Repackaging the Archive (Part IX): Concluding Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time after Twenty Years and Some Notes on the Mega-Text

Wheel of Time

We’re a team of sparkle horses lashed to capitalism.

—Bardo Liere Parté, “Index of Petty Tragedies”

I am both embarrassed and proud to report that I recently concluded reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (1990-2013). I have been reading this series of novels for the past twenty years. And I have not been alone in this activity.

Spanning fourteen volumes and nearly twelve-thousand pages,[1] Jordan’s text is quite the literary achievement in terms of longevity, scope, and length. The Wheel of Time of time is, quite simply, one of the longest fantasy epics ever written. And I imagine that it will continue to capture the popular imagination in a number of ways going forward. If George R. R. Martin’s projected seven volumes of A Song of Fire and Ice (1991- ) can be made into a wildly successful television show on Home Box Office, the sky’s the limit for The Wheel of Time. It does not seem too early to think about it as a text that should be taken seriously by literary scholars interested in emerging long forms, dispersed (or distributed) narratives, and the contemporary hyper-commodification of narrative.

The Wheel of Time raises questions about literary “authorship” and the novel-as-mega-text, and it resides between the two extreme poles of the mega-text: works by a single author on one end of the spectrum; and on the other, emergent texts like massively multiplayer online games and works of the multitude. Jordan’s tragic death in 2007, and the subsequent completion of the series by Brandon Sanderson, invokes not only questions about the death of the author, but the work of the multitude, as The Wheel of Time positions itself between these poles in a number of interesting ways, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Sanderson’s final three novels, The Gathering Storm (2009), Towers of Midnight (2010), and A Memory of Light (2013), though satisfyingly faithful to Jordan, and perhaps refreshingly concise, resemble Jordan almost too well.[2] One always got the sense with Jordan that his imagination had been run through some fantasy-narrative generating algorithm that just produced endless serialization, and Sanderson is nothing if not evidence that this type of narrative production (in the full sense of the term) can be outsourced. At the end of the day, The Wheel of Time is best understood as a narrative machine whose clear goal is to produce a considerable amount of money by selling thick volume after thick volume once every couple years for twenty-three years. When D.H. Lawrence once called Walt Whitman a machine, he had no idea. The Wheel of Time is an immense narrative machine. And its terms are drawn firmly by the conditions of late capitalism.

WoT2

And I mean that in a number of ways. First and foremost, though surely not on par with Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind (1995-2007) and Harry Potter (1997-2007) in terms of commercial success and in the number of volumes sold, which wildly outrank Jordan in those categories, The Wheel of Time has still consistently debuted at number one on The New York Times best seller list, has sold over forty-five million copies, and is obviously one of the richest intellectual properties (IPs) available in terms of its potential for further commercialization and capitalization. Even Sanderson’s ending which, I suppose, is one I won’t spoil, leaves the door open to further narrative.[3] I will be surprised if there is not considerably more Wheel of Time ahead that will appear across a range of different media.[4] In short, it will become a text written by an unnameable many. Sanderson is probably only the first in a long line of Jordan surrogates.

But I wish this wasn’t the case. I hope they let it stand as a book / text that can only be read (despite all the text’s obvious and insidious problems, of which there are many). I know there is no way this will happen. We inhabit the small period of time when we can say that The Wheel of Time is principally a series of books rather than a dispersed set of (not always fully related) texts on diverse media platforms. There is yet no television show, no movie, no MMORPG. So for the moment it is an excellent example of a “single” author mega-text. (Sanderson is so faithful to Jordan that one might suggest he does Jordan better than Jordan, and more concisely.) And since it is such a large, exhaustive, encyclopedic text whose principal attraction is precisely its massive proliferation and accumulation, it is a good site to begin sketching some thoughts about how single author mega-texts function.

