Disposable Clones — And Yes, It’s about Mass Effect

A few weeks ago I found my mind wandering as I ran on the elliptical machine at my gym, and my mind went wandering back to Mass Effect.  In particular I found myself pondering the fate of the clone from the DLC CITADEL.  The writers gave us a pretty ambivalent ending for that particular adventure.  Yes, the clone fell from the cargo bay of the Normandy either by his/her own choice or because of an action by Shepard prime, but this is Shepard so is he/she really dead?  My assumption was no he didn’t die, so what did he do after surviving that fall?  Did he end up fighting the Reaper takeover of the Citadel?  Stow away or highjack another ship and head out?  And if he survived the end of the Reaper war what did he choose to do with his life?  (I”m going to use the male pronoun since I played a male Shepard and that’s how I think of him.)

I did a pretty exhaustive analysis of the Mass Effect DLC CITADEL, and you can find those posts here – Citadel and A Failure in Tone, but there is something about Mass Effect that keeps pulling me back.  An inability to let it go and stop fulminating over the missed opportunity with that game.  Since I am currently slogging along in SKYRIM, the contrast with Mass Effect and Dragon Age:  Origins is profound, and I once again found myself ruminating about Shepard and his Scooby gang.

Once again I felt that Citadel was another missed opportunity.  I didn’t mind the whole “evil clone” plot.  God knows it’s a classic science fiction trope, but what struck me as I thought about Citadel was how the issue of clones has been explored in far more interesting and thoughtful ways in science fiction literature.  Lois McMasters Bujould does a particularly fine job in her Miles Vorkosigan series.

It seemed like the entire clone plot was written purely as a lark and that the writers seemed to have lost all memory or knowledge of their universe, and the motivations of the various characters.  Shepard’s in particular.  Which ever origin you picked they were exemplified by loss, abandonment, catastrophe and struggle.  His character was forged in adversity.

But let’s start with The Illusive Man.  Cerberus had the technology to literally bring someone back from the dead, and keep an exact replica in case something happened to the new improved Shepard.  Now I understand that TIM was indoctrinated by the Reaper tech he had been putting in his body to extend his life, but TIM was no fool.  It struck me that TIM would have used this technology to create a clone of himself, and let that version become indoctrinated.  TIM knew the power of the Reapers, and the dangers of indoctrination.  He had Miranda’s daddy researching the phenomenon.  It strains credulity to believe he would have taken this risk if he had an alternative, and clearly he did.  How much better to let the clone take all the risk and TIM observe the outcome.

The greater violation was the pre-ordained outcome between Shepard and his clone.  Having a renegade option makes sense — kill the bastard, but the paragon choice should not have had the exact same end — the Clone taking a swan dive off the Normandy.  It would have been more interesting to offer an alternative where the clone remains and isn’t just shuffled off stage for the convenience of the writers.  In every Shepard origin you have a character who has suffered loss and loneliness.  Colonist — your colony gets wiped out, Earther — you’re an orphan who grew up in the streets and found a “family” in the Alliance.  Even the spacer origin (the one I selected) you have a child raised by a single mother, constantly moving, often in the care of others as Captain Hannah built her career.  And in every origin there is no mention of siblings.

Now you are faced with virtually a twin brother or sister.  I have to think that a possible outcome is a desperate desire to have that relationship with this twin.  One of the underlying themes of the game is forging family as exemplified by the crew of the Normandy.  Shouldn’t there have been an option to bring this genetic copy into the embrace of that family?  There should have been an option to have had the clone taken into custody.  To later learn that this second Shepard helped coordinate the defense and battle for the Citadel.  I mean, this is Shepard.

It would also offer BioWare and EA a way around the intractable problem that most fans when polled want a sequel to the three games, and that many players want to play their Shepard.  I know I feel that way.  We put in a lot of hours of thought and care into the games, and I’m betting most players did more than a bit of headcanon.  I know I did.  Granted I’m a crazy writer, but judging from the amount of fan fiction that has been generated so did a lot of other people.

The writers and producers wanted Citadel to be fun which as I’ve detailed in other posts utterly undercut the tension and what was at stake in the main game.  Which is why it probably should have been a concluding adventure to the game rather than being shoehorned into the main narrative.  Unfortunately the bad endings made that rather impossible.

In terms of story telling and thinking through the ramification I think the writers were too quick to dismiss a plot that they considered silly.  Evil clones how silly is that?  But most of Mass Effect is a rehash of hoary old science fiction tropes that we all love and enjoy even if they are cliched.  For the most part these tropes were handled very well.  I just wish they had done as well by this story.



