Goodbye, Shepard

Expect Mass Effect 3 spoil­ers.

Mass Effect. The words induce shiv­er­ing, and will for a long time, I sus­pect.

One does not get to choose who, or what, one loves. I don’t mean that there isn’t choice involved, but there’s some­thing about love that is hid­den from the wak­ing mind; it’s chem­i­cal, uncon­scious, sur­pris­ing­ly capa­ble of over­whelm­ing the bet­ter sens­es. It treats flaws as unim­por­tant details, not so much gloss­ing over them as accept­ing them. I love Mass Effect. Or, rather, I loved Mass Effect. If I had­n’t expe­ri­enced the end of a love before, I imag­ine my pen­sive state would be gloomi­er, as it was when, as a child, I would fin­ish a story and real­ize that I would never see cher­ished char­ac­ters again, that that was para­dox­i­cal­ly “all of it” even though my mind still buzzed with it. That expe­ri­ence has always been most close­ly con­nect­ed to my con­cept of death. Even when young, I found the ten­sion fas­ci­nat­ing. I con­tin­ued to go through the pain of lov­ing a thing, even as I was sure that it would come to a close.

I closed out Mass Effect 3 about six days ago, and yet my mind still remains with the whole of the Milky Way and its eons-long cycles of death and rebirth. The end­ing is stark; there is a quick shift in scale, an instant jour­ney to a precipice from which there’s no walk­ing back. Unlike its pre­de­ces­sors, though, Mass Effect 3 did­n’t make me thirsty for more. It did­n’t por­tray some advanc­ing enemy foe that I would have to defeat. It did­n’t present the long-term ram­i­fi­ca­tions of my choic­es, leav­ing me curi­ous about what the future of the uni­verse would be like in any great speci­fici­ty. It was a uni­verse sud­den­ly robbed of con­text, of mean­ing, by my own hand. I had flung the uni­verse into the future, know­ing full well that my choice would have incred­i­ble con­se­quences, but that I would­n’t see a hint of them. Mass Effect 3, as I now view it in its entire­ty, is about death. Its final ques­tion is one that I find com­pelling, and it is fun­da­men­tal­ly NOT about how you value syn­thet­ic organ­isms, or even what you want the future of the galaxy to look like. It is this: Of what pur­pose and use is choice in the face of a loom­ing, cer­tain death?

Choice, Consequence

One of the chief crit­i­cisms lev­eled against Mass Effect 3’s end­ing is that it inval­i­dates the choic­es that the play­er has made, bring­ing every game to the same ter­mi­nal point. Regardless of any past deci­sion, the nar­ra­tive always forces Shepard, Anderson and the Illusive Man to the top of the Citadel, and lets none of them leave. The galac­tic readi­ness level mere­ly opens up cer­tain choic­es. Even after that choice is made and Shepard is gone, the end nar­ra­tive only slight­ly changes depend­ing upon that final choice. The game does not tread back, as Dragon Age did, to exam­ine the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of Shepard’s actions on the uni­verse; it does not offer the solace of know­ing which lives were saved (for how­ev­er long). For all intents and pur­pos­es, the game ends when you make that final deci­sion; it is only the leap from that final precipice, and then a sin­gle image – either of Adam and Eve on a gar­den plan­et, or of a mourn­ing Adam that must pick up the pieces and con­tin­ue to sur­vive – that offers the loos­est ges­ture at a con­tin­u­ance of the nar­ra­tive despite Shepard’s sac­ri­fice. An approx­i­mate 100 hours of nar­ra­tive has cul­mi­nat­ed in this, and it has been star­tling­ly unique and sur­pris­ing and owned by the play­er. Over that peri­od, the play­er has undoubt­ed­ly inhab­it­ed Shepard; the play­er’s hopes and Shepard’s hopes unify. It is near-impossible to avoid becom­ing entrenched in the role. It is unsur­pris­ing, then, the urge to rebel­lion that many play­ers have had at dis­cov­er­ing that they have so lit­tle con­trol, such insignif­i­cant influ­ence, at the close of this story. It is, as many have claimed, like the prin­ci­ple of choice that has so dom­i­nat­ed the play­er’s expe­ri­ence up to this point has been ripped out from beneath them.


