Repackaging the Archive (Part VI): No Sense of an Ending: Some Notes on the Mega-Narrative and the Reaction to the Ending of Mass Effect

Some time ago I weighed in on the ending of Lost. In that post I wrote about its final episode: “The whole format of the show—flashbacks, flashforwards, and flashes-sideways—always privileged character development, so of course the show ends on this. I’m not surprised per se, just disappointed to realize that I’ve been invested in what I thought was a fascinating show, w/ massive intellectual ambition, only to discover that all that ambition was a mere prop, mere window dressing to a fairly normative melodramatic narrative—i.e. redemption (gag).” Like the ending of Lost, the conclusion of Mass Effect, one of the most ambitious SF narratives/franchises/IPs to be launched in the last 5 years, has received similar attention from fans who felt it did not live up to the standards established by the rest of the series. The much discussed ending of Mass Effect 3, which I will spoil right now, however, enthralled me. The following is the ending I received in its entirety[1]:

And I cannot say about this ending what I said about Lost.

As my interest in Mass Effect is largely structural and this will ultimately involve a discussion of its narrative form, I will begin with telling my own story of the game. And indeed, this is largely the point of Mass Effect: following the branches of an immensely large decision tree, navigating a compelling and ethically complex narrative, constitutes the majority of gameplay.[2] And I imagine that the rich personalized narrative texture that results from players’ decisions constitutes the primary attraction of the game. For instance, here is the decision tree just for the endgame of Mass Effect 2:

So I’d been weaning myself off another mega-narrative w/ Skyrim, and having exhausted that, and reading Kyle Munkittrick’s bold assessment of Mass Effect, “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation,” decided I’d pick up in the middest w/ Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 3 had just appeared, and though I heard the internet rumblings of an unsatisfactory ending to the game, I didn’t know yet that it had produced Downfall-levels of nerdish-ire. Staying purposefully ignorant of such discussions, I played through 2 and 3 fairly quickly, but thoroughly (i.e. I didn’t really feel like gathering up all the space debris, nor does my clunky old X-Box have online access).

Whereas Lost was hyperarchival in terms of the frequent references it made, and how it played with its own history and temporality (among other things), Mass Effect is hyperarchival for the simple reason that it is huge, and the narrative possibilities you don’t experience far outweigh the ones that you do. To have a handle on the branching narrative paths of the game would require a) playing it for a very, very long amount of time, or b) consulting the Mass Effect wiki frequently and often. Further, as Munkittrick points out, there is a wealth of reading material in the game: emails, communications intelligence, bureaucratic tasks, a codex developing the galaxy’s deep-history, quite convincing scientific information on the various planets you come across, etc. In short, Mass Effect’s narrative is . . . massive, both in form and content. To actually experience “all” of it (say, in the fashion that it would take one a few hours to read all the books in Skyrim), really is not possible unless one wants to spend simply an ungodly amount of time w/ it. In short, Mass Effect is a mega-narrative.

By mega-narrative I mean a narrative that is simply too big to traverse without incredibly-non-trivial effort. Not infinite of course, but prohibitively large. Something that, if one attempted to see and do everything the trilogy allows one to do, I’m not sure whether it would be impressive, or else show a particular kind of obsessive behavior that one can imagine being discouraged by parents, friends, lovers, and medical professionals alike. (And of course there is an attendant sense of adolescence to the whole thing. . . .) In short, reading a mega-narrative is always prohibitive. There are aspects of the narrative you will simply never know (because who really wants to spend the time?). Unless, of course, you have access to the internet. The mega-narrative thus also functions in conjunction with other media formats—i.e. they virtually require an additional, largely user-generated tool, to be approached rigorously.[3]

It is for this reason that no other narrative aspect of Mass Effect ever could achieve the kind of wide audience, let alone the conversation, that a single ending would produce. If every ending was decidedly different, for a game that relied so heavily on individualized character development, there wouldn’t be anything to talk about; no common narrative ground would be shared. Yes, the game is obviously rich in terms of the critical approaches it immediately suggests, but we’d have to talk about narrative in more abstract terms, constantly comparing one’s own experience w/ another’s. Did you choose the Quarians or the Geth? Which character(s) did you find romance with? I could go on w/ such questions for quite a while, but will refrain because, like hearing about someone else’s dreams, I imagine that hearing what another person chose to do in the game would be weirdly boring and meaningless.

