Mass Effect 3: Synthesis and Refusal

Posted: September 1, 2012 in General Musings, Video Games
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Of all the ending scenarios, I chose Synthesis. This isn’t to say that I thought or think it was the perfect ending—since, you know, still no blue children—but it was the one I felt achieved most of my goals. While Destroy would’ve also fully removed the threat of the Reapers, Synthesis allowed everyone the chance to actually live as well. Everyone, including the geth and EDI, survived. It was important to me that they survive, especially EDI. They had only just reached full self-awareness; it would be a tragedy not to be able to live and explore what it means to live. It just didn’t seem fair that they should have to pay with their lives for the aggression of the Reapers.

Nonetheless, Synthesis left a mosquito bite on my conscience. (The one for gaming, not IRL, silly.)

By forcing everyone to transcend their current stage of evolution, did I rob them of their right to evolve on a more natural path? Is synthesizing organic and synthetic life without anyone’s permission essentially the same thing as rewriting the geth heretics to agree with the non-heretics (another icky decision)? And to what extent was life in the galaxy “synthesized”? Did it apply only to the species who had achieved space flight and were participants in the greater galactic community? Did it include plant life? Single-celled organisms? Non-space-faring civilizations like the yaag? Has everyone, everything, everywhere in the entire Milky Way galaxy suddenly jumped forward to the final stage of evolution (itself a problematic concept because since when has evolution been leading up to anything at all)?

Those last questions are probably getting too nitpicky and might be answered fairly with, “It’s just a story. Get over it*.” But the first two bring up fair points. Personally, I would answer no to both of them.

No, synthesizing organics and synthetics did not rob anyone of a better, or “more natural,” evolutionary path. The evolution of any species depends entirely on that species’ suitability for survival in a given environment. This suitability is determined by a number of factors, but the most salient one is “not dying.” Given the predated nature of the environment (i.e., that there were Reapers in it), synthesis enabled the most number of people to survive and continue their lives as they saw fit. And I don’t accept any suggestion that the evolution of one’s own species either is or should be beyond that species’ capacity to influence or even determine—especially when that species has reached the level of technological advancement present in the Mass Effect universe. In other words, synthesis between organics and synthetics as an evolutionary path is just as natural as the path that has brought humans to our current stage of evolution.

No, synthesis is not the same as rewriting the geth heretics. When/if Shepard rewrote the geth heretics, she took something away from them: their perspective. Synthesis actually gives new perspective. More accurately, the new perspective is a bonus of synthesis. Rewriting the heretics took away their right to free thought in the interest of removing conflict. Synthesis, on the other hand, elevated and enlightened organic and synthetic thought and nature to the point that martial conflict was no longer necessary. The galactic community is still as diverse as it ever was, and everyone still has free will in their own lives. But now there’s a common thread that binds everyone. This thread is what has allowed everyone to surpass the limitations in understanding that make war an inevitability.

Or maybe I’m an optimist who’s splitting hairs because I want to justify my choice.

One last thought on Synthesis and then we’ll move on to Refusal.

A lot of people have voiced a complaint that’s somewhere along the lines of, “Um, how exactly is metal supposed acquire DNA?” I’ll move right past the response of “Who said synthetics were metal?” to say I don’t know the answer to this question, and frankly, I’m not interested in it. After all of the impossible things we’ve accepted about this story—faster-than-light travel**, explosions and sound in the vacuum of space, and a magic “element” that gives people telekinetic powers in addition to solving a plethora of other inconvenient physical improbabilities like Earth-like gravity on spaceships—this is the one point where we’re going to cease suspending our disbelief? Really? That particular line of criticism holds no interest for me.

So. Refusal.

Good on Shepard. Trillions of lives were brutally snuffed out, but this way she doesn’t have to feel morally presumptuous. Principled self-sacrifice for everyone, on the house! And hey, look! We get to have an ending in which the Reapers win. Of course, they only win because you’ve chosen to let them win, but beggars can’t be choosers?

