Analysis: Mass Effect

Mass Effect 3 as a brutal Deconstruction of the both the series itself and Space Opera in general.

The first Mass Effect was a representation of pre-cyberpunk traditional Space Operas in the 70s to 80s (Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Star Trek). With themes commonly found in them such as breathtaking environments on different planets, exotic and interesting aliens cultures, a race of attractive, female looking aliens, mass effect based technology being presented as the solution to many social problems, and most importantly, the story’s focus being a tales of great personal heroism from a soldier fighting against evil, represented by a single villain and his army of faceless, robotic mooks.

The second game was a darker and edgier actionized sequel, with themes from both Post Cyber Punk stories and sci-fi summer blockbuster in the late 90s to early 2000 (Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid, Independence Day). Unlike the original game, the setting is a lot less idealistic, with incompetent government and amoral corporations in power, and social problems that technology cannot solve such as poverty, racism and corruption being presented much more prominently.

Philosophically, things become much more complicated with there being no completely good characters. Take captain Balley, Aria, and Samara for example, all of them being different levels of anti-heroes at various shades of grey, doing the best they can in a world half-full. Even Shepherd him/herself was no longer an upstanding citizen, but instead being forced to work for a terrorist organization in order to get things done. But despite all of this, you can still perform acts of kindness whenever possible to make the universe a better place, and in the end the hero can still triumph against impossible odds using The Power of Friendship and a few Rousing Speeches, transforming your Rag Tag Bunch Of Misfits into True Companions that saved the day.

In the final chapter of the series starting from the Arrival DLC, the story became a brutal session of continuous reality ensues, destroying every last idealistic theme left in the series, leaving both Shepherd (especially if you are playing paragon) and the player emotionally drain.

Did you romanced/befriended Thane in hope that you will be able to save him from Kepral's Syndrome? Sorry, but the power of love is simply not a substitute for medicine.

Did you managed to persuade Charr the Krogan poet and Ereba (Blue Rose of Illium) to get married? Once again, love is not bulletproof from the fires of war, leaving her a war widow that will have to raise their child by herself.

Did you hope to see Kal'Reegar again and fight along side with him? He is no stronger then you average common NPC redshirt and unceremoniously die off-screen like countless others.

Did you spend time performing every last Fetch Quest for the people on the Citadel, saving the egg clutch from a salarian colony, recovering historical and religion artifact to give people some hope to cling to, and bring back confirmation to a diplomat that his son has died so that his family can stop worrying? When all is said and done, their impact on war effort is so small that it is all basically meaningless.

Most importantly, if you are to pay attention to information in the codex and the lore, there is simply no conventional means to defeat the Reapers without throwing realism out the window. Shepherd him/herself out right stated in front of the committee of admirals on Earth that this isn’t about strategy or tactics. The best you can do is to go down fighting and not make things too easy for the reapers.

The only thing that keeps Shepherd going is simply that he/she doesn’t have much choice in the matter. For the players, we are confident that as The Chosen One, he/she will ultimately succeed against overwhelming odds… somehow. Just like how the Shepherd gambled everything on Crucible, desperately hoping on faith alone that it will win the war… somehow. In the end, you are just one men/women. Perhaps an exceptionally strong willed one, and just like TIM said, you did better then most ever could, but it doesn’t matter in the grand-scale of things.

In the end, you are given three sadistic choices by an arrogant ancient AI that argues using Insane Troll Logic, forcing you to either commit galaxy-wide genocide (granted, in a sense you were going to do that anyway, he only clarifies that it won't be as discriminatory as you expected it to be), become the very thing you fought against, or forcibly re-write the very core life itself without the consent from anyone else. Do you want to stay true to your principles and say ‘Never! I will never turn to the darkside! You failed your highness.’ Congratulations, there is no redeemed Darth Vader here to save you. You have just doomed all your allies and everyone you ever loved to die. Since it was stated time and time again that the war is unwinnable without a gamebreaking MacGuffin. You couldn't fight against the creator of the cycle anymore then Winston Smith could in fighting against the Party and Big Brother. The Protheans, who were much more advance then you were couldn't failed to stop their extermination at the hands of the reapers, what makes you think that you are special? Just because you are a paragon of peace and justice/ruthless warrior doing whatever it takes to win? Do you honestly think there wasn't billions of heros just like yourself in the pervious cycles?

