A week. Hour for hour, I admit and swear on my overcrowded hard-drive that I have spent over a week of my life playing the entirety of the Mass Effect series (multiple times, I might add) as my lovely Commander Shepard. And every second of time I spent, I feel was meaningful and driven by my own personal decisions. No-one insisted on the innumerable times I traveled vertically over lava mountains, and nothing past impartially generated code decided that I needed to be swarmed by frigid thresher maws every second I spent on an ice planet. I initiated every instance where I was told to “wait for a bit” by an avian-esque alien with a voice as velvety as a Victorian chaise, and I may or may not have dubious feelings about why I am okay with that. And while there was an option for it, I physically restrained myself from punching this godforsaken reporter who wanted nothing more than to make “my” Shepard’s public image laughable.
In fewer words, I invested quite a bit in the Mass Effect franchise. It is difficult to not have done so, with as many choices, missions, and crew members there are to interact with. Bioware has had a habit of creating expansive game worlds with missions and people enough to clog quest log and codex alike. Should you decide to play through any number of the games, you are given more and more things to do, and a number of diverse and relatable characters to empathize and make explosions (conversation) with. The Krogan for their unending and oftentimes ironically amused desire for combat, the Quarians for their suit-bound frailty and unending intelligence, the Turians for their voices… Enough metaphorical chocolates in the box to keep things interesting. Keeping a nice sum of individuals from these groups alive rests squarely on your shoulders at points, and should you decide to care about them, I must admit that the game itself gets more and more interesting. Everything, down to the last detail, is meant to be defined by you and your own personal attention to detail.
Though, whether or not you facilitate interpersonal relations or feed your fish (which you can also choose to not do, you terrible, terrible person), there are bigger, much larger fish to fry. (Yes, even larger than that thresher maw.) Did I mention the fact that you and whoever you can drag onto your ship are the only ones standing between a squabbling galactic society and an apocalypse event triggered by massive cuttlefish? I mean it- massive, black, death-ray-faced cuttlefish. Watch this clip from the opening of the third game to see one in all its might, and to get acquainted with the real danger you face.
This is a Reaper. A single Reaper, which is being accompanied by a school of other Reapers, and their swarm of personal Reaper armies created in much the same manner as a Dead Space necromorph, only using mind control and cybernetics. They’re absolutely
adorable terrifying, and very much bent on keeping up with their very unhealthy (for everyone else) addiction to complete galactic conquest. They’re at least fifty times the size of any decent skyscraper, they’ve cleansed the universe of advanced organic life every 50 thousand years, and it looks to be that there are also 50 trillion of them as a result… and they are an unavoidable factor you are, by laws of game progression, required and expected to face. After all, you do live in the galaxy, and those that seek to end said galaxy are a paramount concern for your continued existence. Also, they are on Earth already, so the procrastinator in you is most likely beginning to think, “Yes, I believe it is time to clean house now”. It seems a no brainer that these unrelenting machines need to go, one way or another, or else all life in your time and the next will be exterminated again and again. In fact, this isn’t the first time they’ve been a threat to you, personally, if you go further back in the series and its timeline.
Give a warm welcome to this cybernetic cat-bird of a Turian, Saren. The long and short of this fellow is that he is an individual who believes his species is superior, under a Reaper influence (note the cybernetics and the glowing eyes), attempted to bring about the Reaper invasion through plot details I would not wish to spoil. But the motive? Based on the circumstances, it is easy to think that it was a plot for personal safety. However, when finally confronted, Saren reveals something more than a personal bargain.
“I’m not doing this for myself. Don’t you see, Sovereign [the Reaper envoy Saren uses as his base of operations] will succeed. It is inevitable. My way is the only way any of us will survive. I’m forging an alliance between us and the Reapers, between organics and machines, and in doing so, I will save more lives than have ever existed. But you would undo my work. You would doom our entire civilization to complete annihilation, and for that, you must die.”
Saren, in his unwittingly indoctrinated state, sought to enable a strange alliance bent on submission for the sake of survival. To become a tool, a part of the Reaper cogs in place of losing his species and his own life. It was a bargain he hoped would allow for a future after a Reaper apocalypse, even if it would have cost the rest of the galactic races their lives. It was a selfish, fearful and desperate decision of one who was influenced to relinquish control of their lives, though the confrontation has little time to leave mixed feelings. Saren will, by his choice or yours, be shot and killed*.
*Eventually. Seems the Reapers were quite intent on keeping parts of him moving, as shown in this post-mortem shot.
With Saren’s unfortunately prolonged death, the Reapers do not appear on the day that was predicted for them. But even though Sovereign and its cyborg agent are destroyed, and the day of reckoning has been pushed back, the reminders of the threat lingers. During the second game, Commander Shepard will not see a living Reaper, but you will see some of their influences, and their creations… Remnants of people long since transformed by Reaper technology (I do you a favor by only showing you Saren for now, they’re not pretty) appear on numerous planets, swarming and kidnapping humans, specifically, from colonized worlds. While you are charged with investigating and stopping whatever it is that is causing the disappearances, you notice there is one man who is particularly interested in learning a bit too much about it all.
