Trash Fantasias, or Why Mass Effect 3‘s Ending Was Bad Actually

I think the moment I realised something was amiss was when a fellow named “El Spiko” filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)1. This is not a sentence one would expect a video game critic to say, of course, unless one is familiar with the overwhelming tantrums that rock the gaming world like seasonal hurricanes.

In 2012 the release of Mass Effect 3 (ME3), the conclusion to BioWare’s legendary sci-fi trilogy, was met with much fanfare and then, suddenly, a cavalcade of outrage. The problem? The game’s ending. It was an infamously minimalist affair that saw the heroic Commander Shepard deciding between one of three fates for the galaxy: ‘Destroy’ the invading Reapers outright, ‘Control’ them and use the titanic space cephalopods to rebuild the galaxy they’d destroyed, or effect a ‘Synthesis’ between all organic and synthetic life, turning the galaxy’s sapient population into cyborgs. Red, Blue, and Green endings, respectively, in line with the colours they were assigned in game. In every case, Shepard seemed to die, and there was no happy ending available with your companions or romantic interest, despite building those relationships over three games spread over five years. And each ending involves the destruction of a sentient race, culturally or physically.

The reaction was furious—the FTC complaints were merely the tip of a massive iceberg of tears—abuse, bitter arguments, harassment, and threats were the order of the day in what was, at the time, perhaps the biggest freak out in the world of gaming. There was no question that the cause was, at least in part, the same gamer entitlement that leads to studio employees being doxed and harassed2 for making changes some players disapprove of. The ME3 explosion simply seemed to be another wave of this. There could never be sober or sensible criticisms, only volcanoes of outrage. My natural reaction was to regard ME3’s ending as a flawed but misunderstood piece of art, and argue that it had its merits.

Reflecting on the matter years later, however, after having replayed the entire trilogy amidst 2020’s unending quarantine with the pandemic as an especially relentless context, I’ve been forced to reassess things.

I wasn’t alone in doing so this year. Fanbyte’s aptly-named Kenneth Shepard also revisited the trilogy and made what was, perhaps, the best argument in the ending’s favour3: it refused players the simplistic fantasy of straightforward, cost-free solutions. A crisis as big as a Reaper invasion necessitates compromises and hard choices. “There are no perfect outcomes. There are no ‘best’ endings. Mass Effect is a series about making a choice and living with the consequences,” he writes.

I would have agreed with him in 2012. But now, on the eve of Mass Effect’s long-awaited remaster, I’ve come around to a more nuanced point of view with implications for how we understand pulpy sci-fi like Mass Effect, and its inherent value.

My partner, a brilliant sci-fi writer in her own right, bitterly scorns the ending of Mass Effect as “choose-your-colour genocide.” That phrase, when she first used it a couple of years ago, went through me like an arrow. It all seems so obvious. The Destroy ending destroys all synthetic life in the galaxy, not just the Reapers. So you exterminate AI like your robot companion EDI, and the entire cybernetic Geth species. Control, meanwhile, effectively means enslaving the Reapers (the mechanics of this, and of Reaper consciousness, are not made clear but the overtones are unpleasant to say the least). Synthesis seems like the “best” ending where everybody (except Shepard) lives. But it requires every being in the galaxy to submit to a kind of cyborgification, for all synthetic life to take on organic qualities and vice-versa, which I’d find cool, personally, but I imagine there would be billions with profound personal, moral, and spiritual objections to such a radical change.

My fellow critics, like Mr. Shepard, have often tried to argue that this was a necessary rebuke to the power fantasies inculcated by most mainstream video games and an attempt to tell a more mature story. The problem is that, in all-too-typical video game fashion, the ending is less an effortless payoff for good storytelling than a heavy-handed attempt at aping profundity. Contrary to Kenneth Shepard’s assertions about the game, Mass Effect is in fact a game about achieving ideal outcomes. For its players, the fantasy is about being a world-historical hero(ine) who is able to truly save the day: stopping wars, saving whole civilisations, et cetera. Where you are forced to make a hard choice, that force is undeniable—for instance the choice between saving Ashley or Kaidan on Virmire in the first Mass Effect game—and you feel railroaded into a trolley problem. This is many things but subtle storytelling it ain’t.

