After Mass Effect: The False Cthulhu at the End of the Galaxy
“Science fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes then shows them to us in rough disguise: the monster and the rocket.”
— W.H. Auden
Cthulhu never speaks.
It has a language, but it never speaks. That’s important. Amongst all the garish features of H.P. Lovecraft’s most well known alien monster — one of the Great Old Ones from Lovecraftian lore — one of the most telling is Cthulhu’s silence.
R’lyehian is the language of Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones. It’s referenced in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” in written form, and although it’s believed no human could comprehend the language if it were spoken by one of the Great Old Ones, that Cthulhu has a language is proof its silence is deliberate. Cthulhu can speak, but it doesn’t.
This is the problem with the Mass Effect 3 ending.
There’s a lot that makes the ME3 ending uncompelling, but this is the core of it all. All the other problems stem from this, and it started as far back as the original Mass Effect.
There’s a lot that’s been said and written about the ending of this trilogy; a vast majority of the complaints are valid, as are the defenses of those who liked the ending. But tracing it all backwards, the complaints and the praise, and asking why about all of it is what lead me to this conclusion.
And the answer to the final why leads us to two guys in a room, struggling with what they find at the end of the galaxy.
In writer parlance Lovecraftian references an aesthetic similarity to the Cthulhu Mythos, and not as much actual Lovecraftian Horror, which has a specific set of traits. Some people also use Lovecraftian to mean fiction that involves Cosmicism. When I reference Lovecraftian in this article, I’ll be referencing a combination of all three (Cthulhu Mythos, Lovecraftian Horror, and Cosmicism).
Bioware was referencing a bit from these three schools of thought throughout the series. We’ll cover in specifics as we go, but it’s important to establish that the Reapers as the series antagonists were meant to be Lovecraftian.
The parts that didn’t work in the series, indeed all the things that ultimately culminated into the ME3 ending, were the parts that were sort of Lovecraftian, but not quite. They were pseudo-Lovecraftian.
There are parts of Lovecraftian style that Bioware wanted, particularly around Cosmicism. These aspects are easily recognizable.
There’s an unusually well written passage in a Wikipedia entry on Cosmicism that explains it tonally:
“…in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories, it is not so much the absence of meaning that causes terror for the protagonists as it is their discovery that they have absolutely no power to effect any change in the vast, indifferent, and ultimately incomprehensible universe that surrounds them.”
It’s easy to recognize a similar sort of tone in the final twenty minutes of Mass Effect 3, when Shepard is faced with the inescapable conclusion that she or he is going to have to do something previously unthinkable.
But you’ve probably already seen what’s wrong with this example. The part about “no power to effect any change” jumps out, doesn’t it? Because in ME3, you have three (make that four) choices to make.
Those who didn’t care for the original or Extended Cut endings of ME3 would argue that the outcomes are too similar and not empowering enough, especially in the case of the original ending. And they’re right. It’s clear Bioware meant for the player to feel a sense of inevitability, and that the galaxy was bigger than they are. These are not, by themselves, elements of bad storytelling. But that’s not all we have to consider.
There are parts of Lovecraftian fiction Bioware clearly didn’t care for. Another helpful Wikipedia quote, this time from the entry on Lovecraftian Horror, reads “Lovecraft’s works tend not to focus on characterization of humans, in line with his view of humanity’s insignificant place in the universe.”
That’s not like Mass Effect at all. In Mass Effect you get to play Commander Shepard, the most significant human being in galactic history. And characters of all species are significant. The series is all about characterization.
So in those final fifteen to twenty minutes in ME3, you are naturally given a choice to make, because Bioware decided from the series onset it would be about choices. There’s nothing wrong with choices, except for when you’ve placed a monumental choice in the middle of a situation that, thematically, is supposed to be driven by a sense of inevitability and helplessness.
See — not quite Lovecraftian, but pseudo-Lovecraftian. That friction, under the surface of what just seems like cooky writing, is what leads most people to feel dissatisfied with the ME3 ending. It doesn’t surprise me that some people like the ending, nor that some people hate it. But for most people the dissonance thematically is what leads them to neither love nor hate, but mostly remain unsatisfied.
But beyond just the matter of choice, why did Bioware choose to handle the Reapers, and the series ending this way?
The problem may trace back to the inception of the Reapers as a concept, but certainly manifested for the first time in the original Mass Effect on the planet Virmire. On Virmire, Shepard talks to a Reaper called Sovereign. Up until this point the player is led to believe Sovereign is just a Reaper ship. During this long expository exchange Sovereign explains that Reapers are sentient machines that will bring about the extinction of all life.
