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ME3: A Simpler Ending
Posted on Friday, April 6 2012 @ 09:33:50 Eastern

Mass Effect is an incredible universe. From the asari to the batarians each species has a compelling backstory: the hanar have a close relationship with the drell; the turians and volus are dependent on each other’s expertise. The complexity of the universe is deep throughout all species and all aspects. The story in Mass Effect 1 is excellent. There are sufficient twists and turns to engage the player; frustration from knowing Saren Arterius is dirty and being unable to convince the Council keeps the player driving forward and gives Shepard a rebel cop quality. There is little to fault in the first game. Yes, the combat gameplay could have been better, as could the interface, but overall the game is a master class in how to craft a self-contained story with the option for expansion (as evidenced by the graphic novel Evolution and novel Revelation).
 
Not only is the story entertaining, it makes sense. Saren becomes indoctrinated during the events of Revelation and proceeds to build a geth army with the aid of the Reaper ship Sovereign with a view to reactivating the Citadel mass relay which had been deactivated by Prothean scientists stationed on Ilos 50,000 years ago in order to usher in the Reaper fleet hiding in dark space. Shepard stumbles on this plan when he activates a Prothean beacon on Eden Prime and spends the rest of the game gathering resources and intelligence until he finally lands on Ilos and talks to Vigil, a Prothean VI who explains that the Reapers wipe out sentient life every 50,000 years and use the Citadel and mass relays (which they constructed) to guide evolution along the path they desire to make this process possible. So Shepard realises that Saren travelled through the Prothean constructed mass relay on Ilos (the Conduit) and rushes through the Conduit, kills Saren and takes down Sovereign. Convoluted? Perhaps, but no more so than a film like Reservoir Dogs or Shawshank Redemption and I’ll say it again: It. Makes. Sense.
 
Mass Effect 2 demonstrates a quick fall from grace. The action is vastly improved and the inventory is simplified… far too simplified, but as far as the story goes it… kind of makes sense. So Shepard was killed by the Collectors and brought back by Cerberus. Let’s give BioWare that one. For one reason or another they wanted Shepard to see the terrorist side of humanity and that was the best way they could see to do it, sure. So the Collectors are invading human colonies and taking them away for reasons unknown. Shepard is sent to a derelict Reaper and then has to board the same Collector ship which killed him two years previous and finally makes it through the Omega 4 relay to the Collector homeworld to take the fight to the Collectors. So far it’s making sense. We’ve found out that the Collectors are heavily indoctrinated Protheans and therefore the colony abductions are at the behest of the Reapers and so the whole plot does figure in to the overarching story set out by the first game. But what the hell do the Reapers want with a human shaped Reaper hundreds of metres high? I get that they liquidise sentient species to build the next Reapers in order to liquidise the next cycle’s sentient species but they need space worthy vessels for that, not humanoid synthetics, even if they are as big as a skyscraper.
 
Up until that point there were only a few minor niggles in the story. Things could have been better but they could have been a whole lot worse too. Then Mass Effect 3 came along. Mass Effect 3 started well. The decisions you made way back in Mass Effect 1 could affect your situation in the present; it felt like your choices mattered.  Once you get to the ending the inconsistencies begin to settle in until you realise that there could be a better alternative. This is my idea of what could have happened. It’s not a comprehensive, professional overview. There are probably better solutions, but what this does give is clarity. The third of a trilogy is hardly the place to bring in huge plot twists. It’s the place to reveal the twists which were already in progress and create an ending which brings all loose ends together.
 
The first thing to address would be the Reapers themselves. In ME1 Sovereign is depicted as the vanguard of the Reaper fleet. Its role was to drift through space awakening periodically to monitor the situation and, when the time was right, open up the Citadel mass relay to usher in the Reapers and begin the destruction anew. In ME2 this theme was kept aside from the bizarre inclusion of the human Reaper but ME3 concludes that their motivation for this genocide is the formation of new Reapers and the salvation of organic species from the synthetics they create. On the face of it this doesn’t make sense; why destroy organics when it’s synthetics that are the aggressors? Delve deeper and it makes even less sense: despite their power, Reapers are destroyed during the genocide which means the civilisation stored as the Reaper is also lost forever completely eliminating the point. Synthetics are also immortal meaning part of the stated problem continues to exist.
 
I propose that the Reapers were created by an advanced organic race millions of years ago (running counter to the claims of the Child who claims he created the Reapers and counter to Sovereign who claimed that Reapers had always existed). The Reapers developed alongside this civilisation and were perhaps even allies until the Reapers reached a point of intelligence where they could view the behaviour of the civilisation and extrapolate to the point where they could see the destruction of the galaxy. They may have tried to intervene but their warnings fell on deaf ears and the unnamed civilisation fell thanks to the need of organics to reach just a little further in whatever way they can.
 
Some life survived and evolved into the next cycle’s sentient beings with the Reapers watching. At some point the Reapers would have decided (perhaps in a manner similar to Geth thoughts) that life should not be extinguished but should be guided to ensure sentience does not equal assured destruction and that is the Reapers’ role. They are there to safeguard life as a whole. A civilisation advanced enough to create its own version of life (synthetics) needs also to be advanced enough to control its power and if the Reapers deem that to not be the case they will remove the civilisation to make way for the new organics to try; turning the civilisation into husks to use as ground forces and to create the next Reaper is nothing more than machine efficiency. Over millions of years there is no telling how the primary coding has been corrupted and modified. We have seen from the Geth in ME2 that a formula being solved for a different answer results in the heretics splitting from the Geth consensus and becoming actively hostile and this same principle could account for the Reapers attempting to extinguish sentient life in a galaxy not as advanced as that of the Prothean’s.
 