In a previous post on Mass Effect 3 I defined the mega-text as something that required incredibly non-trivial effort and time to experience or complete. I have been reading Jordan’s novels since the end of fifth grade. I consider this to be a non-trivial amount of time. I continued reading because I had become wholly absorbed in the series’ telos; like many, I had to know how it ended. I reached a moment when I had been reading The Wheel of Time for so long that I couldn’t not keep reading. This wasn’t a kind longue durée page-turner. It was like a job. (Once one gets in the habit of repeating a task, it becomes second nature.) Regardless of how much my literary taste may have matured or changed, once every couple years I found myself wrapped around a new Wheel of Time book for a day or two, tearing through its 900+ pages. Reading it became ritualistic, familiar, a way of marking the passage of the years. A way of reflecting. But I also constantly had to ask myself why I continued reading this interminable, never-ending tale that only seemed to accumulate narrative threads rather than resolve those threads. It was maddening.[5] By the time I received another volume I would have forgotten much of the narrative arc. So rather than be engrossed, I would often be confused, forgetful, dislodged. It became a way of remembering and pointing to a larger (often personal) and multiplicitous past, briefly and captivatingly glimpsed in the threads of narrative repetition and familiarity. Most recently, The Wheel of Time is yet more proof that I am indeed getting old. Time passes. The body wastes away. And I imagine I am not alone with such feelings. Twenty-three years is a long time to wait to learn how a story ends. The mega-text, quite simply, requires and produces different temporalities of reading.

Another reason The Wheel of Time is such an effective narrative machine resides in its affect. Its plot is compelling. That is its whole raison d’être. The series accumulates narrative threads from the perspective of messiahs, apostles, prophets, wizards (Aes Sedai), etc., etc., quite readily. With its hundreds of (often compelling) POV characters, it positions the reader as “agent” of the novel’s world’s history, a multiplicitous omni-subject urged to connect itself affectively to the dramatic sweep of the narrative network, to inhabit multiplicitous “subject” positions within the history of the series’ world. And the networked scope of the work is very much part of what produces The Wheel of Time’s particular brand of literary pleasure.

Jordan’s epic offers up a vast history that is often developed in excruciating and exacting detail. This often means that the emotional texture of Jordan’s prose is formulaic, with consistently flummoxed wooly-headed men being stared down by some bemused woman with her arms crossed beneath her breasts.[6] Each novel’s structure is fairly similar and repetitive, with some kind of “boss fight” at the end of nearly every volume.[7] And of course there are the necessary “twists” and peripeteia that upset the direction(s) of the narrative arc(s). More than anything, the series’ narrative is achingly, mind-numbingly teleological. At a certain point, the pleasure of Sanderson’s ending was that nothing was surprising, that it was predictable. Sanderson fulfilled his contract with Tom Doherty Associates as well as with the reader.

Consequently, a reading of The Wheel of Time as a fervently conservative, end-of-history-era document engaged in nostalgically imagining a strange Medieval version of a neo-liberal economic paradise, clearly suggests itself given the text’s sense of a monolithic, eschatological history. The (evangelical) Christian overtones of the reborn messiah figure lording over multiple nations in order to hasten and prevent the destruction of the world, thereby fulfilling “history,” is blatantly in line with Reagan-era neoconservatism, 1990s-2000s American neo-evangelism, and the national fantasy attending the closing days of the Cold War (there is a thoroughly “evil empire” who of course will get defeated.[8]) If there is any gesture toward other traditions, say, Eastern spirituality—i.e., the yin-yang duality of the male and female halves of the “one power” (which I think can / should be read as the mechanical / electronic harnessing of the universe’s forces along the lines of Henry Adams’s dynamo or the atomic bomb)—this spirituality is thoroughly orientalist, a result of mining other cultural traditions for their exoticism. The hegemony of European modes of living and their contrast to the more “exotic” cultures in Jordan’s world also reinforce the novels’ Eurocentrism, fully locating the West as the principal site of (its) history.[9] Further, many aspects of the books appear to be as almost perfect allegories for the displacement of 1990s conservative ideology onto this space of fantasy. The entire series is pushed by the inhuman weaving of “the pattern” (the force of the “free market”) toward the destruction (production) of the Dark One (profit). Rand al’Thor, the novel’s antichrist / messiah, known as the Dragon Reborn,[10], [11]rather than having as his principal activity the epic “task” of adventuring, largely spends his time dealing with bureaucracy and procedure, organizing men, putting them to work. By the final book, A Memory of Light, he is more like some kind of abstract idea or concept than he is anything resembling a rounded “character.” He is a messiah-as-American-CEO. Surrounded by advisors telling him otherwise, he still boldly sets forth on a path of radical individualism. And like any good technocrat, he grew up in humble surroundings, never asking for the mantle of leadership or responsibility to be placed upon him, while refusing to bend under the weight of his monolithic(ally normative[ly boring]) responsibility. He is the hybrid character that would be produced if the fantastic worlds of Ayn Rand and J.R.R. Tolkien crossbred.