Not much can really be said about this ending because there’s not much there. It was created as an attempt to appease a fan base that felt cheated, not as a legitimately considered ending for the story. The producers bet that people wouldn’t want or expect an ending in which Shepard lost, and they bet wrong. Refusal met the demand but only at face value. They would’ve had to rewrite the entire game (the moral-choice algorithm, that is, not just the narrative) to get an ending in which the Reapers won. I think the producers just got so wrapped up in the ability of the player to make decisions that they lost sight of the fact that players were more interested in seeing the consequences of those actions. Losing to the Reapers should’ve been a consequence, not a decision.

I am curious, however, about the Stargazer at the end of the game with this decision. How did this new civilization achieve peace exactly? What made them so special that they heeded the warnings of past cycles when every other species has only ever either ignored or not found them? And we know what Shepard’s choices were at the end. Were they different for the next organic who activated the Crucible? What choice did that organic make?

Like I said: bandage. BioWare would’ve done better to stand by its original endings (including the extended cuts) than to try to shoehorn a (non)solution into the story that really just creates more confusion.


*And if I tried to answer them here, I’d be writing a book, not a blog post.

**Until those results can be replicated and supported more thoroughly, I’ll stick with Dr. Einstein and his homies on this one.

  1. Interesting post! I also like the Synthesis ending best, for the same reasons you mentioned. Like you said, it’s forcing a jump to a more advanced stage of evolution, but it seemed worth it to save so many lives. And since I believed EDI and the geth counted as “lives,” I thought it was important to save them. Like you said, it would have been a tragedy for them not to explore consciousness and life, etc.

    I think the inclusion of EDI in the game — the development of her personality, her relationship with Joker, her conversations with Shepard about AI — was all really well-done. It definitely made the ending more of a mental and moral struggle, in a good way. Without her, I would have been much more likely to go with the Destroy option.

    • I’m pretty sure that’s the reason they wanted to include her in the game, to make the end decision a little more difficult. And I loved the interactions between her and Jeff. They always made me smile and laugh! She was also one of my favorite squadmates, especially against enemies with mad shields and armor, so my first reaction to hearing that Destroy would get rid of all synthetic life was, “But what about EDI?” How could I just say okay to something that would kill her? I’m pretty sure I would’ve also gone with Destroy if it hadn’t been for that caveat.
      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Sonic Boyster says:

    Of the options which were made available to me I wasn’t so disappointed by the refusal ending. It’s a matter of perspective and I imagine how forced it seems will vary based on how you envisioned your commander responding to a Kobayashi Maru type of situation. The *bad* part of the ending was the whole design and layout of the damn thing, starting and ending with a giant Deus Ex Machina out of nowhere that requires you to make a decision that’s going to have lasting effects on the galaxy that you don’t have time to wrap your head around. Given that it’s all we had to work with, I still don’t think I would have pulled any of the switches on that station at the end. Rogue AI ghost child tells me I can unite the galaxy by screwing with everyone’s DNA or melding with the machine to become the -next- AI ghost? I’m not super sold on either of those things, especially since I have no idea how the hell they’re supposed to work, in-game out out-of-game. Destruction has me deciding that my commander is a righteous character who is willing to take the decision of who lives and dies away from the reapers and make it for himself.

    The refusal ending isn’t particularly well put together but we did establish earlier on (in LotSB?) we were recording all of our efforts in order to warn the next cycle of exactly what they were up against. The implication there is, presumably, that these nations all united to prepare themselves for the threat long before it was necessary and were able to defeat it. In our cycle not everybody got the warning at the same time and everyone waited to respond until after we were under siege, and yet we were still able to drag out a battle that had been made to sound like it’d be a nearly instantaneous massacre. I’d like to think that the damage all of those nations did in those final weeks of combat helped the next cycle to win it, too. If nothing else I suppose the refusal ending allows your imagination to make the decisions and affords you the knowledge that your deaths were not, ultimately, in vain, and you didn’t have to murder a race of sentient beings, become the ghost in the machine, or press the “Hey let’s just mix everything together, because all the previous attempts at synthesis have been so peaceful and generally successful” button. Mind you that the synthesis option would have affected *every* cycle from that point forward, whereas allowing the next cycle to clean things up allows them to remain in their organic form after the fact.

