WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the Mass Effect series, chiefly ME3 and the “Extended Cut” DLC. The post will also revisit notes made on Algalon and the Ulduar raid in Warcraft‘s WotLK expansion.
BioWare/EA released the “Extended Cut” content patch for Mass Effect 3 this past Tuesday. They said explicitly that they were not going to change the ending, but rather expand upon the events and give further details to what transpired after Shepard makes a decision on the Citadel.
I’ll say this now: After playing the end missions four times now, it all makes a lot more sense. I still have some lingering questions, of course, but those can be addressed later.
My big “light bulb” moment? I finally realized the end to the Mass Effect trilogy— the end to Shepard’s journey— was always about finding a way to end the Reaper menace and put an end to the vicious cycle of building, destroying, and rebuilding.
You could say, “Well, I coulda told you that from the get-go.” Well, it’s not quite that simple. Remember my sole problem with the original ending? Us not slapping the Starchild up the head and saying, “Uh, no: organics and synthetics can get along, you moron. I just proved it with the quarians and the geth!” and being forced to accept the fact that organics and synthetics just don’t jive and you have to use the three options to solve everything.
What I realized in listening to the Starchild’s explanation in the DLC is that “organics and synthetics can’t get along” is actually a truth witnessed by the Starchild’s creators. Oh, that’s the otherbig thing in this whole explanation: the Starchild is no longer some weird god-like AI who’s always been hiding out in the Citadel and watching the movements of every organic being like some creep, but the construct of an ancient alien civilization. (If I say “ancient alien” any more, I’ll start to feel like the History Channel.)
This sounds oddly familiar, doesn’t it? A construct created to ensure the continuation of life if/when things go to Hell in a hand-basket? Oh yeah: Algalon! They’re both very sure of their solutions to a problem and will not/cannot deviate from their programming without forceful input from organics. Adventurers had to fight back hard enough to convince Algalon that something was amiss and we didn’t like the idea of reorigination.
Obviously, that tactic hasn’t worked in the ME universe. We’ll get to that in a bit.
In any case, the synthetics created by this ancient group of aliens rebelled against them and figured it would always be that way. So, they got the bright idea of creating an advanced program— the Starchild— to deal with the situation.
If the logic they followed was:
Organics create synthetics to improve life and themselves → Synthetics are limited by rudimentary processes implemented by organics→ Synthetics are meant to be better than organics by design and purpose (see Point #1)→ Synthetics will eradicate all organics due to their superiority when organics flip out at a talking toaster and figure all organics will flip out at them… FOREVER.
… Then, of course the program, as the “connection” between organics and synthetics, is going to calculate that mashing up organics and stuffing them into synthetic bodies is the best solution to the organic-synthetic problem. That makes about as much sense as “42” being the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything— and we actually have a clearly defined question/problem here. And, so, we have an ongoing cycle to “ensure organic and synthetic life can flourish once again.”
This is what happens when you ask a computer to solve all of your problems. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And we got stuck with the bill.
In short: we got screwed over by a bunch of aliens who thought the eternal conflict was not of that between angels and demons, but of organics and synthetics because they screwed up in creating synthetic life in their lifetime. I’m sure there’s a fan fiction floating around somewhere that involves Nozdormu appearing before Shepard and the squad, telling them they need to visit the Caverns of Time to stop the ancient civilization of who-knows-how-many cycles ago from flipping the switch on the Starchild.
That’s the root of the primary directive of the Reapers and Starchild.
Problem= chaos (organic-synthetic conflict/destruction/war)
Solution= harvest organic and synthetic life every 50k years to ensure continuation of life in galaxy
Seems straightforward enough. Except, not every cycle is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Case in point: the current cycle in which Shepard exists and can broker peace between the geth and quarians. And this is where the Crucible comes in.
Originally, players hated the idea of the Crucible (along with the Starchild) and the three choices presented. It seemed to come out of nowhere, made no sense, and so on. Before the extended explanations, the Crucible and three choices didn’t make any sense, especially given the context of previous events. The Starchild living in the Citadel didn’t make sense. Nothing short of blasting the Reapers from here to kingdom come would have made sense to us or Commander Shepard.
Considering, now, the Reapers and Starchild are single-minded in their protocol (obviously, “absorbing” past civilizations didn’t help them gain any perspective), something massive had to alter their coding and programming. Admittedly, when I heard Starchild say it and the Reapers were only doing what they were created to do, I thought it was a bloody cop-out and lame excuse. Reminds me of the time a St. Louis Blues player got snagged for a penalty and he tried to point to his hand like, “I didn’t do it! My hand did it!” When everything can be traced to a starting point (of sorts), however, the creations will inherit the misguided views of their creators.