Memory-of-Light_WoT_Michael-Whelan

One of the clearest things about how one should approach The Wheel of Time is that the series is everywhere marked by a will to project a world, to create or textually become a world. And this is one of the principal locations where its conservative project can be seen. The world of The Wheel of Time is its primary “character,” its primary concern, rather than the humans inhabiting that world. In fact, Jordan’s perspective on human interaction and social realities is fairly adolescent. This is probably unsurprising given that one can probably assume that TOR Books is aware that a significant portion of its readership are (or at least once were, like myself many years ago) male adolescents. So, rather than the creation of a world in order to more fully imagine the limits and possibilities of the human, this mega-text formally requires the reification of its human subjects, limiting their range of emotion and expression to the capacities of a geeky adolescent. That the series continually emphasizes the network of connections between the denizens of its world only reinforces the sense that reading The Wheel of Time can be like scrolling through your thirteen year-old nephew’s Facebook feed. Everything the characters think or say, regardless of its significance, is exhaustively and repetitively provided. Through the reification of the human in Jordan’s space, communication in this brand of the mega-text becomes principally mere information, hyperarchivally accumulating in order to absorb (and commercially collect) the reader(’s parent’s hard-earned cash).

Projecting or creating a world is often one of the principle features of the mega-text. These worlds can serve progressive or critical functions, like the world(s) Thomas Pynchon creates between V. (1963) and Inherent Vice (2009),[12] or they can, like Jordan’s text, endlessly reproduce the prevailing cultural logic of the text’s contemporary moment. In other words, there is nothing inherently progressive or liberating about the mega-text. It can serve less noble ends as easily (and perhaps more easily) than it can be a vehicle for critique. There is nothing inherently avant-garde or experimental about the mega-text. Jordan’s oft-commented upon drawing out of the series, its floundering in narrative complication and extension, especially (during the decade!) between A Crown of Swords (1996) and Knife of Dreams (2005),[13] is one of the best examples of the hyperarchival impulse of contemporaneity as realized in literary narrative. For a while, the series seemed to only be interested in endlessly accumulating itself, gathering more and more words and pages, despite its obvious eschatological thrust. It took Jordan’s death, a distinct and incontrovertible end, for someone to actually finish the series (something one might suggest Jordan simply could not do while he was alive). In this way, The Wheel of Time perfectly displays the underlying logic of the mega-text-as-commodity. It both must be teleological (apocalyptic) while always deferring the end in the service of profit, only ending when it no longer is profitable to not end. It can only end after the end; the mega-text in Jordan’s sense is always already post-apocalyptic. In this sense, The Wheel of Time’s serial nature is somewhat different than television or the comic book, though obviously similar. It had to have a sense of an ending, from page one, but it could only become a mega-text while deferring this ending, while simultaneously knowing that someday it must end. (In this sense, it also shares much with the nuclear imagination in terms of the continual deferral of an eschatological projection that [sometimes] seems “inevitable.”)

Perhaps more than anything, however, The Wheel of Time might now be considered a touchstone for the mega-textual novel. Obviously this claim can be argued with, and I hope it is, but in sheer scope and size, it will stand monumentally over the fantasy genre for a number of years. Though I don’t imagine it will ever replace Tolkien as fantasy’s primary referent, Jordan is surely trying to outdo The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949) in a number of ways, and the comparisons between the two will continually be drawn. George Martin will rival Jordan, but he would have to write for another decade (or more, probably) to equal The Wheel of Time’s scope. For the moment, The Wheel of Time is the mega-textual novel par excellence of contemporaneity. And I hope these brief notes begin to point toward some of the ways of engaging with the text that might prove critically productive. The Wheel of Time has so clearly captured a certain segment of the American imaginary precisely because of its size (and little else), and it is so clearly an outgrowth of our current moment’s hunger for accumulating text, information, and data, that to ignore its logic would be a major oversight for thinking about how literature works in the twenty-first century.


