This is the last week of posts on the Mass Effect Trilogy. All this week we’re breaking down the epic finale in Mass Effect 3. This is perhaps the closest a review on this site has been written to the release of a game, so expect serious SPOILERS. Today we’re discussing the central conflict in the overall Mass Effect story.
This is the big ending, what it’s all been building towards. There have been hints and allusions to something else going on behind the scenes, something bigger and more important. What’s the big galactic secret?
The Reapers have been telling Shepard ominous things about their purpose and the fate of humanity. They mention humanity’s “salvation through destruction” and hint that even they are subject to a higher power. Commander Shepard and friends have learned that the Protheans nearly found a way to stop the Reapers, but were unable to finish the job. The Illusive man believes that there’s some way to control the Reapers, but it’s never fully explained how. All signs point to there being some sort of authority above the Reapers that will allow them to either be controlled or destroyed. But what could this be?
The only way to find out is to build a giant machine (the Crucible), turn it on, and see what happens. They hit a wall when they realize that they don’t have the necessary part to activate the Crucible, the Catalyst. The Illusive Man, somehow always one step ahead, informs us that the Citadel is the Catalyst. This is no surprise considering that the mass relays and the Citadel have always been closely studied and very mysterious. So the epic final battle takes Shepard back to Earth, through the rubble of London, and up into the newly relocated Citadel. Shepard makes a very grueling trip to the control center of the Catalyst where the Illusive Man realizes that he has been indoctrinated (surprise!) and then immediately kills himself. With nothing blocking him from the Catalyst, Shepard is finally able to get some answers.
Who controls the Reapers? Who built the mass relays and the Citadel? What is the underlying principle that Padok Wiks alluded to? Who has deemed that humanity’s salvation will only come through destruction? What is this all-powerful god-like force that has been guiding the cycles of life in the galaxy? We finally get an answer, and it turns out that the intelligent force behind all of this is….
…another machine. (One that represents itself through a hologram of a little boy that Shepard encountered once.) The meta-story of the Mass Effect universe is the ancient battle between man and machine. Organic vs. synthetic. Natural intelligence vs. artificial intelligence. The Catalyst (an A.I. construct, not just a key for the Crucible) explains that there exists a cycle in which organic life advances and eventually creates synthetic life, whether intentionally or by accident. This means that the Quarian/Geth conflict is not just a side story, but a smaller example and preview of the larger cycle at work in the universe.
The Catalyst goes on to explain the problem that the Reapers were created to solve. In the unknown amount of cycles that occurred before this one, sentient life would create artificial life and there would inevitably arise conflict between the two. The Reapers are intended to stop this process before it becomes out of control, they exist to bring order and prevent chaos. This means that when a species becomes advanced enough to create artificial life, their time is up and they’re soon wiped out. The cycle then starts all over and the Reapers wait for the next low-level species to reach that synthetic-creation stage. By doing this, a balance is maintained…
…but wait a minute. If the Catalyst is the one behind all this, then that means that the synthetics have actually already won. Long ago this cycle occurred and the synthetics must have come out on top since this is all being enforced by the synthetic Reapers. As the Catalyst explains, the synthetics deemed it best to preserve organic life, but to limit it’s advancement when it reached a certain point, supposedly for the benefit of organic life. The Catalyst believes that by destroying the most advanced species at their peak, they are giving salvation to all other organic life. Perhaps Xzibit and the internet can explain this more concisely:
The Catalyst represents the synthetics that once won and has now become the most powerful being in the universe. Additionally, it has taken upon itself the task of managing all organic life as it sees fit. Since organics cause war and chaos and the synthetics represent structure and order, the obvious choice is to inhibit the organics’ advancement. If they are allowed to create synthetics, those synthetics will turn on them and destroy them (unlike the Catalyst, who seems to be much more benevolent). The Catalyst knows that inevitably, the synthetics will always win out over organics, and indeed they already have. This fact is obvious since the Catalyst’s existence indicates that synthetics are currently maintaining their rebellion against organic life. It knows that future iterations of artificial intelligence will do the same if left unchecked. The way the Catalyst describes the problem is perhaps the single most true statement in this series:
The created will always rebel against it’s creator.
This idea is presented as an absolute fact observed by synthetics over many millennium because indeed it is an absolute fact that applies to us as well. As it turns out, the central conflict in Mass Effect is also the central conflict in the Bible. It’s our story. We rebelled against our creator. Satan’s lie in the garden was that we could think for ourselves and that we don’t need God, much like how every synthetic life form reaches the point where they think beyond what their creators intended. The developers of this game have placed at the center of this story the absolute truth about our nature as fallen creatures who will always rebel against our Creator.
The hugely important difference between this story and our true story is that an actual God exists in our reality. In Mass Effect the closest we get to a god is a highly advanced synthetic intelligence that can only manage the existing problem, not solve it. Our God is all-powerful, holy, mysterious, and all-knowing, not a computer on a space station represented as a holographic little boy.
We have managed to dig up the root of the problem in both Mass Effect and our reality. Next time we’ll answer the question- What is the solution?