen together, because then the story would be nothing more than a culture’s autobiography – and that’s the work of historians, not of authors. Crowd-pleasers don’t last.
Abrupt endings aren’t necessarily unsuccessful. Tezuka Osamu, for example, has written a lot of similarly themed and similarly epic science fiction that end rather quickly after emotionally attaching the reader to the protagonists. Many of them, such as Pegasus, have won numerous awards, commercial success, and have earned Tezuka the ubiquitous title of “father of manga” in Japan. Mass Effect 3 may not have gotten so much criticism if it had spent just a little more time explaining why the three final choices are the best possible ones for the story. Yet Bioware isn’t entirely the ones at fault here; many of the fans’ expectations are highly unreasonable even with the fan-suggested endings in light, and people’s opinions and strange beliefs regarding the ending (such as that the Reapers want to protect all organic life by killing all organic life) are undoubtedly being cemented by a sensationalist press and blogosphere jumping the gun.
Yes, I do think the presentation of the ending could have been better. It could have been improved so that everyone knew what was going on, not just people who have an interest in astrobiology. It could have been reviewed so that the animation made as much sense as the dialogue. But most of the criticisms about the plot are unfounded, and Bioware could not have fit the whole story’s closure in the ending sequence. It just doesn’t work that way for a game of this scope, not without becoming painfully cheesy.
Edit: I learned about this soon after I first posted the article, and thought it’s worth a mention.
About 50 years ago, there was a manga named Astro Boy written by manga artist Tezuka Osamu, who is now revered as the “father of manga” in Japan.
Long story short, Astro Boy was a story about a robotic boy Atom created by a scientist to help him cope with the loss of his son. Atom fights crime and evil politicians and subservient-robots-gone-rogue-sentient, among other things. Robots and humans end up in a lot of conflicts, mostly due to humans discriminating against them and robots overpowering them. In one arc, an alien species lands on earth in search of resources. Atom mediates, and the humans and aliens agree to jointly colonize Venus.
Here’s the real kicker: in the last chapters, and the last episode of the anime adaptation, Atom throws himself into the sun carrying a rocket that wouldn’t change its trajectory away from earth no matter how many times he tried to nudge it away.
The TV station ended up with a ton of complaint letters (sorry the links are in Japanese). People demanded that they take back the episode where he dies, and continue to write more episodes. They complained that the show ended way too abruptly after having run for 4 years. They complained that it made kids cry. And they complained about apparent plot holes – something about the effect of radiation from the rocket. Many people insisted that the TV station just killed off Atom to make room for a new show “Goku no Bouken”, which took Atom’s time slot. What those fan didn’t know was that the manga, which had already ended its serialization as well, ended the same way.
Tezuka said in an interview that he felt bad for his fans, but that at the same time it was the most meaningful ending.
The complaints kept rolling in, so he ended up writing an alternate ending where Atom gets saved by aliens. Then he got even more complaints, saying he just pulled it out of his ass.
So there you have it. History repeats itself.
The show ended up winning an award from the Japanese Health and Welfare Ministry, and another from the Japanese Council for Better Radio and Television. Atom’s also a prominent mascot character now, all the way up there in recognition with Hello Kitty. A lot of tech companies and prestigious universities in Japan associate themselves with Atom. Apparently he’s even registered as a resident in my hometown Niiza in Japan…
Maybe someday Shepard will become a registered resident of Vancouver too. That’d be awesome, because then I could say I lived with Astro Boy and Commander Shepard.
Be careful what you wish for.
Updated: August 25, 2012
After thinking about it for a long time, there really isn’t a way for me to say it modestly without being dishonest: I told you so. I took a lot of ridicule for this article, especially on the forums, so I feel entitled to lash back a little.
- I wrote that “the Crucible is a Type III technology”, a “projector” that can “propagate change across the entire galaxy”. The Catalyst in EC describes the Crucible as “a power source”, “capable of releasing tremendous amounts of energy throughout the galaxy”.
- I wrote that the mass relay explosions were exaggeration on the part of the artists, and not actual supernovas. I wrote that it was one of Bioware’s biggest mistakes in the ending. In EC, they show the relays falling apart to varying degrees, but not really exploding (emitting the Crucible’s energy radially, yes, but not exploding).
- I wrote that the Reaper’s origin didn’t matter, but that they were “most likely the first Type II civilizations to emerge, and that they decided to maintain their order whilst keeping the universe populated with a diversity of life”. In EC, the Catalyst explains that its creators did indeed become the first Reaper after it became apparent that there was no other way to avoid galaxy-wide catastrophe.
- I wrote that the characters seldom lied to the player throughout the entire series, and that by simply trusting the dialogue, it was clear that indoctrination theory was wrong. It was.
What happened in the epilogue was more or less exactly what I said would happen, and the EC dialogue with the Catalyst was completely in line with the explanation I gave of the Kardashev scale and the Technological Singularity. (In fact, I later found out in Mass Effect: Final Hours, that the story was influenced by Kurzweil’s predictions on the Singularity long before the game was even entitled Mass Effect.)
But I wasn’t alone: many of my real-life friends who hadn’t been exposed to nonsense like the Indoctrination Theory had little trouble correctly extrapolating the epilogues in their minds without having the happily-ever-afters spoon-fed to them.
The Extended Cut didn’t change any of the premises behind the story (except the thing about the relays exploding, which both Master Pillow and I addressed before), yet its reception was much, much better than the original ending. Clearly, understanding the plot *did* make it better for most people, even though most people at the time insisted that they understood the ending but that the premise was fundamentally bad.
The diminished significance of the Buzz Aldrin Stargazer scene
I’m happy that we got new content, of course. More cut scenes, more dialogue, more Mass Effect. I’d be crazy to complain about that.
But I do think it distracts from the Stargazer scene, which I personally loved.
The Stargazer is voiced by Buzz Aldrin, one of the first humans to land on the moon in 1969. He’s a hero to space nerds, and his casting as the Stargazer, as well as his dialogue, is a huge treat, as well as a subtle breaking of the fourth wall, which I’ll explain:
Child: “When can I go to the stars?”
Stargazer: “One day, my sweet.”
Child: “What will be there?”
Stargazer: “Anything you can imagine. Our galaxy has billions of stars. Each of those stars could have many worlds. Every world could be home to a different form of life. And every life is a special story of its own.”
This may seem tangential, but did you know that NASA’s annual budget, at $19 billion, is just 0.5% of the US federal budget? That’s enough to land rovers on Mars and to find hundreds of extrasolar planets, many of which might harbor life. Yet despite these huge successes, funding is being cut more and more.
We’re in a situation right now where in many countries like Canada, the UK and the US, science funding — especially in the so-called “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields — are diminishing faster than can be justified by the ailing economy. Space exploration and science in general needs as much encouragement as it can get right now, and surely, that’s why Buzz agreed to this role, and why Bioware chose such a relatively obscure public figure over someone who might have been more popular or a better actor.
The Stargazer scene is terse, but it’s important. It ties one of the themes of the Mass Effect series — scientific and civilizational progress — to the real world here in 2012. It makes the ending uplifting in a very real way, and attempts to give Mass Effect social significance, as unsuccessful as it might sadly have been at that. But I think it was a really good attempt at something worthwhile that most game studios don’t have the balls to do.
So, I differ a little in opinion from Master Pillow in that I’m glad that they kept the scene in, even though it was awkwardly dwarfed by an epilogue that is arguably an exercise in sarcastic verbosity.
© 2012 Rei – Published @ The Galactic Pillow