Saturday, October 12, 2013

Mass Effect 3: Mass Affection. In Defence of Greatness and Mass Market Appeal. Hate, Love, and the Apocalypse

Good things come in threes.

I remember once in high school an old English teacher of mine once told the class that there are three sides to every story: your side, the other's guy's side, and the truth.  Of course, that was about a week before he got busted as a drug mule for what turned out to be an affiliate of a major Columbian drug cartel (I won't tell you which one—you know how bashful they can be).  While for most his exposure as such a grotesque beast of burden cast a great deal of suspicion and scrutiny on his credibility, for me it lent credence to his worldly wisdom.  The drug mule was a strange beast to be sure; however, anybody willing to risk incarceration or possible drug overdose preceded by depraved, lewd, and indecent acts of debauchery in its purest form by forcefully swallowing latex bags full of extremely potent chemical or biological compounds was not a creature to be taken lightly.  One must either be batshit crazy, quantifiably stupid, incredibly brave, impressively desperate, or some combination thereof.  However, it is typically out of one of these four emotional and psychological states from whence some of the most pure forms of truth are distilled, and so I looked upon the words that were spawned in his crack-addled brain and passed up through his no doubt Vaseline-lined throat with the same reverence others reserved for high holy men or Black Friday deals.  For those in the know, the drug mule is one of the most sacred of beasts, and the wisdom it dispenses is invaluable and readily available but only for those listening with the right kind of ears.

While truth is a realm of subjectivity sovereign in its own right, it can be bolstered by quantifiable, empirically measurable evidence and the proper rhetorical appeal.  Indeed, the proper leveraging of logic, emotion, or character could quite effectively change one's vantage point of the truth in remarkable ways.  Though currently serving out his twenty year sentence in some deep, dark hole in an undisclosed penitentiary facility, carefully hidden away from the impressionable eyes and ears of Civilized people, and as far from the sun as Icarus by the end of his fateful solar encounter, that teacher still speaks to me today.  I think back on the valuable lesson he taught me about subjectivity and intellectual and philosophical relativism whenever I engage in discourse with my fellow man, strive to find beauty in both the natural world or in the artistic endeavours of humankind, or try to deal with the myriad breeds of unconscionable assholes, pricks, douchebags, and cocksuckers who populate our nation's roads and highways without resorting to ROAD WARRIOR-style tactics by running them off the road, beating them to within an inch of their lives with their own rusty tailpipes before handcuffing them to their cars and leaving them with just a hacksaw to free themselves before their cars - which I've lit on fire - explode, engulfing them in a purifying conflagration and reducing all but their femurs and a few stray molars to ash and coming back later to urinate on their charred remains then salting the earth so no plants would grow, thereby marking the spot of their grizzly demise with a morbid reminder to others of their ilk not to replicate their particular brand of motherfuckery. 

The road to enlightenment can sometimes be a winding path.

For me, one of the pit stops along that path came in the form of a particular artistic endeavour given life through the distinctly (post)modern medium known as the video game.  Mass Effect 3 was the final game in what was for me a monumental trilogy that rivaled the best of the best in any genre or medium.  Though those in certain circles would snicker or outright mock people who claim to be inspired by a video game (or in this case, a trilogy of video games), in a world where people draw inspiration from shitty pop songs, overpaid sports stars, or even chains of retail shopping outlets and the number of deaths by autoerotic asphyxiation are on the rise the potential for experiencing any shame or embarrassment others would attempt to force upon me for claiming any degree of spiritual or intellectual enlightenment due to my engagement with a video game is diminished to a mathematically incalculable value, and my self-esteem can remain thoroughly intact, subjectivity being what it is.  And subjectivity was foremost on my mind as I popped Mass Effect 3 into the game tray of my Xbox 360 and I began the final leg of a journey that began some five years previous.
It was in the wake of a highly popularized public outcrying that I waded back into the universe with which I had become so enamored after experiencing the two previous installments of the Mass Effect series.  Though there had been a four-year gap between my playing Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, I ended up playing Mass Effect 3 a mere three months after ME 2.  A month later, I began my second playthrough of the entire trilogy, so suffice it to say I was well and thoroughly hooked despite the seemingly intense backlash over the ending of ME 3 by a very vocal conglomerate of "fans," who went so far as to start petitions and hold bake sales as part of a grassroots movement to change the content of a piece of art they claimed to hate yet couldn't stop talking about.

I couldn't help but be slightly curious - and admittedly a little apprehensive - about the ending to what would come to be the final installment in one of my favourite trilogies of anything of all time, though my mind didn't dwell too long on the potential shitfest that the makers of the game could have made of the ending.  Was the entire ME trilogy just a dream?  Was the Illusive Man just a Tyler Durdenesque-inspired hallucination of Commander Shepard?  Did it turn out that water was the one weakness that the alien invaders had?  Was there a bomb implanted in his rib cage?  Did they turn it into a musical with Shepard singing showtunes like "They'll Never Make a Reaper Out of Me?"  Well, it turns out most of the "controversy" came from the last 15 minutes or so of gameplay for a number of reasons, which I will address a little later.  From my point of view, though, no matter how bad the last 15 minutes of a minimum 90-hour journey could turn out to be, only the most hardcore devotees of masochism would allow 15 minutes of an endeavour they hated to invalidate the other 80 hours and 45 minutes of the endeavour that they previously enjoyed.  Even if the last 15 minutes of ME3 were as terrible as the detractors made them out to be - which they weren't by a long shot - why would you dwell on what you hated at the the total expense of what you loved?  