Mass Effect produces a strong connection between a player and their avatar. This is achieved by the decisions you make in the game. These decisions ultimately affect the fate of species and the entire galaxy. But the real texture of Mass Effect resides in the micro-narratives interspersed throughout. Though sometimes cheesy, and of course melodramatic, the dialogue between characters is compelling, with particularly good voice acting from such notables as Freddy Prinze Jr., Michael Hogan, Tricia Helfer, Jennifer Hale, and Martin Sheen, among many others. Sheen’s voicing of the Illusive Man, though no Captain Benjamin L. Willard, is stellar.[4] The characters are emotionally complex, and the multitude of species allows the writers to explore some interesting paths (perhaps) unavailable to a more anthropocentric speculative universe. (And really I would go on, but I don’t want to seem too gushy.)

So it is understandable that mere days after the game was released, there was already an online petition to change the ending. For, despite slight differences, Mass Effect, for all its branching narrative complexity, has what (at least at first glance) reads an awful lot like a single ending. Further, as this video loudly demonstrates, there are a few narrative inconsistencies to the final minutes of the game, not least of which is a scene that shows one character who (presumably) died on my final mission somehow getting aboard the Normandy (a spaceship) and the fact presented in the Codex, and elsewhere in the game, that destroying the mass effect relays would obliterate the solar system(s).[5] But I imagine that the uproar about the ending has far less to do w/ the inconsistencies presented in the last few minutes than the simple fact that players’ sense of their unique individual experience was felt to be invalidated. As Sparky Clarkson writes: “The end of Mass Effect 3 disregards the player’s choices on both galactic and personal scales.”[6]

The conflict here, both at a structural level and as it is expressing itself all over the web, is perhaps, if not unique, then worthy of note considering the larger history of narrative. For it is not that a different ending is being demanded, but rather many different endings appropriate to the individual player’s experience of the game. As mediums, the oral tradition, novel, film, and television simply do not allow such a uniquely tailored narrative experience. Whatever one might say about a particularly good or bad sense of an ending, no one would dream of criticizing the ending of a novel b/c it didn’t fit w/ the decisions a reader/player made when engaging w/ the text. Because massively distributed media necessarily had to be confined to a relatively limited form (in terms of how much information could be conveyed and stored in a book, etc.), such branching endings simply weren’t possible. And this is precisely what is happening w/ Mass Effect. People are upset that, regardless of what actually happens in its ending, their own unique sense of individuality, of making the game “their own,” is threatened. There is something deeply strange about the demand for what amounts to a “personalized” ending; and though I think Laura Parker has a certain point, the issues at stake go beyond arguing that, “[i]f BioWare does change the end of Mass Effect 3 to mollify a handful of goading voices, the game itself would no longer be the expression of its original creators. It would cease to be art.”[7]

Rather, a game that truly provided multiple, relatively individual, non-repeatable endings would be a profound achievement in exploring what the medium of video games can dialogically express, and would(/might) draw the video game forever into serious discussions of art—i.e. we wouldn’t have pieces in The Atlantic still reading vids as (only) adolescent, puerile, onanistic fantasies.[8] It would also evince a level of technocratic, corporate control over the individual experiences of players that would be unprecedented.[9] They didn’t achieve such a feat in Mass Effect, and though I wish they had (and also don’t), to dismiss a text for what it didn’t do is always problematic.[10] Such a game will appear that does achieve something like this. I guarantee you. It is the horizon of possibility for the mega-narrative. But for the moment, Mass Effect continues to make clear “the dissidence between inherited forms and our own reality.”[11] And perhaps we need to look closer at a few aspects of the game to understand its ending. For what is incredibly weird about the ruckus raised by the ending (the blue, green, and red similarities), no one has really said anything about the ending itself—i.e. what it means, how we might read it, why might have the narrative ended that way rather than another, etc. You know, basic hermeneutic stuff, critical attention, which the game so obviously deserves.

