Headlines – I’m bad at them.
I just finished Mass Effect 3 while working real hard to stay away from actual content discussions of the ending(s). I had heard a lot of qualitative talk – mostly that it was “bad” or “dumb” or “bullshit.” I did not have these reactions! This did not surprise me. This whole thing is stupid with spoilers, by the way, so just scoot out now if you fret over such things. No, for real. Go. Like Ashley in Mass Effect when I killed that bitch. Hoop! There’s one!
Fundamentally, I think I existed in a different context with Mass Effect (italicized when talking about a specific title, non-slanty when speaking of the franchise) than many of my peers. See, this is a BioWare game, so it makes it very easy to feel like you’re in charge of that avatar, that the avatar is you. That would essentially make this thing your story. Here’s where Mass Effect tricks you, because that’s not the case!
It’s actually evident in all the major deviations present in Mass Effect (the original) from the typical modus operandi of BioWare games. Up to that point, BioWare let you make a character, name it, and then be extremely meticulous about who that character was. I’m speaking specifically of Knights of the Old Republic here. My good friend Luke made a KOTOR character whose name was something absurd like “Chavex Smeggler.” He was a Smuggler and a Jedi Consular and all around asshole. Chavex was actually that one friend in everyone’s crew – he’s a dick. You can’t trust him and he’s going to screw you over, but at the end of the day, he cares about a few things that are fundamental to him. Essentially, that meant Bastilla Shan, the love interest, in this particular game. What made KOTOR really Luke’s story of Chavex’s journey was that lynchpin moment where Chavex – who had as many Dark Side points as you could get and had made a Wookie kill his lifemate, driven off his oldest and most loyal crewmembers, and just been a huge jackass – caved while staring at his lady love. She’d been driven off the deepend by the Dark Side, and Chavex knew that wasn’t who she was. So he renounced the Dark Side to bring her back, to make her into the woman he loved again. Maybe that’s really shitty! Now that I read that, it’s super selfish. But he also saved the galaxy, so, I mean, I guess there’s that.
When Luke got into conversations with people as Chavex, they weren’t addressing some other character, or even addressing him by a rank or title the story had given him. Even once they all learned he was really Revan, Luke insisted over and over again that he wasn’t Revan – he was Chavex Smeggler. He could do this freely because the game spelled out your Conversation Tree options in long-form text, showing you exactly what you were about to say and giving you an idea of how the other person was going to respond. That meant you were literally putting all the words into Chavex’s mouth, and only the words you chose.
Since the beginning of Mass Effect, none of those things have been true. You’re not playing “Chavex Smeggler;” you’re playing Alliance Commander [NAME] Shepard. No one ever calls you by that name – it’s just a way to title your save file. You’re always Alliance. You’re always a Commander. You’re always a Shepard. You get to sort of decide what your backstory is, but even that is pretty limited. And then there’s the conversation trees – such as they are. You get this sort of Wheel Of Morality that determines what your answer is – but it’s more of a tonal indicator. Mass Effect always puts the “good, sincere” comment on the upper right, and the “rebel, sarcastic” comment in the bottom right. Then you get things like the “LAWFUL GOOD” response, picked out in Blue, in the upper left when you have enough Lawful Good rep, and the CHAOTIC EVIL response stippled in burning red on the bottom left when you’ve been despicable enough. It gives you a rough idea of what Shepard might say if you pick that option, but you don’t know if it’s a joke, if it’s a lie, if it’s sincere, or if she (Fem Shep!) is just going to say something completely unrelated.
Some might say this is an evolution of the time, but they’d be wrong. Bethesda doesn’t do this in Fallout 3 or Skyrim. You get full conversation choices in those games. Even in BioWare’s own Dragon Age: Origins, which came out after the first two Mass Effect games, you had full conversational control. Plus, you got to choose and establish who you were – backstory, race, alignment, everything. Because there’s a specific adventure happening, you still eventually wind up a Grey Jedi Warden Knight thing (that archetype, man. They love them that archetype), but you got to decide if you were a Dwarf or an Elf, what kind of each you were, and what sorts of things you did as those characters.
In ME, you’re always going to be a starship captain. Side note – still kinda pisses me off that you’re referred to throughout as “Commander.” Like, that might be your rank, but while you have the conn of a starship, are you not its captain? I also wished I could appoint people to run shit while I went down with the away team. I found myself thinking or even saying aloud “Garrus and Kaidan are with me. Liara has the conn.” Damnit, Chrome, “conn” is a word. I have proof.
Anyway, you get to decide who your dead parents were (see what they did there?) and essentially how you got to be a starship captain, what notoriety earned you that. But it’s not important to the story, at all, because it’s your actions from this moment hence which define who this Shepard is. And that’s the important part! It’s still Shepard. Shepard says whatever it is that she wants to say. Not what I want to say. I wanted to tell Thane that his was the voice that made all the difference in Mass Effect 2. I wanted to tell him that if he hadn’t been on that damn boat, I’d have probably made a huge mistake and just given the Man-Reaper to Cerberus. I Shepard wanted to tell him that she didn’t know how he felt in ME2, and that if she had, maybe things would have been different. I wanted Shepard to to tell him he basically wasn’t allowed to die because super alien space assassins aren’t supposed to be killed by swords. (That top comment? The funny one? That one’s mine. /flex).
