The End is Really, Really Near
[The following article contains Mass Effect 3 spoilers. Perhaps the Mass Effect 3 spoiler.]
“I am near the end of my life. It is a good time to be generous.” – Thane, Mass Effect 3
“That’s the thing about getting old, Shepard. The platitudes get just as old.” – Garrus, Mass Effect 3
Someone spoiled Mass Effect 3 for me. They told me Shepard dies at the end.
There’s a term for the situation I find myself in. It’s called “dramatic irony.” That’s a situation where a character--in this case, Commander Shepard, a video game character--is unaware of something I know in the audience. It’s also the irony arising from situations due to the audience having a fuller knowledge of circumstances compared to what a character knows.
So, burdened with dramatic irony, laden with the knowledge that Shepard will die, Shepard’s role has transformed in my mind. This is no longer the typical hero’s journey. Shepard is now the doomed hero.
But let’s rewind. There is a video game development studio called BioWare. BioWare crafted a lot of highly regarded games over the past 17 years. Games considered classics. And things that are classics tend to amass followers--followers both vocal and passionate about their experience with those classics.
BioWare’s audience takes ownership of its experiences with BioWare games. There was Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. Dragon Age and, of course, Mass Effect. You’ve heard these names before, even if you’ve never played them. They’re applauded in forums. They’re given spotlight in opinion columns. And if they’re discussed in a comments thread, another commenter inevitably threatens to reinstall one of those games for a second, third, or nth playthrough.
I’ve played through some of them. I’ve liked a few. Disliked others. But I’ve never felt a gut-wrenching need to second-guess the vision of BioWare’s leads, the so-called “BioWare Docs.” The once and future BioWare Docs are Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuck, founders of BioWare in 1995 after graduating medical school together. (A third founding BioWare Doc, Augustine Yip, left after they shipped their first game, Shattered Steel.) While I don’t think Muzyka and Zeschuck’s vision is flawless, I also respect the flaws and missteps of artists and visionaries, and I accept mistakes as part of the artistic process.
So, when Shepard died at the end of Mass Effect 3, a vocal minority of BioWare’s audience indeed got vocal. Wrong, they shouted. It shouldn’t end, they said. And if it ends, they conceded, it shouldn’t end like this.
That’s what happens when players attach to a character in a trilogy five years in the making. A player gets notably upset when things end. Sure, there are plenty of opportunities for Shepard to “die” in the video game sense of the word. Bullets, lasers and grenades fly to and fro, from the opening titles to the closing credits. Death is everywhere. I can hear the pulsing, bloodshot you-died soundtrack in my ears even now.
But those aren’t permanent deaths. We’re still talking video games here. Death is never permanent. Even “perma-death” in a game is solvable through a simple procedure known as “well, I guess I can start over.” And there the character will be, once again, alive and well, healthy and hale, ready to save the galaxy anew. Increased health, regenerating shields and healing medikits are ultimately redundant in Mass Effect 3, because the almighty Load Saved Game button washes away any and all errors. Life is restored. Please try again.
But Load Saved Game can’t wash away a storyline death. The pen is mightier. Shepard dies at the end of Mass Effect 3, and there’s nothing BioWare’s audience, in vocal outrage or silent protest, can do about it. The Docs pulled the plug. Fin.
I’m not there yet. Haven’t reached the end. Nowhere near it, actually. One year after the release of Mass Effect 3, I’m finally entering the single-player campaign from the beginning. The hype kept me away--my own included. The Internet’s whining about the ending kept me away, too--along with my own reluctance to wrap things up. But instead of furiously tap-tap-tapping away in some forum, I bit my tongue. I shut up. I shelved the game before I played it.
I didn’t whine about it, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t upset in my own way, knowing what I know about the end.
I was there since Mass Effect’s inception. Six years ago, laying crossways on my Salvation Army couch, jogging through the sterile, Star Trek-like environs of the Citadel, holding my eyelids open with toothpicks while poring over the often-dry glossary of people, places and things, riding elevators and chuckling at Wrex’s zingers, jouncing over low-grav planetary surfaces in a six-wheeled buggy, watching the Fox News ticker tape on my actual TV bolding headlines like “Sex Box?” because you could play through a scenario of digitized, blue alien sex that flashed a little blue alien hip.
Then, continuing along the trilogy’s timeline, I’d drift to sleep while strip mining planets for resources in Mass Effect 2, leaning forward and backward in my seat with Asari dancers on my table at the club, and watching the camera leer down and up Yvonne Strahovski’s digitally remastered backside. Apparently, those are the damning details that stuck with me from Mass Effect 2. Don’t you judge me.
But knowing that the end is near kept me away from Mass Effect 3. I artificially extended Shepard’s life by not giving Shepard any life at all. This has been, well, “immature” may be a strong word, but what I’ve done--my inaction--isn’t any better than BioWare’s vocal minority that bemoaned Shepard’s death in the first place. The naysayers might’ve made a nuisance of themselves, but I took the coward’s route.
The Internet won in a sense, and twisted BioWare’s arm into releasing an “extended” ending. An ending that purportedly closes more loops, dovetails more storylines, and rolls credits on forgotten scenarios.
The extended ending wasn’t a second resurrection. Yes, Shepard was brought back to life at the beginning of Mass Effect 2, but not at the end of Mass Effect 3, and from the sound of things, won’t be how BioWare kicks off Mass “Don’t Call It Mass Effect 4” Effect 4.
I didn’t doubt the BioWare Docs’ vision, but that didn’t mean I wanted to let the series go either. I engaged in something of a silent protest for nearly a year, since I refused to play the game sitting right there on my shelf, but it’s time to break that silence while respecting the Docs’ decision to pull the plug on Shepard. Shepard dies in the end. And, for me, the end is near.
But now my attitude has changed: I’m letting the knowledge that Shepard dies grant me a freedom I didn’t have in Mass Effect 1 or 2. Previously, I’d shackled myself to the good-guy stereotype. I gamed the Paragon-Renegade system so that, without fail, my version of Shepard was the lawful-good Shepard, the boy scout, the creepily grinning, back-patting, hero of heroes type of Shepard, the let’s-work-things-out Shepard, the Shepard you’d take home to meet your mother and your grandmother.
It was a boring way to play through such an epic trajectory. But now, a year later and armed with the knowledge of Shepard’s demise, Shepard in Mass Effect 3 has become the doomed hero I mentioned.
Instead of scrambling for brownie points during conversations, I’m not afraid to pull the trigger when a Renegade option pops up on the screen--if it makes sense. No, my Shepard isn’t decking reporters for asking tough questions, but he’s certainly willing to buy a round of drinks for some shaking-in-their-boots enlisted men and women that don’t feel comfortable around him. And the new doomed-hero Shepard isn’t afraid to see things Aria T’Loak’s way, if moving, speaking and operating like an underground mob boss is what’s required to align the galaxy’s races in a bid to survive the threshing maw of the Reaper invasion.
Shepard dies at the end. Not only do I accept it, I’m racing towards it.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, or open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon. View Profile