Allegory of the Citadel
(Mass Effect 3 Spoilers Ahead)
“…when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows…” Plato, The Republic, Book VII
Like sunlight for the man who arises from Plato’s cave, the ending of Mass Effect 3 distressed me. As I embarked on the game’s conclusion I felt confused and disoriented by the sudden shift in the game’s direction and style. Continuing through to the end, I began to realize this was not my fault. After keeping me in the shadows for tens of hours, it makes sense that Mass Effect 3’s sudden and inexplicable series of expositional revelations feel cheap and false rather than utterly true.
Coming-to after a white flash just outside the beam connecting Earth and the Citadel, my Shepard arose and began staggering meekly toward the light. He was badly burned and no one else from the assault force was still standing. Instead, a few undeterred husks stood between Shepard and the transporter, dispatched with some effort using the commander’s side arm. Passing over their lifeless bodies Shepard moved into the light and was lifted up into the Citadel.
This wasn’t the ending I had been expecting. But as the last scenes of Mass Effect 3 began to unfold there was no time to look back.
The concluding chapter in a science fiction trilogy seven years in the making is not the easiest to pin down. Mass Effect 3 has the most finely tuned combat of the series, but can fall prey to long stretches of repetitive pop and cover tactics. And narratively, the finale offers a vast arena in which the Shepard’s choices from the previous two games can play out, but fails to live up to the promise of the in-game relationships players have spent countless hours building. For a franchise constructed on the idiosyncrasies of its characters, and the manner in which players negotiate them, Mass Effect 3 continues this process for much of the game but never finishes it. It is one thing to leave character stories open-ended, but another to drop them entirely in the last act of the game.
The result is the series’ most competent iteration in terms of gameplay stumbles and falters when it comes to its discordant ending. Like a rectangular peg driven mercilessly into a round hole, BioWare’s allegorical resolution to a franchise built on particular characters and intimate relationships proves a clumsy mismatch. Instead of settling the personal relationships the game spent most of its time dealing with, Mass Effect 3 spends its last moments asserting, but never substantiating, the necessary conflict between organics and synthetics.
Taking control out of the player’s hands, the game in its last half hour relegates Shepard to the role of spectator while it indulges in spouting mystical tautologies about the universe.
Contrasting organics with synthetics, those who control with those who are controlled, and the created with their creators, the gaming epic meanders onto uneven terrain the moment Shepard enters the Citadel never (arguably) to ever return.
“…conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply?” Plato, The Republic, Book VII
Wondering alongside the mass graves littered throughout the Citadel, I pushed my Shepard on in search of Admiral Anderson, whose voice trembled from pillar to pillar offering uncertain guidance. What aboard the ancient space station would trigger the Catalyst, and thus activate the Crucible, was unclear. Driven with an urgency that grew in proportion with the increasing ill-health of my protagonist, I simply followed the path in front of me. As a result, I was led to a large chamber with a control station wherein Anderson and Shepard would confront the Illusive Man together.
“…They were scared of what we’d find, terrified of what we might let in. But look at what humanity has achieved.” So the Illusive Man tells us, lecturing his fellow humans on the virtues of unfettered progress and courageous exploration. Controlling the Reapers and bending them to humanity’s combined will is but the next step in our species drive to dominate the galaxy.
But I am only half listening. Where is Garrus? More importantly, where is Liara? How is the Normandy faring in the battle outside?
I’ve heard some variation on the Illusive Man’s speech several times by now, though perhaps never with this much disembodied vehemence. Immobilized by his new indoctrinal powers, there is little my Shepard can do. This is demonstrated with tragic clarity when the Illusive Man forces the Commander to shoot Admiral Anderson. As a result, when my Shepard is offered a renegade option moments later, the initial red flash is the only invitation I need to fire the most gratifying round I had hitherto unloaded in the Mass Effect universe.
His principles do not concern me, nor their philosophical implications. The Illusive Man is dead. Shepard activates the Catalyst. He and Anderson take a moment to consider their luck, and future plans regarding lives they still might live.
