I owe a lot to games: they’ve helped me get through some difficult times, introduced me to new people, and generally they’re a lot of fun. But games can do so much more. Games can teach us. Whether it’s never giving up in Super Meat Boy, to the responsibilities of pet ownership in Nintendogs, games are filled with important life lessons. And Mass Effect is no different.
Contrary to popular belief, Mass Effect does so much more than teach us how to bang sexy aliens. There are some very deep lessons hidden behind the eye candy and reporter-punching. So where are they to be found? At the end, of course (you should read the title next time). The easiest way to do this is to go through game-by-game, and try to link them thematically as we go along. So let’s start with the original Mass Effect.
For the sake of argument, the ending of Mass Effect begins after you slay Saren for the first time. It’s important we start here because the lesson of ME, and its ending, is that your work is never done. Think about it. Shepard is pretty sure that Saren is dead, but annoying persistent bugger that he is, Saren then reanimates into bionic-Saren, a Saren-Sovereign hybrid if you will. Shepard then has to kill Saren again.
Not convinced? The very ending of the game ends with Shepard telling the Council that he still has to stop the Reapers. That he has another fight to fight, and that his work is not done. Although, it sort of is because you can’t play on after the end credits.
Mass Effect 2 ends on a similar theme, with Shepard telling the Elusive Man that he will fight the Reapers his own way. But there’s another aspect to this ending that is not as present in the first Mass Effect; the idea that every decision you make affects everybody close to you. In the original Mass Effect, the events of the final mission stand pretty independent from the choices you make in the previous chapters of the adventure. Sure, you can convince Saren to kill himself the first time if you level up Paragon/ Renegade enough. But in Mass Effect 2 you have the opportunity to murder your entire squad, crew and yourself if you are incompetent enough (or if you’re a bastard).
If you choose not to play certain missions, wait certain amounts of time, not make certain upgrades, and make poor choices during the mission, you will get such a depressing ending that it would make an onion cut itself.
This teaches us two things. One, you are possibly a heartless person. Two, your choices matter. You can kill everybody close to you, or you can save them all. Mass Effect 2 tells you to stop and think about the consequences of your actions.
On the other hand, Mass Effect 3 says a big loud “NOPE” and throws that message out the window. Sure, your paragon/renegade can decide if you kill the Illusive Man, or if he kills himself, but it doesn’t affect the actual ending.
And how many assets you acquire can give you a third ending, but the difference is minimal from the other two endings. Just a different color really. Now, I’m not going to sit here and complain about how good/bad the ending to Mass Effect 3 is. But I will say that it’s effective in teaching that sometimes, things can’t be changed. Some things will always come about. Volcanoes will blow, fish will swim, and writers of exceptional quality will make shitty endings if put under pressure by EA to meet a deadline. Sure, we can change things to some extent, but unstoppable events are necessarily unstoppable.
This doesn’t have to contradict the ending of Mass Effect 2. The ending from the second game teaches us that actions can have consequences we can’t see. The third games teaches us that there are events we can’t see that actions can’t change. Shepard will always have to fight the Reapers, will always end up with the Catalyst, and will always have to make a choice from the same(ish) options, and it doesn’t matter how many people (s)he punches or is a dick to. Events are always the same.
RPGs are usually very deep, and Mass Effect is no exception. Whether the lessons are intentional or not, they exist, and we can learn a lot from the various endings of the series. For example, the writers learned not to cave into EA’s time demands and make such a disappointment of an ending for their trilogy!
In all seriousness, these are valuable lessons. Sure, the third may seem a bit depressing, and the second and first somewhat nerve wracking, always thinking ahead, but take heart: everybody has to deal with the same shit from life. Everybody has to think about the future. And everybody experiences something that can’t be changed, even if they want.
Like the ending to Mass Effect 3.