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.