Mass Effect Ending: Why We Give In

So last week I ended with commenting that the really interesting question is not “Why would the Reapers give this choice to Shepard?” but was instead “Why would the Reapers give this choice to Shepard?”.   The Reapers had managed to find their way into the galaxy and were in the middle of their Reaping.  Sure, they had faced a number of setbacks over the events of the first two games and it was even the case that at least a couple of Reapers had been destroyed.  Still, their forces were dominant and the combined forces of all of the races worth talking about were likely to get wiped out in the encounter at Earth.  And even if they managed to survive, the Reapers certainly had forces in other places that could relatively easily wipe out the pitiful remains of that fleet.  And here comes Shepard to talk to them, when they were almost certain to win and continue the cycle.  Why would they decide to give Shepard the means to end the cycle at that point?

A question exactly like this is at the heart of at least the first season of the TV series Babylon 5:  the Minbari set out to exterminate the humans out of revenge, and were doing an incredibly good job of doing so until they finally reached Earth.  And then the war stopped.  And not only did the war stop, but the Minbari surrendered, even though they had their main battle fleet doing incredibly well against the battered remains of the human fleets.  Why did they surrender?  What possible reason could they have had for that?  This mystery drives the first season and arguably its ramifications carries on throughout the entire series.

Now, I’m not saying that ME3 should have turned this into a mystery.  They could have, but it’s clear that they wanted to wrap things up and not raise a new mystery that they might have needed to resolve at some point.  My point here is just to note that this sort of situation — overpowering enemy that suddenly gives up — is one that cries out for explanation.  It would always create a mystery, and so if they wanted to take this tack they really needed to explain why this happened.  So that needed to be a big part of the final revelation, whatever it was that they came up with.

Fortunately, it turns out that the answer is a pretty simple one:  they’re doing this because they need to.  Whatever their purpose or goal is, it’s not working.  They themselves can’t see any way out of those issues.  And then here comes Shepard, a respected opponent with a radically different view of the world than them.  This is perhaps the first external being that can talk directly to their controlling intelligence because this is the first time that anyone has managed to build the Crucible in any of their cycles.  If you aren’t going to make being able to do this a reward for building the Crucible — and they didn’t — then you really need to play this off as them finally finding someone who might be able to tell them how to fix their problems since they can’t do that themselves.

So, starting from there, I’m going to suggest two purposes that could have played into the ending and that I think would have worked.  In line with what I said last time, I’m going to hold the three endings to be the same, at least in their nature, and so will be limited to the three endings of “Destroy the Reapers”, “Control the Reapers” and “Merge Synthetic and Organic Life”.  I think that these two endings will work far better than the original ending — if for no other reason than that they will at least make sense and not clash with the world — and also think that these endings are not super-duper creative endings, but are instead fairly standard plots that have been used heavily in science fiction for a long time now.

The first one is the pretty standard “Advanced species builds super-technological war machines and then dies out, leaving them as a threat to everyone else”.  Here, the best way to approach it would be that they built these machines to wipe out every group that was currently or likely in the near future to be a threat to them.  They succeeded brilliantly.   But with that done they didn’t want to keep these machines around or give them a chance to decide that they should eliminate the main race as well, so they put them to sleep for 50,000 years with orders to wake up and do what they had done previously.

But 50,000 years is a long time, and even though they didn’t face threats from other races they still managed to die out. Plague would be a good one for this, or internal strife.  At any rate, it would need to be something that the Reapers couldn’t help them with to explain why they didn’t just call them back to help deal with.  So, then, after 50,000 years the Reapers wake up, find no one to countermand their orders, and so go on with their programmed task, wiping out every intelligent species above a certain tech level except for the ones who created them … which, since the ones who created them are all dead, means all of themThen they go back to sleep for another 50,000 years.

But the Reapers aren’t stupid.  They realize that this is all pointless.  They want to stop doing it.  But they can’t.  They need to have someone with access to the Crucible and so with access to their central intelligence to countermand their orders.  But they can’t come out and say that.  They might be able to “let slip” pieces of the Crucible to the species that they are wiping out — mostly through their indoctrinated servants — in the hopes that someone will put all the pieces together and show up to do that, and it would have to be someone known and respected by them, but if that can happen then maybe they finally can get a new purpose.  It finally all comes together with Shepard, and so they offer Shepard the chance to give them a new purpose, one built around what Shepard wants the galaxy itself to be.

