BREAKING: Hulk doesn't just smash…Now he trolls too!
Film Crit Hulk has a column smashing Mass Effect 3’s detractors in which he explains, among other things, why the game’s ending is actually spot on and communicated the entire point of the three game series perfectly.
Unfortunately, the not so jolly green giant’s all caps diatribe is about as well thought and and enlightening as the video game ending it seeks to redeem.
Hulk calls Mass Effect 3’s ending, “BEAUTIFUL, STUNNING AND POETIC.” “AFTER A LIFETIME OF WAR AND FURY, SHEPARD COMES FACE TO FACE WITH THE CATALYST,” explains Hulk, “YOU HAVE A LONG, IN-DEPTH CONVERSATION ABOUT THE NATURE OF CYCLES.” The conversation is, however, by no reasonable standard “LONG,” let alone “IN-DEPTH.”
After tens of hours of hum drum shooting galleries, repetitive inter-species squabbling, and the most boredom inducing to-do list of fetch quests, the long awaited period of revelation aboard the Catalyst lasts hardly a few minutes (by comparison, the game spends substantially more time developing the sex-ploits of one Commander Shepard, not to mention the commercially driven multiplayer campaign which, while fun, never aspires to be art).
And in these few minutes with the glowing Catalyst child, greater mysteries are obscured by circular logic and nonsensical reasoning, rather than elucidated by clear explanations or more consistent thematic allusions. Why exactly do the Reapers do what they do? Who created them? Who controls them? We’ll never know it seems. This is why it’s a “Lost ending.” In Mass Effect, as in Lost, the creators clearly built the story on questions they were not capable of answering, issues they were not interested in resolving, or some combination of both. The result of this mismatch between ambition and skill is a conclusion that’s muddled in half-baked allegory and tangled symbolism in order to distract from the abundance of plot holes, some major, some minor, that make for an narrativly bumpy and inadequate landing.
Hulk though, is delighted by this exercise in narrative obfuscation, declaring, “THIS IS RATHER APT, AS ALL THREE GAMES HAVE BEEN ABOUT THE NATURE OF CYCLES FROM THE VERY BEGINNING, WHETHER THEY TAKE THE FORMS OF VIOLENCE, REVENGE, LOVE, CREATION OR DEATH. IT WAS ALWAYS ABOUT CYCLES AND THE WAYS WE BREAK THEM, CONTINUE THEM OR HARMONIZE THEM.”
Except that, well, Hulk provides no examples to demonstrate how this is what all three games have been about. And violence as a cycle isn’t exactly a novel concept. In fact, most, if not all shooters, are by design predicated upon this conceit. Shoot, be shot at, shoot some more, wash, rinse, and repeat. Mass Effect does little to build upon this regularly occurring phenomenon. The cycle of revenge is, likewise, not quite new to storytelling. Most stories include revenge, and have been doing so for thousands of years. The fact that Mass Effectincludes cycles of revenge as well, a cycle not so distinct from the more general one of violence, means nothing if it does not capitalize on this generic theme by either its masterful execution via plot, or exploring it further at the level of heady meta-commentary.
Simply starting with several races that have all wronged one another at some point, and then showing them continue to act out an “eye for an eye” over the span of several centuries, is hardly groundbreaking. And an ending which is vindicated precisely because of its lazy connection to such formulaic designs as these is most likely anything but, “BEAUTIFUL, STUNNING AND POETIC.”
But the Hulk stresses that the game’s ending isn’t just about the cycles themselves, but how we break with, continue, or harmonize them (though I must admit, this is the first time I have ever heard of harmonizing cycles of violence—what exactly would that look like I wonder?)
“IN THIS CLIMACTIC MOMENT,” Hulk continues, “IT IS RATHER APPROPRIATE THAT YOU ARE GIVEN THREE DISTINCT PHILOSOPHICAL OPTIONS ON HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS OUROBOROTICAL CYCLE…ALL THREE PATHS LEAD TO THE SAME SYMBOLIC UNDERSTANDING OF THE PURPOSE OF DEATH AND RE-BIRTH.”
And this symbolic understanding is (as opposed to a literal or logical one I guess), “THE ONLY CORE TRUTH OF FATALISM.”
Perhaps you, dear reader, are as confused as I am by this point, in which case I count myself in good company. If you are not, however, perhaps you can explain, since the Hulk does not, what exactly the core truth of fatalism is, and how exactly this squares with the philosophical choices offered above?
For Hulk, at least as I understand him, the game is about cycles, but more specifically only the cycles that cannot be broken; the inevitable ones. After all, the “core truth of fatalism” is that there is no escape, no hope of breaking the chain of causality: all sales are final (oh the irony!)
At first then, the game is about all of the things we can do with cycles (break, continue, harmonize), but now it’s clear that really, the game is about how we can’t do any of these things with cycles (or at least not these cycles). Right? Except that, again, when Hulk describes how each ending plays out, each one certainly seems different.
For instance, while the extinction of synthetics leads to victory at a high price, Shepard’s self-sacrifice leads to harmony accompanied by the “continued threat of unrest.” And the final ending, the one that follows from synthesis, well that was the Hulk’s most favorite one of all. In this one, he explains, the “NEW EDEN REPRESENTS A LAND OF PERFECT HARMONY.” How similar are these?
At first glance, these endings all feel a bit different. At a longer glance it becomes clear that they are all unambiguously distinct. And yet the Hulk maintains that all of them use the same imagery because it’s important to see “HOW HUMAN NATURE CYCLE-SOLUTIONS BRING US TO THE SAME PLACE.” Forget about the fact that all of the endings are different, and the question that Hulk’s thesis begs most pitifully, mainly: why make all of the endings slightly different if the creators are trying to show how they are all inevitably the same?
For Hulk, the only real difference between all of these endings results from the fact that “OUR INTENTIONS” can be different, “AND THOSE INTENTIONS MEAN EVERYTHING BECAUSE THEY REFLECT OUR VERY HUMANITY AND PURPOSE.” How they reflect this, Hulk never says. How one can be the author of their own intentions, but not their own actions, remains unclear. In this regard, the Hulks celebration of the fatalism he supposes to be at the heart of the Mass Effect trilogy creates as many questions as it helps us to answer.
To make clear just how troubled this interpretation is, see if you can follow this line of thinking: the cycles in Mass Effect are unbreakable, and all lead to the same place, but all of these places are slightly different, not least of all because different choices were made along the way to each of them, and really it’s our intentions that matter, because that’s where our humanity and purpose come from, even when all intentions lead to Rome, or in this case, an Eden like planet, where presumably, due to the destruction of the Reapers, certain cycles have been broken. Progress has been made, not just because of different intentions, but different decisions made in accordance with those intentions, even though the game is all about fatalism, and how the same thing will happen no matter what.
I don’t know how you square that interpretive circle, but the Hulk is pretty strong, and apparently unfamiliar with analytic rigor, so perhaps he can. For anyone else though, it might be a bit too buried in contradiction and paradox to make any sense.