The Mass Effect Is Not What You Thought

While humans and aliens and robots mobilize to stop a race of ancient machines from wiping out all life in the galaxy, fans on the internet are also mobilizing in collective outrage over the ending of Mass Effect 3. They have scoured the game’s two discs for data that might reveal Commander Shepard’s true fate, which likely involves sun at the beach and sex in the shade with the lover of their choice after saving the galaxy for the third time. They have written screeds about developer BioWare’s disregard for the respect they have paid Commander Shepard by making hundreds of meaningful decisions in past games and building this hero in their own image. They were the ones who decided to save or exterminate an entire species, to sleep with the alien or the human or both, to use the sniper rifle or the shotgun, to open a door or leave it shut. They were Shepard’s waking consciousness and this has been their story. It follows that they should be able to choose the ending. They even started a fundraising campaign, though I suspect its success will be more complicated than choosing a female.

This conclusion to BioWare’s science-fiction trilogy feels like a betrayal of emotion and intellect. Mass Effect 3 felt this way to me too. But it is meant to. The truest reaction we can have to the game is unreasonable anger. In a bid for broader audiences than role-playing devotees, BioWare appears to have abandoned thoughtfulness: all the formal characteristics of Mass Effect that allowed this work of science fiction, which takes place in the 22nd century and features such outlandish characters as a talking space dinosaur and a hot artificial intelligence, to ruminate upon human nature. 

The shock is expressed in the SSV Normandy, the starship you command as Shepard. The Normandy has been transformed from a meditative space into a likeness of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, run through with exposed tubing and dull red lamps that make you want to rage like a bull.

This game occurs in wartime, and so its conceit is to mobilize the player as well. There is no gazing at far-future skylines and sunsets on luxury planets, no putting away purple drinks in dusky alien bars, no dipping into galactic intrigue in secret asteroid labs. There are no idle conversations with an alien about the divide between body and soul. There is mostly no feeling of romance. When the game opens, Shepard is on Earth without a ship. This is about being grounded. You need to pull your head out of the stars to face the reality of killer machines from another dimension.

To the series newcomer, the Reaper invasion is the story of any science-fiction game with guns. It also feels that way on the field. Mass Effect 2 tightened its gunplay into a physical act so intimate you would press Shepard’s body against a metal crate on a distant moon and walk away feeling the texture of its alien culture. Mass Effect 3 meanwhile flattens each planetary surface into a smooth runway for the player. The game is built for more aggressive styles of play, so that rather than hide behind crates Shepard can dash from one end of the map to the other while climbing over them, leaping over chasms, doing ninja rolls, and stabbing enemies in the face. In another change, Shepard can run forever without becoming tired, thus moving perpetually into the action and further away from you. 

Like your connection to Shepard, these far-flung planets all blur into a singular military motion. The game is nothing but chase and activation, a breathless stutter of emptying clips into demonic glowing heads and slamming down buttons that do important things for the war effort, like powering a comm tower. You end up fixating on the smallest things, like the bluish flame of your submachine gun’s muzzle and the glassy timbre of the bullets leaving its chamber. You can and should forget about philosophical inquiry, as well as getting to know the salarian and quarian and asari homeworlds you waited five years to visit. When Reapers land, all galactic civilizations become the same rubble; so Mass Effect 3 has fully embraced the culture of space marines.

Choice is not even a question in this videogame. It is an operational fact, like choosing to press a button.

At this point the game is already overlooking what you want. The galaxy, once perceived as endless, a source of expansion, an open question, clearly converges at a fixed point: conflict and a superweapon to use against the Reapers called the Crucible, which looks something like a Death Star on a Stick. What happened to the idea that traveling through space might uncover a creature with a deeply different mind, and thus new ways of thinking about humanity? The only meaningful question now seems to be life or death. Doesn’t that feel like the greatest betrayal of all?

At least there are old friends. But they too seem to have changed. People like the empathic Liara or upstanding Garrus, with whom you’ve shared countless conversations and memories, also appear vaguely distracted when near you. This is actually the work of the game’s camera, which even in moments of complete calm, shifts uneasily around their faces as a movie director would show that events are unfolding. Shaken from the neurotically still camera in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2—a view well suited for scientific analysis—you can barely hold on to the faces of your friends, and thus a clear knowledge of what they are really feeling. Your friends seem to be floating away, into theaters of war someplace other than where you are sitting. 

You forget you had wanted to pursue a relationship with Garrus, whose turian face Tom Bissell described in Extra Lives as “a cross between a camel and an artichoke.” You don’t wonder what it would be like to have sex with that shape, to kiss a being with no lips, to play with those hard protrusions on his head. You don’t think about how much it might hurt you. There is sex in Mass Effect 3, but no speculation, only frantic fucking in the face of the galaxy’s end. 

