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Mass Effect 3: The Journey, The Destination, and Amateur Philosophy
by Elliot Pinkus on 07/24/12 11:00:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

[Heavy Spoiler Warning for Mass Effect 3. Minor Spoilers for Angel & Firefly]
[Originally posted at http://www.elliotmax.com/blog/]

The Journey 

“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.


Puppet Angel 

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).

 

The Destination

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.

Liara is not amused

Amateur Philosophy

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 (particularly during the Protestant Reformation), there was 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.


Snoopy 

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.


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Comments


Axel Cholewa
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I think (at least part of) the problem with ME3 are player expectations. I always wondered how an ending of such a game could possibly surprise me (or anyone else). The goal of the game, as in so many games, is, in short, to save the world. So I know what happens. No matter how bad a guy I'll be, somehow the world will be saved.

So what did players expect? That they could help destroy the universe? Or simply that everything would end in a spectacle?

I have to admit I have to play ME3 yet. Actually I haven't even finished ME2. But the ending of ME1 was already quite shallow, so that for me the path is anyway the goal, not some super rewarding end scene.

Lars Doucet
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I appreciate the philosophical / religious musings! The "journey or the destination" is an interesting question. Although there's a lot of pretty broad generalizations from people like Whedon about "religion" (as if all religions are somehow the same), if we look at *specific* religions (as you pointed out with Judaism), we find a lot of diversity on this specific question.

For the sake of both brevity and proving my point, I'll limit myself to just the differences found in "Christianity" (a pretty broad category these days). Let's look at Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy (my own faith), Evangelical Protestantism, and Calvinism.

Strict Calvinists affirm that free will does not exist (God has absolute sovereignty), and thus whether "being good" is about the destination or the reward is sort of a moot point. In Mass Effect: Calvinist edition, your choices, journey, and destination are pre-ordained.

Evangelical Protestants affirm free will, but insist that "good works" are of no salvific value - nothing man can do can redeem him in the eyes of God, so only by accepting God's grace can one be saved. Although one *should* do good works while on Earth out of love for God and one's neighbor, they don't earn you any "brownie points" towards your destination. With no disrespect meant towards Evangelicals, in Mass Effect: Evangelical edition, getting the "good" ending means "press X to accept Jesus." At the risk of over-simplifying, this is probably the closest to the "destination" model.

Catholics affirm that good works *do* matter. There have been points in Catholic history where this has occasionally been formalized in bizarre ways (Ie, the church issuing certificates for 1,000 years off of Purgatory for doing X good deed), but aside from those the general idea is that though you cannot save yourself apart from God, you must *participate* with grace in order to be cleansed of your sins. In Mass Effect: Catholic edition, getting the "good" ending means "press X to accept Jesus" but also making good choices all the way through the game, and constantly repenting when you fall away so that you don't lose your salvation in the end. In this sense, Catholicism is about *both* the journey and the destination. What you do on earth really matters, and in a somewhat oversimplified sense, gets you closer to your destination.

Eastern Orthodoxy is a bit different. Like Catholicism, Orthodoxy affirms that both faith and works matter and that salvation can be lost (by contrast, most Evangelicals believe "once saved, always saved"). However, instead of seeing sin as a "crime" under the legal metaphor common to Western Catholics and Protestants, Orthodoxy sees sin as a "disease." Entrance to heaven is not about paying off the sins that bar you from admission, but, through God's grace and good works, changing who you are as a person and being slowly healed of sin. The Orthodox understanding of heaven in this sense is a state of being - literally being the kind of good person who can stand in God's light and not experience it "as fire." The process of undergoing this transformation is called "theosis." In this sense, Orthodoxy might be the closest to the "journey" model, although it still has a destination, though that destination isn't so much a location, but rather one of being an improved, healed, person. In Mass Effect: Orthodox edition, it's all about who you are as a *character,* with the chief question being how your choices change *you.*

This is all vastly over-simplified for the sake of a blog comment. Catholicism and Orthodoxy were once united, so currents of both models can be found in each, and I've left a lot of nuance out of the Evangelical model. And of course, Protestantism has so many different variations that I couldn't possibly cover them all here. I doubt I'm doing justice to any of these traditions, but I hope it's interesting to you :)

I'd love to go into Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, and especially Judaism (Saducees vs. Pharisees in particular as they had very different takes on the afterlife) etc, but I've already posted a wall of text.

Thanks for this post!


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