Games

The Fallible Morality of 'Mass Effect 3'

I like the ending because it doesn’t just ask us to make a choice, it asks us to question the very process that we use to make that choice.

Some people don’t like the ending of Mass Effect 3. I’m not one of those people.

Mass Effect 3 reaches the peak of its climax when it asks Shepard to make one last choice. He has to choose to control the Reapers, destroy the Reapers, or merge all synthetic and organic life together. Of course, there’s more nuance to the choices than that, but it’s important how these choices are presented in their simplest form. They’re ostensibly plot points, and yet the similarity of the final cut scenes implies that the plot is not the most important aspect of this choice. The game seems to say that the consequences are interchangeable.

(This is easily the weakest part of the ending in my opinion. The consequences are not interchangeable, there are significant differences in our choices, but all three final cut scenes look mostly the same. For a series that’s been defined by its massive scale and meticulous attention to detail, it’s odd for it to end with a cut scene defined by brevity and ambiguity. I love a story that ends with some lingering mystery, but that mystery should revolve around the question “What’s going to happen now?” not “What just happened?”).

However, the game seems to disagree. It spends far more time setting up the final choice, and we then have to guide a slowly limping Shepard a pretty long way to make our selection, giving us lots of time to consider and reconsider our decision. It’s clear that the game would rather focus on how these choices relate to Shepard and how they fit into the Paragon/Renegade system that has always been used to define his personality (not his morality, even though this system is casually referred to as a “morality system”). This is where the ending succeeds. It doesn’t just ask us to make a choice, it asks us to question the very process that we use to make that choice.

Controlling the Reapers represents all that is being a "Paragon." You not only bring order to the galaxy by removing the Reaper threat, but you also maintain the original political order... mostly. Sure, some things might have changed, like the new type of presence that the geth or krogan now represent in the universe, but the post-Reaper political landscape is not that different from the pre-Reaper political landscape. Recreating this lanscape is achieved without resorting to genocide against the Reapers. There are multiple moments throughout Mass Effect when Shepard has the opportunity to kill someone who deserves it, and letting them live is always the Paragon option. The same thing applies here, just on a much grander scale. And all Shepard has to do is sacrifice himself. This is the ideal Paragon outcome: you stop the war, avoid genocide, maintain political order, and it only costs your life.

Destroying the Reapers represents all that is being a Renegade. It may feel wrong to kill all synthetic life, especially since one of the major themes of Mass Effect is the value of life, whether synthetic or organic, and two major sub-plots of this game are about synthetics coming to terms with the fact that their race doesn’t determine their identity. However, the geth are just one species and EDI is just one person. If the Reapers remain alive, they might just come back 50,000 years from now. By sacrificing the synthetics, you’re not just saving all the species of the current cycle but all those that will evolve in the future. For a pure Renegade, the choice is obvious.

Also, it makes sense that this is the only ending in which Shepard lives because Renegade is the only choice not based on self-sacrifice.

The Neutral choice combines aspects of both Paragon and Renegade. You merge all synthetic and organic life together. The result looks a lot like the Paragon ending: you stop the war, avoid Reaper genocide, the political landscape largely remains the same, and Shepard sacrifices himself. However, the important difference is that the societal landscape has been changed significantly, and it was changed without consulting anyone. This is what makes it a Renegade action. It’s very goal oriented and easily justified by looking at the big picture and includes a disregard for individual desires. If you didn’t want to be a cyborg, too bad. Shepard stops the war and avoids causing mass death, but he forces a major physiological change onto every species in the galaxy. He essentially achieves the Paragon’s end through the Renegade’s means. Make everything work out for everyone... no matter the costs.

Each option is the purest expression of these personality types, but then we see a ghostly image of the Illusive Man choosing the Paragon option and Anderson choosing the Renegade option, and this is not how we’ve been led to view these characters. Anderson has always been the lawman and the Illusive Man has always been the rebel. Seeing them make the seemingly opposite choice forces us to wonder just what is a Paragon and a Renegade? It’s the only moment in the Mass Effect franchise in which we are encouraged to question the validity of the morality system.

This has led to some interesting divisions.

Those that see the morality system as it has been presented as infallible have come up with the "indoctrination theory," which basically states that Shepard is being indoctrinated by the Reapers and made to think that letting them live is the good choice and killing them is the bad choice. This theory justifies the seeming discrepancy between character and choice. The Illusive Man is not a Paragon. It’s just a trick. I disagree with this theory for many reasons but mainly because I see the morality system as broken at worst, inadequate at best.

This is an issue that has been with Mass Effect since the beginning, and it’s only grown bigger over the course of three games. Your Shepard is more than his reputation; your Shepard is more than the sum of his mechanics. The final decision comes down to a choice between Pure Paragon, Pure Renegade, or Pure Neutral, but if Mass Effect has taught us anything, it’s that no character can be summed up in this way. Even if you went through all three games choosing exclusively Paragon or Renegade options, you’re still (through the act of role-playing, of making choices, justifying those choices, and investing in this character) created a Shepard that is not solely defined by those choices. He’s now more a product of the player than the developer because all that the developer sees of Shepard are our choices, but we see the choices and the complex, character-defining justification for those choices. The seeming discrepancy between character and choice is a kind of admission that the morality system Mass Effect has always been used to define who Shepard is has become inadequate for doing so.

It’s also inadequate for defining who Anderson is and who the Illusive Man is. When you really consider those characters, their ghosts make sense. Controlling the Reapers is thing very much related to the concept of a Paragon, all things considered, and it’s also what the Illusive Man wanted. Destroying the Reapers seems very much related to what a Renegade is, all things considered, and it’s also what Anderson wanted. This choice makes sense for establishing their character, but this one choice doesn’t define their entire character. It’s just one piece of a far more complex whole. The same goes for Shepard.

Having a final cut scene that just boils down to three different colored explosions is pretty lame. There’s no denying that. But the fact that the ending made me reconsider the entire morality system and think about what defines a person -- their actions or their intentions, their past or their present -- makes that bit of lameness more than acceptable.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

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