If you go back and watch it, it’s some of the better Reaper dialogue in the series. It’s menacing, and cryptic. It made Sovereign the monster you love to hate; it made you want to blow up the bad guy. Why did it work on that level? Because it references a large, powerful, unknown entity that threatens all organic life. And that’s, well, kind of cool.
But again, I’m sure you can see where something’s not right.
The reason why that scene never worked for me, and a minority number of other players, is because Cthulhu never speaks. The unknowable, omnipotent, indestructible force from outside the galaxy doesn’t stop and give a bad guy monologue. If Sovereign is so far beyond organic comprehension, and if the Reapers very existence is impossible for organics to rationalize, then why have the conversation at all?
Because Bioware wanted to evoke the response people have to something eerie, and horrible from Lovecraftian fiction, but they also wanted to fit into a talky-techy sci-fi motif. They wanted to do a “big reveal” — to make the player feel like they were learning something earth shattering — while somehow also making the player feel small, threatened, and entirely in the dark about this new enemy.
It was bold. But it’s also not quite Lovecraftian; again, pseudo-Lovecraftian. They would have been fine going in either direction with the Reapers: either a talky-techy in-depth explanation that could be spaced over several “big reveals” in the series or treating them as a horrifying, unknowable, and entirely silent antagonist.
For some people, that scene and the Reapers in general still work because they like some part of talky-techy or some part of the Lovecraftian style that’s mixed in. But in the end, by the time we’re atop the Citadel getting that final “big reveal” about the Reapers in ME3, the friction between these two naturally opposed philosophies makes the combination unsatisfying.
But the irregular pairing of explanation and Lovecraftian fiction is only part of the problem with the conception and handling of the Reapers. The bigger part of the problem — in fact, likely the biggest problem for most people who don’t like the ME3 ending — is that the explanation of the Reapers is entirely inconsistent with the Mass Effect fiction.
This is essentially the explanation for the Reapers. An ancient race colloquially known in the singular as Leviathan, was at war with artificial intelligence that they created and in response created an artificial intelligence to tell them how to win their war. That final AI they created determined (somehow) that war between synthetics and organics was inevitable and that the only way to prevent this conflict from extinguishing all life in the galaxy was to create a form of synthetic made from advanced organic life to regularly harvest advanced organic civilizations in the future so that the same mistakes are not made, leaving only primitive organic species so the life cycle could continue. And by “harvest” it meant liquefying or mutating organic life forms. Only if you’re lucky did you get orbital bombardment.
There are lots of ways to deconstruct this convoluted mess of an explanation, and there are lots of people who have done it already through in-depth analysis or pithy memes. I’m actually going to bypass all of that and go straight for the most crucial of all arguments for why this explanation doesn’t make sense.
Bioware doesn’t even think this is a logical explanation. This evidenced in the way the trilogy is written. The way the Leviathan species reacted to the problem of rogue artificial intelligence is entirely inconsistent with how intelligent organic life reacted to problematic AI throughout the trilogy.
The quarians created AI that rebelled, known as the geth, and then the galaxy promptly outlawed creation of artificial intelligence. They didn’t make more AIs to tell them how to get rid of all the AIs. If you want to get rid of something, you don’t typically make more of it.
The example isn’t perfect, and there are plenty of rational arguments for “fighting fire with fire” but the point made is that Bioware creative staff, when faced with the question of how an intelligent species responds to the problem of rogue AIs, answered in a way that was logical and generally accepted throughout the series. Stop making AIs.
And even when the “don’t create AIs” rule was broken it was smartly written and backed up by rich back-story that made sense.
The geth weren’t Lovecraftian at all. They were entirely explained by the time the series was over. And from the first time they were mentioned we knew who created them. Who created them and the circumstances of their rebellion was what made them interesting. They had motivation that wasn’t incomprehensible. Their goal (survival and freedom) was tangible and graspable.
The Reapers could have been handled similar to the way the geth were portrayed and the only complaint would have been redundancy. The geth prove Bioware knows how to demonstrate in detail the subject matter of synthetic versus organic in a way that’s complex and thoroughly conceived. The Reapers were always conceived to be something different than that, something not explained.
Take your Lovecraft and shove it
At this point, some of you are likely thinking, “Who cares if the Reapers weren’t Lovecraftian enough? That’s not the only way to write good fiction, or compelling villains!”
And you’re right. Bioware didn’t have to make the Reapers Lovecraftian. They also don’t have to explain every inch of their fiction. But they chose to borrow certain aesthetic elements of Cthulhu Mythos. They chose to take certain elements of Lovecraftian Horror, and themes from Cosmicism. And then they tried to explain the monsters in the dark they created even though the explanation wasn’t conducive to the monsters or the rationale of the fiction as a whole. No one forced them.