When Mordin gave his life to cure the genophage for the krogan – and yes, Mordin, you are the very model of a scientist salarian – I wanted Shepard to stop him. I wanted her to figure out another way. I wanted her to have Cortez standing by in a shuttle up top, waiting for Mordin to finish so that he could jump out Bad Boys style into the shuttle and we could get him out of there.
And Legion! I wanted it – him? – to know that he was the other reason Shepard didn’t give up the Reaper. That he was the proof Shepard needed that people could work together, that fighting the Reapers was something everyone – not just Cerberus – needed to do. Because all of that was true! My ME2 Shepard was in a dark place. She wanted to Shoot Many Robots™ and as many or more of their bug-faced servants; she didn’t much care who was paying her or equipping her to do it, or, for that matter, how they were going to go about it. She didn’t trust Cerberus, but she trusted the Alliance and the Council even less.
I didn’t get to do any of those things because Mass Effect what not my story. True, I may not have been able to do those things in KOTOR or Fallout or Skyrim either. But it constantly reinforces the point that this Shepard is a different person than me. She listens to me – I am her conscience and her instincts, but that only carries her so far. I only have so much control over her world.
In a lot of ways, these Extra Creditz episodes (one each!) are revelatory (that, also, is a word, Chrome) to the truth about Mass Effect – it is more in the vein of the classic “JRPG” than it is in the vein of a true Western RPG, and I love it for that. I’m super interested in the story they’re trying to tell, not so much the one I’m crafting. I’m invested in my part in it – I both like and rue having control over these decisions. I hated betraying Grunt’s trust and freeing the rachni, but we needed them. I hated watching Wreav Assume Direct Control (Mass Effect meme in a Mass Effect post? More like Meta Effect, amirite?) over the krogan, knowing it should have been Wrex and that I, acting as Shepard’s conscience, had failed him all those years ago – particularly as the motherfucker’s lumbering contrabass voice haunted her dreams on the once-every-few-weeks occasion she deigned to sleep.
But that was me reaping (lol. I’m good at wordplay) what I had sown in Shepard world. That illusion of control and choice and agency over Mass Effect is like crack, but it is just an illusion. Ultimately, you’re an element of the story they’re telling. At all the big moments, when you’d really want to do something differently (maybe), they deny you control. It’s classic JRPG technique. Even that you don’t get to decide what it is, exactly Shep says.
So when it came down to the end, I was surprised when I was given a true and direct choice. And that there was a middle! A third option, an option of peace. Sure there are some weird, illogical elements, but they’re good, useful weird illogical elements, ones that increase the pathos and allow your decisions to truly reverberate through the story of Mass Effect. Some of those elements are super sad – Kaidan and Garrus were my go-to guys (the former also being Shepard…boyfriend? I dunno. Lover. Spaceboyfriend – yeahthatsit), and followed Shepard’s madcap dash into the
gravlift Reaper beam, so they probably got fried. That’s terrible! That’s terribly depressing. That fact made the decision to give all life a chance a lot easier. Shepard was never going to settle down with Kaidan and have a gaggle of kids. She was never going to wander outsystem and kill some pirates with Garrus for a lark, the two of them Murtaghing about how they’re too old for that shit. Her best friends and oldest allies, save Liara, were dead. Her new friends, and her other oldest and staunchest ally’s – Joker – lover were synthetics. Wiping them out or rendering their will to live pointless was a betrayal she wouldn’t have been able to handle. Plus, the former would have made Legion’s sacrifice completely meaningless. And making one person’s sacrifice meaningless would have been too much for Kaidan. That alone was enough reason to tell Shepard to make the choice I knew she had to make.
Sacrificing herself for a future for everyone? She was born for that. I hated it. I hated knowing that it was true. I hated not knowing if Kaidan was really dead, or how the crew of the Normandy was faring when I made that decision – but Shepard didn’t know either. So, as her instinct, as her consciousness, I made the only choice that seemed right.
The ending took some dramatic liberties with some bullshit. Why was Normandy in
hyperspace mass-effect FTL transit when the relays went off? Why wasn’t it part of the fleet action over Earth? How did EDI get back onboard?
The better question – Who cares? That was just there to show you the results of your decision, and to make sure you knew that the Normandy SR2 wasn’t gonna pull an Enterprise-D/E and continue on without her captain after crash landing on a beautiful jungle plan– oh wait. That’s exactly what happened. What was the point? Right. The point was metaphoric – the Normandy dies with Shepard. One does not exist without the other. It also means if there’s another set of games in the Mass Effect universe, the Normandy won’t be the featured craft – which is fine. I’ll miss the old girl, but she, like her captain, were never really mine to begin with.