Poetics of Life and Death: Or, why I love Mass Effect 3

by RadThesis, last updated 12 Jul 2012 03:10

Poetics of Life and Death: Or, why I love Mass Effect 3

While much has now been written about the release of Mass Effect 3 (ME3) and the controversy regarding the original and now Extended Cut endings, little has been said in defense of the philosophical conundrum that Commander Shepard ultimately encounters at the conclusion of this great saga. Having just finished playing all of the new Extended Cut endings (which had a delayed release on the Australian PS3 Network), and having read some reviews of the new content, I wanted to add to the debate, exploring some of the wonderful ethical and philosophical complexities which make this such a brilliant series. In doing so, I will also discuss some of the underlining psychological reasons why it was inevitable that many fans would reject the content of the Extended Cut and the endings to ME3.

For me, the stories, visuals, and plot-determining gameplay of Mass Effect (ME) amount to a new and vivid form of story telling, where you live and shape the narrative. This "empowered gaming" is remarkably effective at immersing a player within a story, and helps to forge a relationship between the text and the audience that goes beyond the passive decoding of images from a TV or cinema screen. Indeed, this form of textual engagement, when it is coupled with a rich and captivating narrative, creates a strong emotional connection to the story, and helps to explain the passion many gamers hold for the ME universe. Moreover, it is this empowered gaming (and its emotional consequences) which made it somewhat inevitable that some fans would be dissatisfied with the Extended Cut’s content (for psychological reasons I will outline below).

If we are, however, to understand the emotional bond many players (including myself) forged with the characters of the Mass Effect saga, it is important to explore the rich cultural and philosophical influences on the series, which collectively give this game its gritty and thematic complexity. In much the same way that great authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin draw on ancient mythologies and actual history to create complex and vivid works of fiction, the writers of the ME saga have clearly been influenced by the themes and ideas from many of the great sci-fi epics of the 20th century. One does not need to look too hard to see influences from television shows like Babylon 5, where similar philosophical debates regarding ‘order versus chaos’ where played out. There are also visual and thematic references to some of popular culture’s modern cinematic masterpieces. For instance, I saw core themes and ideas from the Matrix (omnipotent and murderous machines; the god-like architect), and Star Wars (specifically the climatic confrontation between Luke and the Emperor on the Death Star in Episode VI).

Some of the themes and imagery of some of the best novels of the last 100 hundred years have also influenced the ME series. We can see images from: Frank Herbert’s Dune (i.e. the Sand Worms); Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (i.e. thematic parallels with the ME2’s quest to find Jacob’s father); Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (machines seeking humanity, falling in love, etc); Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (the Keepers of the Citadel); and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (where the universe endlessly repeats the same grand pattern of growth, destruction and rebirth). I do not point out these cultural influences to question the originality of the ME series. On the contrary, I believe the games take some of the big themes and awe-inspiring spectacle of many great literary and cinematic works, and successfully weaves them into a complicated story arc that says something original and unique (and largely avoids the plot and visual clichés that are the pitfalls of science fiction and fantasy stories). I am sure that there are many other cultural influences that a better-read person than I will have identified.

There are also plot elements inspired by the events of humanity’s modern history. Indeed, one of the most interesting and enjoyable storylines—that concerning the “Genophage” and Mordin Solus—draws on some of the big ethical debates arising out of the events of World War II, such as the ethics of using weapons of mass destruction, and whether it is appropriate to use medical data that has been obtained by horrific medical experiments (such as those conducted by some of the scientists of Hitler’s Third Reich). While others will have made different choices within this subplot of the game, I walked a bittersweet path which allowed a friend’s death to become his redemption, and his sacrifice to become a species’ rebirth. Playing out this story was an instructive lesson in bio-ethics—one which I sure would surprise many ethicists with its nuance and conundrums.

Beyond the historical influences on the game, there are contemporary political and sociological issues that make an important contribution to the plot and the decisions a player may make. For instance, one can pursue same-sex relationships, or indeed inter-species relationships (something which I regard as an important textual contribution in the struggle for same-sex marriage equality). There are also some storyline junctions where one must confront racism and personal prejudices, where a player is forced to consider issues like ethnocentrism (which is where you judge a people’s culture and practices according to your own cultural and moral framework). Even questions of class politics make an appearance, with one memorable dialogue option in ME2 allowing you to discuss whether new technologies might someday eliminate all material and social inequality (or whether greed and a desire for power will always find a way to undermine such utopian dreams).

