Mass Effect 3: The Ur-Quan Masters

I did it. I finally played the Leviathan DLC for Mass Effect 3. I have a bizarre relationship with the game, because I love the universe it takes place in, love the multiplayer, the characters, and the overall story. It’s just that damned ending that keeps getting in the way of my enjoyment!

It’s now almost a full year since I first finished the game, and though I’ve experienced it as it originally was, and then again with the extended cut, I haven’t really given it a proper second playthrough. Considering the 170+ hours I’ve put into the first game alone, and who knows how much of the second, it just doesn’t sit right.

Now that there’s apparently some new and final single player DLC on the horizon that will make us all cry, I thought I might revisit the conclusion of Shepard’s story. I had started a second playthrough with my main shep not long after, but it’s been mostly shelved until this week. It was great to watch Shepard go through a new mission, and I loved the extra bit of characterisation with Vega’s soft-side. I enjoyed the new story-driven character of Ann Bryson, finding her to be well-acted, sympathetic and all that – and also great to see Cortez take on a stronger role on the military side, instead of just being Shep’s chauffeur.

Leviathan itself, though. I’m really not sure.

Oh, and peoples? There’s spoilers ahead.

My, what big... everything.. you have.
My, what big… everything.. you have.

It’s interesting to see the explanation for how the reapers came about, and how the cycle of the creation of synthetics and fall of organics lead to the creation of the catalyst, that begun the cycle of reapers tearing shit up all across the galaxy every fifty-thousand years. The motivation behind the catalyst and what it was trying to achieve always made sense to me, even if it continued to do so after this cycle had shown that (at least at the pinnacle moment when the reapers returned) it was different. The catalyst is just an artificial intelligence itself, and obviously stuck in an infinite loop. Yeah – a galactic assload of carnage and genocide caused by an errant GOTO.

Understanding the cycles and the catalyst takes more than a singular view, but I think understanding what a reaper actually is key to unravelling the logic of the catalyst.

In reference to the reapers during Mass Effect 2, Legion states that they are  “Transcended flesh. Billions of organic minds, uploaded and conjoined within immortal machine bodies. “Each a nation”“. We also know from ME2 that the Collectors were turning the colonists (and potentially ) into space-jam so they could create the human reaper. Whatever process the Collector’s use, there isn’t just a retention of genetic material through the reaperfication process, but something of the mind as well. Lots of them. The body that they’re put into is a sturdy piece of engineering that approximates the shape of the Leviathan race, that we tend to know as the reaper body. Somewhere along the line, the minds join with each other, achieving the organic equivalent of a technological singularity. It’s like a parliament, but a lot less inefficient.

From that point on, you have billions of minds (or souls, or sentients) that continue to exist in some way, meaning the essence of the race is preserved. A few billion minds living forever inside a reaper, or something like that. We can’t tell how independent those minds really are, but from the catalysts point of view, organic life is preserved. Not only are they beyond the reach of synthetics, but they’re more or less immortal – immune to the frailty that time brings, to wars, sickness, and the like. Those minds could live forever.

It isn’t a cull. It’s a harvest. Leviathan repeats the word a bunch of times, and the name of our giant robosynth antagonists even says it – reapers. They’re intending to use what they reap. They’re not weeding the galaxy, but gathering what they can use to create more reapers.  Leviathan race basically lorded over the galaxy, getting tribute from the lesser (read: all other) races, and used them all as tools. The reapers mirror this in a way, turning those that can’t be used for reaperfication, into mindless tools – such as with the Keepers, and Collectors. The Leviathans saw themselves as above it all, but created the catalyst to stop the other races killing themselves off. To preserve organic life. It backfired immensely.

xzibit-mass-effect

Wait, wait, wait. Isn’t the catalyst’s solution to synthetics killing organics is to kill organics? No. Let’s say that you completely discard the preservation angle. It can still make sense, but it requires looking at the overall picture. We need to get a little timey-wimey to really paint this clearly.

Picture it. Sicily, 2187. Your descendant Fred Lastname, is a layabout. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Might even be genetic, right? The future is really strict on laziness for some reason that makes me not want to go there, so they send someone back in time to kill you. Why you? Because it’s an example! Killing you doesn’t just bump Fred out of the picture, but all of your future descendants. But look! Samantha Heroface also came back in time, killed the nameless assassin before they had a chance to get you. She hasn’t just saved you, but all of your descendants as a result. Just with a single death – horrible K/D rate for a hero, but it’ll do.

