Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The End of a Hero

Brace yourself, because this is a post about the end of Mass Effect 3. However, I will not wade into the quagmire of ongoing "indoctrination" theory and the massive attempt by players, almost by definition those with the most emotional investment in the series, to retroactively change the game's controversial  finale. That journey, my friends, is for another time. Instead, let's pretend this proverbial "shit storm" were not happening and talk about one aspect of the ending. This is where I say in big bold letters...

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR MASS EFFECT 3. Oh, and also Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Halo 3, and Halo: Reach.

Wow, our heroes have it rough. Shepard flies her ship all around the galaxy, forging peace, kicking Cerberus ass, planning for the future, and then she is expected die, just like so many others adventurers before her. Now I chose the synthesis, aka "green", ending, and I am relatively happy with overall outcome of the game if not the last five minutes. Like other voices around the internet, all of Mass Effect 3 from Thane's death on feels like a denouement to me, and a damn good one. For the most part, the ending hits all the expected notes science-fiction has tread in the past. When Shepard breathed her last breath, it felt like an end. It felt more complete than I had expected. But why does Shepard have to die?

Now look, I am a grown-up. I am not asking for some happy fairy tale that turns the Normandy into a flying unicorn that bursts through the Citadel to spear the Casper and bring Shepard back to life. I like my stories with a healthly mix of darkness and ambiguity, but the death of the hero is getting old. For the most part, death is a narratively selfish act. Shepard turns to dust, but not really, she becomes a legend, a figure remembered into the eons. She may have ruined the galaxy for everyone, but she doesn't even stick around to understand the repercussions of her actions. I say Shepard got off easy.

Put simply, the death of the hero rarely enriches the story as much as expected. Maybe this is why so many come back to life. Master Chief almost died in Halo 3, received a grand send-off back on earth that melted the hearts of players around the world. Thankfully he actually survived. Otherwise we would have what, a statue? Is that really what we want from our heroes? Deification? Halo Reach actually killed off the entire cast, but then again, the game was never about their personal identities. In fact, I would argue it was about Master Chief and the unseen burden he carries throughout the series. It is about the nameless and faceless soldiers, represented by the protagonist, who made Master Chief a hero in the first place.

Few creative minds understand death in storytelling as well as Joss Whedon. He knows how to milk the potential death of a hero for all its worth, and then make said hero work even harder. In the Firefly episode "Out of Gas," he lets viewers know right from the beginning that this episode is not an uplifting one. He makes us believe Mal might genuinely die, and we believe it (Joss Whedon is ruthless like that). More importantly, we know Mal is ready to die. That he made his choice, stuck with it, and is willing to sacrifice everything for his crew. We have walked through the cold ship with our brave hero, and we are ready for his death. Whedon takes us to the brink, gives a good look at death, teaches us a lesson, and then keeps the story moving.

He did the same thing with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The titular heroine dies twice. Her return in the sixth season is not triumphant, but terrifying and deeply unsettling. It reminds us that heroes carry a burden, that relationships are not miraculously mended when the good guys win, and that there is no happily ever after when the lights fade. In the "Whedonverse", death as a narrative devise exists in service to relationships. Friends die, and others carry on painfully, filled with regret and loss. 

Mass Effect has always been about relationships. But in the end, a valuable opportunity is wasted. Death is easy. Living on when the war is over? That is a more difficult and valuable story to write.

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