Note: This is continuation of a post that I wrote for N7 day – the first part of which can be read here.
Moving away from the criticisms and onto what I loved. There’s one specific facet of it the game’s ending that I love most – and I think it tends to be overlooked in all the hoopla. It’s not about choosing of colors, crashing on planets, saying goodbye to comrades, who survives this apocalypse, Star Child himself, or anything to do with that. It’s one specific happenstance that really takes place in the midst of all this – dropped as almost something of a byproduct of events, without ever fully drawing attention to itself.
My favorite part of the ending is this: no matter what decision you choose, you are fundamentally re-shaping the future of the entire galaxy. And there’s a cost to that – a big one: no matter which way you go, it will always, always result in the destruction of the Mass Relays.
And this really gets down into the fundamentals of what I love most about this series – particularly as it pertains to the Reapers. Just think about it: based on what we learn, the Reapers have been at this for 1 billion years. Never mind the human mind’s inability to comprehend the 50,000 year window in between cullings. 1 billion is just a really large number that you stare at without being able to ever even approach understanding one iota.
They have been controlling the shape and future and evolution and destiny of this galaxy far longer than anything humans can even comprehend. And with that decision to destroy the Mass Relays (no doubt having been in existence in one form or another for that entire time) is a great consequence. Because they have been pivotal to how the Reapers have controlled all life in the galaxy. Every organic race that’s risen up has benefited from and utilized them. And if you’re going to take the ones doing the shaping, it only makes sense you should lose out on the technology that they were providing.
More even than the three color decisions you make, this will have massive consequences – particularly given the degree to which the galaxy had been relying upon the Mass Relays for communication and travel. Without any kind of FTL, the current state of the galaxy will no doubt collapse, and individual pockets will have to flourish on their own. It will likely be years – hundreds, if not thousands – before any of those pockets learn how to interact again. And by the time they do, everything about the day the Reapers died will be ancient history – everyone will be so radically changed and so far removed.
You radically re-shaped the entire galaxy and the consequences are almost unimaginable. And I love that BioWare leaves that off with very few details so that I can ruminate about it in my imagination.
The games don’t address the concept of religion all that often, but as often occurs in science fiction, there’s – at the very least – implication that god (or the gods) is an alien. This isn’t remotely foreign to the genre. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 and 2010 are built around the idea of an all-powerful alien force so far advanced so as to have shed their physical bodies, that traverse the galaxy with the express purpose of making certain other organic species will evolve to their own potential.
The biggest implication made in Mass Effect 3 comes on Thessia. If you take Javik to the Temple of Athame with you, he admits to Liara that the goddess they worship as Athame was actually a Prothean. He also similarly implies that his people were – at the very least – observing humans in their early evolutionary state. The idea that the Asari may have been the only ones – and that the Protheans were the only technologically advanced race to ever play a role in a nascent species’ theology – is an implausible one.
It’s never explicitly stated – but there is plenty of text given that offers the interpretation that the Reapers themselves are, in a sense, gods. I would even go so far as to call them gods of destruction. They achieved a much, much higher state of being – a plane of existence – than we can’t even comprehend; a state that they consider the ultimate form of existence. They bear a remarkable resemblance to the Borg from Star Trek and the Cybermen from Doctor Who. They found a way to synthesize organic and synthetic into one, ultimate state of being. And are so certain of this correctness that they intend to force it upon all life that they encounter, regardless of whether or not that life actually wants it.
Of course, the Reapers operate on a much grander scale than the Cybermen and Borg – and the idea that they may actually have transcended into a form of godhood is an important one. Not least of which because it can also shape how one may perceive them.
From the point of view of the Council Races (and all other harvested species that came before) the Reapers are destruction. They kill, they manipulate, they use, they harvest. It’s not so much evil as it is implacable. And because of the violence being wrought, it’s more than understandable why the organic races have always resisted.
And yet from the Reaper point of view, it can almost make a twisted kind of sense. They’ve designated themselves a station to ultimately control all life – and then give to that life the same gift that all of them have received. Godhood is seen as an inevitability – no matter how hard the organics may resist. And no doubt without exception, every organic race that has been transformed into these gods has ultimately accepted it, and similarly moved into the position of then forcing it upon the next cycle.
You could even take it further than that, and say that part of the responsibility of these gods is regularly culling to make way for new life. Given the number of Reapers, it’s fair to say that there have been many thousands of species throughout the galaxy in its long history. Clearing that out every 50,000 years can be seen as a necessary means of making way for the new round of evolving species – especially from the viewpoint of a god.
Much of this falls in line with almost any conversation held with any of the Reapers – from Sovereign in the first game, to Harbinger’s repeated insistence in the second game that this is necessary, to the Reaper killed on Rannoch. And even to some of the details from Star Child himself.
And so my favorite part of the ending? The reason why I enjoy it as much as I do? You kill Prometheus, you lose access to fire.
In Mass Effect 3 you kill god. And with that you change the nature of the universe.
It’s for this reason I also love the epilogue. The future of the galaxy is truly unfathomable beyond the point where Shepard makes that final decision. And instead of trying to offer any details, BioWare gives the player a single, narrow slice of it that only barely hints at what that new future must look like. The imagination stirs, and I love that tickle of thought, wondering what it must be like on that small, lonely planet when life and the world and the galaxy have been set back to a relative dark age. Wondering for the future of star travel has never been more romantic.