Some Thoughts on Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Saga

Over the last year I’ve tried to develop a habit of reading a book before bed on most nights.  It’s a good habit, and I find that it’s a great way to help settle into sleep, particularly since I’m especially prone to dozing whenever I’m supposed to be reading.  Whenever it’s not working as a sleep aid, I also have the added benefit of being able to work through the list of books my friends have recommended to me.

For the last six months or so, I’ve dedicated my regular reading time to working my way through Dan Simmons’s four book Hyperion series (well, technically through the three sequels; I read Hyperion a couple years ago after it was given to me for my birthday by some friends).  It’s been pretty satisfying, and naturally I have thoughts about the series as a whole.

The Shrike appears on the cover of every book in the series, but all except the last one fail to portray it with the right number of arms. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

For anyone not familiar with the series, here’s a brief overview of what’s going on: about eight or nine hundred years in the future (I’m fuzzy on the precise timeline), humanity has spread out among the Milky Way galaxy after the accidental destruction of Earth.  With the help of a network of sentient AIs known as the TechnoCore, they’ve developed technology that allows for instantaneous travel across vast distances through portals known as farcasters, which have been slowly built on colonized planets, developing into what’s known as the WorldWeb.  One planet on the fringes of human space, Hyperion, is on the cusp of being integrated into the Web as a major conflict between humanity and a faction of separatists known as the Ousters is about to escalate.  The TechnoCore possesses significant predictive capabilities, and all of their calculations suggest that Hyperion will play an integral role in the conflict, although no one knows in exactly what way.  Hyperion also happens to be the home of the Shrike, a mysterious figure who inexplicably kills or rewards people who sight it, and around whom an entire cult has developed.  Seven disparate people are chosen to go on a pilgrimage to Hyperion to visit the Time Tombs, a site that’s flowing backwards in time from the future and where the Shrike seems to have originated from.

There’s a bunch of other stuff that happens, but plotwise, that’s all the setup you need to decide if you’d like to read the first couple books in the series.  If you want to read the latter books, then it’s best to go in understanding that the events of those books are set nearly three centuries after the first two.

Besides the larger plot that’s swirling around the small cast of characters who anchor the story, the first book also does some interesting things with structure (being about a pilgrimage, Simmons saw fit to structure Hyperion like The Canterbury Tales, where the primary story advances in small sections that act as prologues to each of the pilgrims’ personal stories that explains their connection with the Shrike and why they were selected for the pilgrimage in the first place) that set it apart from its sequels, which all unfortunately stick to a more traditional narrative structure (I suspect that this change in structure was simply necessary to facilitate the larger story, since all of Hyperion serves more or less only as an introduction to the concepts and conflicts that play out more explicitly in its sequels; the fact that the book just ends once the pilgrims reach the Time Tombs with no further explanation of what they actually need to accomplish there drives this point home).

The series also deals with some interesting metaphysical questions regarding the nature of empathy and whether evolution on a macro scale exhibits any kind of greater direction.  There’s significant discussion of the concept of the Omega Point, which the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described as the ultimate goal of evolution within the universe (the concept resonated with me as similar in thought to what John Haught describes as his “aesthetic principle” in his book God After Darwin; it’s been a few years since I read that one, but I’m pretty confident that Haught, who’s also Catholic, is thinking in light of Teilhard’s work), and also quite a bit of philosophizing over humanity’s relationship with artificial intelligence and the symbiosis that emerges from that relationship (or even if it can be symbiotic at all).

The ending of the second book, Fall of Hyperion, reminds me a lot of the Mass Effect series.  Without getting too spoilery, I can say that there are multiple story beats that Mass Effect seemed to be pretty clearly cribbing from Hyperion (I’m confident the series was a point of inspiration for BioWare, especially given that they have a Hyperion shout out built into the Mass Effect universe with a recurring star system across all the games that’s called the Shrike Abyssal), but in the books they were executed in a much more satisfying way.  If you found Mass Effect 3‘s ending to be a little lacking, then reading through the first two Hyperion books gives a very similar sort of payoff, but in a way that, at least for me, doesn’t leave the audience angry with the writer’s decisions.

Also, if you decide you just don’t want to commit to four books, Fall of Hyperion ends in a very satisfying place with all the character threads neatly wrapped up.  As for Endymion and Rise of Endymion, well, they’re not bad, but they conclude in a way that feels pretty hollow to me.  I’ll discuss those two in more depth next time.