Besides which, most people who hated the ending to ME3 complained that what made it so bad was that it was supposed to be the culmination to the entire trilogy and it did not satisfactorily tie up all of the intricately woven plot threads.  But that's only if one considers the last 15 minutes of ME3 to be the ending of the series.  In actuality, the entirety of ME3 was the culmination of the entire series and a solid chunk of the story was devoted to tying up and resolving large, overarching plot threads introduced in the first two installments.  Like ME1 and ME2, ME3 was exactly the game it needed to be.    

Reapers?  Why don't we just inception them?
There's no problem that can't be solved with
a little inception... Did I mention inception yet?
If the games were to be categorized by genre, the first Mass Effect would be a sweeping action/adventure, Mass Effect 2 was a classic heist, and Mass Effect 3 was a sprawling war epic.  It would basically be like (for instance) having STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE, INCEPTION, and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN together as part of one cohesive trilogy of awesomeness.  Or maybe THE GODFATHER, HEAT, and BRAVEHEART.  The point is that amidst all of the swirling chaos in, around, and through our universe, these three seemingly disparate narrative styles were somehow able to congeal into something coherent and compelling.

ME3 is the culmination of a five-year-and-some-odd-month endeavor on the part of Bioware (and subsequently EA) that ultimately delivered one of the most engaging narratives in one of the most engaging media ever available for public consumption and digestion.  Mass Effect 3 delivered on the setup of the first game with the arrival of everybody's (least) favourite organic/cybernetic/monstrous/magically delicious giant squid (for some reason?) robot monsters known as the Reapers and their countless, horrific minions.  It takes them a while (largely due to the efforts of one notoriously first nameless Commander Shepard and his ever-changing roster of ultimate badasses) but they finally arrive in full force with the sole intent of wiping out all sentient life everywhere in the galaxy, basically guaranteeing some end-of-life-as-we-know-it-we're-all-going-to-die-so-what-difference-does-it-make/pity/nostalgia/lonely desperation sex for countless fortunate and unfortunate souls throughout known space.  However, all hope is not lost as chinks in the Reapers' claims to godlike immortality and ubiquity start to show like so many poorly explained facial scars, and Shepard sets out one final time to unite various factions throughout the galaxy to make one final stand together (all the while holding back the urge to dickishly scream totally deserved "I FUCKING TOLD YOU SO, BITCHes!" at all of the assholes who treated him (or her) like Chicken Fucking Little when he (or she) tried to warn them about the Reaper threat years earlier).  Complicating matters is the pro-human terrorist/extremist organization known as Cerberus who have their own agenda that involves stopping the Reapers while at the same time establishing humanity as the ultimate big swinging dicks of the galaxy.

Once again, though, what makes ME3 tick is not so much the story (although that is important), but the character building and character interactions.  ME3 successfully combines some of the classic RPG elements in the form of weapon and armour upgrades that many fans felt were missing from ME2 along with the functional shooter elements that many felt were lacking from the first game.  Although I didn't necessarily feel that these elements were as lacking as other seemed to, ME3 does feel quite balanced in this respect.  It easily has the best in-game combat mechanics of the entire trilogy, and the special abilities especially feel refined.  As Little Bill aptly observed in UNFORGIVEN while recalling the tale of Corky's death, having a big dick just ain't going to cut it in a real world combat scenario when what you really need is a gun and the wherewithal to use it.  I typically play as a Vanguard class, and I feel like it wasn't really given its due until ME3 where I could totally use the biotic charge, then either Nova or shotgun the shit out of some Reaper minions and still hope to survive a surprisingly high percentage of the time.  For those who haven't played any of the Mass Effect games, that last sentence probably reads like Greek (or like Klingon for Greeks), but for those of you who are in the know, basically I felt like a biotic god.

Wait, you were actually going to let me go into that room first?
What kind of asshole are you?

Again, though, the truly immersive element of the experience had to do with developing relationships and emotional bonds with individuals that felt less like characters and more like autonomous agents.  And yes, sometimes sexy autonomous agents.  Despite the sense of urgency woven through the wartime narrative, there is still ample time to engage with old friends and make some new ones.  Obviously there's going to be a bigger payoff for somebody who has played the first two games and imported a save file, but even for someone just stepping into the series it's easy to lose yourself, not unlike Eminem and his immortal lyrics and accompanying phat, juicy beats.  Actually, a great deal of the payoffs for long-time players hinge largely on who survives the suicide mission in ME2.  I discovered this only after losing Thane and Mordin in my first (and, unfortunately, cannonical) play through and then going back and saving them on a subsequent play through after hearing about how awesome their story resolutions are in ME3 on countless internet forums.  They are indeed highly emotional, and Thane's story in particular struck me in the gut harder than a dodge ball in gym class.  Two of the major sub-plots involving the the resolution of the krogan genophage and the quarian/geth conflict also pack much more of a punch if you have some old friends along for the ride, and also serve to highlight how great the series could be when it was firing on all pistons.

The most important element to any combat training: striking a suitable
action hero pose.

