beccatoria: (commander space jesus)
[personal profile] beccatoria
Back in March, after finishing Mass Effect 3, I wrote a bit about how I loved it, but mostly I wrote around the bits I really wanted to address. Partly, I was lazy. Partly, well, I think people thirty fandoms away heard the sound of the Mass Effect fandom rending itself to shreds. Anyway, I finally finished – here's my take on why the ending works and why a lot of people didn't like it.

If you hated it and really don't want to read a gabillion words about the brilliance of expounded themes, that's cool – you couldn't pay me to rewatch Jeremy Jahns either. I salute you with respect and give you permission to scroll on by.

Okay, so. The entire time, the series has been concerned with this idea of cosmicism, that the universe is so inescapably vast and complex, not only are you totally unable to understand what anything really means, you may actually be incapable of any action that achieves true meaning. It's been concerned with that ever since Sovereign showed up like a big robot cuttlefish part-way through the first game and told you so, or, really, ever since your first trip out into the universe alone when you got an alien artifact lodged in your brain and it showed you incomprehensible, apocalyptic horrors.

So on a macro scale it's telling us about this fundamental irrelevance, because giant machines want to eat us (were made by eating us), and at the same time the sociological story of the galaxy is whether we'll render ourselves irrelevant because Cerberus building super soldiers is the same as rotting Krogan DNA is the same as the first Quarian to feel afraid when a Geth asked if it had a soul. The animalistic and technologically simplistic Vorcha live on the edges of society while the Asari rule through mastery so sophisticated it literally permeates their biology in the form of eezo exposure and biotic ability. It's like, do we take machines into ourselves or do we let them destroy us? Do we eat them or do we let them eat us?

We can go smaller and it's still the same question - on a micro scale, Shepard is a cyborg and Shepard died. Her core identity is attacked on two fronts but when you get right down to it the most definitive response possible is simply, "I'm Shepard because I say I am." It's as irrelevant as telling the cosmos, "I matter because I say I do," but it's also as sane.

I have a point, I promise - it shouldn't be death and taxes, it should be death and tools, death and machines, death and our definition, death and opposable thumbs. We spend our lives building, and when we die we do so with no certainty.

So we shift focus from personal to societal to cosmological. There are pretty much two ways to react to uncertainty - you remove it or you accept it. You prove your relevance or you reject the premise that it matters. That's an easier thing to do with a personal story, whichever way you choose to go with it, pretty much because the core dramatic premise of a personal story isn't gonna be the ultimate futility of personal action or the crippling limitations of personal perspective.

What I'm trying to say is, I always wondered how the hell they ever planned on ending the Reaper threat. Because defeating them contradicts that first premise but following through and having the player watch everything she cares about killed horribly teaches us nothing but despair.

Maybe that's why I think the ending's so slick. It goes there - it gives you that moment of meaning, the ability to act on a scale so large your brain is biologically unable to truly visualise it - and all the death and uncertainty and ungrasped meaning comes roiling into Shepard's personal story instead. It manages to give you the biggest conceivable win in galactic history but still brings the overriding tone back to one that reminds you, in the end, everything dies.

Each ending is philosophically distinct but symbolically identical. No matter what happens, you're going up to that platform above the world, you're going to die and everything you know is going to end (violently) and begin again (with uncertainty). They're different because try imagining the universe a hundred years after each ending, but by ending it when it ends, you always end at the same point, tonally speaking. You can't escape it. Your only true choice is in your approach, in your purpose and intent. In what your choice means.

The reason you don't get to see what the universe looks like a hundred years later (or even a hundred minutes) is because Shepard doesn't. We never know the full extent of our influence; we can never dictate, or even witness, the terms of our legacy.

At which point, Mass Effect is making the mechanics of how you play the game an integral part of its ultimate thematic message. It's an experience you could not replicate in film.