Meet the Illusive Man, head of a human-centered organization called Cerberus (sense trouble yet?), and he has enough money and technology in his left eye to bring someone’s (namely your Shepard’s) body to life after an ungodly amount of time in deep space- all in order to call you into his employ. Enigmatic, powerful, well dressed and very intent on not meeting you outside a hologram… what more do you need in an apparently cooperative antagonist? He is, indeed, an antagonist when you experience a sizable amount of grief as you act on his behalf. It turns out, TIM (as I like to call him) is willing to get his hands on anything that could contribute to advancing humanity’s position and control within the Milky Way. Including Reaper technologies. And should you discard something he perceives as valuable (trying my best not to spoil anything here), he seems to disregard any and all heinous acts surrounding the thing you destroyed and instead convey a perturbed discontent as to how useful it could have been, if you looked around the inherent genocidal adjective of the technology you come across.
“The technology from that base could have secured human dominance in the galaxy. Against the Reapers and beyond.”
All in all, TIM is far from trustworthy, and his influence is something you as a player begin to find troubling. Especially with his blatant obsession with the ancient universe-ending cuttlefish you desperately need to put an end to. So, when you have a chance, Shepard will very happily resign from his humanity happy meal, where the enemies to galactic civilization are happily shrink wrapped as prizes. It turns out that nearly every suspicion you had about him is rather correct, including his eerily glowing eyes. Indoctrinated and driving for a way to control the Reapers himself, TIM becomes a particularly unpleasant adversary while you and your Shepard are trying your hardest to gather a little bit more firepower from races he does not have any favor for.
Even with his interference, Shepard and you will dutifully spend the entirety of your Mass Effect career hoping to do find a way to end the Reaper menace. And after hours upon hours of slogging through fetch quests, going around the speech option wheel like a turbo merry go round, and maybe sitting in an Asari lap-dance bar (“by the goddess” as they would say, do not let me get started on those blue tentacle-headed babes), the final battle arrives. And after a sublimely intense fight with a (hopefully) united front on your end, it all seems you’re finally going to save the universe… and then you come to stand in front of this, and you are told to choose.
Something seems off. After every bit of story you’ve woven, intricately, and with as many hours as you may or may not have spent doing homework that semester, it all comes down to going left, right, or straight… Something about this, all the pomp and circumstance of three long games, all for it to come to this… Somehow, it seems a little too… unlikely, that after what has come of a veritable yggdrasil (that’d be a massive tree, so it’s a fancy euphemism here for world-sized branching) of choices, it all comes down to a bleed-out game of rock-paper-scissors. You’re confronted by three visible options, for which I will use an analogy:
- Rock: Left, better known as Control: Take control the Reapers, because who else is best suited for being in charge of the super-destroyers of the universe than your Shepard? After all, if they are controlled, their power most certainly would not go to waste.
- Paper: The center shining beam, Synthesis: Merge your conscience into this machine in front of you, and somehow enable all synthetics and organics to live in complete permitted harmony through some kind of genetic resonance. (This apparently includes the Reapers, who will offer unto all the homogenized species their collected knowledge and technology.)
- Scissors: Right, also known as Destroy: Make the Reapers go “boom” like you hopefully wanted to in the first place. You may also “kill” all synthetic life as a result, which might not sound very good for the robots you may or may not have become friends with earlier.
If the last two sound a little familiar, it’s because they are. They’re solutions that were happily determined by two very familiar and indoctrination-addled enemies of Shepard… Both of whom, I can go so far to say, are in a place very far from alive at this point. Saren, in his last moments, desperately clung to the idea that merging with the Reapers would allow for survival before he himself was unable to survive any longer. The Illusive Man, a half-cousin to your computer’s graphics card and cybernetic decay, gives a pre-bullet monologue on controlling the Reapers, even when confronted with the idea that he himself is being controlled by them before all else. Shepard is also pretty close to taking a vacation to the afterlife, but the choice is still placed on them. They need to choose, something, or anything with an IQ above 15 will be evaporated from the galaxy. (I will take a moment to note that there is also a straight-up “rejection” option, where you decide to straight up pimp-shoot this rippling projection here as a way of saying “step off, we have this” but since you fail to take in the absolute decimation of your forces in full view of your platform, everyone dies, you lose, and it’s “all your fault”.)
So, you need to play the game. You’ve been playing the game the whole time, and you’ve loved, hated, laughed, or maybe even cried a manly space tear for every choice you made, and now you’ve a final one to make. But which one is right? Which one is the solution? Where is the silver lining, the split arrow, the perfect conclusion? Is there one? There are some popular theories, one in particular that is rather comprehensive (but the Indoctrination Theory is not what this is about). This is about what you choose. What you, as Commander Shepard, choose… I will even go so far as to say, with a fair amount of begrudging, that choosing not to choose is a choice in and of itself. The magic of Mass Effect is that the only thing we can do as players, in the moment, is to draw our own conclusions. I became a rather fixated player that spent too many hours playing this game, adored the way my LT reads Whitman, revel in how I hated the Illusive Man’s neckline, and how terribly unique every person I came across and who crossed the atmospheres of a thousand planets was… Seeing the unmeasured and timeless amount of death the Reapers wrought, I very much wanted the Reapers to explode. Vibrantly.
Even with precedents, elaborate gestures and arcs throughout the story and in every other person’s opinion, there is a personal measure in how the game ends. Who survived that long, who really believes anything the Reapers say… but who wants the world to end? It really is up to you, to find what is the best answer… and my own personal response was to see whose ideas had failed, where pride turned desperate, and to take a chance on what I decided to be the most logical alternative: Blow things up. Kill them dead, and go replay the DLC and enjoy my crew.
It is all up to you. Every choice, even when the game reduces itself to one final traipse down a walkway, is a choice. Even when the endings are not entirely satisfactory, even if you seem to fail miserably and destroy the world anyways, there is no negating that you made the choice yourself.