First off, Caleb A. Scharf’s Mass Effect Resolves the Fermi Paradox,” deserves special attention. Scharf, an astrobiologist himself, argues that “the biggest idea, the biggest piece of fiction-meets-genuine-scientific-hypothesis is the overarching story of Mass Effect. It directly addresses one of the great questions of astrobiology—is there intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy, and if so, why haven’t we intersected with it yet?”[12] (This question is at the root of the Fermi Paradox.) The ending(s) of Mass Effect, whichever of the actually truly distinct endings you consider, answers this question, but each in a different way. Anyone perhaps unfamiliar w/ video games will notice that, even though each ending is only a touch bit different, the sixteen endings are distinct. (See this.) For instance, my “bad” ending (my personal favorite, for obvious reasons), has galactic eschatological implications for futurity—i.e. no Earth, species cut off from each other, stranded and wandering the galaxy—as opposed to other endings where there is at least an Earth, species still cut off from one another; or else a kind of utopian possibility of the coexistence of biology and AI; or the dystopian nightmare of a Shepherd/Reaper controlled galaxy, etc. These are actually incredibly different.The “bad” ending is a kind of M.A.D.; the conflict between synthetic and organic life is projected as always apocalyptic; this conflict can result in nothing but utter destruction. I adore its nihilism. The other endings are still catastrophic, but reveal deeper levels of connection and/or control between technology and biology.[13] (And the game also shows the effects of your decision at a local level, implying that there will be distinctly different destinies for the characters and, most importantly, their progeny.) No matter the ending, however, each one concerns the simple fact that, w/o speculating a technology like the mass relays—the gateways to the stars—galactic civilization simply is not possible. In this sense, the game destroys its own initial premise in the final minutes, which is a stroke of utter metafictional brilliance, and, given what we know about physics, it explores the dissidence of inherited forms (the space opera), with reality: that travel between the stars may simply not be possible w/o the godlike hand of a massive artificial intelligence.[14] There is thus something deeply nihilistic in the shared aspect of each narrative ending. And in this sense, one might say the game moves from a kind of fantastic messianism to a nihilistic realism, from the form of the 20th c. space opera to a hyperarchival realism in which we might, and this is to acknowledge all of ME’s ambition, lay to rest the shaky physics the 20th c. space opera always depended upon for its realization—i.e. FTL travel. ME, for all its ambition and complexity, is also a highly nuanced commentary on its own form and on the tradition of SF that went before it. As such, I believe we are actually invited to read the ending w/in an even longer history of SF. (But will leave that for others.)

At the level of characters w/in the game itself, it is important to note that in the dénouement your character becomes a “Legend,” literally “The Shepherd.” The obvious Christian reference aside, she is still deified. So, it should be presumably clear that the next installment in the ME universe will probably be in the (quite distant) future.[15] Either way, the distinct endings one might receive at the end of ME3 imply different universesthat one might import to a future title. Whatever universe might be possible, it is still a universe defined by the decision you, as a player, made.[16] Yes, this decision was boiled down to three simple options. But that was the point. The entire game had presented your options in black-and-white terms. You could either decide to be a paragon or a rebel. So in one sense, the introduction of this third way, this other path, is the point.

One way of reading the questions of choice and free will the game presents, then, is to understand that Shepherd’s coming into true consciousness (rather than, say, her considerable athletic intelligence) happens as a result of her realization that there are more than two options to solve a particular problem.[17] The “difficult” decisions you were forced into throughout the game were rarely a decision between a clearly correct and incorrect path, let alone a “good” and “evil” path, to the game’s credit. Regardless of the ethical complexity constantly confronting the player, however, whatever you did choose to do put you a step closer to the end. No matter the decision, the game was overwhelmingly teleological. No matter what you did, really, the end was always contained in the beginning, even if you made considerably different decisions to get to the final scene. This, unless I’m incorrect, doesn’t really resemble anything like true choice. Shepherd, even though she is “you,” is still an archetypal hero. So one might suggest that only where fate led her was where a real choice presents itself. And of course this still isn’t much of a choice at all, but is the one choice beyond which you as a character cannot go,[18] the choice w/ the most massive effects on the galaxy. And this choice is whether to blow something up, jump into a laser, or take control of the Reapers.

So, rather than reading the end as a lack of choice, a lack of any real “meaning” to your individual decisions, perhaps we should read it as the one moment in ME where you (as a player) have the most power over shaping the narrative w/ your decisions. B/c ME’s narrative trajectory is concerned with the eschatological horizon of life, whether life continues as biological, synthetic, or what have you, and your decision determines how the ensuing manipulation of this horizon will play out, by avoiding one apocalypse, you rewrite another. This may also constitute a new galactic cycle. Though life emerges spontaneously from the galaxy, even something as immense as a galaxy has a carrying capacity, and like any ecology, has some cyclical elements. (Or else this is ME reflecting on Nietzsche’s eternal return.)

In this sense, I would like to emphasize the point that Shepherd is the vehicle through which the narrative of the world of ME is told, rather than the world being a mere setting to explore her (i.e. the player’s) narcissistic fantasies. And indeed, depending on how you play, this is a point she continually makes through dialogue. ME, then, is far less about Shepherd, at the end of the day, than it is about itself, about its world/galaxy/universe. This is why the endings are so distinct. They all imply radically different futures, radically different galaxies, even if they all share the brutal, nihilistic realism of no real galactic future civilization being possible.[19] ME’s ending(s) reveal an incredibly deep history, and so to focus on the tiny bit of that history the few years of its narrative represents, is to fundamentally misread what is at stake in the game.