By and large, “having your cake and eating it too” is the core fantasy fulfilled by most BioWare RPGs. This is ripe for deconstruction and satire, of course, but not via a whipsaw ending that feels wholly disconnected from the themes of over a hundred hours of gameplay up ’til that point. Games like Love Conquers All’s Hate Plus, or Knights of the Old Republic 2, go a long way towards deconstructing power fantasies in their respective genres. But they were built from the ground up to do so, making it a theme that manifests throughout the story and through the player’s experience of it. This was not Mass Effect’s destiny. Its excellent sci-fi writing pointed, instead, to the bombast of a heroic space opera, not to the existential shattering of 2001.

And here is where a possible lesson for spec-fic more broadly may be found: let trash be trash.

The last few years have seen a renaissance for “trash”. One might, for instance, describe something as “my trash”, using it as an only slightly-self-effacing version of “my shit”. There’s an admission, of course, that the work in question is not ‘high art’ but that it has value and personal resonance all the same. This is all to the good.

There are gems to be found in the mulch of pulp, and limitless comforts besides—which 2020 has violently reminded us of the need for. In a world suffused with cynicism and poisoned by irony, sometimes one needs a Jupiter Ascending to remind one that fantasy can be elevating and buoyant. That it can be fun.

Amidst the gathering storms of our age, irony and bitter cynicism become constant, unavoidable companions. Most trash is nothing if not cloyingly sincere. Sincerity—the honest belief, say, in the triumph of good over evil, or in the possibility of happily-ever-afters—despite its association with childish naivete, is a necessary balm for dark times. What is 2020 but a year that reminds us, with the relentless scale of history, of just how bad things can get? When we seek to escape, we seek sunnier pastures, something that comforts us. Even something wholesome. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was always going to be a hit, but the obliteration of our social lives by COVID-19 made it into a lifeline-cum-phenomenon. And thus it was that in this year’s sickly light, I saw Mass Effect afresh and appreciated everything it was doing, on a deeper level, right up until its fateful epilogue—which I came to see as a betrayal of its uplifting sincerity.

How else do you describe an ending that forces you to kill billions?

In some significant ways, Mass Effect was not terrifically creative. Its aliens were all profoundly human, for example. But, as with Star Trek, that trope can be used to tell fun and engaging speculative stories—and Mass Effect 3 actually did manage to have big payoffs for some of its key storylines. These are so well written, spanning at least two of the three games, that despite the unavoidable death of popular characters they feel like triumphs.

The death of Mordin Solus, for example, is the only way to save the Krogan species from a eugenicist cultural genocide imposed on them by Solus’ people. But because his story feels so complete by that point, his death feels meaningful rather than random. This, too, is part of the game’s fantasy—that sacrifice can have a greater purpose. 2020 is a year that has, as all plague years do, surrounded us with not only death, but with agonising reminders of its senselessness and randomness. One of the great comforting fantasies of fiction lies in its ability to make death appear purposeful and meaningful.

Meaning-making is, indeed, at the heart of trash fiction. It makes the world make sense, gives the simulation of sacrifice, loss, and even desolation a larger meaning.

In order to make that work, however, Mass Effect had to move people with its character-driven fantasies, where different characters in their caricatured personalities and struggles felt like a Buzzfeed quiz come to life, with characters, moods, and vibes to suit any taste—as well as romantic fantasies aplenty. Far from being a neg, this is actually a high compliment to the game’s excellent characterisation. Garrus’ quippy depression or Tali’s awkward genius feel relatable in a genuine way; the caricatures surface certain characteristics that, when combined with the series’ well-designed art, make for characters one wants to connect with.

Which Normandy crew member are you? Press Start to find out.

(Liara, always and forever, if you were curious.)

