This post contains spoilers about the endings of the three Mass Effect games. Part 1 is here.
In the final moments of Mass Effect 3 the player is confronted with the notorious choice of the three paths (though it is very possible only to have two paths, and even to have only one). This choice might also be called the choice of the three colors, or even the choice of the three cupcakes. In essence, the player, if s/he has a choice, must choose whether to destroy the Reapers, control the Reapers, or unite with them in synergy.
Once the player has started his or her Shepard down one of these paths, it is no longer possible to recede, and choose a different one. This irrevocability is echoed in the save-game mechanics of the sequence, which ensure that after the player has chosen a path, he or she will have to return to a point very far back in the game and play from that point forward in order to make a different choice.
The irrevocable quality of this choice is of course in some sense an illusion, because it is possible to go back and play the long sequence in substantially the same way, making a different choice at the crucial moment. In a more important sense, however, it is not an illusion at all, and it merely reinforces an absolutely essential characteristic of the rules of the text and the great chain of practomime: as Heraclitus was said to have said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.”
Slippage! Am I talking about games and stories, or am I talking about reality as grasped through ontology and epistemology? That’s not my slippage, though–it’s Mass Effect‘s, and it’s also human consciousness’, and the two are not unrelated: their relation is in fact the great chain of practomime.
Take it in terms of the homeric bards for a moment. The bards’ three great, enduring creations, Achilles, Hector, and Odysseus endure because they think about themselves as parts of stories–indeed, as themselves made up of stories. Achilles’ choice is about whether his glory will live on, in epic, after he has died. Hector’s pathos comes from his inability to see what Achilles’ sees; he can see that he, and his city, are doomed, but he can’t make himself believe it. Odysseus uses the epic story of Odysseus to create his homecoming.
Irrevocability plays a crucial role in the case of each of these epic heroes, and it plays that role specifically because of the bards’ reflection on the meaning of the choices they–the bards–are making when they re-compose the stories of the choices their heroes make. The choice of Achilles is the most obvious example: the bard who sang that for the first time knew that Achilles’ presence in Troy was already irrevocable: just as Shepard cannot recede from the path he has taken at the end of the Mass Effect trilogy, Achilles cannot go home from Troy. The same is true, however, also of Hector and Odysseus: Hector cannot turn back from his confrontation with Achilles, although he tries to; his flight from Achilles is like me desperately pulling my thumbstick back to get Shepard to reverse his course on the path to the “Kill all robots” switch. Odysseus shows himself to be haunted by the irrevocable choices of the bards in singing the Trojan War, and the final shape of his homecoming is marked by the Odyssey bards decisively transvaluing Iliadic values in Odysseus’ own irrevocable slaughter of the suitors.
You can’t give Mass Effect many points for subtlety when, after the closing credits, a boy asks his grandfather for another story of “the Shepard” (or perhaps he’s saying “the shepherd,” but obviously it’s the identity of the two with which the game is hitting us over the head). That moment reveals a great deal about the seemingly opposed but actually complementary functions of choice and irrevocability in Mass Effect and in every practomime; more, though, it reveals the very particular way that complementarity works in Mass Effect to deliver the game’s cultural effect above all in the game’s thematics of messianic multiculturalism.
In the Iliad, when Achilles allows Patroclus to don his armor, the bard thematizes choice and irrevocability as the folly and ruin inherent in human affairs (and divine ones, as well): Achilles’ non-choice choice, as the consequence of his wrath, results in Patroclus’ death. When he formulates the choice he says his mother has laid before him, in Book 9, the bard is paradoxically calling our attention to the irrevocability of his wrath, so memorably expressed at the start of Book 1: “which hurled many strong souls of heroes into Hades, and made them themselves food for the dogs and all the birds.”
In Mass Effect, when Shepard does what he does with the the techno-thing (it’s different at the end of each path) at the end of the path the player has chosen, the ruleset of the game paradoxically calls our attention to the irrevocability of not only of that choice, but of all the choices, of the arc of the game’s narrative itself, in which Shepard is about to end a hitherto eternal cycle, and destroy the space-travel-enabling mass-effect relays that give the ruleset its name (that is, Mass Effect). When Shepard takes the final action, Mass Effect is emphatically irrevocably over, but, at the same time, the player’s next playthrough of the ruleset is figured as the return of the cycle that has been ended.
Because all this play of choice and irrevocability has from the very beginning been thematically tied up in Shepard’s proving the worth of humanity and getting the other cultures of the galaxy behind his or her leadership, this irrevocable moment is also the moment when humanity saves the rest of the universe’s collective posterior through the choices the player, as Shepard, made. The performance materials of Mass Effect 3 effectively recapitulate those of the previous two games in this respect–Shepard’s job throughout, and over and over, is to build consensus among the cultures of the galaxy; above all, not to work only for the sake of humanity, the way Cerberus does.
This is the path that is truly irrevocable, because whether the player makes Renegade choices or Paragon choices or something in between, the galaxy will line up behind Shepard. And, in the final moments, whether Shepard chooses organics, synthetics, or synthesis, he will become the human messiah of the new multicultural universe: with the disappearance of the threat of the Reapers, all life, through Shepard, its shepherd, will be one vast multicultural flock, even though it must now find a new way to travel.
In the next post in this series, I’ll explore that idea of unchosen, irrevocable messianic multiculturalism in specific relation to the illusion of choice, which I think is the thing that caused all the fuss. I’ll be doing so specifically in relation to three very compelling blog posts, from Sparky Clarkson, Kate Cox, and David Carlton. Each of these posts comes more from an evaluative than an analytic perspective, and each has a very different take on the meaning of choice in Mass Effect.