I’ve never been fond of Mass Effect 3 and I’ve always struggled to articulate why.
In 2012, the game left me feeling empty and depressed. I had no desire to replay it, which shocked me given my many completionist runs of Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2. Was I missing Mass Effect 3’s point? Definitely.
My mistake was expecting an RPG like Mass Effect 1 or Mass Effect 2, one where I have some agency in shaping the meaning of the story. But Mass Effect 3 is more like a cautionary tale or work of dystopian propaganda; it’s a story designed to convey a specific political message, like 1984, or Brave New World. Mass Effect 3’s social darwinist message is that multiracial societies with multicultural policies are doomed to fail: they must end in genocide, slavery, or eugenic assimilation.
I know that may sound nuts, or just inflammatory, but I’ve got the receipts. Mass Effect 3 works better as social darwinist propaganda than it does as an RPG.
Mass Effect 3’s political message is best savored "vanilla," that is, without importing choices from Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2. This might seem odd, because importing choices from game to game is what this trilogy is rightly famous for. It’s no exaggeration to say Bioware designed the series around this feature. So, why should you play Mass Effect 3 without it? Vanilla Mass Effect 3 tells a more coherent story from beginning to end: this version of the game consistently shows that racial conflict is inevitable.
In the first act of vanilla Mass Effect 3, you need to decide whether to support the ongoing genocide of one race, or guarantee the slavery of all others. Why? Well, the Krogan will only help Shepard if the genocide of their race is ended by curing the genophage. Many who oppose the cure worry history will repeat itself. The Krogans nearly subjugated the galaxy once upon a time; only the genophage stopped them. Without it, they could enslave the galaxy.
With Wreav in charge of the Krogan, the situation is bleak. Wreav desires a new Krogan Empire and reckoning for the genophage against other races. This concerns your allies. Garrus dislikes his lust for revenge. Eve calls him a tyrant. Liara warns you he’s commissioned more WMD’s than any other Warlord in Krogan history. Wreav himself makes lots of racist jokes and believes in “Krogan superiority,” just in case you doubted if you’re supposed to hate this guy. Despite all this, if you’re still willing to cure the genophage, Wreav emails you — yes, emails you — promising eventual war against the Human race. In short, with the genophage cured, Wreav dreams of founding an empire based on Krogan supremacy.
Shepard is in a bind. They cannot avoid making a choice that either guarantees the genocide of one race or slavery of all others. The player must either defend the current multicultural order through genocide, or doom it to fall before a racialized horde. Either choice discredits the viability of multiracial society. Seems grim? Buckle up! The game is just starting.
The second act of vanilla Mass Effect 3 is just as obsessed with apocalyptic race wars. In it, the fight between the Quarians and Geth comes to a head. You either genocide the entire Quarian or Geth race. There are no other options. You either let a servant race butcher their former masters, or the masters butcher their former slaves. Both choices discredit the idea that different races can coexist peacefully. Whichever genocide you choose, you are now a war criminal in all but name.
The depressing third act of Mass Effect 3 is the same, vanilla or not. It begins with the Asari’s fall from grace. They were responsible for creating the multiracial government that currently runs the galaxy. Yet, as their homeworld falls, we learn the Asari’s dirty secret; they have always withheld Prothean technology from other races while enforcing laws that ensured everyone must share such technology. It was all a ruse. They only founded the galactic government on multiracial ideals to keep their technological edge over everyone else. As Javik, the only known survivor of the ancient Prothean race, bluntly puts it to the naive Liara: “Your people are hoarding the knowledge of my race for their own gain.” In short, the Asari didn’t sincerely believe in their ideals. Multiculturalism is just a tool they used to exploit other races. The game’s point is clear; racially inclusive ideals are dangerous lies: different races will always vie to subjugate each other. This is the fatalistic political education Mass Effect 3 has to offer.
The game’s point is clear; racially inclusive ideals are dangerous lies.
When the ending choices arrive, vanilla Mass Effect 3 has you well prepared for them. You have four ways to stop the Reaper’s race war, and they are all — you guessed it — dystopian.
In the "destroy" ending, you genocide all synthetic races, friendly and not. Or, in the "control" ending, you enslave the Reaper race to serve you. Or, in the "synthesis" ending, you genetically assimilate all races into one new race. Notably, this choice is morally identical to what the Reapers were doing: they genetically purified all races into one, and, now, you can too! Finally, in the "refuse" ending, you decline these options out of moral principle. But the Reapers win because of your ethical unwillingness to enslave, genocide, or assimilate. Yup, if you righteously refuse the other endings, you straight up lose. All these endings reinforce one political message: give up on multicultural ideals, and you win. Don’t, and you doom the galaxy.
Relative to the rest, the synthesis ending reveals the most about Mass Effect 3’s ideas on race. The A.I., who controls the Reapers, claims synthesis is “the ideal solution” because combining the “D.N.A." of all races into one guarantees “peace.” Thus, as others have noted, Mass Effect 3 indulges in racial essentialism: the game assumes “race” is not a social construct, but a biological or genetic fact. Why else does Mass Effect 3 claim genetically synthesizing all races into one is possible?