There's a hundred hours to be spent exploring this universe, making choices in accordance with an external moral framework that rewards you with little blue and little red points. The meaning of your behaviour is affirmed. You return hours or games later and see, ah, here is a thing I have changed, and here is how I changed it. Three games to teach you everything you need to know about this universe, including, most critically, how you feel about everyone in it. And that's when the game stops telling you what to do and what will happen if you do it.

I don't believe this to be a betrayal of principle or expectation. I think it goes back to that first concern; whether anything we do matters. On a large enough scale, even the most devastating choices become utterly irrelevant. Either we accept this and embrace nihilism, or we accept this and decide what matters is that these choices are relevant to us, and we embrace existentialism.

And that's what this final choice is about. In suddenly removing the familiar it correlates on a thematic level with the uncertainty and tension in the plot - an impossible decision thrust upon you without enough information or time to decide, and on a practical level it replicates the notion that you have been set adrift - that perilous, impossible freedom; the mechanics you use to orient yourself in the game world suddenly nowhere to be found. I've spoken about the way I think these games aim to provide variable meaning based on singular events, but ultimately, you and Shepard must both make a decision knowing that the only objective meaning you will find is the meaning you provide yourself. Even as you act on a cosmological level, even as you do that, the lesson you must learn is the same.

We are asked, devoid of external validation, do our actions matter?

Apparently, for a lot of people, the answer to that question was no. I mean, let's be specific; the answer was no when playing this game. Perhaps the knowledge that it was an entirely simulated environment made this a particularly dissonant topic - certainly attributing the decision to laziness rather than specific intent is a popular interpretation. But I think I'd argue that the furore and outrage that exploded after the game's release suggests something different. I think maybe the immersive experience was entirely successful, but too many of the audience fell into the arms of nihilism and missed the existentialist message.

I think the game does a pretty awesome job at wrapping up it's plot in a coherent manner, but I also know that's where a lot of the complaints come in. Those pretty much break down into two types - the technical irregularities and the arguments about tone and theme. I think the first would be overlooked in the same way as plotholes in other parts of the series if it weren't for people's feelings about the second. I'd go so far as to say a lot of complaints in that first category really hurt because of the implications for the second (lore issues surrounding destruction of the relays, assumptions about supply levels and interstellar travel, etc).

At which point there are three big groups, and they break down along the same lines as the three possible responses to the proposition of cosmicism.

1) Denial. We are not irrelevant and are capable of proving this: the desire for an ending where you get to kick ass. (Fuck cosmicism).

2) Despair. It has been proven we are irrelevant and nothing has any meaning: the desire for an ending where you at least don't want to slit your wrists. (Nihilism).

3) Delight. If we are irrelevant and nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do: that ending was beautiful. (Existentialism).

I can't say what I think the game should have done instead, if even anything. I don't mean that as a fuck you to the people who hated it, because, well, hate is a fairly rational response to something you feel is telling you you're less relevant than snot on tissue paper. That's not how I felt, but if your story holds something to be unavoidably true, and that something is either transcendent or nihilistically horrifying based on nothing more (or less) than your personal approach to existence, and that something is, by nature of the medium, experienced rather than explained, I don't know, maybe none of us should have been so surprised.

So I guess they could have tried for more context - make their existentialist inclinations clearer - but I think the further you go in that direction the more you're trying to present a view rather than ask a question, and there's nothing wrong with that, and those things are totally interrelated, but you're also moving further and further from the type of story that could only be told here, this way, in this medium, and I think that would make me sad.

You could probably argue this was the extended cut's approach, but I don't think so. I think the extended cut was about mitigating the message just as much as it was about explaining it. They used the epilogue to say, hey guys, it's okay, this is what we meant and it's not awful. The extended cut isn't awful either, hell there are a few things in it I really like and one I flat out love. But it's also not necessary. The expanded conversation with the Catalyst might not have bothered me with its structure if it was the first time I'd ever seen it, but since it wouldn't exist if not for fan reaction, all I feel is how much time I'm wasting on indignation while people are dying outside the window. Nothing we say to him changes the situation. Nothing he says to us makes him more trustworthy. His explanations are essentially the explanations I would have extrapolated on my own.