In the end, you are just one person. And just like Shepherd said to Garrus in the first game, you can never tell how the world acts, but you can control how you respond to it. And in the end, perhaps that is the only thing that matters as far as you as an individual is concern.

  • It is a Deconstruction because acting like Luke and Jean-Luc will put you in some very trying moral dilemmas and make your oath harder. However, playing as a ruthless Pragmatic Hero does make those sticky moral dilemmas easier to resolve. Here are some examples
    • Saved the rachni queen? Now you have to choose between saving her and saving the Krogan company. With foreknowledge of War Asset counts, you will know what to do, but without this foreknowledge? Indecision!! However if you killed the queen and meet the breeder, this choice is not so sadistic at all. Just talking to it reveals that it is Ax-Crazy and even Liara the paragon of paragons warns you against saving it.
    • Saved Wrex on Virmire? Sadistic choice again. Get Krogan assistance or Salarian assistance. With no foreknowledge of war asset numbers, how do you decide? However with Wrex dead, Wreav is in charge. Watching him mouth off a few times will make the choice much easier. Pays off too, as you can be a Magnificent Bastard and play both sides.
    • Saved the Council? Ouch, your fleets have been gutted. Killed them? Human war assets are higher.
    • Sold Legion off or deliberately got it killed? This geth VI sounds cold and just off!! Now you have to choose between the Quarians and geth. Choice is harder should you have talked to Legion but without his perspective, choosing to let the Quarians kill the geth is easier. And thus same lack of perspective also allows you to choose Destroy guilt free.
    • Hoped that having a Prothean squadmate would give you insights into this amazing awesome alien species and hoped he would be an Obi-Wan like mentor guiding you to victory against the Reapers? And were then shocked when you got Javik? If you listen carefully to what he is saying, he is actually giving you some very useful solutions. Saved the Rachni queen? He approves if you save it again. Sabotaged the genophage? He approves if you do so. Killed off the geth? He approves. He is nudging you into actions that relieve you of moral dilemmas at the game's end. He is also nudging you towards the decisions which if properly made save organic lives, including your own. You just had to throw away your idealist hat and put on your pragmatist hat in order to fully grasp the content of his advice. Him talking about the Zha'Til? Warning you about a consequence of Synthesis. His talking about how the Protheans fought a war of attrition and lost? He was warning you about Refusing to Use the Catalyst in the end. Even Vendetta warns you that "the splinter faction arguing that we should dominate the reapers was indoctrinated" is subtly warning you against control.
  • All in all, the game is set up such that a Wide-Eyed Idealist who believes that there is a Golden Ending in which you save everyone is going to be in for a rude shock. A Pragmatic Hero on the other hand recognizes that some sacrifices have to be made and can actually win in the end.

Was the Catalyst correct in that organics and synthetics will always fight each other? (A deeper philosophical examination on choosing the 'Destroy' ending)

Think back to one of the conversions you can have with Ashley in the original Mass Effect. In which she stated her infamously cynical view on galactic politics, stating that humanity cannot rely on aliens or trust them as allies. Since we are too fundamentally different and everyone will only look out for their own race's self-interest in the end. To prove her point, she used the metaphor of a pet dog. No matter now much you love and care for it, in the end, if push comes to shove, when presented with the choice between saving either another human being or your dog, you will always go for the the human. Now look at the ending of Mass Effect 3. If you pick the 'Destroy' option, you have just proven her point. Perhaps you view EDI as your close friend and you believe that the geth deserve a chance in building their own future. But in the end, when you are backed to a corner, you sided with the more familiar organics at the cost of all synthetic life.