28 Responses to Disposable Clones — And Yes, It’s about Mass Effect

  • j violette says:

    I guess I can boil my thoughts on the Citadel dlc to one sentence – it’s Shepard’s well-earned Valhalla. All the battle you can ever want and as many of Shep’s far-flung friends as will fit in your massive apartment – not exactly Odin’s mead-hall, but the same function. It doesn’t make a damned bit of sense in the story. It’s a big two-hour long slog that locks you in way too long. But it has cool toys that I always like to have in my arsenal. And some of my absolute favorite character bits in the series.

    You’re absolutely right about the missed opportunity of not keeping AltShep around, though. Could’ve been really cool. I don’t disagree on any of your points, I guess I just found resonance with it by taking an arc welder to my “head-canon.” Also, you are absolutely right and why didn’t I see it before, if TIM had cloning tech, why didn’t he use a clone to test the indoctrination? But on the same note, how do we know he didn’t? They could drive the sequel a long way on that engine. (If I’m forgetting something that negates the possibility, that’s just me. My memory is awful.)

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      There were moments I just loved in Citadel. They fact that male Shep and Kaidan actually have an adult relationship. The conversation with Vega about N7. Talli drunk and talking about her tattoo. It was all great fun, but really disrupted the flow of the game, and it just feels like they missed so many interesting avenues that could have been explored.

  • j violette says:

    My favorites are Garrus being a tongue-tied dork in front of the one female Turian in the galaxy. Tali is fun to use on the casino heist, but full disclosure, my Shep would’ve settled on Rannoch after the war. Any of the dozens of Sheps I’ve played off either gender and whoever the love interest. As for LI, Traynor gets interrupted while going on about how AltShep just fired her. (Now I kind of want to do a maleShep run with Tali as LI, just to find out how her scenes play on the Citadel… But I was going to try for some actual productivity on my days off…)
    And j’adore Hale’s voice acting as evil femShep – her Shep is no weakling to begin with, but subtract everything from Shep except her drive and ruthless nature, and you get a great performance. It makes a nice contrast and adds some nuance to that relationship.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      And that was the tragic mistake those producers made when they ended the game in a way that they thought was deep and profound and edgy. All of us had our own Shepard’s with deeply held feelings about his or her life choices. My friend Eric Kelley almost always goes with heroic self sacrifice in games. Giving him a chance for that would have been perfectly acceptable. Others of us want our characters to survive. My Dalish elf was determined to survive and shove it up the noses of the humans that elves were just as good, and to find himself as best friend and confident to the king was something he definitely wanted. My Shep wanted a life in peace where he didn’t view the world from behind the barrel of a gun. And this whole accusation by some at BioWare and by some fans that those of us who were disappointed just wanted “A Disney ending” with unicorns and rainbows fails to consider that the ending of the game is horribly bleak no matter which of those endings you selected. Millions upon millions of people are dead, one entire race has been virtually wiped from the galaxy — Batarians, Thessia and Earth and Palavan are smoking ruins. Of the little Scooby Gang — Thane is dead, Mordin is dead, Legion is gone. Yeah, that’s a really upbeat ending.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      What is that with so few Turian females? Or Batarian females for that matter? Did they figure since all the Asari were (sort of) female they had their quotient? And if there are so few Turian females then it means that Turian society was a lot more like the Spartans then they indicate in the game. Lots of boy couples I’m thinking.

  • Tom Painter says:

    Great post Melinda, you’ve picked up on a number of things that bothered me during my playthrough of this particular DLC. The ‘clone’ plotline is one that automatically gets my guard up. The plethora of moral, emotional, scientific and intellectual issues associated are almost never fully engaged and more often than not sidelined, the writer would rather ignore all and provide a romp than begin delving into that quagmire. The ‘evil clone’ plotline I find even more problematic. The scientist in me cannot get past the creation of an adult clone, capable of speech and retention of memories it does not possess. Speech is learned at a young age for a reason, individuals not taught as children struggle intensely to master language as adults and the majority do not succeed. The perfect recreation of the adult human brain (which somehow has its blueprints in the DNA despite the neurological connections within the brain changing over time as pathways are used more frequently, resulting in memory and personality) evidenced in this Clone Shepard somehow produces an ‘evil’ personality (to make my lexicon as reductive as Bioware’s grasp of ethical quandries)?

