Shepard Among the Machines

mass effect geth

“Ours is a divided empire in which certain ideas and emotions and actions are of God, and their opposites are of Lucifer… the world is still gripped between two diametrically opposed absolutes. The concept of unity, in which positive and negative are attributes of the same force, in which good and evil are relative, ever-changing, and always joined to the same phenomenon—such a concept is still reserved to the physical sciences and to the few who have grasped the history of ideas.”

–Arthur Miller, The Crucible

Geth! Protheans! Keepers! Reapers! You never quite knew what all these shadowy, mysteriously linked alien races were up to. The Mass Effect trilogy did an excellent job of slowly expanding the player’s knowledge of its universe, from the semi-utopian, Star Trek-style interspecies cooperation of the first game to something much more cosmic, far-reaching, and grim, the true nature of which is finally unmasked in the frequently derided endgame sequence of Mass Effect 3.

Players weren’t happy that the endgame trivialized the complex series of branching decisions and relationships that went into the story of humanity’s space hero, Commander Shepard. Often this saga represented player investment in three whole games, with a potential time investment of sixty to well over one hundred hours. Players also balked at the almost-identical ending cinematics. Despite given vastly different choices about the fate of all life in the galaxy, each choice results in a slight cosmetic variation on the same extremely brief cutscene. When I finally set down my controller after seeing Mass Effect 3’s original ending, and even again after watching the downloadable Extended Cut material, I was equal parts exhilarated and bewildered, and sympathetic with those who felt like the game had pulled the rug out from under them.

My confusion was partly because, in the roughly 75 hours I spent across the three games, it never seemed that the series had really engaged with any of the themes or questions raised by the endgame. If we create artificial intelligence, is conflict inevitable? And if so, do we destroy them, even though we created them? Or do we exert control over them and bend them to our will?

But if we’ve met certain conditions by the end of the game, we also have another, more ambitious and perhaps frightening option: If given the choice, would we merge with the synthetic? Should we avoid extinction at the hands of our sentient technology by binding ourselves to it, in effect becoming a truly cyborg organism?

This is a fascinating philosophical conundrum. It’s also one the Deus Ex series handles much more elegantly, with gameplay and storylines that interweave themes of augmentation, cyborg bodies and artificial intelligence throughout each game, themes that Mass Effect addresses only peripherally. Deus Ex is far from the first science fiction to explore these ideas: they’ve been kicking around in some form since the genre’s birth. Recent films like Transcendence and The Matrix trilogy are only carrying a time-honored banner that’s been toted by many, including Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov, one that stretches back all the way to pieces like Samuel Butler’s 1863 article “Darwin among the Machines.”

In a broad sense, the problem of artificial sentience is the problem of the created Other that much of storytelling struggles with, whether it comes in the form of AI or our own biological children. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein contains just one classic example of a created Other spurned by its originator. And though Victor Frankenstein’s techniques of reanimation may not translate into the real world, they embody science fiction’s great allure: that sooner or later, some of these storytellers will have manifested the future before it actually happens. Artificial intelligence is no longer a fictive construct; it’s a literal field of study that continues to grow every year.

We humans, in our infinite capacity for tool-making, strategy, engineering, and creation, may finally invent a tool that achieves sentience. And when we do, how we treat this new life we’ve created will reflect upon who we are. It will show us our fears of the unknown, our love for our children, our power to play God, our capacity for both cruelty and understanding. Perhaps merging with technology will be a real option for survival in the distant future. But in the process, we would have to weigh the value of our own humanity.

There’s an interesting assertion made by Mass Effect’s endgame: that organic life always creates, and is always destroyed by, synthetic life, and that a vast cosmic intelligence periodically decimates the most advanced civilizations so they cannot advance to the point of rendering themselves extinct. This cosmic intelligence, representing itself to the player in the guise of a small boy, asserts that this is the only solution it has found for preserving organic life in perpetuity.

These are fascinating observations that all come very quickly, at the very end of a long saga. The problem is, they haven’t been foregrounded by what came before. The moment-to-moment story of Mass Effect is not about the hubris of organic life or the inevitability of our self-destruction. And perhaps because Mass Effect became a hot intellectual property that needed to appeal to the greatest possible gaming audience, we see quite the opposite notion: the cynical pandering that suggests that plucky human space marines would be the first to discern and prevent this immemorial cycle of cosmic death.

This is where Commander Shepard comes in. Mass Effect is, essentially, all about him or her. You need only observe fans’ adoration for “FemShep” and the excellent performance of the female player character by veteran voice actor Jennifer Hale to see the level of reverence and identification that players invest into their custom protagonists. Shepard is an exemplar of humanity: either of its understanding, patience, and ability to inspire; or of its ruthlessness, pragmatism, and even sadism. The player is given the choice of which of these two models of humanity to exemplify over the course of the series, across myriad interactions with other characters, friend and foe alike.

mass effect wrex choices

The odd thing about this formulation is that both of these approaches land you in essentially the same place. The main thrust of Mass Effect 3, and in some ways the prior games as well, is about massing forces across different species and civilizations to form a united front against the oncoming synthetic threat. It’s difficult to swallow that the paragon Shepard, who is always building diplomatic bridges, even to alien species traditionally despised and feared by the rest of the galaxy, is no more successful at coalition-building than the renegade Shepard, who is essentially a murderous, human-supremacist thug.

This has been a perpetual problem of BioWare RPGs—that badness is so bad and goodness is so good—but at least in Mass Effect that goodness feels earned. Idealized, but earned, and it makes sense within the context of the “galaxy at war” scenario. Going back at least as far as Knights of the Old Republic, the “bad” personality choices have always been a little much. I like to joke that if you found an abandoned puppy in these games, your choices would be A.) Search everywhere for a new owner and pay the adoption fees, B.) Do nothing, or C.) Kick the puppy off a bridge.