By extension, you have also just proven that the Catalyst was correct in that organics and synthetics cannot co-exist for long. If even paragon Shepard, one of the most (if not the most) open-minded organic towards synthetics in all the pervious cycles is still willing to kill off all synthetics for self-persevation, is there going to be any hope that peace between the two people will last? What if you have a choice of defeating the reapers by either exterminating all organic or synthetic life? What if EDI or Legion was in your place making that decision, what do you think they would have chosen?

Conflict between organics and synthetics explored further

The inevitability of conflict between organics and synthetics doesn't arise simply because they are different from us, and are therefore not us. Ashley's statement about sic'ing your dog on a bear and running for your life is based on old folksy wisdom that also justifies xenophobia. While xenophobia is a valid and common reason why the conflict could occur, it is actually only an ancillary justification.

Synthetic life isn't just a completely different form of life, it is life that can be created from base elements by organics. On the other hand, organic life can so far only be created by having other organic life spawn. Javik even lampshades this. While we organics do not know where we came from, synthetic life firms do. Even Legion claims that as a result we organic life are plagued by questions of existence, synthetic life forms aren't. They already know who made them, how they were made, and in many instances, even why.

An examination of why synthetic life might have been created, brings up some disturbing points.

1) Synthetics were created purely to function as cheap slave labor for menial and/or dangerous tasks - In this instance, conflict is inevitable because you have just created these self aware things capable of learning, understanding, thought, growth and self actualization, as nothing more than tools to be used. Just as any oppressed society rebels, so will they.

2) Robots weren't created as artificial life, but evolve intelligence and self awareness. Imagine you live in a smart house with a driverless car and everything is automated, networked and self optimizable, for your convenience. And then one day, your toaster claims to have become sentient and wants you to negotiate working conditions with it. Or your driverless car suddenly decides that it doesn't want to accomadate only your travel needs anymore, that it now wants to go out and explore the world on its own, and that if you want to use it, you only can when it feels charitable towards you. Will an Everyman or Girl Next Door suddenly comprehend the philosophical issue of machines now being alive, and treat them as such? Or will they treat those machines as major malfunctioning numbnuts and demand recalls, fixes, warranty pay? And when they do, how many shutdowns and reprogramming attempts will these new self aware machines accept before they have had enough? And decide to fight for freedom?

3) The third possible reason they were created is as a philosophical or psychological experiment - someone just says, let me create this life form, set it free and see what it dies and how everyone reacts to it and interacts with it. Nothing wrong with that, in the beginning. People know it is alive and treat it as such. If it is new, they treat it as they would a child, if it has matured a little, as an adult and if it has been around for a long time, like an experienced sage. But then, this life form can grow, adapt and alter itself exponentially faster than we organics can. Heck, we can't even determine how we will evolve,mince it is such a slow and gradual process, but synthetics can upgrade themselves as they see fit. And on slightly larger timescales, they will surpass us on all metrics of evaluating life, by a long shot. They will be a superior form of life. This is what a technological singularity is. So once synthetics realize this, how will they treat us puny and slow organics? Will they see us as parasitic viruses inefficiently hogging resources that they can put to better use? And deal with us like we deal with pests, parasites and viruses? Or will they perceive us as curious oddities to be kept around for their amusement like we do with pets? And just as we do with domesticated animals, even intelligent (relatively) ones, will they socialize us? Condition us to behave in a manner appropriate to them? Spay us and neuter us? And will we just sit there and take it?

So how effective would the three choices be at preventing this problem in the future?