The same thing's there in the actual epilogue sequences - they're beautiful. They're beautiful but they exist to tell us what we already know. They exist to tell us what we hope for the future is more real than what we fear, but in doing so they undercut the very uncertainty that made the end so valuable.

We've known the very spine of the universe, the Relay network, is malignant, a trap, since the first game told us about the Citadel's rotten purpose. The extended cut removes the transhumanist response of synthesis (it will be replaced by something new and unknowable), the existentialist response of control (it will cease to be a symbol of our enemies' control of our evolution and become a symbol of our own power because that is what we chose for it to be) and the politically nihilist inclinations of destruction (all oppressive power structures will be violently destroyed regardless of collateral damage). Instead it gives us what amounts to an interruption of service - a reassurance that nothing needs to change; that beginnings aren't always scary.

Which just leaves the option to not tell a story set in a godless, meaningless universe in the first place. That would make me sad too. I don't know of another piece of pop culture this mainstream that takes this stance and asks these questions. Given what the scientific discoveries of the last century have taught us about the scale and nature of our universe and given science fiction's traditional purpose, I think these are issues our blockbuster sci-fi franchises should absolutely be addressing.

That's it really. That's what I think the games are trying to do and why I think it works and why I think people hate it.

Which just leaves the two points I tried and tried to fit into this in an impressive, seamless fashion, and failed -

I wanted to talk about how it's not just the people who hated the ending who were hurt by this whole fiasco, but, like FILM CRITIC HULK, I couldn't work out how to say it without sounding like I was yelling at people who probably didn't deserve it, and unlike HULK, I probably couldn't write as eloquent an apology that added about five good points without going back on the underlying premise of my point. So I figured I'd just skip that bit.

Also, you guys remember the Mako? The ridiculous, uncontrollable space buggy from the first game? That I once managed to crash so badly the entire world flipped upside down? I actually kinda miss that thing in the later games. It made me feel like an explorer. All these huge, empty worlds full of nothing but space debris and hostile atmospheres. It really made me feel how vast and empty the galaxy is.

Which seems a good note to end on.

Date: 2013-01-10 06:27 am (UTC)
caramarie: David from Prometheus with the cube of human accomplishments. (david and the cube of human accomplishme)
From: [personal profile] caramarie
Your only true choice is in your approach, in your purpose and intent. In what your choice means.

It's interesting what you say here – remember feeling quite defensive reading a lot of the meta that came out about the ending. Specifically, Indoctrination Theory/Destroy is the only true ending and if you picked anything else you're a sucker.

Because I had spent the whole game choosing not to kill off entire species, not to intefere with another species right to exist and to reproduce, and not to treat robotic life as if it weren't life. Was I seriously meant to assume that the ending of a story I'd spent 90 hours in was a fake out? That it was trying to trick me? That one of those options was a big flashing 'game over' screen instead of a legitimate choice?

*sigh*

If there's no real epilogue, then all you have is the decision you made. And as you say, what matters is that these choices are relevant to us.

I think these are issues our blockbuster sci-fi franchises should absolutely be addressing.

I will never understand why people consider sci-fi to be an escapist genre. It can be, and there's nothing wrong with escapism, but I also think sci-fi is equipped to ask really big questions in a way other genres can't always.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this post :)

Date: 2015-04-25 12:15 pm (UTC)
xparrot: (b5 shadow)
From: [personal profile] xparrot
You're likely long out of this fandom, but I wanted to say, thank you for this essay. I only recently played the ME games for the first time, and found them an amazing experience, but I wasn't sure how I felt about the ending.

I'm not particularly educated in philosophy, I tend to take a more psychological approach to analyzing literature - character-focused more than thematic, the more mainstream fan approach. But this interpretation rings true to me as what the creators were going for. And it fascinates me, that if it was, then the rage it provoked might have been inevitable. The philosophical quandary they wanted to evoke would only really be effective with a story so engaging; and yet that engagement is what left most of the audience so upset.