One noticeable difference that true believers will notice going from ME2 to ME3 is the substantially smaller squad of allies, though the vast majority of them are returning friends, and those that didn't make the cut this time around still pop up throughout the story.  One interesting addition to Shepard's posse is EDI, the Normandy's artificial intelligence from ME2 who now gallivants around in sexy robot form and finally allows pilot-extraordinaire Joker to get some lovin'.  The only completely brand spankin' new squadmate (unless you opt for some of the fancy DLC) is James Vega, who I can only assume is the great great great latino grandson of Vincent Vega.  While it might have been nice to have some other old friends as playable squad mates (Wrex!  Fuck yeah!) or maybe some new races like a batarian or a volus (or maybe the real hanar that Blasto was based on), it was pretty kick-ass that most of your squad was still comprised of dudes and dudettes who had been with you since the very beginning.  The smaller squad size also means that there was enough time to flesh out each character and give them each their due.  My default squad in ME3 ended up being Garrus - the Brad Pitt to my George Clooney - and Tali, the love of my Shepard's life (lives?) and memorably sloppy drunk.

I would've made a sexy chick...
Also once again the romance aspect that has become somewhat ingrained as part of the Mass Effect mythos plays an integral part in creating emotional affect and drawing the player into the world.  Though it is possible to rekindle some old romances with people who have moved on from the Normandy, romances with main squadmates are definitely more fleshed out.  Luckily for me my digital heart belongs to Tali, who is one of the main crew and whose romance is hugely satisfying.  (Although, once again, there was a huge backlash when we finally get a small glimpse of what Tali looks like under all of that very form-fitting armour which turned out to be a modified stock photo of some random model.  Again, I don't understand what the fuck people were complaining about.  Many of the main characters in ME were created based on real life human models, and nobody gave a shit.  Maybe it was because, much like completing a trilogy, it is extremely difficult to satisfy all of the competing expectations of a diverse fan base, or maybe it was because of the old Greek adage "Haters gonna hate.")  Romancing Tali had the added benefit of yet another layer of meaning (and an increase in the stress-o-meter) in the Rannoch mission and the resolution of the quarian/geth conflict.  Although it seemed pretty clear from some of the narrative beats that the writers were pushing for Liara to be the main love interest for straight male Shepards and the lesbian Shepards (LezShep?)  (for example, the scene where Liara comes to your quarters to record your deeds for posterity in her beacon dealy).

On the topic of romance and sexuality, ME3 was notable for the mature way in which it dealt with homosexuality, specifically with the addition of shuttle pilot Steve Cortez.  Perhaps the most noticeable thing about Cortez's sexuality is that it's not noticeable at all.  That is to say, Cortez wasn't some stereotype token character who was defined purely by one attribute.  He wasn't the "gay guy"  WILL AND GRACEing it up.  It was just fucking great how in one of the earliest conversations Shepard has with him, Cortez mentions losing his husband in combat, and there's no, like, double takes like "Oh, I didn't know you were, ah, you swung that way," or any of that stupid shit.  It's mentioned, and it's part of who Cortez is, but it's not dwelt on unnecessarily and doesn't feel like the totality of his character.  It was pretty fucking cool that with all of the conflict in the future, at least we had matured enough as a species not to discriminate based on sexual orientation and the like.  I mean, there was still some space racism to overcome (looking at you Ash...), but at least we'd made some progress.

Being a wartime narrative, ME3 definitely had an air of finality about it.  For those who bemoan ME3 as less engaging than, say, ME2 with its stand-out final Suicide Mission (which, depending on how you play, may or may not be aptly named), I feel it necessary to point out that the third game is even more harrowing because it is itself a ten plus hour suicide mission.  I didn't realize until I did some research on the interwebs, but it is apparently possible throughout the course of the game to lose almost your entire main squad, but also most of your old friends who turn up in supporting roles.  It's not necessarily as in your face as ME2's Suicide Mission, but there is still that ever-present, looming sense that the decisions you make matter in respect to your squad, and there's no guarantee everybody's going to even make it far enough to say a proper goodbye.

Which, again, brings us back to the apparently divisive ending of ME3, which also, ironically, contains one of the arguably best-loved and most emotionally engaging scenes in the entire trilogy.  Before we go on to meet the Star Child (as he is somewhat disparagingly referred to), our Shepards must deal with the Illusive Man (Cerberus's top dog, if you'll excuse the pun (for those of you aware of Greek mythology)) which also results in the death of Captain/Councillor/Admiral Anderson.  The scene is in turns touching, sobering, and gut-wrenching as you are forced to say goodbye to a father figure you weren't even quite sure you had until that point.  It's one of those great, subtle threads woven throughout the ME trilogy that you don't even really think about, but when Anderson tells you with his dying breath "You did good, son.  I'm proud of you," all of the sudden you look back through the series and realize that the threads of that parental bond had been woven into the fabric of the narrative and it's even more emotional because it's like you're losing a loved one that you're really just seeing for the first time.

