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?
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?
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.