    And the kid barks at you in Harbinger’s voice at the end when you refuse which, were it the only ending I had any knowledge of, would have secured my decision to go down with a struggle as the correct one. It makes it appear you’re just being manipulated into making decisions that seem uncomfortably similar to the solutions that have already been presented and attempted by your antagonists throughout the series (Saren with synthesis and Illusive Man with control). Maybe it speaks more to my ‘refusal’ to make a difficult decision when the time came to put it all on the line than of the value proposition of allowing the battle to sort itself out but I felt the decision not to make a decision was ultimately a valid one.

    • The decision not to make a decision is most definitely a valid one. My “not … a legitimately considered ending” comment was a criticism of the writers who shoehorned the decision into the franchise due to fan pressure and not because it was their original creative vision. It’s perfectly valid for a player to choose Refusal, though, and that’s fine. It’d be a boring world if everyone made the same decisions I made and for the same reasons. My problem with Refusal is that it raises way more questions than it answers. What makes the future cycles different from the uncountable previous ones that they were able to overcome their differences to “prepare” for the reapers, even given the still-slight chance of them actually finding Liara’s message (the galaxy’s a big place)? And the instructions Liara gives still tell them to build the Crucible. What other decision will the organic who makes it to the Deus Ex Machina (perfect point about the Star Child, btw) be faced with? As far as the game lets you know, that organic will still have to choose between Control, Destroy, Synthesis, and Refusal. So, really, all Shepard does by refusing to make a decision is requiring someone else to make that same decision, meanwhile sacrificing the entire current cycle as well as at least some of the next cycle. Synthesis, at least, stops both current and future killing (presumably). And even if the next cycle went against Liara’s instructions (which then renders her little info pods absolutely without value) and built up their own technology to defeat the reapers (and a cycle that simultaneously believes the warnings but refuses to use the reaper-kryptonite all the previous cycles have compiled for them doesn’t make sense to me), we already know that the reapers manipulate scientific and technological advancement through the mass effect technology that they’ve seeded throughout the galaxy, thereby controlling the strength of any given society that reaches both space flight and the Citadel. Sovereign even alluded to the fact that the whole cycle is based on triggers — meaning the reapers are deliberate in arriving *before* a given cycle understands the tech well enough to become stronger than them. So, even though I don’t know the science behind becoming the next ghost in the machine or in synthesizing organic and synthetic life (and I don’t need to, just like I don’t need to know the science behind the mass relays or earth-like gravity on space-faring vessels), at least those endings presented fewer plot holes for me. They’re certainly not perfect, but like I said, I went with the option that resulted in the least death.

      Also, sorry it’s taken so long to respond! It was a good comment, I just haven’t been near my blog long enough to draft an equally thoughtful response.

  3. Mia says:

    Synthesis still creeps me out too much to deal with, but I actually love Refusal. Especially because it ties together the beacon Liara set up and implies that the next generation WAS able to do what we weren’t and defeat the Reapers on their own terms. If it had been originally included as an ending in the game I would have loved it.

    • Haha, I do think everyone’s reaction to suddenly seeing their friends, family, and even enemies glowing green was a little too, um, calm. And there’s a threat of homogenization that I think is very real in this future world, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an eventuality. I also did like to see the beacon Liara created put into action. But, I still don’t buy that Shepard refusing to make a decision in this cycle would make any future cycle stronger, wiser, or more capable of defeating the reapers. Even with Liara’s beacon, they’re still stuck with the same choices once an organic makes it inside the Crucible: Control, Destroy, or Synthesis (and of course Refusal). Shepard refusing seems more like sacrificing trillions of lives just for the luxury of passing the exact same icky decision on to someone else while also potentially seriously endangering the next cycle. But that’s me.

      Also, I’m so sorry for taking so long to respond! I had no idea I’d be away from my blog this long! I don’t even feel like I’ve been particularly busy, but I just haven’t had enough time to sit down all at once and actually draft a response to either your or Sonic. Better late than never, I guess?

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