Beyond the sociological, there are excellent philosophical issues and debates that are explored throughout the series. One reoccurring and core philosophical debate is that between “utilitarianism” versus “Kantian ethics”. At several times throughout the three games, players are forced to choose between the potential extinction of an entire species, weighed against their desire to protect humanity and the rest of the galaxy’s inhabitants (a utilitarian theme in that “the means justify the ends” should the decision serve the “greater good”, by saving the “greatest number of people”). However, I would assume that many players likely shied away from such decisions (where their previous plot-choices allowed), choosing instead to follow the “golden rule of ethics” epitomized in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant: namely, that people, or indeed “peoples”, should never be reduced to a mathematic formula, where the rights of some are ignored for the safety of the many. For those players following this second ethical path, the Rachni were not condemned to extinction, the Krogan were released and cured from the Genophage, peace was made between both Geth and Quarians, and the “Destroy” option presented in the finale (with its genocidal consequences for some of your allies) was never a viable option for a “Paragon Shepard”.

More so than the debates regarding “the greater good versus the rights of individuals”, perhaps the best philosophical aspects of the game lie in its exploration of the nature of existence, and limits of perception. Much of the overarching storyline of the games concerns the differences and conflict between organic and synthetic life, where the former has evolved according to Charles Darwin’s evolutionary principles of random mutation and natural selection, while the latter has been engineered by technologically advanced civilizations. Here the game establishes its central plot arc, and an interesting philosophical dichotomy. On the one hand, organic life, such as humanity, is considered to be imperfect and unpredictable. Humans have free will and much creative potential; our life experiences and existence defined by the combination of our instinctual drives and our social contracts. However, we have evolved in response to the specific survival challenges of our physical/planetary environment. As such, humanity has evolutionary limitations that apply to our intellect, our sensory capabilities, and our lifespan. In contrast, synthetic life is seemingly immortal and has limitless cognitive potential. In the Mass Effect universe, it is a core premise that synthetic life will ultimately surpass and supplant its inferior biological genesis. Indeed, Command Shepard’s struggle throughout the entire game is to overcome this proposition, both physically (in his combat with the Geth and Reapers) and metaphysically (with the choices presented in the Geth/Quarian subplot and by the god-like Catalyst in the game’s final chapter).

Mass Effect does not, of course, merely present a simplistic image of synthetic intelligence with malevolent intent. Characters like EDI and Legion increase the games depth, highlighting that the machines are not pre-determined to destroy their cognitively inferior creators. Nor are synthetic life forms omniscience (despite their photographic and depthless memories). As dialogue options between Commander Shepard and EDI in ME3 make clear, there are limits to Artificial Intelligence, with EDI’s desire to better appreciate what it means to be human an insightful exploration into the meaning of life.

At first, EDI attempts to understand the meaning of existence in reference to biological essentialism. From her synthetic perspective, the nature of existence must be found in a biological being’s operational parameters and central purpose: “the point of existence is the survival of one’s genetic material”, she concludes. Later EDI comes to realise that the meaning of life is not inherent within our nature (our biological machinery/core programming). Rather it is forged through our shared experiences and social attachments, through the pursuit of personal growth, belonging and (ethical) happiness. At the end of ME3, EDI appreciates that the meaning of life is to be a meaningful part of a community (the notion of God is left aside—EDI is clearly comfortable with her atheism/agnosticism).

In a way, EDI’s intellectual journey in ME3 is central to the game’s overarching philosophical themes and the controversial final chapter. In EDI’s final dialogue with Commander Shepard, before the final, and seemingly futile, push against a vastly superior enemy, she comments that it is only now that she truly understands what it means to be alive (and thanks Commander Shepard for teaching her this). Not only is this a poetic and beautifully dark moment within the game, it also represents the central message of the game’s conclusion: it does not matter in the end whether you live or die, or that you ‘win the game’ in a way most gamers are accustomed to experiencing. The point is that you lived (or played) with passion, courage and kindness. That you did not go meekly in into the night. Yes, you knew that you faced almost certain death before your mad dash to storm the Citadel. But you were not alone. And it had been one hell of a fight. Of course, the burnt out streets of London were not the end for Command Shepard, and it is what came next that has tested most players emotional bonds with the series: enter the deus ex machina (the Catalyst).

