Mass Effect 3: Destorying vs. Controlling the Reapers

Posted: August 30, 2012 in General Musings, Video Games
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Here are a couple of simple logical syllogisms:

  • Red = Renegade. Red = Destroy. Renegade = Destroy.
  • Blue = Paragon. Blue = Control. Paragon = Control.

BioWare spent the entire franchise establishing the red/blue color system, so I don’t think quibbling over that particular point is worthwhile. However, I am willing to consider that these colors were not properly assigned in the final choice of the game.

Ostensibly, the definitive marker for either path is the body count: the more people you kill/hurt, the more Renegade you are, and the more people you save/spare/help, the more Paragon you are. A Renegade Shepard is also xenophobic, generally paranoid, and completely unhindered by that pesky social thing called consideration—she likes to let her fists do the talking. A Paragon Shepard, on the other hand, is touchy-feely and wants to save everyone all the time and would, let’s face it, out-naïve even a five-year-old. So, on the surface, the endings seem appropriately colored. The kill-em-all, show-neither-mercy-nor-quarter ending seems to fit perfectly within the paradigm of a Renegade Shepard; the but-we-don’t-have-to-kill-them, and-we-get-bonus-tech ending seems like something a Paragon Shepard would do. Or so it would seem.

The most obvious clue that not everything is as it should be is visual. The developers chose the Illusive Man to act out the Paragon choice and Admiral Anderson to act out the Renegade choice. Wuh? First of all, no. The Illusive Man is a renegade in every sense, including the dictionary definition (the second one). And Anderson? He’s brave, self-sacrificing, diplomatic (though lacking in political gusto), and even a little naïve—clearly, he was created to be part of the Paragon tradition. Why the sudden change?

Let’s go back to those definitions we were just talking about. Maybe that will provide some clarity.

The Destroy ending definitely racks up a body count. Depending on your EMS, it’s entirely possible that killing the Reapers also results in killing everyone on Earth. And of course, regardless of your EMS, all the Geth and EDI (poor Joker!) end up being the unfortunate collateral damage in the genocide (synthecide?) of the Reapers. However, destroying the Reapers also stops the cycle of “harvesting” and doesn’t necessarily have to result in the deaths of everyone and everything on Earth. Furthermore, choosing to destroy the Reapers leaves the lines of FTL communication and transportation damaged but reparable, which at least partly preserves the galactic economy. The peace following the defeat of the Reapers may be ephemeral*, but at least our destruction would be our own**, not the will of something that claims to know what’s best for us. The catalyst claims to have created the Reapers to protect organic life (Three Laws gone astray, anyone?); destroying them to protect free will—even if it is ultimately destructive to our long-term survival interest—is a Hobbesian cry of “Liberty or death!”

The Control ending on the other hand, was always off-putting to me, even without the overt association with the Illusive Man. While “destroy” is a pretty cut-and-dried word, “control” has more nuance that I find sinister. After all, didn’t the Reapers seek to control organics through indoctrination? And didn’t every indoctrinated slave think it was still in “control”? Didn’t the Reapers, in fact, want the Illusive Man to “control” them, or at least to believe that he could? Oh, and the only thing she has to give up to do it is her life. AND HER ENTIRE IDENTITY. And what about Shepard’s epilogue? Those were not the notes belonging to a benevolent government and a harmonious society and the fluffy bunnies and rainbows that run things. Those were the notes that introduce a villain. The “peace” that the galaxy knows now is not the result of a concerted effort on all sides to work together with mutual respect and dignity. It’s a result of the fact that the Shepard-Reaper fleet is pointing a lot of huge fucking guns at them and saying, “Play nice.” She may have been “the one to save the many” (I see what you did there, BioWare), but what kind of salvation is that? It sounds a bit more like tyranny to me. And how long will it be before she decides to “protect” everyone by harvesting and archiving them all over again. Because then at least they wouldn’t be killing each other.

Furthermore, the prospect that controlling the Reapers would advance our own technology by leaps in bounds makes me suspicious. It sounds a bit like the snake trying to sell the apple to me. It smacks at hubris, and we all know what happens to everyone with that particular tragic flaw. (If you don’t know, I’ll give you the CliffsNotes version: Your shit gets fucked sideways.)

So, basically, I think that BioWare got the colors wrong. Destroying the Reapers should’ve been the Paragon option; controlling them should’ve been the Renegade option. In the long run, the former has a much smaller body count than the latter.