But the Crucible doesn’t fire, Anderson dies, and Shepard is left alone and unable to come up with a solution like he has so many times in the past—no, every time in the past—in order to complete the mission. Many have died along the way, but the Commander has always gotten the job done. His passivity in the game’s last moments is not the sign of an internal transformation; it’s an inconsistency in the character’s writing. I don’t know whose feeble body is sprawled out on the television screen before me, but it does not belong to my Shepard. Mass Effect’s story does not belong to me, but Shepard does. I authored his backstory, designed his physical appearance, and was even the one to choose that he would be a he. The story of Mass Effect 3 might not be mine, but the evolving profile of a character transported by my hand across three separate saves most certainly is.
As my hero fades, my mind turns again to Garrus, Liara, and the Normandy. Wherever they are, I hope they are faring better than our Shepard. I don’t know why the Catalyst isn’t working, or why the Reapers allowed me to get onboard the Citadel to begin with. All I do know is that in the last moments of the game my comrades are as cut off from Shepard as I am. And my protagonist who had recovered from 50 meter falls with ease, and restored himself with medi-gel on more than one occasion was now bleeding out, helpless and alone.
A part of me enjoyed this aspect of the ending. Self-inflicted nihilist that I can often be, the existential terror of Shepard’s then circumstance, and the sublime tragedy that accompanied it inspired in me more than an inkling of delight.
But a larger part was discomfited by how dissonant the unfolding situation was with the rest of Mass Effect 3. Never had my Shepard been without his comrades. Whatever scenario arose, someone was always at my side, even if it got them killed as a result, which of course it did. If Garrus, Liara and the rest of my friends were dead this would make sense. But they are not. Instead they are simply absent, for one contrived reason or another.
This was not simply a matter of BioWare illustrating the stakes of this fight by sacrificing the galaxy’s only potential savior. It was a matter of the game failing to subscribe to its own rules; failing to abide by the terms and conditions upon which all other previous confrontations had been understood. Mass Effect 3 had constructed a universe that purported to respect player agency and prioritize personal relationships. Yes, the inevitability of certain plot points was non-negotiable. But how they were resolved, and their lasting impression on my Shepard and his team, always had been. And here my Shepard was dying, alone, and without any say in the matter. Or did he?
“And suppose that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he’s forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.” Plato, The Republic, Book VII
The ascent is surprising. Shepard, on the verge of death, is lifted to the upper level of the Citadel only to be greeted by an alien AI that resembles a child-like will-o’-the-wisp. More speeches follow.
In what is easily Mass Effect 3’s most ridiculous narrative turn, the galaxy’s Wizard of Oz reveals itself and explains, in piteously little detail, what the Reapers represent and what options remain for Shepard. The murderous spaceships are in fact caretakers of the galaxy, bringing “order to chaos,” utilizing means that are as perplexing as their mission. But Shepard, as the first being ever to activate the Catalyst, has necessitated a change in plans. The AI, who controls the Reapers, informs the Commander that he may either destroy the Reapers as planned, seek to control them as the late Illusive Man had suggested, or do neither and instead sacrifice himself to fuse organics with synthetics for forever after.
“The created will always rebel against their creators, but we found a way to stop that from happening, a way to restore order for the next cycle.” The Catalyst AI tells us. But the Geth did not rebel against their creators; it was their creators who attacked and tried to subjugate them. And anyway, hadn’t I made peace between the Quarians and the Geth? Speaking of which, where is the Normandy again? Are any of my friends still alive?
Afflicted with these sentiments during the final moments of gameplay, I chose “Synthesis,” told as I had been that it was not simply the next, but indeed, the final evolution of life.
Perhaps in giving up his own life, my Shepard could ensure that his friends would survive, and that harmony in the galaxy would outstrip inter-species strife. Perhaps if he himself could not go home, at least the others might.
But as the final minutes of the game play out, it becomes clear that Mass Effect 3 will not afford me the comfort of knowing if this is indeed the case. Here, the game has not only cheated me by establishing one set of rules before breaking them; it has failed to offer any resolution whatsoever. Not only are the Reapers an irreconcilable paradox but the game has decided to make an abrupt 90 degree turn in their expositive direction without finishing the job. In addition to offering my shadow of a Shepard only the illusion of choice (since subsequent playthroughs reveal little difference in the mood or substance of the ending), the revelation which he is presumably brought into the Citadel light to have is at best incoherent. But even more importantly: it is completely beside the point. The series may have at one time been an overarching story about technology, humanity, and the oppositions inherent in life, but it has since left this possibility to languish for two entire games now. Re-engineering that earlier emphasis is jarringly inappropriate.
