Many people have observed that the choices at the ending of Mass Effect 3 are rather similar to those presented at the end of Deus Ex. And indeed, despite the Synthesis ending being only thinly foreshadowed, I had the same immediate reaction to the three choices in both games.
In that game, JC Denton is faced with three choices: destroy the internet and plunge civilization into a new dark age, hand control of the information network to the Illuminati, who will hopefully not abuse it quite as badly as its previous owner, or merge with an emergent AI that wants hishelp to usher in a new age of peace and enlightenment.
As in Mass Effect 3, there’s a sense the designers were not entirely neutral about the relative merits of the three endings.
So, my initial thoughts about the Mass Effect 3 ending choices were similar. Destruction solves the immediate problem, but nothing is gained. We bring about a dark age (more inevitable in ME3 than DX, but one can argue that the non-Destruction endings provide more immediate hope for rebuilding) but, long term, the issue we were dealing with may be just part of the human condition, which is not significantly changed. The Synthesis ending offers some hope that something might actually be built out of all of this destruction. And, when given a choice, I generally take Transhumanism if it’s offered to me.
So, that clinches it, then. By choosing Synthesis, we do more than simply break the cycle. We refuse to let this conflict merely destroy. At least, that’s what JC Denton would do. Of course, JC Denton’s most notable ability was to be the pawn of multiple simultaneous conspiracies without emoting once. Frankly, he’s not the best role model around, and his elevation to techno-messiah was more a matter of being at the right place at the right time with the right implants than being a paragon of humanity.
Perhaps another comparison would be more useful. Maybe we could draw in another figure faced with this sort of choice, one who had a better track record of actual agency and independence, and who demonstrated a better understanding of the world. In short, is this what Nausicaa would do?
At the end of her story, Nausicaa confronts the Master of the Crypts of Shuwa, a product of the lost technology of an earlier age, which has been manipulating the evolution of all life on Earth in order to preserve it, but, in the process, has repeatedly provoked horrible conflicts, inflicting immeasurable suffering on the surviving human population. So, there may be some instructive parallels to help inform Shepard’s choice.
One can argue that the Reapers and the citadel entity don’t necessarily deserve destruction. After all, the cycle exists in response to what they saw as a much greater threat to life in the galaxy.
And this cuts to the heart of the problem. While the Synthesis ending may be dressed up nicely in pure, shimmering light, one can’t help but think about what we’ve actually seen so far of the fusion between humanity and Reaper technology. Despite their origins and the stated goal of the Catalyst, everything we’ve seen of the Reapers exhibits a contempt for organic life. Even while supposedly carrying out the preservation of humanity, those Reapers which we actually speak with spend most of their time gloating about their vast superiority. While Shepard’s contribution to the Synthesis process makes it more palatable, can we actually assume that this process will preserve what is worthwhile in organic life, and have the Reapers really demonstrated any traits that justify their survival in any form?
But what about the Geth, and EDI? Surely the annihilation of an entire species is a high price to pay. Perhaps we should just choose Control, limit the damage, and prevent another genocide.
Nausicaa, a hero with a far greater innate respect for life than Shepard ever demonstrates, was willing to destroy the hibernating race of humans which the Crypt was preserving to repopulate the purified world. We can do no less, if it is the only way of decisively ridding the galaxy of the blight of the Reapers.
Finally, what if, despite its crimes, the Entity has a point? What if, by breaking the Cycle without replacing it with anything else we are simply perpetuating the longer cycle of even greater destruction?
Here, is, of course, where Nausicaa is on the shakiest ground. The world of Nausicaa has a far greater and more visible claim to need effectively divine intervention. Humanity’s worst impulses have brought the world to this point, and Nausicaa is throwing away the only thing which has even let humanity survive this long based on the way some people have chosen to react to it.
So, a trace of uncertainty remains, and our parallels have broken down a bit. Perhaps, though, there’s a third archetypal figure we can invoke. One facing a more analogous threat – a malign force beyond understanding that has been guiding human evolution as part of a bizarre reproductive process.
Fortunately, there is.
The analogy holds, for at the moment of apparent triumph, Crono finds himself faced with three choices: two unremarkable widgets, and in the center, something completely unexpected and unprompted.
All doubt is thus dispelled. The center is just a decoy.
Attack the one on the right.