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I Finished Dragon Age: Inquisition!

It was good; I liked it.

I found the ending twist rather surprising (maybe it was easier to spot for people who are really into Dragon Age‘s lore, but I didn’t see it coming), and the denouement eminently satisfying.  As I’ve written several times in the past, I found Mass Effect 3‘s ending lacking, and the fact that the only way for Shepard to survive involves being a colossal jerk to the synthetics was really off-putting (especially after I got really invested in my Shepard-Tali romance), so the fact that Inquisition ends on a high note with no possibility of the Inquisitor dying was really satisfying.  I love BioWare games, but it’s kind of a downer when every story seems to end with the hero dying simply because they’re not willing to screw someone else over (I’m looking at you, Dragon Age: Origins, with your twist that requires having someone sleep with Morrigan regardless of whether she’s been romanced in order for the Warden to survive the final battle); regardless of whether that’s supposed to feed into a larger point about the nobility of self sacrifice, it’s really off-putting when I’m enjoying a game that’s largely a good power fantasy.

The game's cover art. The text "DRAGON AGE" is at the top, with the larger text "INQUISITION" directly below. In the lower centre of the image is an armored soldier, holding a sword with one hand, and pointing to mystical creatures in the sky with the other. The "BioWare" and "EA" logos are at the bottom of the cover.

Thankfully, EA finally wised up about the marketing and designed the cover art to leave the Inquisitor’s sex ambiguous. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Fortunately, Inquisition is pretty much all power fantasy.

Perhaps the only frustration I had with the story was regarding my Inquisitor’s romance with Sera.  Sera’s a lot of fun, and I thought her romance plot was really touching in a lot of ways, but it was also really difficult in some ways (at least for the Inquisitor; I resolved early on that I was going to make any decisions necessary to try to see this story to the end, which left the main character agonizing over some difficult decisions).  Because I played as an elf, my Inquisitor’s background was Dalish, who are the nomadic elf tribes who wander the great forests of Thedas trying to hold on to the remnants of their old culture.  The game’s end reveals that the Dalish are pretty much all wrong about their history, which was kind of a big deal for my Inquisitor.  She learned a lot about the true heritage of the elves, and then right after all those revelations got into a big fight with Sera about whether or not it’s all lies.

Sera’s background as a city elf who was orphaned at a young age and adopted by a pretty racist human woman has left her really screwed up in terms of how she views other elves (basically she hates everything about elven culture, real and imagined), and so she’s gleeful over the fact that the Dalish are all wrong about their histories.  She also thinks that everything about elven religion is equivalent to demon worship and wants nothing to do with it.  This situation led to a fight between the Inquisitor and Sera in my game where Sera gave an ultimatum about digging further into elf history.  It was pretty harsh, and there was no way to get her to compromise, so the Inquisitor had to agree to drop the subject; I imagine this was a pretty painful thing, considering how I had played the Inquisitor to take pride in her heritage, even if she wasn’t necessarily a major believer in the elven religion (I think my Inquisitor’s religious outlook ended up tending towards decidedly agnostic).  It wasn’t a difficult decision for me as the player, but in retrospect it was pretty unfair to my character.  Still, I think it’s an excellent bit of characterization, since Sera’s so stubborn and elven Inquisitors have a big disadvantage in trying to romance her.

Setting all that aside, I have to say that for the first time in probably ever, I’m looking forward to seeing what the DLC for Inquisition will be like (I usually come to AAA games so long after their initial release that all the DLC’s been released and I either skip it or end up getting it bundled in with the original game).  I’d really like some closure on Solas (especially since he was my primary mage, and with him disappearing at the end of the game I’m left without one of my key party members if expansions are set after Corypheus’s defeat; he really is like Morrigan 2.0), and I’d kind of dig getting into more of the fallout surrounding the Grey Wardens as well as the resolution of the Orlesian civil war.  Even so, all that’s probably a decent ways off, since we’re only three months out from the game’s original release.

