Hear ye, hear ye: Spoilers for World of Warcraft and its expansion(s), and the Mass Effect series are contained in this post. Just to be on the safe side, there may be spoilers for various other things like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Stargate: SG-1, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the Portal games. You’ve been properly warned.
It’s been nearly four weeks since the release of Mass Effect 3. There are those who hate the ending, those who like the ending, and those who are just trying to make sense of the whole thing by drawing on both arguments.
I fiercely debated with myself on whether I should write anything at all, especially in relation to the controversy surrounding ME3’s ending. Everything that could possibly be said about the game has, for the most part, already been said. More than that, it’s all been said by people far more talented and smarter than I. But I’m going to try; my background in literary analysis won’t let my brain rest until I get it off my chest anyway.
Before I delve into the details of Mass Effect 3, I’m actually going to talk about World of Warcraft. “What,” you may ask, “does WoW have to do with ME3?” A lot.
In Wrath of the Lich King, players were introduced to the Titan stronghold of Ulduar. It turns out that Ulduar is the prison of the Old God Yogg-Saron. Long story short, the Titans had to put down the Old Gods and their elemental lord lieutenants before they could set to work on Azeroth itself. The Titans tasked the Keepers— Freya, Thorim, Tyr, Hodir, Mimiron, and Loken— to keep an eye on Ulduar and old Yoggy. Loken was the Titans’ fail-safe trigger; his demise meant proverbial crap hit the fan, and Azeroth was lost to the Old Gods’ influence again. And that meant Azeroth needed a hard reboot to salvage the planet. Of course, the Titans underestimated the power of Yogg-Saron’s influence. Loken was the first to become subverted, which set in motion a whole lot of grief and strife amongst the other Keepers. As such, players ventured into the Halls of Lightning to put Loken and his madness down.
That also triggered the “Oh Crap” signal to the Titans.
Algalon the Observer was the Titans’ hard reboot program. When Algalon is defeated, however, he reveals that Azeroth was not the first planet to require his “help”:
“I have seen worlds bathed in the Makers’ flames. Their denizens fading without so much as a whimper. Entire planetary systems born and raised in the time that it takes your mortal hearts to beat once. Yet all throughout, my own heart, devoid of emotion… of empathy. I… have… felt… NOTHING! A million, million lives wasted. Had they all held within them your tenacity? Had they all loved life as you do? Perhaps it is your imperfection that which grants you free will. That allows you to persevere against cosmically calculated odds. You prevailed where the Titans’ own perfect creations have failed. Your planet will be spared. I cannot be certain of my own calculations anymore.”
The Observer’s final speech brings up a few themes:
1) The idea that organic life is imperfect, flawed, a mistake, an aberration, a mutation
2) Underlying philosophy of the Clockwork Universe and its reliance on carefully calculated projections on the clearly unpredictable
3) Underestimating organic life (again, we’re “unpredictable,” variables, unknowns, etc)
Let’s juxtapose Algalon’s speech with Sovereign’s speech on Virmire to Shepard and the squad from the first Mass Effect:
“Rudimentary creatures of blood and flesh, you touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance, incapable of understanding. There is a realm of existence so far beyond your own you cannot even imagine it. I am beyond your comprehension. I am Sovereign. Reaper? A label created by the Protheans to give voice to their destruction. In the end, what they chose to call us is irrelevant. We simply… are. Organic life is nothing but a genetic mutation, an accident. Your lives are measured in years and decades. You wither and die. We are eternal, the pinnacle of evolution and existence. Before us, you are nothing. Your extinction is inevitable. We are the end of everything. The pattern has repeated itself more times than you can fathom. Organic civilizations rise, evolve, advance, and at the apex of their glory they are extinguished. The Protheans were not the first. They did not create the Citadel. They did not forge the mass relays. They mere found them – the legacy of my kind. Your civilization is based on the technology of the mass relays. Our technology. By using it, your civilization develops along the paths we desire. We impose order on the chaos of organic life. You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it. We have no beginning. We have no end. We are infinite. Millions of years after your civilization has been eradicated and forgotten, we will endure. Your words are as empty as your future. I am the Vanguard of your destruction. This exchange is over…”
Now imagine, if you will, that Algalon said this to the adventurers in Ulduar. Imagine if Algalon had clung to his calculations, the Titans’ ideas of cosmic perfection. We never would have gotten to the Lich King at the end of WotLK.
Sovereign’s speech brings up the same themes, chiefly the idea that organic life is inferior, a mistake. He calls it a “genetic mutation, an accident.” The Mechagnome in Borean Tundra (among others) talk about the Curse of Flesh inflicted by the Old Gods upon the Titans’ creations. As an agent of Deathwing, Siamat grants the Neferset their original stone bodies and “saves” them from the curse in Cata.
Time and time again, organic life— including us, it seems— is pitted against the inorganic. It’s us against the Titans’ constructs. Or the Reapers. Or the Borg. Or the Cylons. Or the Replicators, GLaDOS, mechagnomes, Wheatley, Lore, Geth, Stormforged dwarves.