I swear to god if you mention midichlorians I will fucking strangle you.
(A slight detour must be taken here to mention the important role that music plays throughout the series.  Again, I don't know if Bioware and EA just lucked out or if they used some sort of biotic magic or advanced AI, but the music for the entire series was perfect.  From the very first shot in ME of Commander Shepard making his way to the bridge of the Normandy accompanied by the strains of that majestic theme to the final scenes depicting the consequences of Shepard's Final Choice punctuated by those bittersweet notes, the music seemed to fit the scene more perfectly than Miranda's greased-up pants hugged her legendary ass.  There's too many great tunes to mention here, but a few standouts were ME's From the Wreckage, the Suicide Run score (Jack Wall's a fucking genius) and anything from the Lair of the Shadow Broker during the assault on the shadow broker's ship.  Like the icing on the cake or the blowjob on the blowjob, the music of the ME trilogy really epitomizes the old "soundtrack of our lives" cliche and shows how every element of the series worked together to elevate it beyond the standard science fiction fare.  Even all the naysayers out there can't deny that even up until the bitter end, the music in the series never faltered for a second.)

Aaaaaaand, we're back.  After finally reaching the Citadel, dealing with the Illusive Man, and getting punched in the gut with Anderson's death, Shepard is asked to activate the Crucible, which he at first seems unable to do.  Shepard is then greeted with with what turns out to be the manifestation of the Reaper's collective consciousness who takes the form of a dead child that's been haunting Shepard's dreams and provides multiple choices based on differing philosophical viewpoints about the galaxy and the nature of life itself.

Now, a lot of people didn't like the Starkid as they refer to the holographic Reaper manifestation that, admittedly, has a lot of exposition to get through.  There were a lot of issues, a few of which I will tackle in my usually persuasive manner momentarily.  However, in the interest of open dialogue, I will allow that while I didn't think there was anything fundamentally wrong with the ending of ME3, I can see how the execution of the whole Starkid concept might have turned people off.  While a lot of people hated the Starkid or thought that since the idea was that the Reaper consciousness was manifesting itself in a visual form based on Shepard's unconscious that it should have taken on varying forms of dead friends like Mordin or Thane or the Virmire victim(s).  But I liked the fact that out of all the people that Shepard had lost (or potentially lost) that it was this random kid who stuck with him the most.  One, because the image of a dead kid is pretty powerful and can represent a lot of deep philosophical ideas like the death of innocence, a future cut short, etc.  Two, because it's just random enough to be believable.  That's the thing about your unconscious; you don't really have any control about the seemingly random connections it makes and what will stay with you.

While I don't disagree with what the Starkid said, I do believe he could have said it more eloquently.  The way I look at the reason Shepard was given the power to choose at the end was indicative of lager philosophical themes regarding how we view the biological and the technological.  The Starkid was an advanced artificial intelligence, but he was still technological in nature and bound by certain existential constraints.  He explains that he was originally programmed to try and determine an ultimate solution to ensure the continued existence of organic life in the face of possible extermination from the technology they created.  The Starkid's solution was a cycle that resulted in the extermination of all sentient life in the galaxy every 50,000 years so as to prevent the complete extermination of all organic life due to escalations in violence between sentient species and the technology they create, especially synthetic life forms (dem robots).  There's a certain chilling logic in the decision the Starkid made to preserve life.  It's basically a galactic pruning to ensure that nothing grows too wild and chokes itself out.

That's our perception of how a machine might work out a problem like the one presented to it.  Like a mathematical equation.  No emotional influence in the decision-making process, just a numbers game.  Then along comes Shepard who to the Starkid represents a previously unaccounted-for variable that causes him to try to recalculate.  Now, the three choices he eventually presents Shepard with - Destroy, Control, or Synthesis - represent three more mathematically possible alternatives.  However, the only catch is that each of these options works out to the exact same calculable chances of success.  The even bigger catch is that this same calculable probability is also exactly the same as the course that the Starkid originally chose, i.e., the Reapers and the harvesting of billions of sentient beings.  Now, as a computer program whose basis for understanding the universe is rooted in pure logic, the Starkid is forced to choose among four options with an equal chance of success, or four sets of variables that will produce the same answer.  After having already chosen a course of action based on previous information, and faced with three new choices that pose an exactly equal probability of success, the synthetic, perfectly logical lifeform reaches an impasse.  There is no logical reason to deviate from the original course of action; however the Starkid also acknowledges that other paths are available.

So what does he do?  He turns to the variable.  This is where our perception of our own decision-making heuristics come into play.  As organic beings we have existential constraints of our own, but they are perceived to be different than what those of technological beings might be.  In the case of choice, we are able to transcend logic with an emotional or "gut" response.  Typically, I'd be all about logic (yeah Spock!), but logic is a system created by imperfect beings and so, like all other systems, is bound to be imperfect.  There are times when logic cannot help you because logic is only useful in decision-making when one choice can be quantifiably demonstrated to be better than all of the others.  However, when faced with multiple choices that will result in different outcomes each of which cannot be quantifiably proven to be more desirable than the others, then what's a poor AI to do?  See, a lot of gamers watching that final scene assume that the Starkid just randomly gave up guardianship of the galaxy to some space-Jesus super-soldier and abandoned his mandate merely to service the narrative.  However the way I read it - and the way I believe it was intended to be read - was that Shepard was never in complete control, as nobody ever is.  The three choices that the Starkid give Shepard are basically the last variable in the equation and Shepard's agency is to provide a value for that variable that the Starkid cannot.  Both Shepard and the Starkid are meant to represent the strengths and weaknesses of their respective Classes of Being (i.e., organic and synthetic).  Both are conscious, both are sentient, both are different, but neither is perfect or complete.  In that sense there's a sort of twisted harmony that exists between Shepard and the Starkid, and in a weird sort of way demonstrates how the biological and the technological compliment one another and balance each other out.  Yin and yang, darkness and light, Cheech and Chong.  I believe that if the writing for the scene had more elegantly expressed these ideas, there might not have been the backlash that there was from a very vocal section of the gaming community.    