    A renegade Shepard kicking the Clone off the Normandy embarkation ramp – fine as a conclusion. I would never play Shepard that way because Bioware’s characterization of the rengade is shizophrenic at best. Sometimes a rogue, other times machiavellian and other times a complete sociopath. Not exactly the person I want in charge of diplomatic relations. I feel Bioware missed a trick with the Paragon Shepard. Clone Shep should have gone out exemplifying the same virtues as original Shepard, with a heroic sacrifice to save the Normandy or save original Shepard themself (perhaps from Brooks). That the gap between them wasn’t so vast in the end, that when placed against who they were attempting to be Clone Shepard rose to the occasion even if it were the last thing they did. It would have given Shepard confidence that they are the right person for the task before them. That even when their mind was twisted beyond recognition, into a fun-house mirror of themselves, that enough of their nobility remained to be the hero this Galaxy needs. Suicide is not an option for Shepard. Any Shepard. All of the career histories stand testament to that fact. That the Clone chose that particular way out was entirely out of character, Shepard (even a bastardized version) endeavours to overcome the obstacle placed before them, no matter the cost. It got them through Akuze, it got them through Sovereign, it got them through the Omega 4 relay and it will get them through the Reaper War.

    The DLC is plagued by many issues that I take exception with, that I could suspend along with my disbelief provided the romp was entertaining enough. Which to an extent it was. The missions themselves were entertaining and the exploartory part afterwards on the Citadel with the party to end it were a whole heap of fun. However I cannot accept its existence within the ME3 narrative pre-Earth. The tonal whiplash could snap your neck. It is a piece of ME2 that somehow managed to sneak into ME3 in terms of tone. Shepard wouldn’t accept a swanky apartment with the Citedel turning away refugees. No one is taking a week of shore leave when they’re facing a threat that took the entire Sol system in less than a day. I enjoy the contents of the DLC enough (clone issues hand-waved aside) that I want it to be part of my Shepard’s tale (unlike Leviathan which I would like to erase from my mind. Good lord, so stupid). It requires some headcannon to do it. Personally ME3 ends with the final Marauder shooting Shepard, followed by Koobismo’s wonderful ‘Marauder Shields’ webcomic then the Citadel DLC.

    Once again, great post Melinda, I very much enjoyed reading your musings on the matter.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      Fascinating information, Tom. Thanks for sharing that. I had no idea that humans had to gain language early. In my first post about Citadel I remarked that it’s in the wrong place. It needed to be the coda to the second game. It makes sense after a triumphant return from destroying the Collector Base. It was such a horrible violation of tone and tension in the third game. I had the same reaction to Shepard lounging around this _gigantic_ flat when there were people stacked in cargo containers down on the freight levels. He or she would never do that. He would have opened it up to refugees. Leviathan was really, really silly. “Hello, we made a coding error a million years ago, and I have the power to destroy Reapers, but I ain’t gonna do squat. Good luck to ya’ll. Write when you find work. Toodles.” I didn’t even bother to read up on the Omega DLC. They all looked like a way to wring money out of the long suffering fans. I played Citadel because I was asked to play through it, and I did enjoy the interactions, but I have to put Citadel someplace else in the timeline. I can’t even have it as the coda to ME3 after my Shepard destroys the Reapers because my guy is so traumatized by events, suffering from PTSD and survivor’s guilt that he would never willing set foot on the Citadel again.

      It’s just so frustrating because this could have been the greatest gaming experience ever created if they had kept Drew Karpyshyn on board and hired a few more real writers.

      • Tom Painter says:

        Agreed. Oh Leviathan, so terrible, so stupid. For me it is the poorest piece of DLC Bioware put out. Entirely in service to propping up a portion of the story completely antithetical to the cohesion of the rest of the series. That grasped at legitimacy by dragging far more interesting pieces of narrative through the muck, The Leviathan of Dis (how much more appropriate would a DLC set in the batarian hegemony have been, essentially ground zero of this apocalypse?) and the cause of the Rachni war were the most egregious in my eyes. The Husk head ornament? The head that was at some point attached to a living human? Someone’s child? Someone’s father/mother brother/sister? Is an appropriate ornament for Shepard’s cabin? Much face-palming. The Leviathan explains that the first reaper, Harbinger, was created in their image. The one and only Dreadnought Reaper that looks nothing like them. They infact look like Sovereign. Baffling.

        I found myself getting angry any time a character said, “Thats the real Leviathan” when talking about whatever had killed the Reaper. Leviathan has a very specific meaning in this context, it would be like finding a dead bear in the woods and thinking ‘whatever killed this is the real bear’. It was a way of co-opting the 5 year mystery their fanbase had latched onto as a way of adding credence to their Star Child BS.