This also leads to an interesting idea.  Shamus Young complains that in order for ME3 to work the Reapers have to deviate from their winning strategy of taking the Citadel first and shutting down the Mass Relays and instead end up attacking at various places around the galaxy first.  Shepard could raise this as a question, and they could reply that they never did that as an actual tactical plan.  No, they knew that the Citadel was the Catalyst and so always showed up there first in the hopes that someone would be willing to talk to them and break the cycle.  When no one showed up, they just started Reaping from here.  However, this time through the interactions of Sovereign and Harbinger they knew that no one was going to show up to talk to them, so they were able to just start Reaping, and so started hitting the major population centres first.  So what looked like a tactical decision really wasn’t, and this would show an alien way of thinking that is often quite appreciated in science fiction.

So how does this fit with the endings?  “Destroy” is obvious:  Shepard (and the player) find these sorts of machines heinous and don’t feel that they can be used for any other purpose, and so the only thing that can happen is that they be wiped out.  Since they find their original purpose pointless and somewhat heinous themselves, the Reapers would be willing to be destroyed rather than go back to it after waiting this long to find someone who can judge them and give them a new purpose.

“Control” also works, as it can flow partly from what TIM said earlier, in that the power of the Reapers could be used to do great things in the galaxy.  All Shepard has to be is convinced that the technology and the power of the Reapers is something that ought not be wasted and that they can do good if controlled by Shepard and this choice becomes reasonable and makes sense.

“Synthesis” is the odd ending out here.  You’d have to have the Reapers specifically mention it as something that they can do and so something that they were thinking about, which would be hard to do in a natural manner.  However, once that’s done it’s not all that hard to imagine that Shepard might think of it as a good thing and a unique opportunity that Shepard needs to embrace since it won’t come again.  It’s just making it a choice that’s tricky because it would seem to come out of nowhere and isn’t something Shepard could suggest.

The second ending is again a fairly standard one:  the Reapers are trying to evolve Organics to their highest potential, but they find that once they get technology they abandon working on their innate biological abilities and focus on using technology as a crutch.  This cycle is one of the better ones, with the Asari placing a great focus on biotics and TIM and Miranda’s father trying to create biotic wunderkinds, but even then the Asari use technology too much and TIM, once he gleans that he might be able to control the synthetic Reapers, abandons his plans for evolving humanity in favour of developing technology that means that they’d never have to evolve.  The Reapers have been resetting the species in the hopes that at least one will put a bigger focus on Organic evolution than technology and AIs/VIs, and they are always disappointed.  As this is getting old, they place the onus on Shepard to tell them what it is that they’re doing wrong.

“Destroy”, as an answer, is basically Shepard deciding that either their purpose is wrong, or else that they are completely the wrong sort of thing to try to do that.  Even if this sort of artificial evolution was desirable, it’s not going to be achieved by wiping out all intelligent life every 50,000 years, and it doesn’t seem like the Reapers could do anything else.  And again, they could accept that since it does make some sense and they don’t want to go on like they have been.

“Control” as an answer is the odd one out here, mostly because Shepard either has to think that their purpose is reasonable but that Shepard can succeed where they failed, or else fall into TIM’s “Think of the possibilities!” and want to subvert the Reapers into making things better.  Still, at least those are reasonable responses that Shepard might think of at the time.

But “Synthesis” is the most interesting one.  I wouldn’t make this a default ending.  I’d make it so that Shepard has to argue with the Reapers that using technology to supplement biological abilities isn’t a bad thing.  Shepard would note that in fact among humans they only managed to get biotics through a technological implant.  So it’s not biology vs technology but instead that the two of them working together can create something better than what either could do separately.  Then the Reapers could note that they do have the ability to merge technology and biology and so maybe that, then, would have them actually achieve their goal of evolving Organics to their highest state.  Then Shepard could decide if they agree with that approach or not.

I’m not saying that these are perfect.  There are obviously some holes in them that would need to be patched up.  But in and of themselves they make sense, they fit with — or at least don’t contradict — the world, and are standard sci-fi tropes that have been used in sci-fi for ages.  By all measures, they are better than what we ended up with in ME3 and aren’t all that much harder to come up with.  And, ultimately, I dare say they would have been better appreciated and so would have made for a more satisfying ending and trilogy than what we actually had.

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