Before I commence disagreeing with positions Ben Kuchera took on the ending of ME3 I do want to point out the things he said that I do agree with. He clearly put some thought into an argument that is otherwise much tainted with nerd rage. You should probably read his article here before continuing if you haven’t already.
The lack of a happy ending while obviously a damper on Tali and Shepard’s plans to have immune compromised suit babies together is not inappropriate or in any way “bad”. I agree with Ben’s defense and his sentiment on this. Though I do wish I could have found a way to make it happy or just happier if I had tried hard enough then again I also wish Bambie’s Mom had pulled through but somehow I think the story may have suffered if she had. Though this problem really feeds into the other criticism Ben defended.
Lack of player impact on the ending is understandable and frankly excusable if not a bit tragic. For those of you that don’t know. Games are hard to make. Games that change because you played the first two games that came before it differently are super super crazy hard to make. The technical limitation of a dynamic ending is reason enough for me to extend some sympathy to the static endings. I also tend to agree with Ben’s take on this. However I do think it needs to be noted that Bioware brought this criticism on through their presentation of the game. Combine the dynamic ending of Mass Effect 2 with the “Readiness” bar UI element that steadily increases throughout Mass Effect 3 and it is a totally valid position if you’re upset the ending was so static. The game does sort of imply it may not be.
My objection and where I will draw my line in the sand is that the ending, and I use the singular intentionally here, is just badly written while much of the rest of the game isn’t. Most glaringly it employs Deus Ex Machina, a plot device that has been considered poor writing for centuries. Ben of course touches on this and doesn’t deny it in his article:
Let’s look at a few of the common complaints. The first thing that some people have said is that the ending is a giant deus ex machina, and that’s certainly a valid criticism. The final scenes progress a certain way no matter what you’ve done or what you’ve chosen in the final moments. The game becomes a Choose Your Own Adventure book at that point, or at least it does a poorer job of hiding the linear nature of your choices.
My counter-argument is that the deus ex machina was dropped into the story at the beginning of the game. Earth is attacked by Reapers, Shepard is forced to accept a strategic retreat, and just like that there is news of a super-weapon that may hold hope for the entire galaxy? The writers’ hands are obviously at work early in the game, and the setup is monstrously obvious: We must race against time to create this amazing piece of alien technology that can save us all! It’s like a higher stakes version of the novel Contact. There was certainly a large and obvious plot point dropped into the game, but it happened right off the bat.
Here is the problem. The appearance of the super weapon is not Deus Ex Machina for several reasons. The solutions presented by Deus Ex Machina have to be sourced outside the plot. It’s part of how the device works. The appearance of the solution is sudden and unpredictable to point of it being irrational. Aristotle is the most famous voice to speak on the inappropriate use of Deus Ex Machina when he wrote in Poetics:
“With character, precisely as in the structure of events, one should always seek necessity or probability – so that for such a person to say or do such things is necessary or probable, and the sequence of events is also necessary or probable. Clearly the denouements of plots should issue from plot as such and not from a deus ex machine as in Medea and the scene of the departure in the Iliad. The deus ex machine should be employed for events outside the drama preceding human knowledge or subsequent events requiring prediction and announcement; for we ascribe to the gods the capacity to see all things. There should be nothing irrational in the events; if there is it should lie outside the play,…”
Here’s a link for those that want to read more on Aristotle’s thoughts in Poetics. Basically what Aristotle is saying here in his lofty way is that you can’t just make something up. It has to flow from events that have occurred. It is only appropriate to use deus ex machina in situations where it would be impossible to accomplish the same thing with mortal characters following the rules and limitations of mortals or as a way to impart knowledge much the same way TV shows do when they throw out “Last time on Lost…”. It can be used as a device to inform and not develop the plot essentially. Gods can give you a synopsis but they’re not allowed to write the story.
So this is why the super weapon is not a form of Deus Ex Machina. The Protheans are established as a source of technological knowledge in Mass Effect 1 and very much put forward as a source of possible anti-reaper technology in Mass Effect 2. The super weapon is not handed over by some form of divine intervention. It’s presentation by Liara is perhaps a bit hamfisted and a bit too well timed but it is not a form of Deus Ex Machina. I think it is also a fair argument that it is very reasonable and necessary for Liara to bring the super weapon to your attention after Earth is suddenly attacked. So why is the ending a use of Deus Ex Machina? This is what Ben wrote and please remember he never once said the ending isn’t Deus Ex Machina but I do think he confuses his defense a bit where he seems to be arguing against it here:
Lastly, the choices presented to Shepard at the story’s end have been criticized as being magical, but the game has had no problem presenting Prothean technology as being so advanced that it might as well be supernatural. The Citadel and the Relays are both Reaper technology that was constructed before the Protheans, and are both examples of powerful technology that is barely understood in the game’s universe. The abilities of the super-weapon at the end of the game continue the internal logic of Prothean and Reaper supremacy.
Hell, even Arthur C. Clarke noted that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Protheans are clearly sufficiently advanced. Even if they weren’t, it’s not like Biotics are ever covered with anything except a hand wave. You have to get those casters in the game somehow, right?
The problem with this defense is that the Prothean’s are never once treated as being magical. In fact the story very consistently presents them with the word technology next to the name or simply the short hand “tech”. None of the races that live on the Citadel are primitive races that think the Protheans have magic powers. They all very clearly understand that they simply have very advanced technology that just has to be reverse engineered. It’s a very strong part of the story through all three games.
What’s more is we are told that the relays and citadel are Reaper and/or Prothean made but when the ghost of Vent-Kid appears to Shepard on the citadel it is very clear that there is a third unknown force that has yet to appear in the plot. Vent-Kid is an unknown force that very soon makes his control over the Citadel and Mass Gates obvious. We know this because the Vent-Kid very clearly explains to Shepard that all synthetic life is doomed to rebel and destroy the organics that created it. That the Reapers are a solution to this via the cycle (it’s important to note you can disprove this in the Geth and Quarian storyline). This means that Vent-Kid isn’t a Reaper. He can’t be. He’s speaking with a voice that is outside the conflict. Since Vent-Kid is aware of the fate of synthetics he now has agency in free will over the solution. Which means he’s outside the problem and not a Reaper, the Vent-Kid is a third force seeking balance between the other two. Vent-Kid immediately confirms this by coming up with a handful of new solutions on the fly with his new found access to the super weapon. He has not appeared in the plot in this capacity before. He is a sudden, unexpected and an irrational addition to the plot as a means of resolution. Classic Deus Ex Machina. The best part is he seems to wield power far beyond that of the Reapers and Organics and he came out of a machine. Vent-Kid is literally a God out of a machine.