The Three Thematic Failings of Mass Effect 3’s Ending, Part 2: Just A (Wo)man

Part 1: Weight and Payoff

This theme is probably the least solid of the three I’m going to discuss, but I want to bring it up, if only because I see so many people talk about it as a positive. So, please bear with me on this.

Oh, and just so no one yells at me for this…

SPOILERS!

In all three endings, Shepard willingly sacrifices himself (gender-neutral ‘him’, by the way. Typing s/he and him/her fifty times in a post makes my head hurt), either to destroy the Reapers, take control of them and lead them away, or to, quite literally, remake the galaxy in his image. This is after conversing with the controlling intelligence behind the Reapers, something fairly justly referred to as a Deus Ex Machina (God from the Machine). And then, in the coda after the credits, we see him referred to as “The Shepard”. Not Commander Shepard, not by his name, but with a term and reverence that makes  him seem like a deific figure to these people.

To quote Kotaku’s Katy Cox:

The self-sacrificing savior is the central figure of modern Western mythology, and has been for centuries. That’s the core of Christianity, and it’s a major factor in countless stories. Even at the subconscious level, the story of the redeemer who gives his life for the future of all has become a deep and immutable link in our collective narrative tradition. Shepard is practically the platonic incarnation of the messianic archetype, inevitably martyred for the saving of all.

The inevitably bit is something I’ll save for the next post, but Shepard being a messiah?

Last Minute Messiah

Lets be clear: To list off every theme that the Mass Effect series has touched on would take a long, long time. But, looking back, the games have a very non-theist slant to them.

I can think of only two party members where religion comes into play: Thane (who has a HEAVY atoner streak) and Ash. Its even explicitly mentioned by Ash that her religious beliefs aren’t exactly common within Humanity in Mass Effect’s era. As for the religions of other races?

Its generally not focused on. The Turians seem to have a religion, but its really never mentioned outside the codex. Asari worship a Goddess, but the nature of that worship is generally glossed over, with “Goddess” being used more or less as an all-purpose swear word. That is, until Mass Effect 3, where its turns out that the Goddess was a Prothean. Quarians are very much not religious, their trademark term “Keelah Se’lai” turning out to be a vow of sorts, that they’re doing this so they can return to their homeworld. The Hanar explicitly religious: They worship the Protheans, and are generally seen as a nuisance by the rest of the galaxy for their insistence on pushing their faith into other people’s faces.

Oh, yes, and some of the Geth worshiped the Reapers.

As for Shepard? You get one chance to decide if he’s religious: One dialog option with Ash. It never becomes a central theme of the games. Its generally treated more like an element of a group’s or species’ culture, and how it reflects on them.

Thane’s a good example of this. His strong religious beliefs are deeply tied into his guilt for his actions and need to atone. He doesn’t seek out Shepard for forgiveness (perhaps he does in the romance, though), but its more about coloring his character and what his urges and concerns are.

She’s Just a Woman (or He’s Just a Man)

The other problem with this is that there’s very little in the games, aside from the last several minutes, that has a religious connotation.

His name does, sure, which makes me wonder if this was the eventual intent from the start, but everything else has a decidedly mortal bent to it. Yes, he saves lives and soothes souls, but more through hard work, courage and persuasiveness. He saves the galaxy, but it comes with a heavy cost, and, in most playthroughs, a lot of decisions that, in the end, turn out to be costly mistakes (my playthough, going heavy paragon, got some people killed that could have been avoided).

He can talk someone down and ease tensions, sure. But he’s more than willing to kick ass and take names if it comes to that. Not exactly ‘turning the other cheek’.

Honestly, though, its the rebirth thing that really cements the non-theist theme that the series has.

Shepard is killed at the start of ME2, because he went back to save a friend. Its heroic, absolutely, and serves as a new player’s introduction to Shepard: He’s willing to take that sacrifice.

But being put together? Its explicitly said that it took an unimaginable price and two years of hard work to do. Its done by a known, sinister group, but one that’s on the right side of the fight (at least for now). And in the end, it feels like its done for a PR boost. Shepard reborn isn’t greeted as a savior: He’s greeted with suspicion, distrust and, in some cases, disgust. The religious aspects of it are never brought up by other characters (as far as I know: It wouldn’t surprise me if Ash brings it up, but my Paragon playthrough had her in the grave since Virmire), I don’t even recall a joke about “Did you get to heaven?” or “Was there a bright light, or was that re-entry?”.

But the ending of the series? You’re a messiah for an entire galaxy now. You’re not longer “Shepard” or “Commander Shepard” or “Bob” (Spacer Shepard. Born on Board. Marathon fans would be laughing now…). You’re “The Shepard”.

And pulling religious symbolism out at the end of a massive series that generally avoided faith? Just rings hollow.

In the words of James Vega:

Don’t get me wrong, you’re good. Probably one of the best. But I know you’re human, just like me.

EDIT: Please read the comment section. It turns out that the Mass Effect universe does have more religion than I gave it credit before, although I do stand by my statement that the religious connotations with regards to Shepard are still weak and sudden, being-returned-from-the-dead aside.