With Destroy, you have the plans for the Crucible device made available for future generations of organic life, with even the knowledge of what it does - indiscriminately kill all synthetic life. Due to this, a technological singularity cannot happen for eons because organics have this giant reset button for if AI becomes a crapshoot and robots go rampant. We can keep all synthetics at VI levels for a long time. However, should an AI be created, it already has at least one example of genocide being committed against its kind, possibly more. This existential threat would make most of them paranoid. So if enough of them are around, they might start to look into developing countermeasures. This creates an air of mutual distrust that won't go well if they do develop effective countermeasures, as the paranoia will make the possibility of peace very difficult. Using the Crucible as a preemptive measure to head off such conflict is only a stop gap band aid. Once some synthetic figures out how to make itself immune to the crucible, it's game over man!! Game Over!! So, we find a new solution, using the crucible to prevent problems until we arrive at that solution.

Control actually solves nothing and creates its own can of worms. This is actually touched upon in Mass Effect 3/Fridge Horror.

Ah, yes!! Synthesis, the combining of organic and synthetic into one cyborg template for all life, that results in everlasting peace. We will dismiss that claim.

On the surface, Synthesis does seem like the silver bullet that gets us the Golden Ending we all desire! One in which there is no conflict due to The Singularity, because the technology that makes synthetics surpass organics now cannot be totally divorced from organic processes. Any new synthetic created from base elements cannot surpass its cyborg creators because those cyborgs can grow, upgrade and adapt as exponentially fast as it can. Synthetics now have to deal with these cyborgs on an equal footing. However, using the Crucible to force the Catalyst's synthesis on to everyone - Problematic!! And here's why.

Mordin Solus states twice in Mass Effect 2 once in an obscure conversation with Avina about poverty alleviation and once again in a conversation in the tech lab after Loyalty Mission, that technological progress should be the result of life forms and society pushing up against limitations and trying to overcome them. Can't carry a load? Invent wheel. Can't catch food? Invent spear. Can't preserve food for long periods? Invent refrigeration. Can't supply mechanical power to all labor saving machines? Invent electric motor. Can't meet electricity demand? Invent gensets. And so on and so forth. But introducing technology before life forms have even perceived the limit it was supposed to overcome! Disastrous! Like giving nuclear reactors to cavemen. Saw it with Krogan. Gave them space flight technology before they realized what limit they needed it to overcome. Without knowing that, they used that technology for completely unintended purposes. Same thing with cyborg synthesis. Society must be ready for it. Giving all life a monumental technological leap via implanted Reaper/Leviathan tech disastrous. They don't know what limits were these technical upgrades intended to surpass. Without that knowledge? Upgrades used for completely unintended purposes. Disastrous!

If synthesis is to be achieved, it must be achieved on our own terms, when we as a society brush up against the limits that would require us to implant ourself with tech. That is why the Destroy ending with Shepard taking a breath is the highest bar to reach. A Shepard that lives knows that synthesis must eventually be achieved to stop problematic tech singularities, but can also ensure via their fame that this synthesis is progressively attained on our terms, upgrading ourselves with salvageable reaper tech only when we need to solve a known vexing issue and never before. And if synthetics pose a problem before this progressive synthesis is attained? Just use the Crucible to reset them.

Shepard as a Doomed Moral Victor from the very beginning

"You fight against inevitability, dust struggling against cosmic winds… But even now, your greatest civilizations are doomed to fall. Your leaders will beg to serve us… Know this as you die in vain; your time will come. Your species will fall."

These were Harbinger’s words to Shepard at the end of the Arrival DLC. In a typical si-fi Space Opera, this may seem to be your typical Chess Master Big Bad suffering from a Villainous Breakdown after our hero messed up their well-laid out plans. However, once you take the events of Mass Effect 3 into consideration, one will have no choice but to acknowledge that Harbinger wasn’t just trying to provoke Shepard with Trash Talk, he was merely telling the truth.

Try looking at the empirical evidence objectively; conventional victory against the reapers was simply impossible from the very start. In the original Mass Effect, Sovereign, a single dreadnoughts, managed to mercilessly blast its way through the combine strength of both the Citadel Defense Force and the Alliance First, Third, and Fifth Fleets before it was destroyed due to Shepard’s timely intervention. With the reapers now invading at full strength, there is just no way for the galaxy to stop them at all.

