Tag Archive: Mass Effect 3


I finished Mass Effect 3. I agree with the critical consensus on Metacritic that it was around a 95 on a scale of 100. It is an astounding game. Incredibly rich and well executed. It is satisfying on so many levels. Great gameplay. Great Roleplaying mechanics. Great stories, mission structure, graphics, etc. However, here come the big “but.” In the final 1 percent of the game, the finale, it epically fails. It’s going to take some time to sort out what exactly happened. It’s big news in the world of video games. The customer ratings on metacritic and other sites are around 40 percent, due to so many zero scores. A large petition has formed raising 70 thousand dollars for charity to basically redo the ending. Many fans who have played 100 plus hours from Mass Effect 1 through 3 are hugely disappointed. Why are they so hurt? Why are they so pissed?

Well, first of all, they love Commander Shepherd and they do not like the way he or she is treated at the end. (You can play Shepherd as a gay or straight, male of female of any ethnicity you chose; henceforth I will refer to her as a female.) And because the player has identified with her so much, the player feels unfairly treated. This love of Shepherd is where Bioware epically succeeds. I personally bonded with her and her team more than I have with any other characters in a video game. And I suspect that the vast majority of players who have played through all 3 games would say the same.

But, something deeper is going on here.

The conceptual model of reality that the Mass Effect Universe is founded on is what has been called Post-Modern. It is a relativistic model. It arose interestingly around the time that Physics was discovering Relativity. We’re talking Nietzsche, and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness. We’re talking about staring into a howling void of meaninglessness. Taken to its logical extremes, in this model, there is no good and evil, only power, and the most heinous of atrocities are okay if you get away with them. The end justifies the means. But, actually there is no need to justify anything. There is no ultimate justice.  If you can feel a bit into the moral abyss of Nazi Germany and World War 2 where morality got grotesquely twisted, twisted to the point where dropping atomic bombs on civilians seemed like a good idea at the time, you get a flavor of how horrifying this model of reality can be.

As Commander Shepherd, you are actually fighting against this worldview. The Reapers are the ultimate Galactic Nazis. They literalize the meme (so well explored by Nietzsche) of eternal return. In this worldview, there is no real growth or progress, just eternal repetition. The Reapers actually end galactic civilization and harvest all advanced self-aware species every 50 thousand years. Then they start it over again. “The Cycle must be perserved” or something like that. They actually see themselves as saviors of life. In the meantime, their actions are about as Evil as you can get.

The problem is that this worldview is actually the worldview of the developers. Or the developers are conflicted. And hence, in the end there is some serious incoherence. As  Shepherd we have united the advanced civilizations of the Galaxy in order to fight the existential threat of the Reapers. (Notice how this echoes WWII where most of the world united to fight The Third Reich.) There is a victory of sorts, but it feels hollow. There has been a regression into what amounts to a Dark Age. Eternal Return seems to be confirmed in spite of Shepherd and companies efforts. Up until this point, the narrative has followed the archetype of a life or death struggle in which ultimately oppressive forces are overcome, ushering in a time of expansion, jubilation, and freedom. This is what happens after WWII, at the end of Lord of the Rings, at the end of the American Revolution, etc. Imagine if at the end of WWII, the Nazi’s were barely defeated, but not before they developed their own nuclear weapons. An all out nuclear war ensued and civilization had all but collapsed. Collapse and regression. This is basically the end of Mass Effect 3.

Not very satisfying, eh?

And not very true. The ending just feels wrong. It doesn’t match up with our experience of the way Reality works. Of course a Post Modern Nihilist would have a clever argument about how we’re basically deluding ourselves. But, here’s the thing, this worldview holds that no belief, no narrative, no worldview is more valuable than any other, which means ultimately that there is no value whatsoever. Yet, the Post Modernist believes that his worldview is the right one, the most accurate, and hence the most valuable. Huge, game-breaking internal contradiction. Huge incoherence.

What happens at the end of ME3? Well, literally there is a Galactic collapse. But, actually the narrative itself collapses. It’s a tired narrative. In the series we were fighting against that narrative and the developers force us to lose. We thought we had freedom, but we are forced into swallowing the writer’s cold, stale, nihilistic worldview.

That kind of sucks.

 

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Today Mass Effect 3 is released. If you are into video games, you know this is a big deal. My copy will arrive some time today and I will be playing it tonight. Mass Effect 3 is a role playing game in which you and your allies are fighting to save all life in the  Galaxy from utter annihilation. If you have not played ME1, spoiler alert. I am going to reveal the bad guys.

The bad guys are “The Reapers.” They are an advanced A.I. Civilization or Machine Civilization that lies dormant for aeons while Life evolves. When Life is “ripe” they “harvest” it. They basically assimilate all of Life, all that has been learned, all that has been created. (I don’t know why that means all life must be destroyed.) The Reapers then sow the seeds for new Life and start the process all over again. This is a clever take on one of the most common themes in Science Fiction: our machines evolving beyond us and either “terminating” or “assimilating” us. A few examples: The Borg in Star Trek, The Terminator films, The Matrix Trilogy, and Battlestar Gallactica.

I actually find this meme pretty tired. It makes a good narrative for a video game, but enough already. We are at the end of an era and our technology is primarily responsible. This is true, and this is why this narrative resonates with us. However, we are not separate from technology. We are technology. Okay, that might be overstating it. At our very core, our essence, prior to form, we are not technology. But, as soon as forms/creations show up: hello technology (Check out Kevin Kelly, The Technium.)

There was a time when humans did not have spoken language, in the earliest hunter gatherer times. A huge shift happened tens of thousands of years ago when early agriculture emerged. This was a radical new technology that changed everything. Co-emergent with that (we don’t know if one came first) came spoken language. Jeremy Rifkin theorizes that this new communication technology (spoken language) was necessary to manage the complicated social dynamics and organizational logistics of basic agriculture which necessitated a whole new kind of culture. (By the way, culture is a technology.)

The emergence of the technology of Spoken Language was one of the great game changers: a true Singularity. Human experience after this Singularity was radically different than what it had been previously. Pre-Verbal humans could in no way imagine what the Post-Verbal human would live and think like. By the way, all of us have experienced this transition in this lifetime. Some time around 1 years old we made this Big Shift. And of course, we get to witness our children and others children go through this Big Shift.

Anyway, the point is technology is not something out there, alien from us. Maybe new technologies seem that way before we assimilate them (or are assimilated by them.) Did e.mail seem weird and alien 15 years ago? The internet definitely did to a lot of people. Now that I think about it, I think the Internet continues to get exponentially weirder and more alien. But, compared to our Pre-Internet selves, so do we.

Anyway, wish me luck in the epic battle against the Reapers. The future of the Galaxy is at stake.

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