I played with the extended cut (accidentally, I didn't realize it had been downloaded) and for me, the mitigation it gave was valuable - it left me satisfied enough that I wanted to consider the ending in greater depth, rather than so frustrated that I just ignored the story's conclusion. At the same time, I can see your point about how adding that extra explanation undercuts the entire point, and, if not entirely ruins the end for you, makes it far less profound.

(I wonder if the extended cut might have managed to better preserve the original intent, if the ending monologue/scenes had been put at the moment before Shepard takes action - as Shepard's vision/hope of what the future might be like, rather than confirmation? Or maybe there's no solution here. Except to install the ending you prefer, and that's an interesting commentary in itself as gaming as an interactive story... )

Regardless, this was a great read, and made me appreciate the ending as much as I appreciated the rest of the games - thank you for that!
Edited Date: 2015-04-25 12:19 pm (UTC)

Date: 2015-04-29 07:48 pm (UTC)
xparrot: (b5 shadow)
From: [personal profile] xparrot
Not overly terrifying at all! All your thoughts are really intriguing - here, and your other posts on the games. In some aspects we have very similar feelings (you articulated my own thoughts about Mordin's complex character, and I <3 everything you say about synthetic intelligences) and in other ways our fanning is totally different, and I enjoyed the alternative perspectives. I admit, part of me is jealous of how you understood the original ending, that it worked for you as it did. But I'm so grateful that you were able to convey some of that experience - you genuinely made my own understanding of the ending (and with it the games as a whole) a lot more satisfying. With the bonus that I now understand existentialism better than I did...

(Plus I spent a couple hours debating with a friend in defense of the ending, which she roundly hated - don't worry, we both enjoy such debates, had a lot of fun; and she's replaying ME3 now to see how she feels about the ending with new context.)

I've read all the articles/posts you linked - and quite a bit more, I've gotten slightly obsessed. I admit, there's a part of me that finds the fan reaction to the end as fascinating as the end itself. And I've seen enough that the Film Critic Hulk's reaction (and apology) didn't seem out of place.

My own experience is a bit odd. Most of my prior knowledge of ME came from my brother, a long-time gamer who falls solidly in the stereotpyical dudebro demographic along most axises, but is somewhat idiosyncratic in his tastes. From him and other gamer friends of mine, I'd heard the ending was controversial/frustrating/bad, and that there had been some major blowback. But as a longtime fan I'm used to controversies about endings - I've been on all sides of those arguments, hating certain endings that were widely liked, and liking unpopular endings because I saw something in them that was generally missed.

My brother didn't like the ending, but his issue with it was that he saw it as completely destroying the universe - as far as he was concerned, which choice you made was moot, because the destruction of the mass relays would kill everyone anyway, what with half the galaxy's stars going nova and survivors completely cut off from any support. (My impression is that the mass relay destruction wasn't intended to be quite that catastrophic and that's why they walked it back in the EC, but...) I kind of assumed that was the general reaction, that people equally hated all the endings.

So I was astonished, when I finished playing last month and started looking up alternate scenes and things on youtube, and starting seeing all the comments insisting Destroy was the only 'right' moral choice. It was particularly weird because one of the few spoilers I'd had from both my brother and another friend was that there was one ending choice that Shepard could survive, but it was the worst ending otherwise and not worth it. All three of us chose Synthesis - for my Shepard, it was the only possible decision. With that limited sample I had no idea that Synthesis was an unpopular choice (at least in some places online!) I thought all the endings, like most of the other major choices of the games, had been pretty carefully balanced to not be clearly right or wrong, and I could see how any of them could be the right choice for some versions of Shepard. Considering moral relativism is one of the major themes of the games...I'm a bit boggled by how thoroughly some people missed the point there.

(And I'm really glad I played the games so much later, after all these debates have passed, because I fear I'd have gotten into some epic flamewars. Even now, reading about things like the Indoctrination Theory have me flipping out - the argument that Control represents TIM's indoctrination philosophy and Synthesis is Saren's and therefore Destroy is the right answer is just...guys, committing smaller-scale genocide in the name of preventing a greater genocide is the Reapers' philosophy straight up!)