Many fans have now raised legitimate and insightful points regarding what they consider to be the “thematically revolting” “authoritarianism” implicit within the three options presented to Commander Shepard by the Catalyst. To me, these three options are in keeping with the game’s core philosophical conundrums and messages, in that they return to ethical dilemmas which have characterised the previous chapters of the series. Choose the utilitarian option “Destroy” and you will defeat the Reapers, save the galaxy and go on to drink cocktails on a sunny beach (but the price is the genocide of the Geth, and the death of your friend EDI). Choose “Control” and you will die, but your death will nobly save your friends and the galaxy. “Control” also sees you transcend to a higher plane of consciousness, as you replace the Catalyst as the controlling Hub in the networked intelligence of the Reapers (the implicit unanswered question is whether absolute power and the cause and effect currents of the universe will eventually see you making similar mathematical/utilitarian decisions to the Catalyst’s “final solution”?). Choose the “Synthesis” option and you also die; but your death will rewrite the building blocks of life at the quantum-level, so that distinctions between synthetic and organic break down. While “Synthesis” seems the logical solution to the Catalyst’s assertion that the cause and effect mechanics of the galaxy makes it inevitable that synthetic beings will eventually destroy all organic life (at least without intervention by the Reapers), this decision option also has a high moral price — your choice here will violate the rights of all beings to follow (and, in some cases, choose) their own evolutionary destiny.

Clearly all of the above options and endings have dark moral themes. And I’m sure that none of these choices would have been very appealing to my Commander Shepard, who had fought hard in defense of diversity, and fostered peace and understanding between organic and synthetic. However, with the new content of the Extended Cut players are presented with an important fourth option: “Refusal”. Here Commander Shepard can choose to reject the circular logic that drives the Catalyst and the machine’s proposed solutions. Of course the price of your insolence is your death and the extinction of the advanced civilizations of the galaxy — but for some players this is an important and ethically justified option (personally I think Bioware should be congratulated for its addition). While “Refusal” is not the happy ending many fans may have hoped for when the company first announced it intended to release the Extended Cut, the new ending is in keeping with the morally problematic decisions at the heart of Mass Effect (i.e. are your beliefs worth more than civilisation itself?), and helps to ensure that the conclusions retain their gritty complexity. In such grand sagas, sometimes there are no “happily ever after” moments, nor any easy choices to make. Sometimes the story should, and does, end with death.

And, so, we arrive at what I feel explains why some fans will always hate the endings of ME3: they are grieving. This vivid journey through the ME universe — with our empowered game play and our love of an intricate and beautiful story — has left us so deeply invested in the game’s conclusions that we cannot let go. Indeed, “the Five Stages of Grief” model used by psychologists to categorise the emotional stages we experience when we are told we have a terminal illness (and which is now used to explain many other types of traumatic experiece) neatly accounts for the emotional reaction some fans may have experienced with the ending of their Commander Shepard. The fist stage of this model is Denial: “This can't be happening to me” (or, “my Shepard is bigger than Catalyst and these choices”). The second stage is Anger: “This is not fair!”; “Who is to blame?” (or, “Bioware have sold us out, I will fight to see these endings fixed!”). The third stage is Bargaining: “I'll do anything for a few more years” (or, “please, Bioware, work with your fans and consumers to give us what we want”). The fourth stage is Depression: “I'm so sad, why bother with anything?” (or, “I feel so depressed that no new dialogue and cut-scenes could ‘fix’ this ending”). The fifth and final stage of this model is Acceptance: "It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it" (or “well, there is nothing I can do to ‘fix’ this story — perhaps its time for me to move on to Halo 4”).

I must stress that the emotional experiences I outline here are not in anyway intended to mock or belittle the reaction of fans who were concerned with the conclusions of the series. On the contrary, I entirely empathise with their emotions, and I am very grateful to those fans who collectively worked to deliver the Extended Cut — which I consider to be a more complete ending to the series (one which explained some of the plot holes). Moreover, I can appreciate why many people still have concerns regarding the ethical decisions Commander Shepard must ultimately make. However, it is rare to see contemporary popular culture dare to finish on such a bleak, almost Shakespearian, note. Moreover, it is rare to see a story that succeeds so well in captivating our imaginations, while consistently exposing us to the big philosophical conundrums — to which there are never simple answers. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a video game could, and did.

Like all ambitious stories, Mass Effect attempts to engage with many of the big questions that have defined human existence, and which philosophers, priests and scientists have attempted to grapple, with varying degrees of success. What makes one's life meaningful? How should a good person live? How should we confront our end? While Mass Effect and its conclusions were not flawless, when I considered the games as a textual whole I find much beauty and depth in this story. Although some fans will never be happy with how the journey ended, I am sure that, with the fullness of time, many will again come to appreciate Mass Effect for its deep philosophical underpinnings, and its dark and beautiful poetics regarding life and death.

(Acknowledgement: I also placed an early version of this article on the Bioware Social Network — this is the new and improved version)

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