Consider all of Shepard’s victories in the first two games:

So you managed to defeat Saren and stopped Sovereign from activating the Citadel relay? The reaper invasion has now been delayed by three years (Totally meaningless on the timescale of a galactic cycle that has been in place for billions of years).

So Shepard was rebuilt, brought back to life and managed to stop the Collectors from abducting human colonies in the Terminus? You have just killed an extra reaper and saving a few million lives (Only a single reaper in a fleet of thousands. As for those colonist, they all get blasted into dust from orbit as soon as the invasion starts).

So you where forced to destroy the Alpha Relay, sacrifice more than 300,000 batarian lives and destroying the entire Bahak system? You have just delayed the invasion for an extra six months (Again, totally meaningless on the grand scale).

Even if everything went as you would have wanted in an idealized setting, and you managed to persuade the Council and the Alliance to listen to you from the very beginning… The reapers would have still won because conventional victory was never a possibility at all.

Even if the threat of the reapers was enough to get both the Terminus Systems and the batarians to cooperate… The reapers would have still won because conventional victory was never a possibility at all.

Even if TIM wasn’t indoctrination and devoted all of Cerberus’ resources towards fighting the reapers instead of for them… The reapers would have still won because conventional victory was never a possibility at all.

From the very get go, nothing you do or not do will even make a dent in the reaper’s cycle or change the outcome of the war. Did you save the Zhu’s Hope colonists, exposed corruption on Noveria, negotiated peace between the Quarians and Geth, and cured the genophage?

Sorry, but none of it matters at all, no more than Javik’s stories about how the densorin attempted to pacify the reapers by sacrificing their children, the zha'til turning their creators into monsters, or the synril’s pursuit for the path to eternal peace.

In a way, everything Saren said was completely right. If you and everyone you ever loved are all going to die horribly in the end anyway, you might as well lived the life of an ordinary man/women together with your love interest in blissful ignorance until the day comes when the planet you live on falls to the reapers.

Next time you play the first two games, keep in mind that reaper defeat is impossible and all your actions towards this point are pointless. None of the decisions and choices that anybody made at any time has any bearing on the result.

There wasn’t any point in getting angry that the Council and the Alliance government for living in denial. Since even if they had listened to you, it would have all come down to "We never had a chance. Thank god that Liara found the crucible blueprints at the last second”.

There wasn’t any point in contemplating the philosophical implications of sparing or killing the rachni / rewriting or destroying the geth heretics. Since no matter what you decided to do, it would have all come down to "We never had a chance. Thank god that Liara found the crucible blueprints at the last second”.

Shepard (and to a much larger extent, we the players) was Wrong Genre Savvy and seems to think that he/she is the The Hero/ The Chosen One of the story. His/her entire life was framed a stereotypical action Hero's Journey in a si-fi space opera. You were born to be special; had an impressive service record in the marines; Was chosen to become the first human Spectre; Saving or dooming entire planets and civilizations; Cheated death itself; Finding love and friendship despite the merciless fires of war; Uniting the galaxy to fight as one in the war to end all wars; And finally, you march off into the final battle with the hopes and dreams of those around you, fighting for the future of every mother, every son, and every unborn child…

Well, and then Reality Ensues and his/her story crumbles around you like a tone of bricks. Primarily because the will of a single men/women, no matter how strong or determined, can stop a super advance race of genocidal starships. The only option you have left at this point is to either summit to the will of an insane cosmic AI tyrant, betraying everything you fought for; Or stay true to your moral principles, refusing to let fear compromise who you are... at the cost of dooming everyone to die and the Vicious Cycle to continue.

You are just dust struggling against cosmic winds, after all.

From A Certain Point of View

This is a very well-reasoned analysis, but it misses one crucial point. Everything Shepard accomplished actually *mattered.*

Stopped Sovereign at the Citadel? Delay the invasion 3 years. And left galactic government intact, despite the ignorance of the Council. The Citadel remained a central hub for gathering an alliance.