And it’s not that I’m trying to dumb down the complexity of the final choice. I loved it. It was hard, and I don’t think it should’ve been easier to make. That complexity was a good thing for a game trying to work on the principle of having players make difficult moral choices. I think BioWare got the colors wrong because the choices are inconsistent with the type of character that would’ve chosen them. I believe a Paragon Shepard would’ve seen allowing the Reapers to remain as they are (even with a little Shepard-juice infusion) was dangerous for the entire galaxy, just as the lure of ultimate control and vast technological power would’ve been too great a temptation for a Renegade Shepard to resist.

Or maybe the developers just didn’t want to make it that cut-and-dried, that obvious, that easy. If that’s the case, the obfuscation of the two main choices reveals either inartful writing (if I’m being harsh) or the shortfall of our current gaming technology in its ability to support the myriad narrative outcomes that are necessarily a part of taking different moral paths (if I’m being generous). It’s probably a lot closer to the latter.


*On a side note, I figured out why the Destroy ending is the only one that allows Shepard to live! Galactic war, though distant, is an eventuality in this universe, not just a possibility. Where there is war, there are warriors and heroes. The world still has a place for Shepard and people like her! (Yay theory!)

**“I hold it to be the inalienable right of anybody to go to hell in his own way.” Robert Frost

  1. Great analysis! You definitely summed up my big problem with the Control ending: ‘The “peace” that the galaxy knows now is not the result of a concerted effort on all sides to work together with mutual respect and dignity.’ Exactly! That’s why the Control ending seems to me like a Renegade choice to me too.

    Also, if I remember right, throughout the series a lot of the “Let’s blow them up, that’s what we came here to do” choices were Paragon, while the more manipulative, careful choices — such as keeping the Collector base as a resource at the end of ME2 — were Renegade options. So in that sense it should be Destroy = Paragon, Control = Renegade. I’m with you!

    Though I’ll admit, as controversial as it is, my favorite ending is Synthesis. That seems like a Paragon choice to me much more than the Destroy option, because it involves saving the most people, getting everyone to work together, etc. I guess with all of the ending options, their Paragon or Renegade impact really depends on how you look at them.

    • Oh man, I didn’t even think about the choice with the Collector base! That’s absolutely spot on!

      Personally, I chose the Synthesis ending. It seemed like the only time in the game that a middle-of-the-road choice is actually rewarded, and it’s only unlocked if you have mad EMS. I’ll be analyzing that ending and the Refusal ending either tonight or tomorrow and I’d welcome any thoughts you have on it!

      Thank you for your kind comments!

  2. stargazer124 says:

    I totally agree but synthesis is probably the only choice that people should go for because Shepard saves everyone.

    But the one thing I don’t get is what happens to the reapers when you chose synthesis.

    • Thanks for reading! I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂
      The Extended Ending DLC shows the reapers helping the galactic community to rebuild and make things better, bringing the collective knowledge, wisdom, etc., of every race they ever harvested to the task. What I gathered from them being covered in all that green, Matrix-y code stuff is that their DNA was altered as much as our was. They’ve undergone the same sort of evolution as the rest of the galaxy so that harvesting is no longer necessary. At least, that’s my interpretation.

  3. I promised Sovereign I was going to defeat the reapers. So when I finally got to the end of ME3 I chose destroy. The reapers, this ancient race of galactic space nazis flying around mass genociding everyone needed to die. Control is wrong option, it’d be like killing Hitler and then saying “Oh it’s ok, I’m in charge of the Nazis now so they are acquitted of their crimes”. Synthesis is wrong option because again, the Reapers still aren’t held accountable for their war crimes and mass genocide.

    To me, Destroy was the only right option. Yes, synthetics will suffer, but that’s the reapers doing that out of spite. They designed it like that, that’s just another crime to add to THEIR list. At least in destroy they pay for their evil crimes.

    Destroy everytime

    • Oh man, it’s been so long since I wrote this post! My views on the endings has evolved quite a bit, and at this point, I’m with you. I’ll choose Destroy nearly every time too. To be honest, I’ve really soured on the Synthesis ending because even though it spares the geth and EDI, I find it to be the most morally dubious. Changing the fundamental identities of every person in the galaxy without permission is, I think, even more unforgivable than killing the geth and EDI. I mean, neither one is a great option, but at least with Destroy there’s the possibility of maybe repairing them. And I agree with what you say about Control too. It’s a horrible, terrible, no-good option, and I’ve never chosen it. There’s a theory that Control is the Star Child’s feeble attempt at trying to convince Shepard to spare the Reapers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.

      On the other hand, I think all the endings, including Refuse, have interesting implications and hold their own stories even after the end of the game. So even though I strongly prefer Destroy at this point, I do like to see how others imagine the world of Mass Effect as it deals with Shepard’s choice, whatever it might be.

      Thanks for reading 😀

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