The problem is, some people were trying to argue that the ending of ME 3 was objectively bad, which simply isn't the case.  Though I've read and watched countless critiques of the ending from across the world wide web, not one of them has been able to adequately demonstrate quantifiable bad-ness.  Oh, people cite specific examples of aspects they don't like as evidence that they don't like it, but I haven't seen a single logical argument to support the theory that it was objectively terrible, although there are many who have tried.  And honestly, what were people expecting?  Perfection?  What does that even mean?  And what the fuck makes them think they deserve perfection?  What have they done to earn it?  What would they do with perfection even if they found it?  They'd thoroughly squander it and shit on it's legacy.  But, I digress...

The following are just a few of the major points that detractors will try to present as hard "evidence" that the ending to ME3 sucked bigger thresher maw cock (if they even have cocks) than Jar Jar Binks, but which are merely subjectively interpreted to be "flaws."  I'm fine if some didn't enjoy the ending for whatever reason, but just don't try to argue that all of these elements can somehow be conclusively proven to be awful.

1. I Didn't Get to Find Out What Happened to All of The Characters

Perhaps it's because you spend your days trying - with varying degrees of success - to suck your own dick that you get wrapped up in your own little world.  First of all, it's not necessary for the conclusion of any narrative to find out every little detail that happened to every character ever.  In fact, ambiguity, when used effectively as a narrative device, is like a great stripper in that it leaves you wanting more but it excites the imagination with all of the wonderful Possibilities.  Now, though I'm saying I liked the ending, I will by no means try to argue that it is perfect or that ambiguity was wielded with the razor-sharp precision it could have been.  However, Shepard did get a chance to say goodbye to everyone, and it left the door open for people to build their own "head cannon," which is a term that is being bandied about these days with increasingly nauseating frequency.  

Honestly, while on one level it might have been cool to see how all of Shepard's friends spent their retirement years (and maybe see some hot krogan sex), on another hand it would have sucked major quads.  I want to know, but I don't really want to know.  It's actually pretty unnecessary and quite contrary to the spirit of the series where the real focus was on the journey and not the destination.  I didn't really want the LORD OF THE RINGS-style twenty different ending.  It was a great contrast to Shepard's own story and the breaking of the Reaper cycle.  Shepard sacrificed him/herself so that everybody else (who survived the slaughter and horror) could get on with their lives.  To me, it was along the lines of the TERMINATOR 2 ending, where our futures haven't been written yet, and there's no fate but what we make, etc., etc., etc.  People talk about it like they were owed some sort of resolution to all of their squadmates' stories, like having everything wrapped up in a nice little bow would have somehow made the story better, which simply isn't the case.  I will readily admit that the ambiguity could have been wielded with a steadier hand, but as it stands it's not terrible.  Life isn't about resolutions;  it's an ongoing process.

Also, on a meta level, not knowing what happens to the surviving major and minor characters is also in keeping with the players' immersion in the world through their Shepard avatar.  Once Shepard dies (I know in the control ending, Shepard's consciousness or essence "lives" or continues on in some form, but it could be reasonably argued that that is a new being and not the mortal Shepard to whom so many of us became attached) the player's connection to the world is also severed.  The fact that we got anything at all along those lines in the EC endings is a bonus of sorts, but not at all necessary to the story.  

2. Deus Ex Machina

This is a phrase which is getting thrown around a lot these days, which I see as both beneficial and extremely fucking annoying.  It's one of those phrases that people can throw around when critiquing any kind of art form with a narrative structure and sound impressive because it's Greek and big and important sounding without actually having any fucking clue as to how it's used and people are just supposed to buy that shit. 
Though there literally was a "god out of the machine" in Mass Effect 3 in the form of the Reaper AI, it was not a form of deus ex machina in the sense of a contrived plot device that violated the internal logic of the story (as the good people over at remind us, tropes are merely tools).  The Reaper AI (not-so-affectionately referred to as the Star Child) in no way violated the internal logic of the story of either Mass Effect 3 or the Mass Effect series in general.  The entire trilogy was about peeling back layers and delving deeper and deeper into the Reaper mystery.  

The narratively internal precedent for the Star Child was set by the geth, and in particular Legion in ME 2.  Legion was obviously operating as a semi-autonomous individual like the rest of the characters in the game and, indeed, like the rest of us existing outside of that game world, yet he was still comprised of and connected to a network of sentient AI programs.  So the Star Kid was a synthetic AI, semi-autonomous agent working on behalf of the Reapers, but Legion was a Synthetic AI, semi-autonomous agent working on behalf of the geth.  Wow.  That's strange.  It's almost like thematically and structurally the Star Kid and Legion were actually fairly parallel.  It's almost like the Star Kid adhered to the internal logic of the narrative universe to which he belonged.  Weird.  It's almost like he wasn't contrived at all.