...So, yeah, considering how fraught it is just reading these old posts, I completely understand how your experience with them real-time would have tainted the EC for you, even putting aside your other qualms. I'm glad you can uninstall and forget it! (I'm tempted to do so myself next time I do a playthrough, to experience the original endings - I've watched some of them on youtube, but playing them is definite different.) (Or else I might keep the EC installed but stop the game before the voiceover/montage - because yeah, I can see what you mean about the uncertainty, and imagining for yourself what could happen next. I also do like - I can't remember if it was you or another post I've read elsewhere, but someone pointed out that it's only right for the games to end before you see what happens next - that your window to the universe closes with Shepard's death, and that it breaks the immersion to be able to see more than a glimpse past it. Though I do like having enough of a glimpse to confirm that the Catalyst wasn't completely lying - my favorite part of the EC is the moment on the battlefield with the random soldiers, and the different reactions of the husks, was really affecting, for me.)

Also, re: your friend's concept of Control - heh, I have another friend who has never and doesn't plan to play the games, who when I laid out the basic concepts of the endings, immediately said that Control was the obvious choice, because it still allowed for the other two options as well, you could either destroy yourself, or initiate synthesis at your leisure...

I can say that the fandom does seem to have calmed down - I've posted a few thoughts on the games and their endings in my lj, and while I've had a few people offering their opinions about the ending, and which they chose and why, no one's been judgmental about it. I'm not sure if the EC helped assuage the upset or if it's just relaxed over time, but I'm enjoying being able to discuss it.

--And while I have you (if you've managed to get through this novel of a comment!) and since I'm not sure I left comments on the proper posts - I really loved both of your ME vids. The one to Bleeding Out in particular captured the experience of the game and its collapsing multiverse feel beautifully!

Date: 2016-11-22 12:55 pm (UTC)
silly_cleo: A woman in a red dress dancing, artistically blurry/in motion. (dancing! - girl in red dress)
From: [personal profile] silly_cleo
I don't have anything eloquent to say about this, I'm just mad and sad about people's responses to the ending. This is lovely though. And yes, 'if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do', and explorations of same, is one of my bulletproof narrative kinks, so, hi.

It's so interesting hearing more about how you feel about the EC though. I think it's a bit like our Leviathan DLC chats, it's different for those of us playing now years after the fact, when it's all in some ways just available and all bits of DLC are in some ways equal, and your experience of getting it real-time, after the fact, with associated baggage? If that makes sense?

Basically, I can understand being in your position and feeling that way about the EC, and I debated long and hard with myself over whether to play with it first or not. The reason I ultimately decided to is fear. I was scared I might dislike the ending and that the EC might be the difference between liking and disliking, and while the more I played the more I thought that was probably not going to happen, the worst case scenario of not installing it seemed worse than the worst case scenario of installing it, if that makes sense? (Plus obv this was while playing ME3, so by the time I thought it was unnecessary it was too late, cuz it was already pre-installed.) (ETA: actually just read person above's comment about worrying that frustration would make them nope out, and that's exactly it. I wanted all the tools possible to make sure I didn't hate it, and while it turns out that one wasn't necessary, I wasn't prepared to risk it. Which sounds melodramatic, but, well, hi. ;))

In the end there were points where it felt unnecessary, even before Cara pointed out which bits were EC. I'm playing without it this go round so I'll let you know how it goes, in another 90 or so hours' time.

<3

(Feel free to reply to this comment by twitter DM or whatever if that's easier for you RN, or LMK if you whatsapp or something like that. But only if you want obv!)
Edited Date: 2016-11-22 12:58 pm (UTC)

Date: 2016-11-22 12:58 pm (UTC)
silly_cleo: black and white image of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, text: an almost all greek thing (Default)
From: [personal profile] silly_cleo
ALSO I'm replaying 1 and I have the MAKO back. I set it on fire and then drove it off a cliff last night!

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