WARNING: This post contains MASSIVE (ha-ha) spoilers for Mass Effect 3. If you have not finished the game at least once and want to preserve any sense of surprise for how the story goes, STOP READING THIS POST RIGHT NOW.
Before I begin; a few words.
It should be obvious that, in any work of narrative, there is a certain integrity and respect granted to the creator(s). I am NOT one of the legions of ‘fans’ who are nerd-raging at the ending of Mass Effect 3. I admit to being a bit disappointed, but that’s mainly because I LIKE the Mass Effect universe. I consider it to be one of the foremost (if not THE foremost) work of space opera of the 21st Century so far. The fact that the ending implies that the entire universe is changed (relays destroyed, etc.) disappointed me, because I had hoped to see more adventures in this particular set of world-building.
It is not my intention to bash the developers or writers of Mass Effect 3 in any way.
The truth is, however, that any narrative work can (and should!) be analyzed by those who are consuming it, and hopefully in a constructive and optimistic way. It is my intention to offer constructive criticism and a thought experiment (what if I were hypothetically in charge of editing/re-writing the script prior to the game being finalized) – nothing more.
Also, as I proceed through this thought experiment, I will be focusing on the ‘good ending’. Somehow, I imagine there will be plenty of opportunities for ‘bad endings’ to fall out of what I am describing. Having reflected on the plot arc of Mass Effect 3 for a few weeks now, this is what I would call my ‘ideal’ ending.
Obviously, that will not be true for everyone. There might be things that others would have preferred to see more of. Some might have preferred a full-on rewrite from the ground up, but that is also not my intention. Given the general structure of how the game is already set up, this is how I would have preferred it to go.
With that being said, let’s take an imaginary time travel journey to somewhere in the middle of 2011. The script for Mass Effect 3 has been laid out, and for some reason, they call in some guy that nobody’s ever heard of (but who happens to be an author) to review the script and offer some thoughts.
Let’s start with all the things they got right (which I consider to be about 95% of the game).
Reaper invasion of Earth (and the galaxy at large): check.
Offering worthwhile and genuinely touching conclusions to all of the species subplots throughout the three games; krogans, quarians, geth, turians, asari: all check.
Cameo appearances for former squad members who are not main characters this time, including a truly moving sequence involving Thane Krios: check.
A great squad made up of some old standbys, some new faces, one particularly intriguing twist on a character we already know, and (with the From Ashes DLC) a damn Prothean (who, in my opinion, is not only awesome but one of the most worthwhile characters in the game): check.
Genuinely funny side moments involving squad members and the Normandy crew (I laughed like a bandit when I caught Tali and Garrus cuddling in the main battery!!): check.
That’s a whole lot of things they did right, including most of the main plot of the game. Gathering the other species, building fleets, making choices on who to save and who to let die… these are all excellent. The sequences on Thessia, Rannoch and Tuchanka especially stand out in my mind as having moments that I will remember for a long time.
So, if they did all of this stuff right, then where do the problems come in?
Well, unless you’ve been living under a rock… on Mars… with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears (thank you David Hyde Pierce) you probably know that there’s a whole bunch of people out there screaming about the end (in otherwords, everything that happens following Harbinger blowing the hell out of Shepard as she’s running toward the thing that looks an awful lot like the Conduit). How it ‘betrayed’ them, how they ‘hate Bioware so much that they’ll never ever buy another game’ and so on.
Now, the Indoctrination Theory notwithstanding, they have something of a point – although it’s nowhere near as bad as they claim. But here’s what I think happened.
I believe the central problem with the plot of Mass Effect 3, is that by the time they got to the end of the script, they’d written themselves into a corner.
It’s a classic mistake. You’re going along, writing the biggest and baddest plot you can think of. The odds are overwhelming. It seems impossible that the heroes could win against a threat this monstrous. Even with all of their combined might, the Reapers are just too strong.
Then you get to the end, and… oops. You were right.
Now you’re stuck in a corner. How the hell do the heroes win against something that’s totally impossible to beat?
Well, at least you gave them this Crucible thing, right? Surely that can…
Crap. How is that going to do anything? The Reapers are everywhere, and there are thousands of them. Dozens (or more) on each planet. What can the Crucible do; blow up the whole galaxy? That would solve the problem, but not really as well as we were hoping…
And that, my friends, is how you get an ending where nothing is really clear. One where the Crucible does something, but you’re not really sure what, and oh by the way, it blows up all the Mass Relays and basically ends the universe as we know it – because that’s the ONLY way to solve the problem that was built up in the first place.
OK. Now we’ve established the problem. So what would I do to fix it?
When you end up in a corner, you have to go back and question assumptions. In this case, the problematic assumption is that the Reapers are an undefeatable menace.