The other key to deus ex machina is the fact that the random, seemingly-out-of-nowhere plot device is used to save the main character from certain doom.  Again, in all but one ending, Commander Shepard is shown to be definitively dead, and even the ending where he "survives" is ambiguous.  No matter what you do, Shepard is pretty much fucked and the people that do survive are left with a long and winding road to survive the few months and years after the Reaper Wars, let alone to rebuild.
3. The Ending Was Too Dark/I Didn't Get to Ride Off Into the Sunset with my In-Game Love Interest

That's not an objective criticism.  That's something that you disliked about the ending because you're a fucking retard.  Probably the same fucking retard who claims to like the second entry in a trilogy the best (e.g., THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, THE DARK KNIGHT, etc.) because it's so dark then complains if the third entry in the same trilogy ends up being dark. 

On the other hand, I can appreciate wanting some sense of catharsis at the conclusion of a narrative, and for most people that comes in the form of an Oh-I-Was-In-Great-Peril-And-Was-Willing-To-Risk-My-Life-To-Save-The-Day-But-Ended-Up-Surviving-So-I-Could-Ride-Off-Into-The-Sunset-style ending.  Which is fine sometimes.  There is a very blatant irony that many detractors of the ME 3 ending seem blissfully ignorant of, and that is that their very complaining that got EA/Bioware to release the Extended Cut with the fourth ending where you could tell the Star Kid to go fuck himself and just continue the war through conventional means (i.e., shooting your enemy with bigger, and bigger guns) and end up sacrificing the trillions of lives you were trying to save.  This is, in fact, significantly darker than the original three endings in which the player/Commander Shepard SAVES THE MAJORITY OF GALACTIC FUCKING CIVILIZATION.  For so many who claim to be fans of the Mass Effect series, they sure overlook a lot of what made Commander Shepard an engaging and inspiring character/avatar including his selflessness.  In the context of the narrative, it's only depressing that Shepard dies to Shepard.  But there are trillions of other people who now get a chance to live their lives.  Shepard (the character) would be fucking ecstatic to know he had helped saved people's lives.  Motherfucker.

(Also, were people really that surprised that Shepard was fated not to survive this thing?  I mean, they already killed Shepard off once and in bringing him back established him as the saviour archetype.  I pretty much assumed that Shepard was going to die in the finale, and I thought that the game developers were going to throw audiences for a loop by actually having him/her survive.)

4. What About Dark Energy?  That Would Have Been an Awesome Ending

Fuck you.  The whole "Dark Energy Argument" stems from the shake-up of the Mass Effect development team in between ME 2 and ME 3 that resulted in the departure of ME 2 lead writer Drew Karpyshyn.  He was replaced on ME 3 by one Mac Walters who, along with Casey Hudson, the project manager, took the brunt of the criticism for ME 3's ending.  There seems to be a fairly significant segment of ME fans who seem to cling to this idea that if Karpyshyn had stayed on as lead writer, they would have gotten exactly the game they wanted and/or felt they were entitled to.  However, Karpyshyn in his own words tried to inject some reason into the debate:

"I find it funny that fans end up hearing a couple things they like about it and in their minds they add in all the details they specifically want. It's like vapourware - vapourware is always perfect, anytime someone talks about the new greatest game. It's perfect until it comes out. I'm a little weary about going into too much detail because, whatever we came up with, it probably wouldn't be what people want it to be."

Karpyshyn hit the nail right on the head.  Because people were so subjectively, emotionally invested in the story, there would have been absolutely no way to objectively deliver a satisfying conclusion that would have appeased all the fans.  The other issue is that the very nature of the narrative - that is, the multilinear, multi-variable, multiple-possibility, multiple-choice, branch structure - made wrapping it up a daunting task.  While the structure made it a fucking awesome game to play, the writers kind of painted themselves into a corner where they had to tell a definite ending to an open-ended story.    

5. The Whole Synthetics Versus Organics Thing Made No Sense/Didn't Match Up With The Rest of the Trilogy

Which would be true... except one of the main threads of the entire Mass Effect series was the ongoing tension between "synthetic" and "organic" life.  Right from the very beginning, for those players with memories longer that those of fucking goldfish, the conflict between organics and synthetics was front and centre.  The main antagonists of the first Mass Effect were the geth, who were the synthetic lifeforms that had evolved from the advanced robotics/AI created by the quarians.  The Reapers were all synthetic (although they seemed to use processed organic material in their manufacturing/reproductive process) and were involved right from the beginning.  All of Shepard's crazy visions in the first game involved flashes of killer robots.  There were constant mentions of the Citadel and council races banning the development of AI for fear of the same conflict that had nearly wiping out the quarians happening on an even wider scale.  There was EDI in ME2 and ME3 on her quest to becoming self-aware and the initial fear (articulated perfectly by Joker) that "unshakling" EDI from her programming restraints would lead to dire consequences for humanity or organics in general.  I mean, thematically, it made about as much sense as any motivation that the Reaper's were going to have because while they at first made it clear that their reasoning was beyond our comprehension, it either had to turn out to be a bluff to scare the shit out of us, or never be explained because human writers, who by definition can't ever possibly explain something that is inexplicable to human beings or, if they somehow found their way around that paradox, have it understood by a human audience. 