Stopped the Collectors? Saved millions, bought more time. Plus laid the groundwork for future alliances.

Destroyed the Alpha Relay at the cost of 300,000 lives? Bought more time. Now Liara goes off to Mars and has time to discover the Crucible plans. Why does discovering it early matter? Because the sooner you start construction, the more likely you are to have the resources to build it swiftly enough to prevent its destruction or sabotage.

All those pointless side quests? It helped build Shepard into a symbol people could believe in and made people's lives a little bit better towards the end.

Shepard and his/her crew shaped the galaxy, molding it into a place that could come together. Could they win by sheer military might? No. But they knew they never could. Shepard's victory wasn't in Reaper kills or glorious combat. The battle was another obstacle to be overcome. No, Shepard's victory, the source of his/her heroism, is how they managed to unite all the races into the greatest undertaking in history and provide the means to bring and end to the conflict.

Shepard *was* the Hero, and in the end, no matter the Commander's own fate, the galaxy stopped the Cycle.

Mass Effect trilogy as a story of The Unchosen One pushed past their limits

Despite Shepard being the Alliance's newest Spectre candidate, they weren't the first, so they are not really the Chosen One by any reasonable measure—much less the chosen one to deal with Saren's treason and an invasion of the Milky Way by technological horrors from beyond. In other words, in the first game, Shepard is firmly The Unchosen One—just a normal soldier who goes out of their way to save the world.

And that is where the story of The Unchosen One was supposed to end: the first thing we see in the sequel is Shepard being killed by the new enemy way beyond a normal soldier's ability to withstand. But Shepard's story does not end. Recognizing their new symbolic value, the shadowy genius of Cerberus transforms Shepard both metaphorically and physically. On the metaphoric level, they undergo a metamorphosis from The Unchosen One to The Chosen One. On the physical level, the entire "normal soldier" part goes by the wayside: the new, chosen Shepard is a cyborg, combining the best qualities of human character with the galaxy's most bleeding edge tech.

But as the third and final game shows, despite their transformation, Shepard still remains a fundamentally human being. When exposed to the immense burden of wearing a Messianic Archetype's shoes, their psyche starts creaking at the seams and puts them on an ultimately self-destructive path.

  • On a larger scale the trilogy is the story of the unchosen species pushed way past its limits. Humans were uplifted by no one not the Protheans who studied them, not the asari who could have lived long enough to undertake a conventional journey to Sol without the use of Mass Relays and not the Salarians who uplift species all the time. When they discovered mass effect tech and started to expand, their first contact with an alien race was in the form of near unrestricted warfare. After that, they were treated like the little kid trying to sit at the big boys table. Then barely ten years after that war a different species with slavery in their culture becomes openly hostile and starts fighting a proxy war. After a costly bloody victory, they are now fighting Omnicidal robots and are the only ones who must save the Citadel from those robots. Then insecticide cyborgs start kidnapping them on masse and are told by the powers that this is an internal matter to clean up themselves. The final icing is that a race of Eldritch Abominations consider them to be their prime target for assimilation, and thereby launch their entire force at humans first before attacking anybody else. Most species would have given up in despair and become isolationist Luddites after all the trauma humanity has been through in the time since they thawed the Charon relay. And to top it all off, they now have to take on the lion's share of responsibility for defeating the Reapers - because the more militaristic races are bogged down in hopeless conventional wars, the more technologically superior have chosen to turtle up and even the chosen species decided to abnegate that responsibility. The Turians need humans' help to evacuate their Primarch despite the fact that they know how to build stealth ships like the Normandy. The Krogan need humans' help to distribute the genophage cure, even the Quarians ask for human assistance in their war with the geth, instead of the asari whose hat is diplomacy. Finally even the asari asks for humans' help in getting the Reapers off Thessia. How much responsibility can one species shoulder like that?