Now, for a hot minute, let’s assume these ideas about race are correct, so we can see why Mass Effect 3 frames synthesis as the true ending. If “race” is genetic, and evolution is a contest of genes, then you might well conclude racial conflict is genetically fated. Granting all that, you might also conclude, like Mass Effect 3, that a multiracial society is a powder keg primed to explode. Because of this, you might then hope racial conflict could be avoided — if there were no genetically distinct races fated to fight, which — that’s right! — is the goal of the synthesis ending. Synthesis is the final solution to the racial diversity that Mass Effect 3 assumes is a problem. That's why this is the true ending: it purifies all that dangerous diversity into one master race, one with green glowing eyes.
All of this, not coincidentally, is vindicating everything Javik ever said. Javik loves to gloat about the Prothean empire being founded on the slavery and assimilation of all other non-Prothean races. Politically, he’s a social darwinist; he thinks it’s a scientific truth and ethical “imperative” (shown by evolution) that genetically “strong” races are fated to dominate “weaker” ones for the good of all. Naturally, he worries it’s dangerous for a galactic government to concern itself with the survival of all races. This is why Javik lectures you in an email that “this concept of galactic control shared among races is a lie.” As we’ve seen, vanilla Mass Effect 3 proves Javik right again and again, undermining multicultural ideals in favor of social darwinist ones.
“This concept of galactic control shared among races is a lie.”
To be sure, it’s doubtful Bioware intended for Mass Effect 3 to do this. After all, writers at Bioware tried to ground the franchise’s lore in actual science, and the studio is well known for its (inconsistently applied) commitment to inclusivity and diversity in its games. You wouldn’t expect a studio that champions those values to also champion social darwinism. But, intended or not, pseudoscientific and anti-multicultural ideas still dominate Mass Effect 3 and its endings.
While Mass Effect 3’s political message is most convincing in a vanilla run, for better and worse, most people didn’t play the game this way. Unsurprisingly, most players of 2021’s Mass Effect: Legendary Edition imported choices from the first two entries into the third. Like the majority (80% or more) of these players you probably imported choices from Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 that let you make peace between the Quarians and Geth, and cure the genophage with Wrex, not Wreav.
If you did this, congratulations, you fucked up the story Mass Effect 3 was trying to tell. You found solutions to racial conflict that did not guarantee slavery or genocide, but offered the fragile possibility of peace. Bless your little heart — but damn your pesky optimism — you made the first two acts reject the social darwinism of the third, undermining the ending’s fatalistic message. What a fool, did you think your choices should shape the meaning of an RPG?
The disappointing truth is that Mass Effect 3 works better as propaganda than as an RPG. Shepard ultimately finds themself in the same no-win situation as Winston from 1984 or John from Brave New World. All three start as righteous protagonists, opposing overwhelming antagonists but, in the end, they are all forced to submit to the antagonist’s politics. Winston, for example, is indoctrinated before being executed by Big Brother, while John learns he can only maintain his ethical integrity through suicide. Shepard is no different than these protagonists. Mass Effect 3’s endings require them to die and surrender to the Reapers and their fatalistic political beliefs.
No doubt this is why the “indoctrination theory” became popular; the endings put Shepard in a dystopian situation. Yet, as some always suspected, Bioware did not intend the indoctrination theory as canon. Because, while the Reapers may be the antagonists, Mass Effect 3 exists to show that they, not you, are politically correct, and you, the protagonist, are naive if you believe that race war is avoidable. Deal with it. This is the game’s edge-lord political message. Javik was right. The Reapers were right. Race war is inevitable. Shepard must die. Game over.
I used to belittle those who wanted “happy” endings to this game. In hindsight, I was the one being naive. If Mass Effect 3 will let me have a sanguine beginning and middle, why couldn’t the end also allow similarly sanguine outcomes? If I can avoid genocide, slavery and eugenics in the first and second act, why can’t I also do so in the third act? The unsatisfying answer seems to be that the game’s fatalistic political message was prioritized over respecting player agency.
Mass Effect 3 will ignore your choices.
Mass Effect 3’s artistic integrity as a social darwinist parable would suffer if it had sanguine endings; though it surely also would be a better RPG. Unfortunately, if push comes to shove — and your choices run afoul of Bioware’s vision of a social darwinist dystopia — Mass Effect 3 will ignore your choices. Whatever way you play it, vanilla or not, Mass Effect 3 will show that multiracial societies with multicultural policies are doomed to end in genocide, slavery, or eugenic assimilation. Thus, Mass Effect 3 works better as social darwinist propaganda than it does an RPG.
Mass Effect 3’s flaws make me love Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 even more. Those were RPGs where the political focus on race deepened the meaning of my roleplaying, rather than making it pointless. In Mass Effect 1, if I wanted to kill alien politicians in a human supremacist coup, I could, and if I wanted to defend the multiracial government from the Reapers, I could too. I could shape my destiny. I had a hand in the story's meaning. But, in Mass Effect 3, I exist to die after the Reapers lecture me on why I was stupid to oppose their goal of racial assimilation. I don't matter in this story, only race does.
It’s no longer a mystery to me why I don’t want to replay Mass Effect 3, vanilla or not. The game is an apocalyptic nightmare obsessed with ethnic cleansing, slavery, and eugenics. Its dark twisted fantasy vindicates pseudoscientific ideas about race responsible for real world atrocities. It’s depressing fatalism thwarts my agency as a player. Its sci-fi propaganda for social darwinists.
Mass Effect 3 is a contemptible RPG designed to show multiracial societies are doomed to end in disaster.