A huge fan of Mass Effect 1 and 2, I delayed playing the final part for over a year because of the huge backlash the ending received from fans. I was a victim of BioWare’s horrible work in KOTOR II so I figured something similar happened in Mass Effect 3. Having played through the game a couple of times now, and having read many of the reasons fans have given for their backlash against the series’ resolution, I would like to offer a counterpoint. Notwithstanding the deficiencies (i.e.: plot holes) in the original ending now cleaned up by Extended DLC, I believe what many are actually rebelling against is the overtly Christian undertones of the Mass Effect series. Those undertones have been missed precisely because our culture no longer understands its founding mythos.
The relevance of the main character’s name should not be lost on any Christian: Shepard. Yes, it’s not spelled Shepherd, but the main character’s leadership qualities are praised throughout all three games. When Shepard asks Garrus in ME2 how he formed his squad, his reply is telling: “You prove that you get things done, and people join up.” Shepard is considered a natural leader by both Captain (later Admiral) Anderson and Cerberus’ head, The Illusive Man. He / she is truly the shepherd not only of their own flock, but the flock of the entire galaxy. The problem with good shepherds is that they are willing to lay down their life for the sheep.
Fans have complained that no one saw the death of Shepard coming. Go back and play the games again and listen for the theme of sacrifice, and self-sacrifice, present all the way through, most notably as a paragon character. In ME1 the Council hopes that Shepard will be ready to make the difficult decisions when the time comes. Soon enough one of Shepard’s first teammates must be left to die. That will not be the last sacrifice for paragon Shepard. In ME3 Thane dies saving the life of the Salarian Counselor; Mordin dies to save the life of the Krogan people. Mordin foreshadows one possible ending (control) to ME3 several times when he insists he must do certain work, since “someone else might have gotten it wrong.”
In the paragon stream Legion dies that his people and the Quarians may be reunited. This gives the concept of sacrifice a new, more profoundly New Testament twist. One of the major themes of the Apostle Paul, but present implicitly in Jesus’ own words, is how both Jew and Gentile must be united to become “one flock” (John 10:16). On one level, synthetics and organics, at war with each other since ME1, are two flocks representing Jew and Gentile. How can there be peace between them? There cannot, without the sacrifice of the one, good Shepard.
But by the final denouement of ME3 it is clear that the Jew / Gentile dichotomy is not the best parallel to the battle of organic vs. synthetic. It is the metaphor of creator and created that is the overriding connection to the Christian metanarrative. The Catalyst appear to Shepard, the embodiment of the original AI created to resolve the synthetic / organic conflict. The AI understands the conflict all too well: “The created will always rebel against their creators.” This is a classic bit of Christian theology explaining the Fall. The first two humans chose to rebel against God. Not only did it happen, it was bound to happen. It cannot NOT happen. The question then remains: how to fix it?
Leviathan and the Reaper-Creators took the easy way out, the one most agnostics and atheists I know think God should choose. Just come up with a solution to rid the world of evil (i.e.: conflict). The Catalyst-AI and the Reapers do exactly that: the solution is to wipe out all organics. Oops. Hadn’t thought that one through, had we? So Shepard is presented with three other slightly more rigorous yet still classic alternatives to the problem of the Fall, the conflict between creature and creator. Option 1: control. God steps in and forces his creatures to do good. God never really tries this option. Option 2: destroy. Get rid of the creatures so the Creator can live in peace. Noah’s Flood was an attempt at this option. Ultimately, it is not an ideal solution.
But Option 3? The AI suggests that one perfect sacrifice could be offered which would “combine all synthetic and organic life into a new framework, a new DNA.” ”Organics seek perfection through technology,” he explains. “Synthetics seek perfection through understanding. Organics will be perfected by integrating fully with synthetic technology. Synthetics, in turn, will have full understanding of organics.” Like Legion’s sacrifice of himself that the Geth might become conscious, Shepard could choose to unite the two men into one (Jew and Gentile), and bring peace between creature and creator. Organics seeks signs and synthetics seeks wisdom – but what they need is the crucified Shepard. And so at the crucible – the place of testing, from the same root as crucifix – Shepard choose synthesis and gives up his / her life for the sake of the sheep.
As a Christian, it’s an ending that makes perfect sense. We have been brought up to find victory in suffering and death, and loss in victory and glory. Yet the greatest complaint among fans was that “Shepard dies” in the end, giving rise to the idea that the destroy option is the ideal one since it is the only one in which Shepard lives. Of course. The option where God destroys all life so that moral evil will cease leaves God alive on the other side. But the options that preserve all life and bring peace leave the good Shepard dead. And the option that preserves both life and free-will? The only way to do that is synthesis. The only option is the cross, and a good Shepard who gives up his life for the sheep.