[1] It’s fifteen volumes if you count New Spring (2013). This is also to note that hopefully I will be posting more original material / critical writing to this blog now that I have finished the first draft of the dissertation. So stay tuned. There are a number of critical projects I have in the works that this seems the best venue for, including some thoughts on Fallout: New Vegas (2010).

[2] Jordan did leave behind considerable notes, and Sanderson claims that Jordan composed a manuscript of the last chapter, so the words are all his at the series’ end.

[3] Even if the fact that the series finally ended is the occasion for writing this post . . . one could easily imagine that, after the monumental adaptation of The Wheel of Time that goes from 2017-2032 (much like is happening with Star Wars [1977-?] right now), in 2042 they’ll make the first MMOARG, or whatever, as The Wheel of Time 2. Nerds of the future beware. I’m predicting the hyperinternetwhatevermachine is going to explode with impotent nerd rage about “authenticity” or whatever.

[4] Jordan’s IP has already tentatively started to cross-pollinate with other media. There was a Wheel of Time computer game published in 1999. Wizards of the Coast released The Wheel of Time Role Playing Game in 2001. During the heyday of Magic: The Gathering and collectible card games, there was a short-lived Wheel of Time: Collectible Card Game (2000). There has been a comic book series, published by Dynamite Entertainment, The Wheel of Time: The Eye of the World (2005- ). And there are reports of a video game in development by Red Eagle Games.

Most significantly, however, it has been reported that Jordan’s estate has optioned the rights to the Universal Entertainment Corporation. (The National Broadcasting Company has no idea what kind of goldmine it’s sitting on here.) Unlike Martin, Jordan is pretty PG-13, and thus perfect for primetime network drama. The scope of the narrative would probably permit a relatively small budget, at least at first (The Eye of the World [1990] occurs primarily in the countryside, and the first book’s ability to be filmed on a modest budget I have to imagine was on Jordan’s mind. Jordan might not be much to speak of as a prose stylist, but he repeatedly proved himself a shrewd businessman). I also imagine that there is a significant potential for a Wheel of Time massively multiplayer online game.

[5] I distinctly remember conversations in a warehouse one summer with another Jordan aficionado about how it would never end. I hope he enjoyed the series’ conclusion(s). This is also way of thanking all those I read and talked about The Wheel of Time with during middle school (the early 1990s).

[6] One might suggest that were Jordan’s prose any more rich or engaging (i.e., at all), this would distract from the absorptive quality of the narrative.

[7] In this way it readily suggests a video game adaptation.

[8] Even from the opening pages of the text can I imagine that this “spoiler” surprises anyone.

[9] I.e., the appearance of the Sharans in the last book, one of the few people / places in the series that was frequently referred to but never represented, is a particularly acute instance of Jordan’s orientalism. They appear seemingly randomly, without the (endlessly articulated) motivations of other events. They have nothing resembling the history of the nations the main characters inhabit. And their ahistorical existence means that they can readily be killed by the forces of “light” without worrying about their essential humanity (as opposed to killing the inhuman Trollocs or Myrddraal, inhuman monsters who have nothing resembling subjectivity). This is also probably the place to note that The Wheel of Time of course has an extensive wiki.

[10] Don’t worry I have neither the time nor the space nor the inclination to start talking about the plot, which is probably revealing in that the details of the events in the book, at the end of the day, are both superfluous and encyclopedic, normative and exhaustive, interesting and super boring. It also may necessitate a new way of talking about “reading,” because “close reading” (or “distant reading”) do not really work here. Perhaps a term like “patient reading” is in order—i.e., to critically approach The Wheel of Time simply requires the patience to read twelve-thousand pages (no matter how “entertaining” they might be).