        Factor in the still existent wall paintings of Leviathans being worshipped. Given that the Leviathan of Dis was a fully formed Reaper and dated at around a billion years old these painting are even older than that, yet somehow in pristine condition, despite being adorned on a rockface. Erosion, continental drift, animals, vegetation etc should have wiped all of it away long ago. Add a supremely intelligent aquatic race capable of *sigh* biological quantum entanglement communication *facepalm* that evolved to exist at extreme depths and pressure, taking over their planet then the galaxy. Dominating the minds of every organic being, to worship them, yet not using said domination to stop them from creating synthetics (either they aren’t all-powerful or they are all-stupid), ie the one form of life not under their control. I’m not surprised that synthetics revolted in a galaxy where every sentient being is under the tyrannical rule of one, they sound like heroes to me. That, seeing this ‘inevitable’ pattern, created a synthetic to sort the problem out. Whose solution was to turn advanced organic races into sentient warships to both preserve them for all time and also use them to wage war each cycle. If I’m the curator of a museum my first thought is always to use the displays when dealing with burglars.


        To my surprise, after waiting for the price to come down considerably, the Omega DLC was rather entertaining, with an interesting antagonist and the introduction of a female turian. It was far more combat heavy than I would have liked but it scratched a nostalgic itch for seeing the seedy underbelly side of the galaxy, that ME2 presented, one more time. It was by no means perfect and no means essential to the narrative but I rather enjoyed my playthrough of it and would have no qualms about doing so again.

        • Melinda Snodgrass says:

          Oh, god, yes — that husk head. No decent Shepard would ever take that thing back to his/her cabin. As you point out it was someone’s husband, child, friend. I made a reference to that in the story I wrote to take away the bad taste over the ending of the game. I have a psychiatrist character who is trying to discover the “trigger” for my Shepard’s PTSD attacks, and for my guy it’s husks — being surrounded by them, closing in given the knowledge that these were once humans.

          Yeah on the rock paintings. We’re trying to preserve the petroglyphs here in NM and their only 900 to a 1000 years old. I notice this problem of time issues in a lot of fantasy books and science fiction books as well. Authors often have some sword that was carried by ancestors thousands of years ago, and I’m immediately wondering what is wrong with this society that they are still using swords? Yes, we used swords for much of our early history, but the materials improved and smelting techniques improved and once you’ve figured out how to make steel then the industrial revolution isn’t all that far away unless you have a population of cretins.

        • Melinda Snodgrass says:

          A female Turian would be cool. Garrus is one of my favorite characters in the game, and Omega was a fun setting. It was nice to see grunge after the pristine Citadel, but I just didn’t buy Aria getting to go back and retake her asteroid from Cerberus. It seems llike they had bigger problems. Unless they could convince me there was something on the other side of the Omega 4 relay that would solve the Reaper problem.

          Actually, that would have made a lot more sense then the crucible which made no sense.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      And as I pointed out in an earlier post the clone deciding to fall off the Normandy after his sweetie rejects him is a direct rip off of the second (and not very good) MUMMY movie. As I learned in television when shows start recycling movie plots that show is in trouble. Oh look, here comes It’s a Wonderful Life. Oh look, it’s Rashomon, here’s the Andromedea Strain. So when I saw this in Citadel I realized that all the creative energy has just been sapped from the Mass Effect team. Probably because they all knew, deep down that the ending was an abomination.

  • Drayfish says:

    This, as always, was a great blog, Melinda. (My apologies for my long reply…)

    In truth I’ve not played the ‘Citadel’ DLC, so my thoughts are very much those of an outsider looking in (one still burned by the whole ending debacle, if I’m honest), but your perspective seems to confirm much of what I had feared about this additional content.

    After all, superficially, a clone story seems perfectly suited to the Mass Effect universe (no matter how illogical it may have been in-universe: the wildly experimental Lazarus project nearly broke the bank at Cerberus, but they had enough left over in the petty cash to also fund the heretofore impossible cloning of an entire human being? the Illusive Man, who exploits every resource available to him, leaves a fully functioning copy of Shepard as a forgettable plan B?)

    Mass Effect has always been flooded with cheesy sci-fi tropes – self-aware robots chewing on the puzzle of existence; human cultural divisions thinly disguised behind alien social structures; unknowable Lovecraftian bug monsters; humankind striving to take their place at the big table of universal politics; techno-zombies; a suicide mission to uncover a terrible secret – but it always (well, until ME3) tried to treat these familiar beats with some gravitas, and narrative consequence, to help the player invest in a concept that might otherwise be tediously over-familiar or naff.

    But everything that I’ve seen and heard about this clone premise (and even the fact that it was shoved into an auxiliary piece of content with no bearing on the wider plot) suggests that they weren’t even trying this time. Which is an incredible shame…

    Given that Mass Effect is a story all about the choices that the player has made, and how this comes to define who their individual Shepard is, the idea of a blank-slate Shepard (or perhaps a Shepard who is the complete opposite to your original (you play a Paragon, s/he is a Renegade; you have a lover, s/he is a loner, etc.) could have been fantastically interesting.

