I’ll be discussing spoilers for Mass Effect 3 in this post. (Part 3 here)
I mentioned back in part 2 of this series (it wasn’t originally supposed to be a series, but when I realized I was approaching three thousand words writing up my first post, I thought it might be better to break this up) that my Shepard ended up basically acting like Jesus, because he was always giving people second chances, making peace, and doing impossible things.
It’s not a perfect analogy, since Shepard doesn’t have the whole divinity thing, but I think it more or less holds true. I think this was intentional on the part of the developers (not that I think Mass Effect as a series is specifically Christian, but it clearly has a lot of tropes in common with the gospel), especially after seeing the synthesis ending. With this ending you have Shepard choosing to die in order to usher in a new kind of life intended for everyone. His death literally enables an innate change in every being in the galaxy as his essence is disseminated among all of them (the synthesis is apparently possible because Shepard is both organic and synthetic after he was resurrected using cutting edge technology). Setting aside the weird assertion the Catalyst makes that an integration of synthetic and organic life is the final stage in evolution (I’m not sure where that comes from, but it sounds like gibberish to me), this whole scenario has Jesus written all over it.
I wrote before that I never intended for my Shepard to take on the whole Christ role, and I really wanted him to walk away from the Reaper war with that happy ending for everyone. Of course, that’s not what happened, and it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to look at the story and say how it should have ended. That’s certainly a fun exercise, but it’s still wish fulfillment, and wish fulfillment doesn’t do very much at all when it comes to exploring how a story reflects the human condition.
So let’s look at the story we got.
I played Shepard as a person with principals and ideals, and he upheld those ideals to the very end, even though it took a heavy toll on him personally. There’s a point just before the endgame of Mass Effect 3 begins where Shepard’s forced to deal with a very serious loss in terms of the war. It’s a major blow to the galactic defense, and it serves as a wake up call that for all the amazing things Shepard’s done before, he simply can’t save everyone. In hindsight, I suppose the point of that mission was to remind the player that things wouldn’t necessarily work out to be totally satisfying in a “you saved everyone and got out alive!” sort of way, but there are so many moments in the series overall where Shepard’s slim chances of success are emphasized that you kind of get numb to it. Anyway, metanarrative aside, following this mission Shepard has a conversation with his ship’s pilot, Joker, where it becomes apparent that Shepard is cracking at the seams from all the stress of organizing the war. Despite the cool demeanor that he puts forward, Shepard is really worried about what’s going to happen, and this segment serves to remind us that our hero is human, no matter what we may have deluded ourselves into thinking about them up to this point.
I was thinking about that moment after I finished the game, and it occurred to me that a lot of my dissatisfaction with the ending stemmed from the fact that Shepard had to play Jesus after the story made such a big deal about the fact that he wasn’t holding up well under the stress. I kept thinking, “That’s not fair to dump so much responsibility on a single person, especially when it costs him his chance at happiness.”
Then I had an epiphany (ignore the fact that I finished the game on January 7). My Shepard had ended up being a type of Christ, and he did so unwillingly, at least in my mind. He desperately wanted the peaceful life, but he couldn’t bring himself to wipe out an entire race in order to do it (the way the game’s original ending scenario presents it, Shepard may die even if you choose to destroy the Catalyst, since the effects will be to wipe out all synthetic life in the universe, and the Catalyst makes a point of saying that Shepard is part synthetic) especially with no guarantee that he’d even survive. He was tempted, but he chose the selfless path.
I wondered if that sort of scenario is similar to what Jesus actually had to deal with during his life. It’s a funny thing, trying to hold in mind the paradox of Christ being simultaneously divine and human, because so much of what contemporary culture focuses on with Jesus is his divinity. We’re told he performed miracles, and forgave relentlessly, and went to die for us without hesitation. His birth was heralded as the coming of Immanuel, God with us.
It’s easy to forget (if you believe in Jesus’ divinity) that he inhabited a human body, and he struggled with human wants and needs. Before he was arrested in Gethsemane, he prayed that God wouldn’t burden him with the responsibility of dying for the world.
Jesus the human being wanted to live.
The fact that he chose not to says to me he thought the cost for backing down from the responsibility was too great. It probably hurt a lot to make that decision, and I mean that in more than just physical terms. We generally understand how agonizing and humiliating a death by crucifixion was, but I don’t think we consider very often the kind of emotional pain that accompanies choosing to forgo your life as it is for a greater good. Perhaps the Resurrection signaled the synthesis of a new kind of life for people, integrating the stuff of their mundane existences with something alien and transcendent and ultimately good.
It still must have hurt to leave all those people behind.
And that’s how I feel about the ending of Mass Effect 3 that I got.