6. There Was No Final Boss Battle Like in My Other Favourite Video Game Titles

Remember Earthbound my children.  While there was a final boss battle, it was radically different from anything else at the time.  I remember I was almost dead before I figured out that I had to "Pray" for all the support of the people I'd met along the way.  I didn't even notice the lack of a boss battle until nimrods on the internet started bitching about it.  Which is a real shame, because I realized there's an entire generation of Lost Souls who have had these video game tropes so ingrained in their hearts and minds that their worldview is sent into disarray if every narrative beat and medium-specific affordance doesn't conform the established stereotypical expectations.  I want there to be variety and unexpected twists.  Besides, the ME trilogy was never about the boss battles; it was about making choices, and morality, and (mitigated) agency.  Besides, who would the boss have been?  The Reaper elder Harbinger who proved to be the bane of Shepard's and humanity's existence in ME2?  I fucking loved the fact that Harbinger didn't say a goddamn word to you in the third game.  It showed he/it was past the point of playing games and it no longer deemed you worthy enough to even speak a word to.    

7. The Reapers Weren't as Badass as We Were Led to Believe

Consider the fucking source on this one.  The Repaers are an ancient race of cybernetic space squids, but they are based on a fusion of technological and organic components not magic.  They wield superior firepower and, arguably, intelligence, but it was established in the first Mass Effect with Sovereign that even though the bastards were tough, they were not invincible or infallible.

Now, many point to the scene in ME were Sovereign talks to Shepard and spews some pretty badass and somewhat ominous dialogue that establishes how powerful the Reapers are:

"We are eternal.  The pinnacle of evolution and existence.  Before us, you are nothing.  Your extinction is inevitable.  We are the end of everything."

If you were to hear this in Sovereign's terrifying voice through a hologram projected from a giant seemingly unstoppable space monster, you might at first be inclined to believe such a thing.  However, if you were planning a full-scale assault on your enemy, wouldn't you want them to believe you were all-powerful demi-gods, more powerful than Kevin Sorbo and twice as handsome?  If you're in the Reapers' position, you already have the upper hand because your enemy knows literally nothing about you.  So what are you going to tell them?  That you're just big and tough but with enough firepower, yeah, you could probably take me down?  Or that you're a fucking unstoppable force of nature with no weaknesses like Xena, warrior princess?  Of course the Reapers are going to start talking smack like "You exist because we allow it.  You will end because we demand it." (The perfect retort to almost any situation.  Just ask my parole officer.)  They're going to use fear and terror to demoralize their enemy.  So the reason the Reapers don't live up to the reputation of ultimate badassery that was established is maybe because they were exaggerating to maintain the upper hand psychologically.

8. Joker Would Never Have Abandoned Shepard so Easily

Now, both of my play throughs included the Extended Cut DLC, which showed Joker somewhat hesitant to make the jump to FTL speeds after Shepard activates the Crucible, but even if the original non-extended ending (don't worry, it happens to a lot of guys... I've heard) doesn't show that reluctance to leave behind an old and dear friend, it's not an inconsistency and it doesn't make Joker look like a complete sack of shit.  Joker's mandate - which comes from the eponymous Commander him/herself - is to protect the crew of the Normandy at all costs.  Joker is Shepard's friend, but he's also a military man and (as far as I can tell) not a total asshole.  The truth is, Joker knows practically nothing about Shepard's status or what's transpiring in the Citadel during the climax of the game, but what he does know is that some bad shit is going down that could possibly spell certain doom for the Normandy and her crew.  Joker has no intel on which to base a rational decision on what he might be able to do to assist Commander Shepard if indeed he could help at all.  But what he does have is a responsibility to his fellow crewmates, lover, and friends to A) carry out his orders/follow established protocols that will ensure the highest possible chances of survival for the greatest number of people and B) not jeopardize the lives of people he cares about based on wild suppositions and guesswork.  Plus, for a great many players, Shepard's own love interest is among those on board the Normandy, and Joker can probably console himself with the fact that he wasn't a total asshole who unnecessarily risk the life of the person Shepard cared about most to prove what a hard hero he was.    

9. My Choices Didn't Matter/I Had No Real Agency (Like in the Last Two Games)

Largely, in real life, your decisions don't matter.  At least not in the way some people might suggest.  We are largely not in control of our own fates, and whether or not it was intentional on the part of EA/Bioware, it's a genius fucking meta-theme with serious philosophical implications.

In that respect, ME3 is unique philosophical exercise.  We've been sold a myth by various time travel narratives and multiple universe theories that there are an infinite number of universes to account for all possible outcomes of a situation.  Chaos theory, butterfly effect and all that jazz.  The allure of seeing existence this way is that it paints us all as autonomous agents who not only have free will, but whose decisions as a result of that free will have significant repercussions, which by extension is proof of our own significance.  But there are three main problems or fallacies to viewing life and existence this way.  One, not every situation in your life is going to have an infinite number of possibilities.  You are limited both by time and space and a whole host of other forces you have no control over.  Madness is like gravity.  You jump from the top of the Empire State Building and 100 times out of 100 I will guarantee that you will never pass through a random wormhole into Scarlett Johanssen's secret orgy pit and end up making love to a two-headed triceratops before discovering John Lennon frozen in carbonite.  Two, some shit just does not matter.  It makes no fucking difference to the Universe whether you had Fruit Loops instead of Captain Crunch for breakfast or whether you wore the red sweater instead of the blue one or you jerked off with your left hand instead of your right for a change.  Sometimes the choices we make will "matter" in the BREAKFAST CLUB sense, but most of the time our decisions don't matter that much to anyone or anything, sometimes even ourselves.