    In fact, I would have loved to have seen that character as the main antagonist of the third game proper. Making this twisted shade of Shepard the villain you had to confront and overcome (whether peacefully or violently) on the journey would have been a lovely counterpoint to the notions of player agency built into the entire series. Is Shepard the sum of his/her decisions? A product of the friendships made along the way? Forged in fire or innately predisposed to be who s/he is? All of this could have been explored at length, threaded through the narrative in multiple encounters where Shepard was forced to effectively out-think his/her self. Instead of a clumsy dropped line about whether s/he was the ‘real’ Shepard in the ME3 base game, it could have been a lengthy metaphorical tussle over his/her self-hood and agency.

    (Although considering that Bioware couldn’t even get their facial imports to work properly when the game launched, a mirror image personality antagonist was no doubt well beyond their hyped capabilities.)

    In any case, an alter-Shepard would have certainly made a far more engaging villain than that cyber-ninja nonsense Kai Leng, a character that despite being in the secondary fiction, still looked like he’d been cobbled together on the fly from the leftovers bin of James Bond henchmen. (His harshest burn after failing to kill a simpering career politician and almost being taken out by a patient in the last stages of a terminal illness is to send Shepard a snarky email? …Yikes. Darth Vader he is not.)

    But instead, exactly as you said, they took this potentially resonant premise – one that, in theory, would have been best expressed in a text such as this that requires audience participation to define who the central character is – and flushed it away on a goofy riff. I wish I could say that it was a surprise to hear that it ultimately goes nowhere and ends on a ridiculous, arbitrary death – but seeing as how that’s the way everything in this game operated, I guess it’s just par for the course.

    So that’s ultimately why I was unable to bring myself to play ‘Citadel’.

    I’ve heard many people praise it as a joyous lark, one that at least returned the voices of characters that had been buried under the adolescent one-note grimdark tone of ME3 – and for those people, I find myself incredibly happy and jealous. Anything that can restore some of the lustre to that tarnished franchise is good news for them.

    To me, however, it just sounded like wasted potential, and even more than that: abject hypocrisy.

    After all, the writers of Mass Effect were so married to the integrity of their artistic vision that they repeatedly declared they would NEVER consider changing their ending. It didn’t matter that it was illogical and offensive. It didn’t matter that it completely undermined the very journey it was designed to conclude. The story was too important to tell, and they could never, NEVER cheapen their art in such a way…

    Unless they wanted to throw a zany goofball farce into the middle of the proceedings (even on the very night before everyone dies and the universe goes to hell)… Particularly if they get to charge their audience an inflated admission fee for the privilege.

    Yeah, that’ll be cool. We’ll have a crazy rager! Shepard can sleep with Javik! It’ll be great! No one will even notice how the record skips:


    ‘Buy more DLC.’

    Real smooth.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      My intention was to boycott that DLC, but I played it because I was asked to play it. The “comedic” elements that so many found charming I found irritating in the extreme — The running joke on “I should go” and your Shepard’s response of “Do I really sound like that?” wasn’t funny. The only way I can play it is to pretend that it all happened well after the end of the war. Otherwise it just causes cognitive dissonance.

      It also brought to the fore the strange sexism in the game vis-a-vis Ashely. Apparently if you played a male Shep who had romanced Ashely you never have any sense of an adult relationship with this woman. All you do is have a drinking contest and apparently she continues to hold the boy Shep at bay with a rather Victorian attitude while she bleats, “can I trust you?” Ironically where they did write a nuanced romance and relationship was between male Shep and Kaidan. Go figure.

      I love your idea of using the clone Shep as an antagonist to either overcome or to find common cause — a brother or sister to share the fears and doubts. The things you can’t say to your crew because they have to have faith in you.

      I’ve always felt that Harbinger had to be the ultimate antagonist in ME3, but the clone Shep could have been the avatar and voice for the Reaper. If you assume TIM is an idiot and just slid happily into indoctrination then he could have given this clone to Harbinger to use against Shepard. But now I’m writing an entire new story. 🙂

    • Tom Painter says:

      The cognitive dissonance and tonal whiplash of the Citadel DLC is a fact of its existence no two ways about it. I found that I could separate the events of the DLC from the narrative of ME3, with some difficulty mind you, and enjoy it for the character moments within it, set within a headcannon post-war universe (which I have no problem doing ever since Bioware indicated just how well thought out their giant Space MacGuffin was with, ‘You would not know them and there is not enough time to explain.’ as explanation for its existence. All bets are off after that anti-intellectual bombshell).