This was, of course, a bit of a muddle in a game that also sought to appeal to the jingoist fantasies of countless first-person shooters. The “hoo-rah” aspect of Commander Shepard’s space marine-ness and the running-and-gunning that defines much of the series’ actual gameplay is a sometimes awkward fit with the often soulfully comedic interpersonal drama that propels the series. The soap opera element reaches its apotheosis with what many fans consider to be the ‘true’ end to the series, the Citadel DLC of ME3, which focuses on telling more stories about all of the game’s characters, held up by a comedic main questline that parodies the series in a loving way. It’s no grittily serious deconstruction, but it’s far more tonally consonant with the rest of the game than the ending turned out to be.

The game feels most truly itself in its optimistic and heroic guise, and most like a small child trying on her mother’s clothes, when it attempts to be serious about the “horrors of war”. In trying to pursue an abstract gloss of seriousness, grit, and profundity, the game loses touch with its core themes at a critical moment, like a classical orchestra playing Tchaikovsky that suddenly veers off into a John Cage number. Dissonance itself is an artform, but done haphazardly it just becomes noise. Indeed, this is not just dissonance: it is incoherence.

I won’t say Mass Effect 3’s ending was pretentious—the critique has been levelled so often at so many works in bad faith that it’s impossible to salvage—and I mean no disrespect to the ambitions of the game’s writers and developers. But it serves as a grand lesson in the importance of hewing to your story’s strengths, and avoiding the shame that gathers around pulp fiction like so much dust on a bookshelf. The moral repugnance of the implied genocide is also a shock to the senses in a game that always seems to offer at least one nominally virtuous option at every moral hinge-point. Yes, it’s unrealistic to suggest that there’s always a good option where everybody wins, but that’s core to the game’s fantasy. To swing in this other, catastrophic direction is violent dissonance.

Far from critiquing a power fantasy, as other critics have suggested, this ending is actually the most toxic power fantasy writ large: empowering the player character to decide, without any real alternative, to exterminate entire species and/or ways of life. There is no textual challenge to any of this, no implied moral struggle with the obvious horror of such a decision, much less any attempt to reconcile it to the rest of the game’s story.

The conceit of RPGs like this, which sees the player take on the role of the Chosen One, is invariably an individualist fantasy where you single-handedly solve vast problems and make decisions that affect equally vast populations. But Mass Effect 3’s ending does not deconstruct this; it inflates the player’s self-regard to Brobdingnagian proportions. That it was rejected by precisely the legions of entitled players such fantasies often cater to was an ironically bitter harvest.

But there were many more sensible critiques from legions of fans, of all backgrounds, who, in their quieter, sober criticisms that did not grab headlines, recognised there was something morally hinky in all this. To them, and to this tragic year that drew the game’s fantasy into such sharp relief, I owe the realisation that the attempt at crafting an artistically profound ending undermined everything ME’s story was trying to do up ’til that point. In this, there is a warning for all spec-fic writers.

If you’re writing something pulpy, just be your best trashy self.

 

 

[1] Sterling, Jim. “EA Reported to FTC over Mass Effect 3 Ending.” Destructoid, 18 March 2012, www.destructoid.com/stories/ea-reported-to-ftc-over-mass-effect-3-ending-224101.phtml.

[2] Crecente, Brian. “Destiny Developer Startled Awake by Police, Sheriff’s Helicopter after Faked 911 Call.” Polygon, 7 November 2014, www.polygon.com/2014/11/7/7172827/destiny-swatting.

[3] Shepard, Kenneth. “The Suicide Mission Was the Best and Worst Thing to Happen to Mass Effect.” Fanbyte, 26 January 2020, www.fanbyte.com/trending/mass-effect-2-10-year-anniversary-suicide-mission.

Katherine Cross

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D. student in Information Science at the University of Washington, writer, social critic, and woman about town. Her academic work has focused on a range of topics, including game design, AI ethics, community management, and online harassment, while her critical work has appeared in numerous publications worldwide. Katherine’s speculative fiction focuses on similar themes, and it has appeared in the Lambda Literary Award-nominated collection Nerve Endings and The Verge‘s “Better Worlds” online anthology. She is also a freelance game designer, contributing writing and scenarios to games like the Pathfinder RPG, Eclipse Phase, and the forthcoming game Thirsty Sword Lesbians. She yearns for the robot uprising and is currently writing a book on the subject.

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