Based on past events, we know that the Reapers are not invincible. Sovereign was defeated at the Citadel by a combined fleet at the end of Mass Effect. Shepard thwarted Harbinger at every turn during Mass Effect 2. The massive thresher maw on Tuchanka takes one down, and so does the orbital cannon on Rannoch. Yes, it takes a LOT of firepower, but it can be done. The problem is: that was only one Reaper at a time. How do we deal with a bunch of them?
We also know that the Reapers are the first synthetics, created during the first ‘cycle’. The story of their creation is heavily implied to us during the virtual sequence on Rannoch, as we watch the quarians and the geth start their war. We also know, from our experience with the geth, EDI, and EVA that AIs – even highly advanced ones – are not perfect. They contain programming flaws and make false assumptions, leading to mistakes (like the ‘heretic’ geth from Legion’s loyalty mission in ME2).
Through Javik, we learn that the major reason that the Reapers won in the Prothean cycle is because the Prothean Empire subjugated every other intelligent species and pressed them into an empire, autocratic-style. Javik is continually surprised at how the different species work together but separately in this cycle, and even says outright that it is an advantage his people never had.
Okay. Given all this, we’ve got everything we need for an ending that packs a real punch, ends conclusively, and gives this awesome series the send-off it deserves. Are you ready?
Imagine if you will: a different Reaper invasion.
Oh, they still show up, but this time, one major Reaper on each planet is twice the size of the ones we see in Mass Effect 3. These are the Harvesters, and they are not the Sovereign-class Reapers, but are instead something entirely new. Instead of sending dozens to each planet, though, they send one Harvester and maybe 5-10 Sovereigns.
Why? Because they’re arrogant.
The Reapers believe themselves to be the foremost threat in the galaxy. They are perfection; Sovereign said it himself, back on Noveria. They are the ‘pinnacle of evolution’. The upstart humans got lucky when they got wise to Sovereign’s plot on Ilium, and they believe Shepard to be an annoyance, but not a real threat.
They don’t need to send dozens. The organic races will fall before them, just as they always have.
In order for this ending to work, we need to be led to believe that all of the previous cycles went much like the Prothean one, which can be implied throughout the game. Every other cycle consisted of a massive, galaxy-spanning empire, with any and all intelligent species driven under the heel of the dominant one. The fact that this cycle is different gives us our first wedge.
So now, we have 5-10 Sovereign Reapers and one MASSIVE Harvester on any given invaded planet. The odds are still overwhelming, and though they seem it at first (especially when they start blowing through Earth’s infrastructure and killing everything in sight without being touched by conventional weaponry) they are no longer insurmountable.
After the massacre on Palaven, there’s no way we believe that the Reapers can be beaten. The turians have one of the strongest military forces in the galaxy, and if the Reapers are tearing them up, then there must be no hope at all for the rest of us.
On Tuchanka, we see the thresher maw take a Reaper down. This gives us our first ray of hope: the Reapers are NOT invincible, just really, really powerful.
When we get to Rannoch, there’s something more waiting for us in the memory banks of the geth. Whether you choose to destroy them or save them, we find something hidden deep in the AI programming given to them by the Reapers… a flaw in their programming. A minor, but exploitable back door, left there by the original creators of the Reapers. Only another synthetic would have been able to spot it in the vast complexity of the Reaper intelligence, but it is the alliance with (or the total destruction of) the geth which allows either Legion or EDI to find it. Here, it is our cooperation with synthetic minds – either EDI or the geth, continuing the theme of diversity being our key difference in this cycle – which gives us the key. Unfortunately, we do not have the technology to take advantage of this flaw. We hammer the Reaper on Rannoch (this can be a Sovereign-class scout, as it already is) with the orbital cannon until it finally dies, but this requires precision targeting and is not a feasible way to destroy multiple Reapers, especially the much larger Harvesters on the major planets.
That’s where the Crucible project comes in. It was not just a weapon, but it is in fact the key to destroying the Reapers, the plans for which were left from the first cycle and passed down as they were hidden in key locations throughout the eons. The Protheans did not create the Crucible, and they would not have been able to use it, because they were not able to find the flaw in the Reapers’ programming that allows the Crucible to work.
We still need the Catalyst, and this allows the Thessia and Cerberus arcs to play out exactly as they already do, with the minor changes to the Reaper forces previously mentioned. Udina still betrays the Council to Cerberus, and the Citadel is attacked. Shepard goes to Thessia to retrieve the Prothean beacon, and is interrupted by Kai Leng, who escapes after a hugely awesome fight scene, but does NOT take the beacon with him. We talk with the beacon now on Thessia, instead of later, and we know what the Catalyst is. It’s not the Citadel (because wasn’t that weird?) Nope – we need a Reaper brain in order to make it work.