Boxing Day

It’s the day after Christmas, and I’m preparing to enjoy the second week of my winter break, which is the best time of year aside from the summer break that’s four times as long.  In that time, I hope to do some revision on a short story I wrote during NaNoWriMo (it’s always nice to have goals that don’t involve just sitting on the couch, reading comics and playing video games) and catch up on some podcasts (I’m pretty much over the moon that I got a new MP3 player this year since my last one went kaput over two years ago).  Besides the ambitious goals, I also have all the typical vacation plans of just enjoying my Christmas gifts and then writing furiously about them, because stories are meant to be engaged, and one of my favorite parts of getting into anything new is the chance to think it over and share my thoughts on it.

Anywho, here’s a quick rundown of things that I’ll be mulling over in the near future, as a kind of road map to what I want to discuss in the coming weeks (I’m not going to say in the coming year, because I operate on the academic calendar, and as far as I’m concerned the year ends in May and starts in August).

I’ve picked up several volumes of some comic series that I’ve been excited about following, including the first story arc of the new Ms. Marvel ongoing (I picked the first issue up way back in May and was instantly taken with it), the first volume of Rat Queens (on the recommendation of a friend of Rachael’s, who I now fully trust has excellent taste in comics), and a couple volumes of Saga (I know I said I was going to write about that one at some point, but I never got around to it; maybe with three volumes of the series to read through, I’ll get back to it now).  I expect I’ll have read through all of them before the end of the weekend, so maybe I’ll have something on at least one of those series in the next week.

On the video game front, I’m still working my way through Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I expect I’ll be chipping at that for a while.  If I have any further thoughts beyond, “This game’s a lot of fun, and I really don’t like Vivienne,” then I’d love to share those.  For Alex, who specifically asked me if I’m going to do any writing on Chrono Cross, the sequel to Chrono Trigger, I’d really like to blog through a replay of that game.  It’s an odd one, and it does a lot to complicate Chrono Trigger‘s pretty streamlined narrative (as much as any time-travel story can have), but I remember the game being such a big deal in my mind when it came out simply because it was a sequel to that game that I’d love to revisit it and see how it holds up fifteen years later.

On the front of non-graphical fiction, I’m nearly finished reading the third book in Dan Simmons’s Hyperion saga, and I’d love to mull over that series in depth once I’ve finished with it.  Without getting into too much detail, it’s a series that’s kindled a slight interest in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and also reminds me so much of Mass Effect (which I strongly suspect was cribbing heavily from Simmons’s series).  Also, if I can keep my promise to myself about getting back into podcasts, I might try to write more regularly about stories that I listen to.  I already said it above, but it bears repeating: stories are meant to be engaged.

So that’s what I’m thinking about; we’ll see if I actually stick to any of these plans.  Nonetheless, I hope you all had a pleasant Christmas if you celebrate it, and happy holidays throughout the rest of the season.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty (4/13/14)

Faith

1. One thing in my series on the train wreck that was my conversation with Damon, a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, that I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on explicitly was the fact that I went back to the Nicene Creed of 381 as the foundation of my system of dogma.  Most Christians today, regardless of their location within the Church’s various branches, affirm that version of Creed, and so it is a cornerstone of orthodox faith within Christianity.  It’s pretty barebones in its assertions (you don’t get a whole lot besides the establishment of the Trinity, Jesus as wholly divine and wholly human, and belief in the Crucifixion and Resurrection; the technical details of any of those points are still pretty vague and open to interpretation), but it defines what the core of Christianity is for most of the world’s Christians.  This article does a pretty nice job of articulating the frustration I ran into with Damon when his response to my bringing up the Nicene Creed was that it was “valid, but incomplete.”  I suspect this is probably an outpouring of thought from the diminished importance of Church tradition over biblical interpretation that’s common in Protestantism in general and evangelicalism in particular.

2. Following on that, here’s an article from David Hayward discussing one particularly nasty response to Rachel Held Evans’s very honest meditations on how to proceed in relation to evangelicalism after the World Vision incident from several weeks ago.

