From here I’m going to get into spoilers for Mass Effect 3. (Part 1 here)
I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating that one of the big draws of the Mass Effect series is that your gameplay decisions are supposed to have an impact on each subsequent game’s narrative. That’s really true if you look at all the branching scenarios for the game (events overall still follow the same broad plot outline of Shepard’s ongoing campaign to first warn the races of the galaxy about the Reaper invasion, and then their attempts to rally everyone together to fight off the Reapers). It’s a similar design structure to what’s done in Telltale Games’s episodic adventure games like the recent The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, but on a far larger scale. I’m okay with that structure because I understand the limitations inherent in trying to write scenarios for such a vast number of branching paths, but there’s a problem with having that limitation while promising the player that you’re going to do something that overcomes it. Bioware’s original endings for Mass Effect 3 fail to meet that promise, and a lot of people were understandably upset.
It’s not that the three possible endings are badly done. When it comes down to it in the end, Shepard has a choice between sacrificing themselves to either completely destroy the Reapers, take control of them, or integrate synthetic and organic life across the galaxy into a new life form. Within the context of the narrative, Shepard’s told by the Catalyst (some kind of AI that directs the Reapers to clean the galaxy of advanced civilizations every 50000 years) that integration is the best choice because it eliminates the need for the Reapers. The assumption behind this is that organic life is fundamentally incapable of reconciling with synthetic life, and so in order for both to persist, organic life has to be periodically reset so that it’s not on the verge of creating new synthetic life.
The metastory behind the Catalyst’s assumptions (as I understand it; obviously I don’t have access to any of the DLC that expands on its backstory) is that whatever race in the far distant past created it decided that it was a danger to their existence, so they tried to destroy it and failed. Somehow the Catalyst got ingrained in its thinking that organics always try to stamp out synthetics when they arise (probably concluded after multiple observations of this phenomenon) and so it put in place a system that would prevent organics from getting too advanced to ever succeed in destroying synthetic life as it’s expressed in the Reapers, who are supposed to be the culmination of every technological advance in the universe since who knows when.
Clearly, this is a flawed philosophy that favors the preservation of synthetics over organics, and it needs to change. It’s up to the player to decide how Shepard should change it, but the choices available are all awful. If Shepard destroys the Reapers, then all extant synthetic life in the galaxy also gets destroyed (which includes the geth and, presumably, EDI, one of Shepard’s crew who developed into a sentient artificial intelligence over the course of the series); this is the only option that potentially leaves Shepard alive. If Shepard takes control of the Reapers, then there’s still a lot of destruction, the Reaper threat isn’t necessarily eliminated, and Shepard dies. If Shepard integrates organic and synthetic life, then the Mass Relays (the method by which everyone traverses the galaxy at faster than light speeds) get destroyed, effectively isolating all the systems from one another for an indeterminate period of time, and Shepard dies.
So here’s my dilemma. I played a Shepard who was very much an idealist who prized life in any form over everything else. He let the last Rachni queen (a race that nearly conquered the galaxy two millennia prior to the series’ events) go even though she might have become a potential threat later. He made peace with the geth (an AI collective that had been at war with their creators, the Quarians, for nearly three centuries) whom everyone else in the galaxy assumed had been the aggressors in the conflict. He fought to cure the Krogan (a highly aggressive race of warriors) of a genetic disease that practically destroyed their reproductive capabilities (this was a solution implemented by other races in the galaxy who feared the Krogan would overrun every other civilization with their immense numbers and aggressive attitudes). My Shepard cared about preserving life and giving people second chances.
My Shepard also had a knack for getting things to work out for the best. Despite all the warnings that he was tasked with the impossible, he somehow went on to make impossible things happen. He talked the Krogan’s best hope for redemption out of getting himself killed despite being angry over the loss of a potential cure to the reproductive disease. When he went on a suicide mission to stop the Collectors (minions of the Reapers), Shepard not only came back alive, but brought his entire team out unscathed. In preparing for war with the Reapers, he successfully negotiated two alliances between races that had been enemies for centuries. No matter how long the odds, Shepard could beat them.
Despite all this unmitigated awesomeness, Shepard also had a humble opinion of himself. He did these amazing things because they needed doing, and he expected other people to have the same attitude (that’s the secret to his success in most cases, actually–seeing the best in people and expecting them to live up to it).
Okay, so the way I played Shepard he was basically Jesus.
I didn’t set out to do that. In fact, I really just wanted Shepard to be a very competent nice guy. I suppose I was hoping to make him kind of an everyperson who just happens to be thrown into extraordinary circumstances. I think by the end, my Shepard became more of a classic hero, although in the narrative I was crafting for myself, he really didn’t want to be so extraordinary. There was a job that needed doing, and it happened that he was really good at doing it (and that the job was very important to the safety of a lot of people), so he kept doing it until it was done.
If that were all that had happened as I played through the story, then I’d be okay with a set of endings that revolve around Shepard’s self sacrifice. The meaningful death is a very important trope in how we tell our stories because it helps us make sense of the world and assign meaning to our lives (this is related to the apocalypse genre in the sense that endings help us understand the meaning of the entirety of a story). Of course, that’s not all that happened. Bioware’s a very accomplished developer, and the signature feature of their games is a wealth of compellingly written characters. Shepard made a lot of friends in his mission to save the galaxy.