      The communication with party members both new and old was the real saving grace for me. The main story is a relatively hollow, inoffensively cheezy romp. It was still a catalogue of missed opportunities but I will take that over a crippling failure to apply portent and vacuous pseudo-intellectual naval-gazing in an effort to appear intelligent and meaningful any day of the week. I enjoy the conversations and interactions with Shepard’s crew both in and out of the ‘party’ setting far more. They were worth the price of admission as it were. It left me with a sense that the DLC (mission aside) was one last opportunity for the player to spend time with the character’s they had grown to love, as they had been characterized before the crushingly ham-fisted ‘darkness’ of the ME3 plot line twisted them into who they appear to be during that narrative.

      If you ever feel that enough time has passed to separate yourself emotionally from the staggering failure of the conclusion of that story and its aftermath, then I would suggest giving it a try. There is a lot to be enjoyed within it’s runtime. Memories to be rekindled of just how great the franchise could be before it all went to hell in a Starbrat shaped handbasket. I have no regrets after playing it. In fact it has resulted in my last memories of that franchise being pleasant ones.

      • Melinda Snodgrass says:

        What Tom said. I just blocked out all memory of the ending and played the DLC. I was fully aware of all the problems, and listed them in earlier posts, but there were moments that I truly loved. Zaeed trying to put the moves on Samara was quite charming. Tali and her tattoo, dinner with Kaidan, a heart to heart with James — a character I quite liked.

        By writing a story I banished the dreadful ending, and playing Citadel gave me back the sense of camaraderie and family that had been built over so many hours of game play.

  • j violette says:

    Talk about bleak endings: if ME2 had ended with the big party, it would’ve ended with Shep getting put under house arrest. But considering all the rapscallions, rakehells, and other troublemakers in the ME2 crew, that would just make sense, I suppose…

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      And my Shep had taken steps that resulted in the deaths of 300,000 Baterians. (Boy did that DLC ever shake me up. I had nightmares for several nights after that). I was just so sure that BioWare would give us the trial. Either for that action or working for Cerberus. It would have been a way to bring new players up to speed on the proceeding games and been interesting as well as offering us a new lawyer character. Or in a more Hollywood style having Anderson and Hackett defend Shepard. Ah well, missed opportunities.

      • Cal'ahn says:

        Indeed, starting Mass Effect 3 off with Shepard’s trial would have been great for a prologue; it could have explained Shepard’s past actions in a meaningful, logical, and uncontrived manner.

        From a narrative perspective, I’m not sure why we started out on Earth, since Arturus Station is the seat of Alliance power.
        From a development perspective, it’s pretty clear that BioWare was more concerned with appealing to new players than adhering to the lore.

        • Melinda Snodgrass says:

          A lot of ME apologists said a trial would be boring. I rather arrogantly wanted to point out that nobody ever says The Measure of A Man is boring. And it would have been a perfect way to revisit events from the first 2 games. That was a missed opportunity, but even that couldn’t have saved the dreadful ending. It was just such bad plotting and writing, and showed that at least some of the team had no understanding of the theme of this story/game. I distilled all my thoughts into an essay that I put at the beginning of the story I wrote to take the bad taste out of my mouth.

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    Continuing to muse here: There were just so many stupid things that cascaded into a giant mess in those final 15 minutes. The reason I had no hesitation hitting the red button was: a.) Anderson at that console and b.) the entire “you will kill all the Geth, EDI, and your little dog….er hamster too!” Two seconds of thought told you that was just stupid. The Geth and EDI are programs that are mounted on platforms. (And in EDI’s case something that looked like a blow up sex doll.) You would have to postulate that every computer program in the galaxy would be destroyed which means a technological civilization ends for the foreseeable future. Pastoral farming on Rannoch would be about all that’s left. It was just a false choice meant to imply meaning and consequence where there was none. And I still think the green option was the most horrific choice of all.

    • Tom Painter says:

      The cost assigned to destroy was entirely arbitrary. Transparently designed to present a negative consequence for what Bioware thought would be most fans’ preferred choice. Even then they couldn’t commit, all endings in the original provided ‘possible negative repercussions’ which made them irritatingly vague on top of morally repugnant and thematically revolting. I am still at a loss to this day how any writer thought any of those choices would be fulfilling as a conclusion. Then again, given that it took fans explaining to the writers what Mass Relay detonations actually meant (bye bye everyone), I really shouldn’t be surprised that almost no thought went into the final 15 minutes. To make it worse, the extended cut took away all negative consequences to all choices leaving them interchangable in their meaninglessness and the lack of a ‘galactic dark age’, as Mac put it, meant the Buzz Aldrin star gazer scene was absolutely redundant (of course there are aliens, the relays still work you moron).