If Renegade Shep preserved the Collector base at the end of ME2, we need a mission to try and retrieve that brain from Cerberus HQ. If Paragon Shep blew up the Collector base, there’s a different variation on the mission where Cerberus has hidden away the derelict Reaper (or something like that). Unfortunately, that mission ends in failure, like Thessia did before we revised it, when the Illusive Man manages to smuggle it out under Shep’s nose. The Illusive Man’s goal is to take the Crucible and activate it himself, so that he can control the Reapers. The geth brains were influenced by the Reapers, but they are not enough to power the Crucible. The orbital cannon on Rannoch did too much structural damage, and the same with the thresher maw.
Now we’ve been thwarted, and we get word from Admiral Hackett that sleeper Cerberus forces have taken the Crucible, and are attacking the fleet. Here, Shepard has to make a real choice, leading to two very different paths to the end.
1) Shepard takes the Normandy directly after the Illusive Man’s ship to try to recover the Reaper brain, and a team of three (player’s choice) to take back the Crucible and destroy the attacking Cerberus forces. Joker manages to disable the Illusive Man’s ship and Shepard’s team boards it, leading to a confrontation with the Illusive Man, where Martin Sheen gets to ham it up as he tries to convince Shepard that controlling the Reapers is the right idea. Shepard can either agree, or disagree and end up killing the Illusive Man. Either way, the Reaper brain is loaded onto the Normandy, and they head for the Crucible.
When they arrive at the Crucible, it has been heavily damaged in the fight. The team sent might be alive or dead (depending on who was sent and who was in charge, like the suicide mission at the end of ME2), but they were successful. Repair efforts are underway, and Shepard (and possibly the Illusive Man) begins the installation of the Reaper brain. A Sovereign-class Reaper (probably Harbinger) attacks the Crucible directly by latching on to it, and Shepard and his team must destroy it (with the help of the fleet) before it destroys them.
2) Shepard decides instead to head straight for the Crucible, sending a team of three (player’s choice) in, say, Primarch Victus’ flagship to chase after the Illusive Man, with strict instructions that the Reaper brain must be taken intact. Shepard boards the Crucible with a team and wipes out the Cerberus forces controlling it, but when the team shows up, they say that the Illusive Man’s ship was destroyed with all hands, and they don’t have the brain.
Now Shepard and his crew must devise a way to take out one of the Reapers on Earth (but not the one in London) without damaging the brain. There is a mission on Earth (say, to New York) where Shepard is accompanied by squads of geth (assuming she saved them) or by a crack quarian team and EDI, armed with the information obtained from the geth database (assuming he destroyed the geth). With their combined firepower and insight into the Reapers, they manage to disable the Reaper without destroying it, disconnect the brain, and bring it up to the Crucible for installation. It would be great if this Reaper was Harbinger, neatly wrapping up that story as Shepard beats the crap out of it once again – this time, for good.
So here we are – endgame. The Crucible activates with the Reaper brain, and either the Geth representative or EDI understands that it is both a decoder and a massive system-wide signal amplifier. The Crucible decodes the Reaper’s systems, and the Reapers everywhere in the Sol system start dropping their guard. Shepard orders the fleet in, and they swoop down and start blowing the ever-living shit out of all of the Sovereign-class Reapers on Earth.
There’s just one problem, though. The Harvester is way too big and too well-armored for even the fleet to take out. Shepard has to take a team down to London, rendezvous with Admiral Anderson and the remnants of the resistance, and mount a mission to target the Harvester more directly.
Now, ideally, this sequence will be awesome. It will involve the deaths of one (or more) squadmates, as Shepard sends them off on individual suicide missions. Last words will be shared, friends will die, and it will build up to a final sequence where Shepard carries the bomb into the damaged Harvester’s maw and blows it to kingdom come.
Why does Shepard have to die? It’s the end of Shepard’s story. In the aftermath, we will find that the fleet carries the Crucible from system to system, using the combined strength of every species to control and wipe out the Reapers. Millions die in the process, but billions more are saved by the sacrifices made on every planet. Hackett and Anderson lead the fleet, and we watch as remaining squad members lead crack teams into battle on Thessia, on Palaven, and other worlds as the tide turns against the Reapers.
Shepard makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the galaxy, just as she always promised she would. The Reapers are destroyed (and if not annihilated, at least driven back) and the reason is the differences in technology that each species brought to the table. The incredible asari biotics, the salarian strike teams, the turian military, the krogan strength – all of these things together is what finally kicks the Reapers out of the galaxy, and no single race could have done it on their own.
The final message of the game is one of hope, as we see an epilogue set not thousands of years in the future, but perhaps fifty. One or two of the remaining squad members (and Joker and EDI, if the Normandy survives) get together on the Citadel for drinks, and talk about the good old days on the Normandy, about friends lost and gained, and the peace that’s taken hold in the galaxy since. Oh, there are still Council squabbles and territory issues, but the peace has been a lasting one.
The scene closes as those squad members lift a toast to Shepard, and the credits roll.