[11] I should also note that Jordan is highly conservative in terms of gender and sexuality (though Sanderson addresses this a bit in the final books, which is appreciated), and is at times a bit misogynist. (I.e., Rand has three wives and continually misunderstands them. Then they’re frustrated by his inability to understand, which frustrates him, ad nauseum. There are very few relationships in the book that resemble real adult relationships.

[12] Who knows how Bleeding Edge (2013?) might (or might not) complicate this.

[13] Jordan’s titles were (laughably) unimaginative. If he had stayed alive indefinitely and kept writing (without finishing, ever), he would eventually have had to arrive at a title that read: The Noun of Nouns.s

Wow, Quite the Mega-Text

A good friend of mine just directed my attention to Richard Grossman’s Breeze Avenue, a massive text that will eventually be 3,000,00 pages, 15 terabytes of information, roughly 5% of the entire Library of Congress.[1] Does the term “mega-text” even cover something this large?


[1] Note: An earlier version of this post claimed that this 15 terabytes would be “more than the entire Library of Congress.” As so much on Grossman’s site, the details of the project keep changing.

Repackaging the Archive (Part VI): No Sense of an Ending: Some Notes on the Mega-Narrative and the Reaction to the Ending of Mass Effect

Some time ago I weighed in on the ending of Lost. In that post I wrote about its final episode: “The whole format of the show—flashbacks, flashforwards, and flashes-sideways—always privileged character development, so of course the show ends on this. I’m not surprised per se, just disappointed to realize that I’ve been invested in what I thought was a fascinating show, w/ massive intellectual ambition, only to discover that all that ambition was a mere prop, mere window dressing to a fairly normative melodramatic narrative—i.e. redemption (gag).” Like the ending of Lost, the conclusion of Mass Effect, one of the most ambitious SF narratives/franchises/IPs to be launched in the last 5 years, has received similar attention from fans who felt it did not live up to the standards established by the rest of the series. The much discussed ending of Mass Effect 3, which I will spoil right now, however, enthralled me. The following is the ending I received in its entirety[1]:

And I cannot say about this ending what I said about Lost.

As my interest in Mass Effect is largely structural and this will ultimately involve a discussion of its narrative form, I will begin with telling my own story of the game. And indeed, this is largely the point of Mass Effect: following the branches of an immensely large decision tree, navigating a compelling and ethically complex narrative, constitutes the majority of gameplay.[2] And I imagine that the rich personalized narrative texture that results from players’ decisions constitutes the primary attraction of the game. For instance, here is the decision tree just for the endgame of Mass Effect 2:

So I’d been weaning myself off another mega-narrative w/ Skyrim, and having exhausted that, and reading Kyle Munkittrick’s bold assessment of Mass Effect, “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation,” decided I’d pick up in the middest w/ Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 3 had just appeared, and though I heard the internet rumblings of an unsatisfactory ending to the game, I didn’t know yet that it had produced Downfall-levels of nerdish-ire. Staying purposefully ignorant of such discussions, I played through 2 and 3 fairly quickly, but thoroughly (i.e. I didn’t really feel like gathering up all the space debris, nor does my clunky old X-Box have online access).

Whereas Lost was hyperarchival in terms of the frequent references it made, and how it played with its own history and temporality (among other things), Mass Effect is hyperarchival for the simple reason that it is huge, and the narrative possibilities you don’t experience far outweigh the ones that you do. To have a handle on the branching narrative paths of the game would require a) playing it for a very, very long amount of time, or b) consulting the Mass Effect wiki frequently and often. Further, as Munkittrick points out, there is a wealth of reading material in the game: emails, communications intelligence, bureaucratic tasks, a codex developing the galaxy’s deep-history, quite convincing scientific information on the various planets you come across, etc. In short, Mass Effect’s narrative is . . . massive, both in form and content. To actually experience “all” of it (say, in the fashion that it would take one a few hours to read all the books in Skyrim), really is not possible unless one wants to spend simply an ungodly amount of time w/ it. In short, Mass Effect is a mega-narrative.