3. I recently discovered a new blog.  It’s called Scribalishess, and it’s a fantastic combination of fancy pen reviews and explanations of Hebrew scriptures.  Being a lefty, I can’t really do a whole lot with fancy pens other than admire the aesthetics of them (someone, please tell me if a fountain pen has been invented that can be comfortably used by a southpaw with the signature curled claw writing position), but the writer is a professor of the Hebrew Bible, and she’s written some fantastic explanations of the problems with how contemporary Christians tend to approach the Old Testament.  For a sampling of her work that I’ve really enjoyed so far, follow these links: “The Day My Son Was Taught ‘Bible’ in Public School”, “Leviticus Defiled: The Perversion of Two Verses”, “Reading Genesis 1 ‘Literally'”

Science

1. I get a lot of my science news via io9.  Recently, I was really excited to see that they hired a correspondent for news in Washington, D.C. related to science policy.  I think this event is not unrelated to an updated manifesto that was published by io9‘s chief editor, Annalee Newitz, this week where she writes that, whether you like it or not, science is a political issue, and policies that affect scientific research and education need to be addressed.  Wholeheartedly agreed.

2. Following that, here’s an article about the brouhaha stirring at a technical university where a couple who are creationists have been invited to speak at a commencement ceremony.  This is an interesting case mostly because the couple in question are also engineers, and they plan on speaking only about their engineering backgrounds at the ceremony.  Nonetheless, opponents of the decision are arguing that the university shouldn’t even recognize people who take part in political efforts that directly seek to undermine science education, even if it’s an unrelated field.

Gaming

1. There’s still a long way to go to get to equal representation of all demographics in fiction.  This talk given at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference by Manveer Heir, a game designer for BioWare, gives a pretty good overview of the excuses that lots of folks within the games industry are making, and points towards some goals that developers should keep in mind.

2. I’m only a little surprised I’ve not seen this before, but this is a very thorough exploration of all the problems with the user interface in the first Mass Effect game.  Anyone who’s played the series knows that the first game had some major drawbacks, especially in relation to its inventory system.  It’s also a good write up on how a player interacts with a game and what good visual design does to facilitate the experience and immersion of a title.  Also, in the follow-up that looks at Mass Effect 2‘s user interface, the writer validates everything I was thinking about the simplification of pretty much every system between the two games.

Comics

1. So Carol Danvers has been Captain Marvel (in the Marvel comics universe) for a couple years now, and all accounts say she’s been a success in her new role.  Now I’m hearing that Marvel’s launching a new Ms. Marvel, and she’s a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager from New Jersey.  Why am I not reading this series?!

Movies

1. Last summer I watched a really good movie called Another Earth.  Now the director of that film is about to release a new movie that explores the tension between a materialist outlook and confrontation with scientifically inexplicable phenomena.  Personally, I think a lot of people make too much of the perceived conflict between science and faith (it’s one of my pet peeves about Rob Bricken’s reporting at io9 that he always seems to take this angle in writing about things that examine the relationship between science and faith), but this new film might still be worth seeing.  Here’s the trailer, if you’re curious.

Fun

Art by Lauren Dawson. (Image credit: http://iguanamouth.tumblr.com)

1. There have been a lot of live action adaptations of Superman and Batman over the years.  Also there have been a few of Wonder Woman.  That doesn’t change the fact that Wonder Woman as a character has not seen a notable live action adaptation since the 1970s.  Here’s a compilation of the looks of various adaptations of DC’s Trinity over the years with a rather wry jab at Wonder Woman’s poor representation.

2. I have not read every Shakespeare play (honestly, I’m more of a Marlowe fan), but based on what I know about the ones that I have read, these 3-panel plot summaries are pretty spot on.

3. Time travel is a lot of fun in stories, but looking at visualizations of how it actually plays out are probably even more of a blast.  Here’s a quiz where the time travel in various movies are illustrated on timelines and you get to guess if you can recognize the film based on its pathway.  Like all things from BuzzFeed, it’s kind of stupid, but still entertaining.

4. First, there was Sharknado.  Now, there’s Poseidon Rex.

5. The Muppets instantly make things better.  So here’s a collection of fan art mashing up the Muppets with various characters across the Marvel and DC universes.  My favorite might be the first one that features Dazzler singing with the Electric Mayhem.

The Saga of My Mass Effect 3 Playthrough (4 of 4)

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.

The Saga of My Mass Effect 3 Playthrough (3 of 4)

Spoilers for Mass Effect 3 are discussed in this post. (Part 2 here)

Now, the hero falling in love might be written off in other games as the token romance subplot that every story is expected to have in order to titillate viewers a little bit, but I didn’t get that from my Shepard’s story.  He had a thing with one woman, Liara, early on, but that fell through because things happen (including Shepard’s death and resurrection, but that’s a story for another time) and they were separated.  When they met again, the magic had gone, mostly because Liara had moved on and made something of her life apart from Shepard, and he had important business to deal with saving the galaxy.  Then he fell for another woman, Tali, who was an old friend from his earliest adventures.  It began as a simple crush on her part that had gone unrequited for some time, and then Shepard realized that Tali had been there for him the whole way.  They were good friends, and then they became more than that.  While Shepard was going through some of the most trying parts of his mission, she was there to support him.