Overcome by notions of apocalypse, the game has lost its innocence. Shepard as well has been taken. You may “import” the Commander Shepard you designed in Mass Effect 2 to continue that person’s story. But this person isn’t yours anymore. When choosing a new lipstick for my Shepard, I notice her lips have grown fuller. They are no longer pursed in irresistible coldness, the upper lip no longer displaying that delicate upward curve. Her body has also grown fuller, and I am certain this isn’t how new pounds are naturally distributed. This is not the doll I created in my own image. Shepard has been snatched away from me, and from all of us, to be hawked to the lowest common denominator. 

“This isn’t about me or you,” retorts one character at a climactic moment in the game. “It’s about things much bigger than all of us.” So we see a Shepard who is actually burdened by the choices she must make, and literally wade through her dreams of a human boy she couldn’t save from the Reapers. We can choose to tell Shepard’s friends how exhausted she feels, or we can hide her true feelings. We are so focused on this choice, whether to open up or not, that we forget this is not like any other choice we have made in a Mass Effect game. There was no forthcoming or private Shepard because she never had any opinion about who she was. We were supposed to fill that in ourselves. So when we listen to her confess, and see her dreaming about failures entirely beyond our control, we suddenly cede ownership of Shepard. We are let inside her head because it is hers, not ours. And we finally have to release ourselves to our own feelings about what we are watching happen to the people and places on the screen, which can no longer be extensions of us. We have to be pushed out to feel this clearly.

Mass Effect 3 is wholly unlike its predecessors in that it is a game about indecision. 

It is when my first friend dies that I realize all of my unreasonable anger toward the game has come from a sense of abandonment. After two games in which we collected and courted Mass Effect characters like playthings, Mass Effect 3 immediately begins to tear them away from us and our obsessions, treating them like real people. And this is what Mass Effect 3 has been trying to tell us all along. That it needs to abandon us so that we may grow. That we need to get over ourselves in order to notice something greater about ourselves. Not every choice we make is equally significant. We can’t hold onto people just by deciding to do so. In the end we cannot account for everything we have chosen. In reality, we are much more nearsighted. If Commander Shepard represents humanity, then we have to abandon her as an empty system of dialogue branches and skill trees on which we can simply project our opinions. She has to have her own thoughts about the choices we have made.

The insight Commander Shepard offers about player choice is not that choice is a lie: a copout stance that critical darlings like BioShock and Portal have taken. It is that choices are inevitably made, and that this is more significant to humanity than what the choices actually were. Our depth is not in each decision, but in the situation of being subjective and alive. 

Mass Effect 3 is wholly unlike its predecessors in that it is a game about indecision. Shepard begins with a single mission, to find an important artifact on Mars. But moments later she has arrived at the Citadel where she is chaotically bombarded with the needs of others. The wounded, the hapless, and the greedy are all asking. Quickly her list of tasks has quadrupled into the dozens. She could choose to save the school, attack the fighter base, look for the priceless artifact, fetch the part for the Normandy’s engine. But she cannot begin to rank these tasks in importance, nor would it be meaningful to do so. They are displayed in one list with no hierarchy. Shepard merely does what she can. And in the meantime she is receiving emails from old friends who want to see her. It’s no longer possible to approach her friends in a calculating manner. She finds that friends will not wait forever: a single unopened email may mean that a friend dies while expecting her visit; while other friends may be totally forgotten because she did not happen to cross paths with them. These are both choices, although we are unable to pin them to a moral stance. They are simply where behavior meets circumstance.

The series of checks and balances needed to prevent some of Shepard’s friends from dying is so arcane, and can go so far back in the series, that we have little choice but to let them go. It’s difficult to “game” Mass Effect 3 for maximum life, as one could its predecessor, because the sensation of decision making is one of reaching blindly into a nest of interdependence that is complex to the point of being meaningless. Choice is not even a question in this videogame. It is an operational fact, like choosing to press a button.

What’s left after the humbling of player choice is an elegiac view of humanity far removed from our portrayal as precocious galactic upstarts in the first Mass Effect. It is considerably more truthful than having sex with a walking artichoke. To be human is to have a desperate yet defining foothold in time. The Reapers, which return every 50,000 years to do the only thing they have ever done, are our foil—cyclical, programmatic, unable to hope for things they cannot see. This is why a hero like Shepard must be able to make a promise to a loved one that she cannot keep. 

When the dust has settled we will have to outgrow our anger at being cheated of the solipsism we thought we deserved, a story that begins and ends with each of us and says nothing about all of us. Mass Effect 3 dares to show us what we have in common, which is that the people in your life will eventually move on. You will, too.