Non-interference is often the only middle ground we’re offered, but the problem is there’s no credit given for neutrality. In truth, as human beings we’re constantly negotiating ambiguity and making decisions about getting involved in situations or remaining neutral. Of course, an adventurous fantasy of heroism or anti-heroism doesn’t lend itself to neutral personalities. But some of the trilogy’s most pleasurable moments of character-building came from watching what it was, exactly, that the neutral Shepard would do.

And you know what, I actually love Neutral Shep. Neutral Shep is calm, patient, analytical. She asks for all the facts before making a decision. She’s pragmatic, but not cruel. Diplomatic, but not ingratiating. She’s a realist, but still acknowledges empathy as part of decision-making. Tellingly, she seems the most open to the ambiguity and grey areas that fill the spaces between people, cultures, and civilizations.

At the end of Mass Effect 3, the “Control” and “Destroy” decisions are represented by a path that branches left and right, to a blue console or a red cylinder. This mirrors the radial wheel used hundreds of times during gameplay. The blue option is the most magnanimous possible thing to do or say. The red is the most cruel and violent. I admit I rolled my eyes upon first seeing this. Instead of feeling like this had anything to do with my character, it seemed almost like a last-minute sight gag.

If we’ve really done the grunt work, really prepared for the war, then we’re able to access a middle path, the “Synthesis” option that merges organic and synthetic life into a single entity. Sitting literally between the blue and red paths, it reflects the neutral option on the radial wheel. It’s the integrative path that sees ambiguity, sees the grey area, and understands that this is what must be done to move forward. The availability of this middle path is not predicated upon playing the game as a neutral Shepard, but rather upon a “war readiness” rating, which is determined by an arbitrary number of quests and side-quests completed.

mass effect ending

This, to me, is the real crux of why the ending is such a disappointment. It’s really about determining the fate of all organic life and making a fascinating decision about what it means to be “human” or “organic,” and, on a deeper and more exciting, unsettling level, what it means to be sentient, aware, and alive. But the gameplay doesn’t reflect this at all. We have to run around doing interplanetary fetch quests and shooting our big tough guns at big tough aliens, and also at robots, space commandos, and one truly awful ‘bad ass space ninja.’ We aren’t exploring non-violent diplomacy or thinking about the border between organic and synthetic life. And we are emphatically not discovering what it means to move through the world not as a saint or a bully, but as a true witness, a non-judgmental observer first and foremost.

Sadly, this lack of awareness of theme seems par for the course; the first Mass Effect was one of BioWare’s last titles before their acquisition by EA. From then on, the series focused increasingly on popular shooter gameplay and more grandiose plot lines that, to the surprise of absolutely no one, featured increasingly gung-ho depictions of military heroism. The extensive world-building of the first game is heavily diluted in the second and third volumes. Casey Hudson and his team meant to end their saga on an amazing high: a moral decision that determined the fate of all life. But I also suspect that they had to meet a vastly different set of expectations once their game became one of EA’s killer apps.

You need only look at the depictions of female characters from game to game to see these changes in action. In the first two games, the default female Shepard reminds me just a little of Jodie Foster, suggesting the kind of strong presence that could easily anchor an operatic space saga. In the third game, the default female Shepard has had her face inexplicably replaced with that of an entirely different, more vulpine femme fatale. And much has already been said of the change to regular party member Ashley Williams. In the first two games she appears as a no-nonsense soldier in protective armor with her hair in a tight bob. But in Mass Effect 3 she looks entirely different: long, flowing, styled hair, more makeup, and an outfit that flatters her figure. Ashley is still a strong, confident woman, but the change in her appearance seems less like part of her character and more like there are forces at play that want to please a certain audience. With EA involved, it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that this audience is high school and college-aged boys. The skin-tight outfits, curvaceous body and fan-servicing camera work around main character Miranda in Mass Effect 2 seem to reconfirm this.

mass effect default femshep

Mass Effect lost its way. It could have been a series that really explored these notions of morality, humanity, artificial intelligence, and merging with technology. And it really does hit so many amazing character and story beats—while Mass Effect has the greatest sense of world-building, I fell most in love with the cast of Mass Effect 2. And I credit Mass Effect 3 for achieving a sense of epic scale, urgency, and drama. It delivers well on its “galaxy at war” premise, making you feel like you’re at the head of a massive operation to save life as we know it. It also has some of the most stunning cinematic production values I’ve ever seen in a video game—let’s just say I was not expecting what happened on Tuchanka.

But in the end, the glue that ties a story and its characters together is the writing and the themes, the stuffing between the lines and all that hums in the subtext. And that part of it was sadly fumbled, regardless of how much fun I was having with all the side stories and character vignettes. And yet, I still felt a great deal of portent and fear when faced with the final decision of Mass Effect 3—how could I not? I was at the summit of the mountain, with the answers finally visible. And before me was the precipice of a great change. I’ll never forget how that felt: like it had all culminated in this impossible moment, standing in silent space while the galaxy raged at war around me, alone with an intelligence so ancient it could no longer speak in specifics, listening to it explain that we were only a blip in a cycle that was older than time itself, and that now, here, at the end of everything, we were about to be given the chance to master death itself.

The scene is sincere, and colossally powerful. I just wish the hours that came before it were equal to the moment. They weren’t, but the mountain was real enough. If ever we come to a similar point in our evolution, we may remember Mass Effect’s ending more kindly.

Dara lives, works, and writes in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @palakchaval or on Letterboxd.