Now that the background of the Reapers has been defined we can move on to the Child. In the game the Child begins as a young boy killed on Earth during the Reaper invasion. Shepard witnesses this and had the chance to help the boy in a building but wasn’t able to. From the start this interaction is used to define Shepard’s guilt which has built up over the past three years and the boy is the latest in a long line of people to die under Shepard’s watch. Depending on the player, Shepard could be mourning the loss of Kaiden Alenko, Ashley Williams, the Council, Wrex, any of his ME2 colleagues and others and the Child puts a face on all of these characters in Shepard’s mind. This creates a strong plot point which has only been glossed over in the previous two games: the heavy toll command can have on a person. This was handled well and if that was the role the Child played in the game it would be fine but at the end the Child appears as part of the Citadel. This could be seen in a couple of ways. The first is how BioWare appears to have wanted it to be seen: the Child is genuinely a projection of the Citadel Reaper AI. The second is how the author of this document believes it to be: the symptom of an indoctrination attempt by Harbinger. To me, the Child’s inclusion should be limited to a manifestation of Shepard’s guilt since the presence of Reaper AI on the Citadel makes no sense as explained by the above link.
 
The idea that everything on the Citadel was a product of the indoctrination attempt is preferable but Shepard has spent all three games battling the Reapers and he is the galaxy’s saviour. Of course the Reapers would want to turn Shepard to their cause but the way it is presented in the above document almost does Shepard a disservice by portraying it as too easy to pull the wool over his eyes. At the very least he (and therefore the player) should have been aware rather than playing out the undeniably surreal scenario in the game unaware of what was going on. Of course it would be much easier to swallow if the Child was simply a way to present to the audience the guilt Shepard has been harbouring over the course of the games.
 
The idea presented in the document that the indoctrination was an attempt to prevent Shepard from destroying the Reapers is an interesting one and does explain why the options to control and synergise exist but overly complicates matters. By giving the player these three options at the end of the game the process to actually reach this point is devalued and while the idea that Shepard could get right to the end of the game and fail thanks to indoctrination is thought-provoking it only works if the player is aware of the indoctrination at some point (even if the revelation happens after the decision is made). It has been pointed out that after all the time Shepard has spent in and around Reapers it’s no wonder he’s been indoctrinated but why would they stop at just Shepard? Joker has been with him from start to finish and characters like Tali, Wrex and Liara are there for much of the ride so why aren’t they showing any signs of indoctrination as well?
 
A more direct approach could be the challenge to actually get to the Citadel. The conflict doesn’t come from the final, be-all/end-all decision which eradicates all previous decisions; it comes from the conflicts Shepard has gone through to get there. If he fails to save Wrex way back on Virmire then his efforts to unite the Krogan would be that much more difficult since Wreav is a weaker leader than his brother. If he didn’t activate Legion then uniting the Quarians and Geth would be far more challenging due to the lack of a truly sympathetic Geth ally and so on. No decision would necessarily rule out success but they would make it more difficult as found in Heavy Rain. If the player handles themselves correctly then they will make it to the Citadel to turn on the Crucible and it won’t be because a number is high enough, it’ll be because they had Krogan infantry lines drawing away ground troops, Turian dreadnoughts engaging Reaper ships, Quarians evacuating refugees, Asari contributing their biotic shields to front line troops… you get the picture. Each species has their role to play from the Council species all the way down to the ones we only found out about in DLC like the Batarians and Shepard’s efforts to unite them should have played out in a far more immediate way than an Effective Galactic Readiness rating.
 
Once Shepard had reached the Citadel, listened to the Child and made his decision the final cut scene triggered. The big problem most fans have is that regardless of the choice they made all they did essentially was change the colour palette. The way the Crucible works doesn’t really make much sense and it effectively ends any story telling in the Mass Effect universe by ensuring no species could traverse space in the same way for a long time, if ever again. Surely it would be better if the Crucible was an actual directional weapon rather than distributing its energy across mass relays. The Catalyst was depicted in the game as a necessary piece of the Crucible which is something that makes sense. The Crucible was developed over several cycles; each successive species added their bit on until it was apparent that the Citadel was required to focus the energy correctly. As long as we assume that the Citadel is suitable to act as the Catalyst and not specially designed as such then this is ok. Given the shape of the Citadel/Crucible creation, though, it seems that the Citadel would be used to direct energy from the end of each of the arms to the Crucible and out in a concentrated beam. This beam would be the Reaper destroying energy to be fired by the lucky son of a gun sat at the trigger. Of course this means that the process of ridding the galaxy of Reapers would be long and arduous but it god damn should be! The Reapers have had three games to be hyped as an unstoppable death-force; it should take more than a flick of a switch to disable them regardless of how hard the journey was to get to the switch.
 
The last element a lot of people have trouble with is the fact that Shepard dies. Of course this doesn’t necessarily have to happen; it depends on the player getting enough points to unlock the ending where he survives. While his sacrifice is sobering it feels arbitrary in the game because regardless of why he dies the progress of the galaxy is reset to zero. The chance to have Shepard die should be there but more as a consequence of his attempt to destroy the Reapers rather than as a noble I’ll-die-so-you-don’t-have-to. This would free things up to allow Shepard to survive and perhaps someday become an admiral who heard the beginnings of the legend we hear at the end of the credits first hand.
 
At the time of writing the ME3 team sent news that the first lot of DLC would be available this summer and would expand on the ending to explain it further so who knows? Perhaps the indoctrination idea will turn out to be correct? I now know that my ideas above will not happen since they require a complete 180, something BioWare has denied will happen. All I can hope is that their additions help the ending make more sense.
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