That sen­ti­ment is exact­ly what the end­ing pro­duces. You (Shepard) have accom­plished so much, achieved astound­ing instances of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and direct­ed the fates of entire species. You (Shepard) are a god­damn hero, and there is a resound­ing feel­ing that the uni­verse owes you for being the diplo­mat­ic peace-maker, for being the ruth­less­ly prac­ti­cal problem-solver, for being you, unique and spe­cial as you have been. But no, that does­n’t mat­ter right now. That is the past. Now, you stare your death in the face. The very notion of con­ti­nu­ity and iden­ti­ty breaks down on that knife’s edge; the game aban­dons it entire­ly to a play­er who is no doubt won­der­ing what the point of his or her deci­sions were if it must, nec­es­sar­i­ly, end in the death of the lovingly-crafted alter ego, the very core of a play­er’s emo­tion­al involve­ment with the uni­verse. Even the same­ness of the three final options reflect the impo­ten­cy of choice against the back­drop of death; for Shepard’s life, all end­ings are func­tion­al­ly the same. Since our view has always been attached to Shepard’s, and this deci­sion is bought with Shepard’s life, it is fit­ting that we don’t see how it turns out with any speci­fici­ty.

In those moments, the line between Shepard and the play­er draws very thin; Shepard’s jour­ney and our jour­ney has been the same. Just like Shepard (I imag­ine), I had dif­fi­cul­ty think­ing clear­ly about the choice at first, caught as I was by intense worry over the fate of my team­mates and fear at never see­ing friends and lovers again. What a (Privilege? Challenge?) to be there at the end, to work through the fact of our inescapable, shared death, won­der­ing if this story/life had held any mean­ing at all. Since the play­er’s gaze toward the future is blocked, it turns unavoid­ably to the past. It retroac­tive­ly puts the focus on the moments of the jour­ney instead of the end-point, and it is in this that the play­er might find mean­ing. Perhaps the point of Shepard’s inter­ac­tions and deci­sions were real­ized before this moment. Perhaps the reward was in being able to make those choic­es in the first place. Does a choice’s impor­tance hinge on its con­se­quences, or is it enough that a choice estab­lish­es iden­ti­ty? I am brought back to the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of Shepard and Kaiden’s stand-off dur­ing Udina’s coup, and his insis­tence that the way a thing went down mat­tered after the fact, when you have to live with your­self. Is it enough that you made a choice? That it was your choice?

Goodbye, Shepard

There is plen­ty more I could say about why I found its end­ing incred­i­bly com­pelling, or that I felt the Galactic Readiness Scale was ulti­mate­ly unnec­es­sary, or how fas­ci­nat­ing its treat­ment of syn­thet­ic and organ­ic inter­ac­tion is, or how impres­sive it is that the series presents a uni­verse devoid of inher­ent mean­ing and never real­ly answers why life is worth sav­ing, and yet still ends on a note that’s reclaims the notes of hope and won­der that Mass Effect opened with, but I am aware that other peo­ple have already han­dled some of these top­ics and that oth­ers demand a full arti­cle.

It feels more appro­pri­ate to be fin­ished with this for now. I am not done griev­ing the end of my most beloved games; the tears are still wet on my cheeks, and though I look for­ward to gain­ing some dis­tance and speak­ing more fully as to why Mass Effect was/is so dear to me (can you ever real­ly reclaim that first expe­ri­ence?), I do not yet have that dis­tance. But I can say this much: Mass Effect 3 made me feel some­thing stark and unique, and I don’t antic­i­pate hav­ing feel­ings of that mag­ni­tude evoked by a game any time soon. I can only feel incred­i­bly thank­ful at being given a chance to take part in it, a thank­ful­ness that is unsur­pris­ing­ly sim­i­lar to my joy at being alive at all.

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at