As they must be, the Mass Effect Relays are destroyed and so is the Citadel. The Reapers are no more, but perhaps most everyone else is gone as well. Fuzzy as it is on these details, the game does show three of my comrades on an unknown planet, through what they will do on this apparently uninhabited world is not hinted at.
Breaking with the inter-character focus of the rest of the game, Mass Effect 3 takes narrative control of Shepard when there is no apparent benefit in doing so and leaves the Commander’s fellow squad mates behind without any semblance of a send-off.
Indeed, Mass Effect 3 ultimately concludes with an older man telling a younger boy a “story about the Shepard.” And it is this last 60 seconds of the game that illustrates just why the ending on the Citadel is so problematic.
“Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is. ” Plato, The Republic, Book VII
Its writers may have wanted the last few minutes of Mass Effect 3 to communicate to players the conflict between creators and the created, but in doing so they forced the game to act as an allegory when it is instead a myth, a legend with a hero, more than anything else.
The man talking to the child in the last seconds of the series explains that, “Our galaxy has billions of stars, each of those stars can have many worlds, any world could be home to a different form of life, and every life is a special story of its own.”
Mass Effect is a universe of living beings and their stories. And the final game specifically is the story of one Commander Shepard, those whose lives he or she has crossed paths with, and the complex network of relationships that then result.
The defining feature of BioWare’s Mass Effect franchise has always been the ability to import character data from one save file to another. Players can continue the story of their Shepard, as it is realized across several planets and star systems and through one special relationship after another. Nowhere is this more evident than in the final game.
Mass Effect 3 finds Shepard negotiating between races, exploring in-depth the traditions, culture, and history of many different species, in a way that puts the mythology’s characters front and center.
Look around at reviews and forum threads discussing Mass Effect 3 and much of it will revolve around what happened to who, and why and how, in each different person’s playthrough. The game is not an allegory for the potential ills of unfettered technological advancement. Or the deep cosmological roots of the relationships between creator and the created. Rather, it is a mythology involving archetypal characters made authentic through their unique traits and distinct personalities.
Closer to Homer’s Iliad than Plato’s Republic, Mass Effect 3 fails when it tries to end by being the latter, even as players spend most of the game reenacting the former.
Players are in fact encouraged to play and re-play Mass Effect, exploring the intricacies of each individual relationship, social interaction, and moral decision.
Shepard, who the game never implies is anything more than a human being, but who has met every challenge placed in front of him nevertheless, is unique and compelling precisely because he relies on those friends and acquaintances that made each success possible. His story is interesting because it is not fixed, because it is open to possibilities, and because these circumstantial tensions can always play out differently.
Except that Mass Effect 3 unfortunately cuts this process short. Offering philosophical babble in the place of a character driven drama or a resolution that at the very least considers the fate of Shepard’s closer friends, even if it doesn’t prevent or change it, is the franchise’s biggest miscalculation. The Iliad has an inevitable conclusion as well. The story’s two main characters have their fates sealed from the beginning. But that does not stop the poem from coming to its natural conclusion, one that takes place after the main battle and main hero’s death, but which resolves the stories of those who are still left.
The play is the thing, and though the journey may matter more than the destination, it can only be truly appreciated if we know who completes it and how they did so. Explaining (I use the word charitably) the fate of the galaxy, while leaving players in the dark about what happens to the stories of those who inhabit it, is to miss the point entirely.
By the end of Mass Effect 3 I wanted to replay the series from the start. I wanted to re-inhabit a galaxy that had been so rich in possibility, special characters, and complex choice. Even if those were the shadows of Mass Effect, distracting me from its real but still impenetrable purpose, I feel more comfortable in them. Their half-truths are the only ones the series has ever prepared me for and which feel more real than anything in the series’ conclusion by far.