      I find each of the endings ridiculous and repugnant in myriad ways too numerous to count. Practically, thematically, tonally and narratively broken. I wrote the following in response to someone’s vehement proclamation that the endings made sense, its flippant but I feel adequately expresses my baseline issues with each. (You might be able to tell I hate synthesis with a passion):

      “No Shepard you died after shooting a tube really close up because reasons then the Citadel (an enormous Mass Relay, oh forgot about that did you Mac?) exploded because reasons and then you fell from orbit in the fiery wreckage. You might have survived though, kind of, and at some point you got your dog tags back.

      Or wait … you died because you held two electrode things that disassembled your body, apparently painlessly, and converted your … essence … into energy that is kind of you but not you and may or may not become a galactic tyrant with spurious definitions of ‘the weak’ and ‘the many’ and methods of dealing with both using flying genocidal starships.

      Or wait … you died because you jumped into a green beam of something that might be light or ‘energy’ but at an angle and speed that might have meant you could have flown straight out of the other side thus royally screwing your sacrifice. You did this so that your ‘organic energy’ (that’s a different kind of energy this time, shut up look at the metaphysics and philosophy and there’s a strange kid how cool is that) could be sent to do things to everyone against their will. Your organic energy is different because you’re also part synthetic because of … like … really expensive hip replacements and stuff. You de-materialised, apparently painlessly again, then your energy got sent to everyone else both organic and synthetic, so now there’s peace and stuff. There are now circuits on the DNA, which are smaller than the deoxyribose sugar molecules! I guess they have to break apart every time DNA or RNA replication occurs otherwise each cell would last until the first replication and then its DNA would tear itself apart but never mind, this is sci fi! Also I guess this affects everything organic, so that includes bacteria, viruses, prions all the way to Thresher Maws! I wonder how organic digestive systems will cope with synthetic materials to break down…. never mind. Don’t even worry about the immune system’s recognition of self and non self.

      Speaking of digestive systems, what about gut bacteria, they’d probably be affected too? Are they sentient now? Better not think about it, I know we didn’t! Also eyes glow now! Which I guess must be awkward for an organ designed to take in light to form an image … hmm … I guess everyone’s blind now. Come to think of it, what will stop abiogenesis taking place again on another world, wouldn’t that lead to organic life again? Also, what would stop people from building true synthetics again out of steel and copper and stuff? The kid said this was a real solution it must be fine. I guess the green stuff altered the galaxy at some fundamental level, I guess at the atomic or subatomic level, it’s the only explanation that makes sense what with all the scientific knowledge we have on the fundamental reasons why such a change couldn’t possibly work.

      You should have seen it Shepard from outside the galaxy, which I guess would mean it was at least 100,00 light years away, so I guess this happened 100,000 years ago because that’s what that distance means. The wave traversed whole arms of the galaxy in less than a second. Which would mean it was going faster than light … like a whole lot faster … it instantaneously added mini-circuit things to every being in the galaxy … so I guess it must have had those in it … which means it had mass … don’t worry about what subatomic structures, with mass, moving much, much, much faster than the speed of light do to matter upon impact … I know we didn’t. But it’s okay because EDI now says she’s alive … although I guess she also said that at the end of her character arc, after effort is put in on the part of Shepard and EDI so as to make this sentence mean something but don’t worry about it. You did so much Shepard you single handedly altered the subatomic structure of the Milky Way and every living creature in the galaxy without their consent. I guess I should be horrified but you had a full reputation bar and really high readiness rating so I trust you.

      Or… you died, somehow, after forgetting how to debate once a ghost child drops the “So Be It!” bomb on you. I mean it wasn’t your fault. What kind of comeback is there to that? Also according to twitter someone in the next cycle with fewer scruples than you used the Crucible and made one of the choices … so I guess your sacrifice was worth it?”

      • Melinda Snodgrass says:

        It’s a good thing I didn’t have a drink when I read this, Tom. Otherwise I would have snorted it all over the keyboard and computer. All three of your responses are hilarious, but the Synthesis response is just perfect. I’m not a scientist so I loved seeing your deeper analysis. I just knew that the game had stopped being science fiction at that point and become bad fantasy, and worse religious allegory claptrap. Shepard as Jesus sacrificing for all sentient creatures in the galaxy. “Eat of my body and be saved” blah blah blah.

        • Eric Kelley says:

          Yeah, that’s not even the kind of heroic sacrifice I enjoy either. When my characters fall on the sword, it’s to save their friends and comrades. Sure, saving the galaxy might be a side effect, but mostly it’s to keep them from having to make the sacrifice themselves.

          These are fun posts. 🙂 Going to have to link a few of these next time I run into an ME3 apologist.