Part 3: Sacrifice

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  1. #1 by Kenneth Patterson on March 17, 2012 - 1:14 PM

    The funny thing is, I always thought that ME seemed *more* interested in religion than most sci-fi. Having even one human express religious beliefs is a lot more than most series get into it, and religion seems quite common among the races we see (the quarians are the only race where it’s mentioned as not being common, and even there it’s more prevalent than it used to be; their hubris and crime occurred at the height of their unbelief) even if the treatment of it tends to be fairly surface level. This is a shooty game after all, not a church service or even a philosophical meditation, and it would be rather weird if it did go into more detail. And it seems wrong to assume that religious beliefs aren’t deeply held just because those who hold them don’t stop to talk about them at length.

    While I’d agree that the series is agnostic (and rather skeptical) on the truth of any particular religious view, it seems quite interested in the cultural aspect of religion as part of what defines us. Whether or not God exists, he/she/it/they aren’t dead in the way Nietzsche proclaimed in the galactic mind. Even the Geth who don’t follow Saren seem to have some sort of religious orthodoxy (a prerequisite for the existence of heretics).

    A reborn savior being greeted with distrust and disbelief (and attempts by the authorities at cover-ups) isn’t out of line with religious themes, either.

    • #2 by wraithfighter on March 17, 2012 - 1:45 PM

      Hm. Fair points all around, Kenneth. Maybe I was thinking too much on Battlestar Galactica’s treatment of it?

      I will stand by the statement that the religious symbolism still comes out of left field. It really is because of how it treated religion and faith as a part of the various species’ cultures, as opposed to examining if there was a deeper truth to it all.

      In my eyes, “Religious Symbolism”, particularly Christ-like portrayals and a heroic character dying for someone’s sins has always felt like the cheap, low-hanging fruit of literary metaphor. I don’t believe it was needed and it really doesn’t feel like it belonged at the end of a mostly agnostic piece.

      Then again, I freely admitted this was the weakest of my three complaints…

      But thanks for the comment, regardless!

  2. #3 by hagrenags on March 17, 2012 - 1:40 PM

    The Turians are pretty religious, too, however, with ME3’s turian characters often referring to “spirits” that guide them individually as well as their squads.

    Even Salarians have beliefs, which Mordin commented in his ME2 loyalty mission (The wheel of life).

    Krogan show an affection to rituals, which we witnessed in Grunt’s ME2 loyalty mission, where shamans seem to enjoy a great deal of respect, as do their ancestors in their sacred halls.

    And of course, the Asari idea of the merging of minds, which we witnessed several times between Shep and T’Soni, which builds heavily on their belief that all living beings are virtually the same because they feed off and are comprised of the same energy, which constantly shifts from being to being.

    In ME3, specifically, Anderson often exclaims “May God help us all” and deems Prayer useful.

    There’s even the theme of sacrifice, a whopping 3 times, where LEGION, Mordin and that Quarian commander may choose to sacrifice their lives for the greater good- which is shown as beneficial 2 out of 3 times.

    And I haven’t even mentioned Eve, who may become the grandmother of future Krogan generations to come 🙂

    So even though it might not be spelled out always as distinctly as with Thane or the Hanar (Which are pretty much ME’s version of Jehova’s Witnesses :D), there are definitely recurring themes of spirituality that are built on or expand upon our beliefs, and most often, even in a somewhat positive light.

    Thus, Shepard’s choice to sacrifice himself makes sense not only in a spiritual one (The name somewhat gives it away, as do his unparalleled actions), but in the context of the game as well.

    Where the ending fails for me, though, is that it’s utterly, depressingly bleak. It really takes away my interest of re-starting the franchise again.

    • #4 by wraithfighter on March 17, 2012 - 1:55 PM

      …wow, that’s… that’s a really good point about the Asari.

      And I did forget the Krogan’s shamanistic beliefs. And you could say something about the Turians, I guess, but it seldom comes up. I don’t want to go into Eve, because I kinda wanted to smack Mordin (in a friendly way!) for nicknaming her Eve.

      …see, folks, this is what happens when you try to examine the themes of a 120-hour piece of fiction! 😀

      I still think it doesn’t fit for Shepard. For Legion and Mordin? Absolutely fits for them, because of where their characters were. Legion was something unique, even back in ME2. But Shepard has always been portrayed (at least, as much as a player-influenced character can be consistently portrayed) as a… well, an ascended grunt, I suppose.

      He’s an excellent soldier. In ME1, it was clear that he was one of the best. But he kinda just stumbled into the whole Reaper plot. In ME2, he was resurrected as a symbol, sure (and wow is it hard to argue that a character that came BACK FROM THE DEAD has no religious connotations…), but everything after that resurrection was very mundane. He wasn’t trying to lead a people to salvation, he was trying to win a war, and its more of the same in ME3.

      And I go into the falseness of Shepard’s “Sacrifice” in part 3.

      But thank you for your comment! Really, there was a lot more religious exploration than I gave these games credit for.

  1. The Three Thematic Failings of Mass Effect 3′s Ending, Part 1: Weight and Payoff « Beyond the Polygons
  2. The Three Thematic Failings of Mass Effect 3′s Ending, Part 3: Sacrifice « Beyond the Polygons
  3. Captain America 2: Trying to Have your Apple Pie and Eat it Too | Beyond the Polygons

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