And even still, it’s their prerogative. They can do what they want – it’s their story. But the story works better with a consistent set of themes and rules. It behooves the storyteller to be consistent.
Instead Bioware straddled the line between Lovecraftian and more traditional ways of exploring their antagonist. As a result, an explanation didn’t feel entirely appropriate, and neither did a lack of one when it came to the Reapers.
The ending of the Mass Effect trilogy was always going to fall short. The way the Reapers were conceived, and the way they were portrayed throughout the series was a poor setup. This strange dichotomy of not quite Lovecraftian antagonists was leading to a resolution that was always more likely to be clumsy than elegant.
Mass Effect as a series is profoundly personal and character focused. Even though it has a galactic scale backdrop, it can zoom in on personal interactions and it’s those relationships that really drive the series.
This personal and character heavy story ballooned into something it’s not comfortable being because of the demands of its unwieldy antagonists. The Crucible and the Catalyst were poorly conceived plot devices scrambling to come up with an answer for how to defeat the Reapers.
The Reapers were conceived to be unfathomably powerful and while that does create the problem of how to defeat them in a way that makes sense, the answer that people seemed most ready to accept was the simplest one. Blow them up. Shoot them with missiles, target them with orbital bombardment, have thresher maws eat them.
That’s not Lovecraftian either but at least people seemed to like that. All of those solutions drew healthy amounts of praise. If the solution to defeating the Reapers had involved a combination of the methods used to kill individual Reapers throughout the series I imagine there’d only be a few complaints about implausibility. Would that have been worse than Star Child?
There’s only a few problems that arise when you decide to let your heroes do what they’ve done a handful of times already and blow the Reapers to chunks of alloy and circuits. Bioware’s explanation caused a lot of problems, for a lot of fans.
We would have been mostly OK leaving the Reapers as an unknown entity that had come and gone, leaving the galaxy battered and yet never being fully understood.
In the end the Reapers didn’t absolutely need an explanation. Bioware’s explanation of the Reapers needed explanation.
I said at the beginning of this article that the final why question leads us to two guys alone in a room. Those two guys are Casey Hudson, project director on all three Mass Effect games, and Mac Walters, co-lead writer of ME2 and lead writer of ME3.
The question is, “why didn’t it work?”
That’s important to note. The final question is not, “why did they try to use Lovecraftian themes for their antagonist, and talky techy elements of exposition to explain their antagonist?” The answer to that question is fairly simple — they wanted to make something different and new. They wanted to walk a tightrope, and achieve something in storytelling that’s hard. They wanted to concoct a seldom seen amalgamation of varying thematic and literary styles into something that not only worked but maybe even had a strange kind of synergy.
Although the trilogy as a whole is fantastic, and although some people really like the endings, for most people the conclusion stumbled. They tried something bold, and in the end it didn’t work. The question is why. Why couldn’t they get it to work?
First, let’s start with a quote from Casey Hudson. When talking about the ME3 Extended Cut, Hudson said of the ending:
“There are people that just outright rejected the whole concept of the endings and wanted us to start from scratch and redo everything. And we can’t do that, because that’s not our story. We wouldn’t know how to write that story.”
This quote is a vital clue in understanding what happened. Hudson and Walters hit a wall. The story was in a tough spot, with a lot required to end it elegantly, and rumored to be isolated from the rest of the writing staff, Hudson and Walters didn’t know how to get out of it.
Not knowing how to scale back into Lovecraftian in a way that’s satisfying, and not knowing how to flesh out the fiction in a way that’s compelling, they straddled the dividing line and the result couldn’t capture the better elements of either approach.
No one at Bioware is a bad person because their story didn’t work. There’s no reason to be upset with them personally. They tried to do something, and for me it didn’t land. For a lot of people it didn’t land, and for some people it did. That happens. That they’re paid professionals is no guarantee that it won’t.
As a team, the Mass Effect writers all got better as the trilogy went on. I think they’ll all continue to improve as creatives, Walters and Hudson included. We’ve gotten to watch them try approaches in storytelling and it hasn’t always worked. A lot of times it did. They’re just trying to find something that hits the mark. Failing happens sometimes when trying to hit the high marks, even for professionals.
For all the deconstruction of Lovecraft and themes, good story doesn’t have to be anything — it just has to land. Bioware straddled between two narrow landing strips and only caught the edges of either. Maybe one day, if they keep trying, they’ll successfully pull off something that breaks all the rules, defies the set constructions, and really boggles the mind.