Warning: Spoilers about the ending of the Mass Effect in this post.
The fate of the galaxy rested on this decision. Human, Asari, Salarian, Turian – all life in the galaxy. My decision. I was sent here to destroy them. But everything I thought about my mission just changed. New information. By destroying them, I am assured that this will result in our ultimate destruction at the hands of uncontrollable synthetic life. Now, I have the opportunity to turn the enemy into my ally, or to uplift all life to the “next step” in evolution. To advance all civilization. To unlock the true potential of life, and, perhaps, go a step further in discovering what it all means and answer the ultimate question – why are we here?.
It took me about two seconds to process this information and make a decision.
Severely injured, I began hobbling forward as I thought about what was going on throughout the galaxy. An alliance of aliens, fighting together against the Reapers. The first time true cooperation had been realized in thousands of years – maybe ever. These soldiers were fighting and dying next to one another, holding out long enough to give me – me – the chance to fire our secret weapon: The Crucible.
As I reached the junction, I stopped for a second and turned around to look at the strange hologram that just fed me this information on which I was to make my decision. Last chance. I can be the one that takes us to a new level. To win the war and merge life with synthetics.
I kept moving.
I stopped in front of the pod and without hesitation, raised my pistol and fired until it exploded.
I destroyed the Reapers.
I played the entire Mass Effect series over the summer. I played the game “natural,” meaning the decisions I made were made as if it was actually me making them, without regard to how it would affect my paragon or renegade points or any other game mechanic. If a character died because of my decision, I didn’t reset the game to try a different option. I did what I thought was right given the situation and the information I had at the time.
I thoroughly enjoyed the game and thought that it represented the realism of modern military life more than something like Call of Duty. The nuance of interaction, relationship building, and tough choices with no good outcomes are much more in tune with modern military leadership than simply blasting your way through a sandboxed first person shooter.
So it was with great surprise that I experienced the controversial end of Mass Effect. At first, I was just as dismayed with the ending as many fans of the series were. For all of the choices I made throughout the games, few would genuinely effect the actual ending of the game. After a couple of months of thinking about it though, I’ve come to appreciate the ending, and especially the choice I made and why I made it.
The deluge of information received in the game’s closing moments seemed too much, and out of left field. “The Catalyst” provided three options. Destroy the Reapers, control the Reapers, or merge life with synthetics. As it was described by the “Catalyst”, it seemed that the “destroy” option was the most reckless, the “control” option the most risky, and the “merge” option the most noble.
I dismissed the “control” option almost immediately. I didn’t believe that Shepard could actually control the Reapers, and even if he could, eventually, I think he would have them continue their mission of collecting and destroying civilization to preserve order and continuity.
The two seconds I spent debating concerned the idea of merging life with synthetics. Clearly, this would be the most beneficial for the galaxy and the net result would certainly be positive.
I dismissed that too though. Why?
Because I was a SPECTRE. I had a mission: Destroy the Reapers. I couldn’t help but imagine those fighting on Earth, looking up to the sky wondering what was happening on the Citadel, waiting for the Crucible to fire and bring them salvation. I could imagine their surprise when it eventually did fire, and without explanation, some weird merging between life and synthetics occurred. Although I was able to understand how the “merge” option was the best and most noble, I could not make that decision because it was not for me to make. I was one man, a human, representing a galaxy of different species, all with different thoughts and concepts on right and wrong, morality, and good versus evil.
I did pause for a moment, remembering that my status as a SPECTRE allows for a degree of independent decision making. But on such a scale and with such consequences, it felt “above my pay grade.”
The choices presented at the end provided for an interesting ethical dilemma: duty versus “doing what is good.” In this case, the duty being to destroy the Reapers, and “doing what is good” being the merge option. What is a commander to do when he is given a specific mission coupled with relative autonomy to act. What should be done in the face of rapid and new information that completely changes the calculus for action?
If it had been possible to contact the Council (the intergalactic body that governs inter-species relations), I could have asked them what decision to make. Thinking about how awkward that call would be, I can’t imagine the Council saying anything other than “complete your mission, destroy the reapers.” Or, given the desperation of the moment, “do what you think is best.” That option, at least would have provided some moral cover to choose one of the other options.
Still, I think the “destroy” option represented the right option for those bound by their duty to complete the mission. When I run into other soldiers who have completed Mass Effect, I high five the ones who destroyed the Reapers and shake my head at those who chose otherwise.