Which leads us to fallacy number three, and that is that not everyone is that fucking special.  One of the great things about the Mass Effect series is that it allowed you to experience that feeling of cosmic specialness through the avatar of space Jesus Commander Shepard, whose decisions seemed to have an impact on a galactic scale.  While this vicariousnous is part of what makes the experience so engaging, it also highlights the fact that most people most of the time have absolutely zero impact on the outcome of events.  Because most people are not special.  There is likely nothing very special or unique about you at all.  Which is kind of depressing, but also kind of great.  Because when those fucking moments come along where you actually do experience that transcendence of true agency, it makes it all the more potent.

One of the flaws that a lot of detractors of ME3 will bring up is that it seems like some of the decisions you made through your Shepard avatar actually had little impact in the game.  One of the key examples is that saving the rachni queen in the first game seems to have a negligible effect to letting her die and (seemingly) completing the genocide of an entire species.  Although this may have been the result of some of the weaker links in the writing of the game, it's also fucking brilliant in highlighting the fact that sometimes no matter how special we want to see ourselves, a great deal of the time we are not in control of jack shit.  The corollary to the Three Existential Fallacies I outlined is that sometimes multiple paths might eventually lead to the same destination.  Even if you are some sort of uber-soldier with telekinetic powers, incredibly good looks, and the ability to cheat death on a seemingly hourly basis, shit is still largely beyond your control on the larger scale.  Again, this creates anxiety in many people who might have a hard time dealing with insignificance in the face of a terrifyingly vast universe (though hopefully populated by at least a couple of very sexy alien species).  This is, in fact, the very state in which every one of us exists as we all hurtle inevitably towards the death that we each owe.  And it's fucking scary.  Ultimately, if we believe that we are in control, then - at least for a second - we can convince ourselves of our own immortality.  Acknowledging one's own demise can be a frightening prospect, and so we create these myths of control and agency to keep ourselves from going apeshit crazy every day and doing something insane and irresponsible like watching the latest Adam Sandler shitfest of a movie, kicking toddlers in the groin, shooting up a post office, or voting Republican.

This also has to do with a large part of why the haters point to the lack of agency.  To borrow a term from Magic the Gathering, it's something I will dub Plainswalker Syndrome.  Basically, because players are able to play through the Mass Effect games multiple times and make different choices or, to really make sure they don't get laid, watch other people's play throughs on YouTube and the like, they become omniscient super-beings who are actually able to traverse the different plains of existence or multiple dimensions for Commander Shepard et al.  To put it another way, if you could only play through the games once, and any time anybody tried to tell you or show you other outcomes you instead heard EDI's sultry voice tell you how to service her data port or saw Liara slowly stripping off her already skintight "armour," then you wouldn't fucking know any better.  It's only when you're actually able to compare the various outcomes in the various multiple universe that the myths of agency and free will are revealed as exactly that: mere constructions that don't actually dictate how things turn out most of the time.  Omniscience is a terrible gift when it reveals that in a lot of cases, we are all afflicted with a terrible case of futility in the face of a universe that largely doesn't give a fuck how important we'd like to think we are.  I'm not arguing against free will and agency and I'm not arguing that everything is beyond our control; what I am saying is that in the Grand Scheme of Things, there are usually any number of factors beyond our control that severely limit those capabilities.  The most we can usually hope for is a slight shift in trajectory and not a major course change, although I am of the mind that those moments can occur, they are just extremely rare and precious and can't - and shouldn't - be commodified and passed around like ecstacy at a rave (if those are even still a thing in late 2013).

The point isn't to lie down in a ditch somewhere and give up because most of the time our choices are probably not as powerful as we had originally intended.  The point is to keep fighting no matter what because you never know when those choices are going to count.
That takes me back...
Love it or hate it, the Mass Effect trilogy (or at least , the first Mass Effect trilogy) is over now in the narrative sense.  For me it has come to epitomize the very best that the science fiction genre has to offer and how we can take cultural influences and use them to inspire the creation of something new without reverting to mere imitation.  Sure there are comics, an animated movie, and even a fourth game in the works, but ME3 and its two older siblings will forever occupy a place of honour in my mind palace.  I also credit the ME trilogy with my own personal science fiction renaissance.

After finishing ME3 for the first time, I immediately went back and played through the entire trilogy again.  But I still felt that the Void in the centre of my being had not been filled.  So I started hunting down any and all movies or TV shows anywhere along the same lines or themes as Mass Effect.  I started with stuff like SUNSHINE and SOLARIS, then TITAN A.E., and even a detour with PANDORUM and RED PLANET.  I eventually found my way to FIREFLY and SERENITY, which turned out to be fantastic (even though I was confused and disoriented by not hating a Joss Whedon creation) though not exactly as cathartic as I'd hoped what with the series having been abruptly cancelled and all.  When I think of the cultural forces that have and will continue to inspire me both creatively and personally, I will always consider the Mass Effect trilogy as one of the primary deities in my own personal pantheon.  I'm proud of you, Mass Effect 3.  You did good son.  Final verdict:  I give the Mass Effect Trilogy a 10/10 = One Head Completely Free From Any Form of Reaper Control or Indoctrination Whatsoever        


Post a Comment