The Mass Effect 3 conclusion has been extremely controversial, and much maligned. I’d like to inductively construct better game choices for the ending based on the consistent values of the series. I do not want to comment on silly things like Indoctrination Theory and the numerous logistical plot holes. I believe the deep disappointment fans had with ME3’s conclusion comes from a violation of the values players were taught, which they may feel even if they don’t understand them…
How Does Killing Organics Save Them?
To get some context, I’ll take a quick moment to explain a point of confusion for many players… why are synthetics killing organics to stop synthetics from killing organics? The phrasing in the game was poor, and it sounds like foolish circular logic.
In each cycle prior to the Reaper solution, organics evolved and created technology. From technology came synthetic life. Then, to paraphrase the Catalyst, the synthetics turned on their creators. This is evidenced in the Quarian and Geth relationship.
In each cycle, synthetics ultimately destroy the advanced organic civilizations that birthed them, likely out of self-defense as implied by Legion. As synthetic races continued to advance and observe this phenomenon, one group, the Reapers, feel the need to save the inevitable destruction of valuable organic life. The solution is surprisingly logical: save them by preserving the highest priority organic species with Reaper tech.
The method for this, as explained by the Catalyst, is to integrate them with the Reapers, such that each Reaper vessel is an embodiment of an entire civilization. To organics, this forced assimilation is destruction, but to Reapers this is salvation. To “reap” means to cut with a sickle, but the word comes from “ripe”. All the other words used by the Reapers, like Harvesters and Collectors, show they believe they are reaping something they believe has peaked in development, and may rot to extinction. An analogy would be how farmers trim excess buds from fruit trees to ensure the remaining ones become much sweeter fruit.
Without intervention by Reapers, each cycle of evolving organics would be destroyed in wars against their own synthetic creations, a cyclical event that Reapers want to stop. This is a machine’s solution, logical and unempathetic. The confusion comes from the game being unclear about when “synthetics” refers to Reapers, and when it refers to other synthetic beings.
Anyways, this begs the question, what is an organic’s solution to this cycle of self-destruction?
Mass Effect Values
Let’s talk about what values organics hold, particularly by their champion Shepard, as evidenced by the game’s dialog choices. The alignment system, paragon vs. renegade, is not a good vs. evil system. Paragon choices are those that generally effect consensus among all involved. Renegade choices generally show impulsive, legally gray, self-serving decision-making by Shepard. In short hand, I’ll refer to these two aspects as unity vs. individuality.
Unity is a defining theme across all Mass Effect games, shown in Shepard’s ability to unify the galaxy’s disparate races and cultures, especially against the Reaper threat. Near the end of the game, this is repeatedly stressed as Shepard’s most miraculous accomplishment. Compare this to the surprising little mention of Shepard’s killing of 4 Reapers, except in Shepard’s own dialog.
Philosophically, this is a form of egalitarianism. Its core belief is that the natural state of the galactic races should be equality. That equality could then effect maximally efficient good, like beating the Reapers. In short, working together at minimal loss to your constituents (Pareto efficiency) is upheld as the ideal. The upholder is a paragon.
Counter-juxtaposed (but not opposed) to unity is individuality. Because it isn’t necessarily right or wrong- philosophically this a form of consequentialism, i.e. that morality is judged by the outcome of one’s actions.
At the extreme end of consequentialism is the self-serving, xenophobic, racist, lead villain, the Illusive Man. It’s important that he’s illusive, not elusive (even though he is). It turns out his concept of mankind is also merely an illusion. This point is driven home by the plot reveal that he is indoctrinated. His deluded moral compass and illusion of control fails him, and he sins against his own kind in terrible self-serving fashion, as evidenced in final dialog choices.
It is implied by Shepard’s name (a corruption of “shepherd” referencing the assembling of a “flock” of disparate followers onto the Normandy), and by the word “paragon”, that unity is morally superior in the ME world. Indeed, even most renegade choices that the player makes result in cooperation. The key thing to note is that those renegade choices usually force unity… Shepard’s will, at the expense of others.
So the third dimension to the paragon vs renegade dichotomy is how they affect free will. Unity without free will is the Geth before they became true Geth. Unity with free will is the heretic Geth, or the galactic civilizations united under a paragon Shepard. Individuality with free will is agency, a renegade Shepard. Individuality without free will is an illusion as seen in an indoctrinated Illusive Man.
EDI explains the source of free will very well when she realizes the difference between her and the Geth is that she has individual preferences. Preferences, unlike machine deductions, are not necessarily optimal. Before Legion became a part of their consciousness, and give them free will in the form of individual preferences, they were a danger to the Quarians. Trying to destroy the Geth turned a singular hive mind against the Quarians, loaded with an optimal answer: war.
