On Pyrrhus

by Delta V, last updated 27 Jun 2012 07:27


"So be it."
- Catalyst, Mass Effect 3

We are still left with ashes and madness, but at least the ashes are in neat little piles and the madness has its place.

Both the sledgehammers and the chisels were brought to bear. (I lost track of how many times "synthetic" and "organic" were mentioned, especially in the Synthesis voiceover.) As a mechanism to ensure the intent of the author was conveyed, it was quite the success. The Catalyst is shown for the spinning little logical loop it is, trapped in its memories of an eons-old war. Every possible effort was made to dissuade us from believing the various worst-case scenarios, to convince us we hadn't in fact destroyed the galaxy we meant to save. And it was made as clear as beryllium glass that nothing was a trick, or trap, or ambush.

All three of the previous options were still thematically revolting, though. Control leaves us with arrogant benevolence or inevitable malevolence. Destroy still carries genocide as the price, and that price goes surprisingly unremarked. Synthesis brings us all glowing eyes, skin-mounted circuits, and peace between man and - husk? (Oh, and still carries implicit mindrape as a delicious side dish.) The colors of the Ending-O-Tron are still ugly to my eyes, but the shades are better-matched. All still felt like the answers to Someone Else's Problem, however. It still feels strange to witness the utter conviction behind the synthetic/organic conundrum, despite its distance, its orthogonality, to the rest of the series.

The singular triumph of the Extended Cut is to bring us the fourth choice, the refusal, which many of us asked for.

"It was an honor."
- ELIZA, Deus Ex: Human Revolution

There were four choices at the end of DXHR, as well. Three of them were arguments - answers to the central question asked by the game over and over of what, if anything, should be done about the drive and capacity to make humans into something new. Regulate, Ban, Set Free. All relied inherently on the mechanisms and machinations of established power. All represented an acquiesence to someone else's view, someone else's position, someone else's faith. The men who were those "someone else" were gathered under one (remote) roof; the options were given and explained by a (virtual) woman who'd helped you in your quest earlier. Her voice was, at least, familiar.

The fourth choice was to bring that roof down upon all their heads. To leave the world outside intact, to leave the decision in the hands of everyone instead of dark men in darker rooms. It was an opportunity to disagree. It was, in my view, the proper culmination of the text. It was also the option DXHR's predecessor and sequel, Deus Ex, tragically lacked at its final triparte crux. We knew how DXHR's world progressed - or rather regressed - and we knew our choice could not, in the end, prevent its course. Thus the final decision could be nothing more than a statement of intent. But still, it had meaning.

There is semiotic power in that refusal. It is an acknowledgement of the limitations of the construction of any problem, and of any attempt to arbitrarily limit the possible responses. It allows for a search for other, newer solutions, outside of the scope of those who frame the question. And it fundamentally admits that no set of answers is complete.

It is a form of humility.

Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
(They make a desolation and they call it peace.)
- Tacitus, Agricola

Terminus1 was the Roman god of boundaries and limits. The phrase engraved on the boundary stones associated with him carried the phrase CONCEDO NULLI - "yield no ground".

When the delicately-termed controversy surrounding the endings first emerged, the irruption2 seemed to make Bioware not just cringe, but stiffen, and steel their resolve. It was weeks before they acquiesced to change, to improvement. The general gaming media reaction - with a few, quite notable, exceptions - was to decry the specificity of the common complaints and their focus on the Ten Minutes. If you think the endings destroyed the game, they said, then don't play it. Reject the whole work, not just the final moments. There seems to be an idea amongst the burgeoning critical classes that the mere consumer could only express their concerns in the basest of binaries: buy or do not, love or despise, accept or reject.

Once the decision was made to revisit and expand the endings, we were faced with the combination of an open text and open wounds. When Bioware spoke of "closure", I think that the implications of that word should be fully understood. It means not only that the unresolved concerns are laid to rest, but that a boundary, a terminus, can be placed upon the text, and we might evaluate it as a whole.

I am among those who believe the ending could never be salvaged. The thematic kidnapping of the Ten Minutes was too blatant, too problematic, too dissociative. The game should've ended at "best seats in the house", and no investigation options would be enough to satisfy. That it didn't prompted me to reevaluate the entirety of the game - and I found it wanting. That damage is done. But until the EC was released, I couldn't let go, not fully, not until I'd made quite sure they didn't pull some miracle from their collective posteriors.

That they chose to retain that horrid divergence was expected. That I would still be less than satisfied with both the ending and the narrative as a whole was also expected. What that fourth option did - that ability to refuse not only on a textual level but a metatextual one - was to allow me to reject the game itself, within the game itself. It was an admission by the creators that, for some, their vision was unacceptable. It was a subtle form of humility, masked though it might be by the distorted, petulant exclamation by the Catalyst at my decision, and it allowed me to act with the finality I desired. I no longer wished to be a part of this story, so twisted and unrecognizable.

I was allowed to draw a line. I took them up on their offer.


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