The preservation of organics in Mass Effect works, if you bring future organics into the equation. Killing the races of today to prevent synthetics being created would lead to the evolution of future races in a universe without synthetic dominance, meaning more lives. Consistently more lives. With even that, I can appreciate that the stance of the catalyst makes a kind of sense on a galactic scale, but not when it comes to individuals. It’s the same reason that I can’t choose synthesis or control, because I think it creates too large a culture change in the case of the former, and goes against freedom for the latter.

I’m still surprised that the Crucible was what it appeared to be. The Citadel had been around seemingly forever, yet was a trap. The relays were left behind to guide the races to the citadel. Plans for an unknown device that were able to get everyone to pin all their hopes on without knowing what it’d do, or if it’d work? That was dependent on the Citadel? Could’ve gone VERY differently.

What I was waiting for
What I was waiting for

Almost a year later, and I don’t think I’ve stopped talking about the game for more than a week. I make *constant* references to it (especially on this blog), and I’m still not ready to leave it behind. I haven’t yet seen through my Shepard what Leviathan does to the ending, but I can see similarities between the Leviathan race, the reapers, and the Ur-Quan from Star Control. The UQ’s approach to galactic enslavement/culling, was to prevent themselves ever being subjugated again – two factions arose, one that wanted to kill all the other races, and the other that wanted them to be either imprisoned or enthralled. I think that it’s also worth noting that the Protheans and the Leviathan race had very similar approaches to what they perceived as lesser races, that they should either become thralls of their respective empires or be destroyed.

Shepard’s cycle was already different in that regard, before humanity had even found the prothean ruins on Mars.

2 thoughts on “Mass Effect 3: The Ur-Quan Masters

  1. The Space Brat’s logic was fairly easy to follow. But I still think BioWare went the wrong direction. The Organic vs. Synthetic conflict was thematically resolved with Rannoch. That was the whole point of that arc, was to resolve that conflict, from a thematic standpoint. Bringing it back at the end just robbed the Rannoch arc of a lot of its impact.

    Also, there was a much better conflict they could’ve focused on instead: That of the present vs. the future. This article explains: http://ludo.mwclarkson.com/2012/04/to-clear-the-crowded-sky/

    Basically, rather than the Reapers being a tool for preventing synthetics from wiping out organics, they act more as a forest fire, clearing away old races to make way for new ones, who are given a chance to rise and to thrive without the interference of established races, who would oppress them, and possibly even wipe them out. That would’ve created a far more interesting moral dilemma.

    1. Though as I said in the post, the current cycle was different for that also – sure, the Salarians uplifted the Krogan to counter the rachni, and were looking at doing so with the Yahg – but for the most part, there was peace between races. Humanity shows up, first contact war, yet joins the council races anyway. It’d be interesting to see what repercussions new life/races had if they arose independent of the effects of the synthesis ending, or arrived after control – would Shepalyst intervene to protect the existing races, or make them all play nice together.

      I think that the presence of the mass relays makes it even more likely that one race could gain dominance in the galaxy, whereas more traditional FTL could act as a barrier to rapid expansionism. For me, the relays work best as a means to delay the creation of synthetics. Space is so vast that it’s a deterrent to manned spaceflight going much further than the system the planet is in (and even then), which would increase the likelihood of probes that start with basic heuristics, but eventually move toward fully fledged AI.

      In Mass Effect, the colonist on Feros are controlled by the Thorian, Saren, Benezia and countless others by Sovereign. More by Harbinger in ME2:Arrival, Morinth controlling people, Leviathan controlling people, There’s races uplifted, the Protheans subjugated others, meddled in the development of the Asari, Human and Hanar (and potentially others). There’s a constant trend of races/people being controlled or forced along paths, the same way that the reapers railroaded civilisations along certain paths via the relays/eezo/Citadel. The problem with either the organic/synthetic scenario, the new/old scenario, and the ultimate end of presenting the three lights to Shepard is that we’re saying it’s okay for Shepard to remove their choices, to choose how things should proceed. Everything wrong about the reapers, Leviathan, Protheans, Salarians and so forth saying “I know better than you” is still wrong when Shepard does it.

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