The False Choices
Where Mass Effect 3‘s final choices failed was giving players choices that did not maintain the balance of these values. Let’s recap quickly what they were, and what they meant:
Control the Reapers
This is unity by removing free will, in the same way the Reapers did to their harvested forces employed in war.
Destroy the Reapers
This is individualism (of organics) by destruction of another race, in the same way as what the Illusive Man wished to do to non-humans.
Synthesis with the Reapers
This is unity by the removal of individualism, by forcing a physical change to the inherent natures of organics an synthetics alike. To me, this act betrays the organics in the worst way because it effectively destroy free will and biological identity as the same time, but it could be argued for positively as a new way to achieve technological singularity through physical synthesis. The implications this has on the nature of the soul, the “ghost in the machine”, is an interesting discussion for another time, still implies the end of identity, forced upon Shepard’s loyal, dependent organic peoples.
What’s severely lacking is a choice for Shepard to achieve unity without taking free will, else all choices are false because they all subvert free will unity. This makes them all morally inferior choices. Remember what I said earlier about the implied moral good in ME.
Before I continue, I want to point out that the “renegade” choice of destroying the reapers is also not wholly consistent with renegade values. Shepard’s renegade choices throughout the game have always been made from her own volition. In the ending, it’s reduced to a mere option provided by the Catalyst.
Actually, the key problem with all 3 choices is that they are essentially forced upon Shepard (and the player) by the Catalyst, and that they are options constructed by machine logic, not organic preference. I’ll ask the question again, what are the organic approaches to this problem?
Organically Better Endings
Destroy the Reapers (free will)
This is a valid option, but the method is not. It’s an illogical solution for the Catalyst to offer, moreover it’s clearly an emotional, human choice… so why is it built into the Citadel? I’d keep this option, but let players make this choice organically by letting them figure out a weak spot and choose to shoot it, not giving them some giant red off switch conveniently made for this choice. Maybe also let players destroy the Catalyst interface itself, representing a violent way to remove the haunting child imagery from her mind.
Synthesis with Reapers (utilitarian unity)
This is a valid option; I’d keep it, but make it clear that it is a machine’s solution to stopping the cycle, not an organic one. Self-preservation is more important to organics than optimality, so it’s very utilitarian. Remember that the Reapers have essentially already been doing this to the organics. Also, by definition, a catalyst does not change when it precipitates a reaction.The synthesis option could be very interesting if Shepard initiates it without being synthesized along with the rest of the galaxy. This would make Shepard the new catalyst, an organic one.
Mind Merge with Reapers (individualism)
One recurring visual is of Shepard chasing the child through the forest. In the last sequence, Shepard reaches the child and burns with him. I believe a good solution built off this is letting Shepard choose to self-sacrifice and merge consciousness with the Reapers, as Legion does with the Geth. This destroys Shepard and the Catalyst, creating a new enlightened synthetic mind that has organic preferences, something the Reapers did not have. Per EDI, this is the path to individualism, and that would break the cycle.
Cooperation with Reapers (free will unity)
Finally, I believe there needs to be an option that embodies organic paragon values. For this, Shepard can choose to persuade the Catalyst that her work with the Quarians and Geth (provided players have made those choices earlier) are evidence that the cycle can be broken by other means. The Reapers are asked to leave organics alone to their fate.
Even more interesting to me would be having the humility for Shepard to propose that it can’t be solved in one cycle, but that they can work towards peace by passing wisdom on to future cycles by way of a new Crucible, one that leads to cooperation, not destruction.
I haven’t circled back to talk about how the new choices I’m suggesting fit into the storyline, so let me tie up some loose ends. The cycle of self-destruction of creator by creation is seen by the synthetics as a non-optimal phenomenon. Because they struggle with controlling it, they call it chaos. In the words of the Reapers, they are bringing order to the chaos. When Shepard stands up to the Catalyst and says that this machine solution, this order, is “taking away our future”, the meaning is that this type of determinism take away human hope, and leaves organics with no more free will than machines.
The Catalyst states that Shepard being in its presence as the “first organic ever” proves the machine solution is no longer optimal. I’ve written about this before as one of the major themes of the Matrix movies as well… that the synergistic relationship between man and machine exists because machines require that “inefficiency”… or chaos. This is because organic life, in its non-deterministic exercise of free will, is a catalyst for evolution, just as mutations in our genes lead to the variation needed to become new beings. Synthetics, when constrained by efficiency, are unable to grasp this, and are doomed to the artificial intelligence flaw of overfitting. Organics who do grasp this realize the need to balance the values of unity, individualism, and free will to escape the trap of efficiency.
The goal of great narrative game design is to give value to player decisions in a coherent world. The key values I’ve outlined above were core to the experience in a trilogy, and the final choices should have respected that. When the false ending choices were offered, with developers stating that polarization was their goal, then it’s no surprise invested players should feel violated. Hopefully, Bioware chooses free will unity as the way to address their fan base.