        • Tom Painter says:

          Forcing the messianic sacrifice trope onto the story of Mass Effect was bizarrely inappropriate. Ensuring it was the only option, with a change of method for spice, in a game predacated on the existence of player choice and agency was absolutely baffling. Oh, now I’ve reminded myself of ‘The Shepard’ line in the epilogue and cognitively retched.

          I’ve always felt a lot of the response from fans with regards to the ending being wrong in its tragedy comes from an innate response to having the fate of a tragic character foisted upon Shepard, a character who does not fit within that archetype in the slightest. It felt wrong on an instinctual storytelling level that was difficult to articulate for many people without an understanding of the lexicon used to describe the narrative conventions which they have been exposed to all their lives. Drayfish wrote a wonderful article a year or so ago that went into great detail about this particular ‘wrongness’ of the conclusion.

          The issue with a self sacrifice ending is that, at least for me, it has to be earned. As bizarre as that sounds. The death has to be the natural climax of all that came before. Otherwise it feels trite. It becomes a transparant effort to wring an emotion out of the player that ultimately rings hollow. It feels like a cheat because it is. Couching it in Judeo-Christian messianic imagery that have become popularized staples of public consciousness further compunds the laziness. Making an already vacuous allegory as subtle as a sledghammer.

          • Melinda Snodgrass says:

            The thing I always liked about the Shepard character is that s/he wasn’t “touched by destiny”, or special in some unidentifiable way. Yes s/he was competent and dedicated but in many ways s/he was a stand in for the best of humanity but at the character’s core this was a human being. What makes The Lord of the Rings powerful is not because Frodo and Sam are the heirs to kings or possessed of meta-human powers, but because they are essentially decent people (Hobbits) who strive and sometimes fail, but ultimately succeed. Making Shepard a Christ figure and then having that loathsome epilogue that reduced the character to a myth and a legend completely undercut the themes of the games. That however different we all might be we can find common ground, mutual respect and a shared goal whether we’ve got four eyes, tentacles, mandibles, humps, etc. etc.

  • Eric Kelley says:

    Absolutely. Putting Shepard on a pedestal was the worst way to honor his memory. Terrible. This is what happens when you don’t let writers write your ending. Or when your writers get rushed. Classic EA.

  • Tom Painter says:

    Absolutely in agreement. I am not one to automatically associate the surname Shepard with the Christian mythos, with the following assumption that said character shall reach their end in blood sacrifice. Especially when nothing else about the narrative supports the reading, which Mass Effect certainly never did.

    Your reference to The Lord of the Rings is entirely appropriate and one that I have mused on as an analogue to the feel of the Mass Effect trilogy before its final moments. Tolkein understood that victory for The Fellowship in their endeavour did not equate to ‘rainbows and happiness’. He of all people understood the cost of war, both large scale and personal. Frodo never recovers, he may have won that war against evil to return the world to how it was but the personal effects of his success ensured it was a reward he could never enjoy. He no longer fit within the world he had helped save. Others could, but not all, and not him. It didn’t require Frodo hurling himself into the fires of Mount Doom to clearly illustrate the sacrifices he made for the greater good.

    There is a quote from Peter Jackson’s ‘The Two Towers’ that I feel absolutely nails why the Mass Effect story mattered and casts a spotlight on why the ending’s nihilistic naval-gazing jarred so dissonantly with all that came before:

    “It’s like in the great stories. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something. That there’s some good in this world … and it’s worth fighting for.”

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      If memory serves that lovely speech by Sam is The Two Towers. That’s one of my disappointments about the Jackson film version of LoTR. Unlike our boys at BioWare it was clear that Tolkien knew exactly where he was going — The Scouring of the Shire. I read the books for the first time when I was about 10, and thought all that stuff after Aragorn was crowned was just really boring and why was it there? Then I hit forty and reread the books for the umpteenth time, and realized that the Scouring is the point of the entire thing. As a Hollywood writer I understand why Jackson left it out — it would seem very anti-climactic after the battle of the Pelennor Fields, but by leaving it out in may ways the entire point of the books was lost.

      The predominate theme of Mass Effect was always that we find strength through unity that is forged in diversity. Synthesis is the antithesis of that theme as is Shepard as a dictatorial Reaper overlord enforcing it’s will on a cowering galaxy. “Don’t piss him off, he’s King Reaper now.” The producers who gave us the disastrous ending kept saying it was bitter/sweet. It wasn’t. It was unremittingly grim and offensive. Bitter/sweet was the end of The Return of The King. Middle Earth is saved, Sauron is defeated, but there has been loss. The elves are leaving and Frodo can never return home. My version of that is that for my Shepard the Alliance is gone for him. The place that gave him his sense of self is a place he can no longer bear to be. He has to try and forge a new life and a new path and that’s both sad and frightening. And the nightmares will always be there.

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