They were unavoidably separated after Shepard completed his suicide mission to stop the Collectors, and they spent six months apart.  When they saw each other again, there was some uncertainty about their affections for one another, but those vanished quickly.  The fact that there was a war going on didn’t matter.  Honestly, it made them more resolute.  Everything was falling apart and uncertain, but they could at least depend on each other.  Then when they helped reclaim Tali’s home world (while simultaneously ensuring the cooperation and peace of two races that had been at war for about three hundred years), they realized they could have a life together there.

I really wanted them to have that life together.

It was at this point in Shepard’s story that I started to worry about how the ending was going to play out.  I knew that there was a possibility Tali could die in the ending if I didn’t have my galactic readiness score (a metric used in game to determine how powerful the forces Shepard gathers to combat the Reapers is) high enough, to say nothing of being able to get an ending where Shepard himself didn’t die.  It was a major conundrum, because I went back and forth over whether I would risk having Tali die so Shepard could live (since I didn’t know exactly what the parameters were for getting an optimal ending) or if I’d go for the noble sacrifice.

My inclination was to go for the noble sacrifice, simply because I figured the win-all ending where Shepard gets out alive and everyone else survives was unlikely to be available with my inability to access the online parts of the game.  Of course, this was back before I learned there isn’t a win-all ending at all.  Like I pointed out earlier, the three broad versions of the ending consist of two options that result in Shepard dying to save the galaxy, and the third option where his survival is possible, but at the cost of annihilating an entire race (and one of Shepard’s aforementioned friends).  Those were all bad choices for the way I had shaped the story, because my Shepard was definitely the noble type, but he really wanted to have that happy ending with the quiet retirement.  The fact that he’d developed a reputation for making the impossible happen left me hoping there might be a way to have his cake and eat it, but that just isn’t in the cards.

Yeah, it’s possible for Shepard to get out alive, but the cost is too high for the Shepard that I played.  How was he supposed to live with the guilt of destroying an entire race that he worked so hard to save in the first place?

So basically, I realized that my particular Shepard was doomed to a tragic ending no matter what.  He was either going to become a genocide in order to preserve his own personal happiness, or he was going to sacrifice himself for the good of everyone else.

He couldn’t be happy.

And that’s what really made me angry about the game’s ending.  I know that Mass Effect is a war story, and most of the endings were probably going to involve making a hard choice.  But I also learned from playing through the games that with enough effort, the player could manipulate events to work out where everyone wins.  This wasn’t true in every situation (no matter what, you have to let one of your squad mates die at one point in the first game), but it was a possibility so many other times that I just took for granted that the developers would include a wish fulfillment ending.  Reflecting on the experience now, I think it was the assumption of there being a wish fulfillment ending where Shepard gets his happily ever after and the galaxy is restored to peace without losing something irreplaceable that filled me with all the angst over being limited in what ending options I could get with the crippled Xbox.  The realization that there never was an ending like that felt like a betrayal of what the developers had promised me (which I know is absurd because all they ever promised to do was tell a war story; there was never any promise that it would end happily).

So, for what it’s worth, the ending I would have liked would have involved Shepard persuading the Catalyst that the Reapers aren’t necessary anymore by offering the peace between synthetics and organics that have been blooming as examples of progress during this galactic cycle (let alone the fact that organics do plenty of fighting among themselves, so this assumption that it’s a “synthetic vs. organic” conflict instead of a more general “us vs. them” is flawed and causes needless violence and destruction).  The Catalyst considers the evidence and decides to recall the Reapers, leaving all the galactic races to rebuild without the Crucible (the superweapon that was being built to combat the Reapers) being fired at all.  Shepard gets to go home and have a peaceful retirement with Tali, and everyone lives happily ever after.

That’s the ending I wanted, anyway.  I’m still working out how I feel about the ending I got.

The Saga of My Mass Effect 3 Playthrough (2 of 4)

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.

He also fell in love.