The Fallible Morality of ‘Mass Effect 3’

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.