As the epilogue to the game emphasizes, Shepherd is primarily a figure through which the galaxy’s history and narrative can be understood. She is a significant node (but only a node) in the development of its complex ecology. More than any decision one makes in the game, she is such b/c of whichever of the three paths you pick. Yes, there are narrative inconsistencies, which might largely be attributable to the fact that we simply don’t know what happens between Shepherd entering the Crucible and the Normandy escaping. (This will probably be in the DLC, btw.) If the mass effect relays’ destruction really does destroy the solar systems they reside in, all the better. The inevitability of extinction, the blip of galactic time sentient life thrived and communicated across species and the galaxy—it is the anomaly of this that ME concerns itself w/. What the reaction to the ending of ME reveals, then, is that it is actually a game that is quite rigorous, as it eschews the easy narrative choice of redemption in favor of a cosmic eschatological perspective. Your choices, in the galactic scheme of things, don’t matter. The importance of any one individual—even the most heroic, storied, badass individual whose final decision has galactic import and changes the very life-cycle of the galaxy—is minimal. Rather than be upset about the fact that one’s individual gaming experience was “disrespected,” perhaps we should be thankful that a text as popular as ME had the gumption to refuse narrative normativity and to critique the cult of individuality the game’s very success is grounded upon.

[1] This is more-or-less the ending I experienced, except my character was a black female w/ blond hair, blue eyes, and wickedly luminous facial scars; a striking Commander Shepherd. Also, I am firmly of the (similar) mindset that by revealing some aspects of a text’s narrative (esp. its ending) it is thus “spoiled,” really probably means there wasn’t much to be spoiled in the first place. This is not the case for Mass Effect.

[3] Which I will not be doing here.

[4] It need hardly be mentioned that Mass Effect also had a very large budget.

[5] These inconsistencies have even caused one particularly industrious group of people to formulate an involved (and convoluted) theory that supposedly “explains” the end in logical fashion.

[6] Sparky Clarkson, “Mass Effect 3’s Ending Disrespects its Most Invested Players,” Kotaku (3 April 2012),

[7] Laura Parker, “Why BioWare Shouldn’t Change Mass Effect 3’s Ending,” Gamespot (13 March 2012),

[8] Even if they often are.

[9] This is what is so ultimately disturbing about ME and the clamor for individualized endings. It is in the interest of the corporate mega-narrative for its reader to become as absorbed as possible in their IP, potentially at the expense of all other texts. What is more absorptive (and reifying) than a massively disseminated text that is capable of giving the illusion of actual individual subjectivity and agency? No matter the potential for aesthetic realization represented by the video game mega-narrative, there is also the potential for unprecedented control—viz. WoW.

[10] I.e. why weren’t there Transformers in The Wizard of Oz!? That would’ve been so much better.

[11] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 130.

[12] Caleb A. Scharf, “Mass Effect Solves the Fermi Paradox?” Scientific American (15 March 2012),

[13] I’m sure there is an excellent Deleuzian reading out there.

[14] This, to be sure, is also the problem of Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2006).

[15] And the intellectual property that is ME would obviously thrive if such games were made w/ the same attention that the trilogy received.

[16] And seriously, how much more entitled can be when becoming a god of myth and legend is not a satisfactory enough individual experience w/ a game!? Are we all such delicate little important flowers that this isn’t enough?

[17] If I do have one criticism of the ending, it is that the Bartlebian option of preferring to do nothing wasn’t available. Though of course that is one ending of ME2, to its great credit—i.e. everyone dies, you fail, galaxy destroyed, before ME3 even begins. Which, of course, is another “possible” ending to the ME universe—i.e. you don’t even get to 3.

[18] Unless she lives. Well, of course she lives. She is a comic book character. Though I prefer my ending in which she dies.

[19] The same point can and should be made about Skyrim. Your character is far less a figure that you feel connection w/ than a vehicle through which to traverse the true “hero” of the game: its complex, vibrant world.

3 thoughts on “Repackaging the Archive (Part VI): No Sense of an Ending: Some Notes on the Mega-Narrative and the Reaction to the Ending of Mass Effect

  1. Pingback: Repackaging the Archive (Part IX): Concluding Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time after Twenty Years and Some Notes on the Mega-Text | The Hyperarchival Parallax

  2. Pingback: Hearthstone dev invents stories that tell themselves |

  3. Pingback: Hearthstone dev invents stories that tell themselves – GamesSentry

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