Eventually, one cycle got the idea of trying to change the Reapers’ “mind” and passed that idea onto the next when they couldn’t implement it. The idea got to the Protheans and almost made it, but failed. The Protheans made sure that the next cycle would get the plans and, hopefully, stop the Reapers.
Think of the Crucible as a ginormous USB stick with a super-powerful version of the geth rewriting virus from ME2 and enough processing power to make Harbinger stare in awe. The only way to stop the Reapers and Starchild was to add more coding, add another variable. All this time of harvesting advanced civilizations did nothing because all the Reapers achieved was more fodder for their bodies. You’d think if the Reapers really did absorb the knowledge and heritage of the civilizations they harvested, they’d start thinking, “Gee, these organics really don’t like getting ground into pulp and pumped into a metal body. I wonder why that is…? Maybe we should stop and ask them.”
Only the Crucible is powerful enough to help alter the Reaper protocol, created by the collective genius of the most advanced civilizations over countless millennia. It’s the only thing that can stop the perpetuation of a truth determined by some idiots who screwed up their own life cycle. Their truth obviously isn’t our truth, yet we’re stuck with the consequences. But the Crucible can’t do it alone.
You keep hearing about the Catalyst as the Crucible is under construction. Even when you get to the Citadel and talk to the Starchild, the program claims to be the Catalyst. In a way, it’s correct, since it does set a series of events in motion. Yet, throughout the entire series, there’s been one person in the whole galaxy who has brought events to its current state in ME3: Commander Shepard.
You see, the choices you’re given aren’t supposed to solve the supposed issue of “Organics vs. Synthetics.” It’s supposed to solve the issue of the Reaper directive. Shepard is, and always has been, a rogue factor— even amongst other organics. Our beloved commander has always found a different solution. And, so, Shepard presents (or represents) a different solution to the Reapers and that damnable Starchild after proving to them that organics will always offer something different than what can be calculated or projected. To be honest, at this point, the Starchild has gone from “god-AI” in the original end sequence to a souped-up version of that paper clip help caricature on MS Office.
Shepard is the Catalyst.
One of the vids for the Indoctrination Theory mentioned the Starchild’s voice is a mixture of the kid, and the voices of both FemShep and DudeShep, mixed and tracked together. While I’m neither here nor there about the theory, the ethereal echo effect could have been used for the Starchild’s voice and just left at that. The inclusion of both voices for Shepard invoke the idea of Shepard being more than “a mere soldier,” or even the person who united a galaxy. It indicates that Shepard, directly, is the Catalyst.
Another way to look at it is that BioWare is the creator of a program— Commander Shepard— with a single directive— ending the Reaper cycles. And, oddly, it’s only with the input of organics (that being us, the players) that the program can fulfill its function. Okay, I went out on a limb there and it’s gotten way too weird and metaphysical.
To recap: Crucible + Citadel + Shepard = permanent change to Reaper protocol.
When Shepard makes a decision on how to alter the program, it really is an end, once and for all. “A future free from the Reaper threat,” Shepard said in the final speech. That’s mission accomplished, no matter which option you choose. The Reapers are no longer hellbent on harvesting all organic (and synthetic) life every 50,000 years.
It would have been nice to, say, include finding out about the ancient civilization that created this fiasco in the first place. The premises of ME2 would have been perfect for this inclusion, especially seeing how in ME1, we find out the Protheans weren’t the first nor only civilization to get screwed over by the Reapers. It would have been less jarring to find out gradually instead of within the last few minutes before the endgame. “They wiped away all records” isn’t enough of an excuse to spring something this crucial on the player at the last second. Don’t tell me that previous civilizations were advanced enough to warrant attention from the Reapers (and supposedly augment the Reapers’ technology and knowledge) but were unable to hide a clue somewhere until the Protheans came along with their beacons and information VIs.
The Indoctrination Theory is neat and attractive, but that’s not what we’re given here. By the end of the new extended epilogues, we’re forced to say good-bye, to turn the last page on Shepard’s story and close the back cover. “And that’s the way it is,” as Walter Cronkite would say.
People say the DLC is just putting makeup and a dress on a pig, prettying up something that was essentially FUBAR and still is. Others say it gives the closure they were seeking. Some still want the “everyone— including Shepard— lives happily ever after” ending or an ending that involves Shepard taking the fight to Harbinger or even the Illusive Man.
As for me? The DLC gave me closure on the problems I had with the original end sequences themselves. I’ll just put it at that. I didn’t feel completely stripped of my organicness, like I mentioned in my other ME3 post. What really helped was the realization of my predicament at the hands of a very misguided program made by very misguided people. Hey, I never said it was sound or very good logic— but at least it’s there.
This is how I’m told I have to say good-bye to Shepard, to the squad I’ve built through the commander, and the galaxy I’ve fought to save. So, so long and thanks for all the fun. “It’s been quite a ride,” Commander Shepard said.
I couldn’t agree more.