[Heavy Spoiler Warning for ME3. Minor Spoilers for Angel & Firefly]
“If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.”
This realization in Angel’s second season can be seen as a mission statement of sorts for the entire series. When confronted by the prospect of never being able to truly defeat evil in all its forms, Angel has an epiphany (Hey, what a coincidence the episode is titled Epiphany). Fighting evil, being “good”, is not about truly winning. It’s not about the rewards at the end, it’s about the actions taken everyday. One does good, not because they expect a reward, but because they can. Because being good is an end in itself.
In contrast to an “Ends justify the means” philosophy, Buffy, Angel, and Firefly continuously reinforce the idea that the ends are irrelevant. Rewards may not exist, but the heroes still do what is right. In Serenity prior to a likely suicide mission, the usually amoral Jayne recalls the advice: “If you can’t do something smart, do something right.” For the first time, he’s clearly unconcerned with how much money he will earn at the end of the day.
Okay, now “What the hell does this have to do with Mass Effect 3?” I hear you ask, like a Kotaku commenter cleverly pointing out an article that doesn’t discuss video games. Two frequent criticisms of ME3’s ending have been its lack of resolution and lack of “choice.” I’m not going to tackle the Catalyst’s Deus Ex Machina or accusations of weak writing (some valid criticisms, but besides the point). What intrigued me is how foreign elements of the aforementioned criticisms seemed. I don’t want to imply other interpretations are “wrong” or complaints are unjustified. But I’d like to explain what the ending was like FOR ME and why certain criticisms have me stumped.
One complaint was that earlier actions and choices were rendered meaningless due to the ending. “It doesn’t matter if you cured the genophage because the ending destroyed the Relays sending society into chaos, or even just because you never saw the end results in an ending montage. The ending does not change based on the genophage, or the Rachni, or the many other morally challenging crossroads faced throughout 3 games. The only explicit effect is a small boost to your readiness reading, and even that is left vague.
Let’s give a real-world-ish example. A stranger is choking and you give them the heimlich, saving their life then next week that stranger has a fatal heart attack. Does that render what you did for them meaningless? Tragic, sure, but had you been able to see the future, would you have decided not to save them because the “ending” would be the same? Kate Cox wrote “to argue that Shepard’s choices cease to matter, to argue that the player’s input ceases to matter, seems to miss the point not just of the game but of existence itself” (via Kotaku).
Others have lamented a lack of closure in ME3. My own closure came during the pre-final-battle sequence. I walked around the staging area on Earth, saying goodbye to every one of my allies. I saw Wrex give a proud speech to his troops. I had a tender moment with Liara (<3 u foreva!). I had a last laugh with Garrus. I was going on a suicide mission, these are my friends, this is what happened, my actions and choices have created these moments.
But does the lack of explicit resolution render your actions meaningless? At least for me, Mordin’s sacrifice was an “ending” in itself. And damn if I didn’t tear up as he sang to himself in the final moments. That story concluded for me. I did the right thing (given how I roleplayed Shepard as a Paragon with a hot temper). I didn’t cure the genophage because I expected a reward, I did it because it was right. And it HAPPENED.
I suppose much of this came from my expectations. Never did I anticipate a glorious Star Wars Special Edition interplanetary dance party or even a Classic Edition Ewok bonfire (Yub Nub). As Shepard, I was trying to prevent a 100,000+ year cycle of destruction. There will be consequences. Going back to Whedon, it’s true that little of what Shepard did “mattered”, in the sense of changing the final result (more or less so depending on which ending choice was made). But everything mattered TO ME. I experienced Mordin’s death. i experienced praying with Thane. No end compensation was needed to validate these moments.
Alright, I’m going to wade even deeper into some religious and philosophical issues of which I am VASTLY under-qualified to definitively discuss. And I’ll put the extra disclaimer up front that I’m oversimplifying these religious issues, but the broad strokes are interesting.
At various points in history (like the Protestant Reformation), there has been disagreement over what it took to gain entrance to heaven and how much of of it was a nearly numerical “score”. If you donated enough money to the church, could that be sufficient “positive points” to make up for other negatives? I’m intrigued by socio-religious embedded philosophies that still portray Heaven as not just a goal, but the only goal that “matters”. Where all actions in life are done in order to entrance. In a sense, there’s a Final Score.
Many times I’ve heard the argument that without this “heaven score”, why would we have any motivation to be good? I’ve heard some Humanist thinkers present an alternative. In Boston, I saw many subway posters promoting the book “Good Without God”. Joss Whedon gave a talk to the Harvard Humanist Society where he discussed how morality exists regardless of a deity (okay, his words were “sky bully”). Certain schools of Jewish thought are similar in their outlook though not the theological underpinning. The afterlife is vastly downplayed; The Old Testament barely mentions an afterlife aside from the void of “Sheol” where everyone ends up. One should be good because God says we should be, and that’s it. There’s no explicit reward or punishment with heaven or hell. It makes me wonder if there are any cultural trends in the reaction to ME3. If one’s personal religious philosophy emphasizes a final judgment and reward, are they more likely to feel ME3’s ending was incomplete? Of course I’m not suggesting that this is a simple 1-to-1 relationship, and I’m not suggesting one outlook is better than the other. I clearly have my own philosophical take, but I’m absolutely not suggesting it is “right” for everyone.
Moving away from religion (as well as potential for my foot to keep getting further into my mouth), it is interesting that some critics of ME3’s “lack of choice” in fact seem to be asking for less choice at the end. At the end end, players can select 3 very different options. Yes, the CINEMATICS are nearly identical (partially solved by the just-released extended endings). But the offscreen implications for the fictional universe are drastically different. Controlling the Reapers or destroying all artificial intelligences have serious ramifications. Do we really need an Animal House style “Here is what happens 10 years down the road?” Isn’t asking for past decisions to have more impact implying that there should be less choice at the end? But isn’t it an interesting moral issue that all the way at the end you still have to make that choice? You can change your mind. After the 3 games, you’re presented with the possibility that maybe you were wrong. Maybe the Illusive Man was right, or maybe AI truly isn’t worth saving. Nothing you did matters, so all that matters is what you do. Now. Today.