But it’s not because we necessarily see inorganic/synthetic life as an outright enemy. More often than not, we find ourselves battling to preserve ourselves, our ways of life, our bodies, our very identities. We try to explain through words or a show of force that organics aren’t inferior to synthetics. Our lives and actions become evidence against the argument that synthetic life is the “next step” of evolution, or even the pinnacle of evolution. We’re not “mistakes.” We’re just different. Where computers and AIs compensate for organic reaction time, organics make up for the lack of unpredictability in synthetics.
Data continuously puzzles through this apparent disparity between organic and synthetic nature in TNG. EDI finds herself in the same position in ME3 when she obtains her own “mobile platform” (which is how synthetics view bodies, apparently). They both find out there really isn’t an actual disparity, just a difference.
Take, for example, Mordin’s loyalty mission in ME2. Mordin is a scientist, a doctor, a man (so to speak) well-grounded in facts, calculations, and projections. You could say he’s an organic TI-82 that talks a mile a minute. Yet, despite all of that intelligence, he never could have predicted that the genophage would still adversely affect the krogan, driving the species further into barbarism, delinquency, and destitution.
To go one step further, EDI claims the Normandy performs better in Joker’s control in ME2. She explains in a hypothetical fight between two AIs, the one with better hardware will always prevail. That’s calculable, predictable, something that can be projected through simulations. When a human is at the helm of the ship, however, EDI says there’s a level of unpredictability since the capabilities of humans (or any organics) cannot be fully estimated, no matter how advanced a computer’s hardware is. Predicting victory is not so certain at that point. Joker calls it his “license to screw up.”
Think about this situation in the context of the ongoing argument between PvP vs. PvE in WoW. PvPers assert that PvE play is “easy.” The basis of this argument lies in the same idea that humans present a variable of behavior that cannot be foreseen, whereas a computer program falls into discernible patterns. It’s that predictability that enables add-ons like DBM and BigWigs to warn players of incoming boss abilities, after all. And so even when another player hits the “wrong ability,” it can still be a lifesaver. Even button-smashers on multiplayer console games (which I proudly claim to be!) can have moments of accidental glory.
And this is where my problem with the ending ofMass Effect 3 originates.
We’ve been stripped of our very defining attribute as organics.
Now, I’ve talked extensively with my guildmate Doolin about the ME3 ending. I’ve been able to reason through the majority of the problems that others have brought up and, for the most part, been able to accept those aspects of the ending. (I’ll go over these points in a different post.) The articles, blog posts, and forum threads arguing for and against the ME3 ending have been enlightening reads in their own ways. But, after all of that discourse and discussing, this is the one thing that bugs us consistently.
The GodChild you see above is apparently the AI residing in the Citadel this entire time. It’s been controlling the Reapers, you see. It has also predetermined that synthetics, created by organics, will destroy organics in a future that results in the death of all organics; synthetics and organics cannot and will never get along. It’s also predetermined that the final step of evolution is the harmonic combination of synthetic and organic life into an ultimate species, creating eternal peace.
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re absolutely right. The first “future” predicted by the AI is evident in the Cylons and Replicators. Hell, it was presumed to be the truth up until ME2 when we meet EDI and Legion. The second has been extensively elaborated upon through the Mechagnome quest chain in Borean Tundra, and the Borg of TNG.
The salient plot that drives each of these stories is the organic fight against the “inevitable,” or the “predetermined.” The gnomes don’t want to be turned into mechagnomes; the Enterprise likes their Picard just the way he is without him being turned into a Borg; SG-1 doesn’t want the Asgard (and eventually the galaxy) getting annihilated by the Replicators.
Most of all, it’s the unpredictability of the organics that keeps our supposedly inevitable doom at bay. We think of solutions no synthetic superbrain can even begin to fathom. For every time some mechanical overlord tells a group of organics it has reasons and directives we can’t comprehend, there are at least five other instances of organics “pulling a solution out of [our] ass,” as Jack O’Neill would put it.
And that’s how the Mass Effect series has worked for the most part, too. While standardized tests have made us comfortable with accepting A, B, C, D, or E as our only choices, our humanness— our organicness, if you will— allows us to think outside of the box and seek out other choices. It’s what we do, if nothing else. We’re presented with a seemingly impossible situation and, somehow, we find a way to figure it out despite the options (or lack of options) we’re given. “Unconventional” is our middle name. We learn from a young age that A, B, C, or D aren’t going to cut it in the world outside of the classroom.
In WoW, we’re told that the Titans had this great plan and had made everything, essentially, perfect. They took care of the (literally) underlying problems. And if that all went to Hell, they had a solution for that, too. We adventurers weren’t satisfied with that solution, however. We found our own, made our own, and convinced the Titan construct that we were right, calculations and cosmic perfection be damned.
By the end of ME3, players have been drilled into thinking that, somewhere along the way, we’re going to pull that solution out of our exhausted behinds. We always do. It’s what we’ve been our platform through two games, as we stand on the shoulders of endless pages of sci-fi/fantasy lore. We’ll try to change the minds of our enemies or, failing that, we’ll fight to the very end (and maybe change some minds along the way).
For whatever reason, we accept the Scantron and head into our one-question SAT to determine the fate of the galaxy without so much as a bloody abacus to help.