By mega-narrative I mean a narrative that is simply too big to traverse without incredibly-non-trivial effort. Not infinite of course, but prohibitively large. Something that, if one attempted to see and do everything the trilogy allows one to do, I’m not sure whether it would be impressive, or else show a particular kind of obsessive behavior that one can imagine being discouraged by parents, friends, lovers, and medical professionals alike. (And of course there is an attendant sense of adolescence to the whole thing. . . .) In short, reading a mega-narrative is always prohibitive. There are aspects of the narrative you will simply never know (because who really wants to spend the time?). Unless, of course, you have access to the internet. The mega-narrative thus also functions in conjunction with other media formats—i.e. they virtually require an additional, largely user-generated tool, to be approached rigorously.[3]

It is for this reason that no other narrative aspect of Mass Effect ever could achieve the kind of wide audience, let alone the conversation, that a single ending would produce. If every ending was decidedly different, for a game that relied so heavily on individualized character development, there wouldn’t be anything to talk about; no common narrative ground would be shared. Yes, the game is obviously rich in terms of the critical approaches it immediately suggests, but we’d have to talk about narrative in more abstract terms, constantly comparing one’s own experience w/ another’s. Did you choose the Quarians or the Geth? Which character(s) did you find romance with? I could go on w/ such questions for quite a while, but will refrain because, like hearing about someone else’s dreams, I imagine that hearing what another person chose to do in the game would be weirdly boring and meaningless.

Mass Effect produces a strong connection between a player and their avatar. This is achieved by the decisions you make in the game. These decisions ultimately affect the fate of species and the entire galaxy. But the real texture of Mass Effect resides in the micro-narratives interspersed throughout. Though sometimes cheesy, and of course melodramatic, the dialogue between characters is compelling, with particularly good voice acting from such notables as Freddy Prinze Jr., Michael Hogan, Tricia Helfer, Jennifer Hale, and Martin Sheen, among many others. Sheen’s voicing of the Illusive Man, though no Captain Benjamin L. Willard, is stellar.[4] The characters are emotionally complex, and the multitude of species allows the writers to explore some interesting paths (perhaps) unavailable to a more anthropocentric speculative universe. (And really I would go on, but I don’t want to seem too gushy.)

So it is understandable that mere days after the game was released, there was already an online petition to change the ending. For, despite slight differences, Mass Effect, for all its branching narrative complexity, has what (at least at first glance) reads an awful lot like a single ending. Further, as this video loudly demonstrates, there are a few narrative inconsistencies to the final minutes of the game, not least of which is a scene that shows one character who (presumably) died on my final mission somehow getting aboard the Normandy (a spaceship) and the fact presented in the Codex, and elsewhere in the game, that destroying the mass effect relays would obliterate the solar system(s).[5] But I imagine that the uproar about the ending has far less to do w/ the inconsistencies presented in the last few minutes than the simple fact that players’ sense of their unique individual experience was felt to be invalidated. As Sparky Clarkson writes: “The end of Mass Effect 3 disregards the player’s choices on both galactic and personal scales.”[6]

The conflict here, both at a structural level and as it is expressing itself all over the web, is perhaps, if not unique, then worthy of note considering the larger history of narrative. For it is not that a different ending is being demanded, but rather many different endings appropriate to the individual player’s experience of the game. As mediums, the oral tradition, novel, film, and television simply do not allow such a uniquely tailored narrative experience. Whatever one might say about a particularly good or bad sense of an ending, no one would dream of criticizing the ending of a novel b/c it didn’t fit w/ the decisions a reader/player made when engaging w/ the text. Because massively distributed media necessarily had to be confined to a relatively limited form (in terms of how much information could be conveyed and stored in a book, etc.), such branching endings simply weren’t possible. And this is precisely what is happening w/ Mass Effect. People are upset that, regardless of what actually happens in its ending, their own unique sense of individuality, of making the game “their own,” is threatened. There is something deeply strange about the demand for what amounts to a “personalized” ending; and though I think Laura Parker has a certain point, the issues at stake go beyond arguing that, “[i]f BioWare does change the end of Mass Effect 3 to mollify a handful of goading voices, the game itself would no longer be the expression of its original creators. It would cease to be art.”[7]

Rather, a game that truly provided multiple, relatively individual, non-repeatable endings would be a profound achievement in exploring what the medium of video games can dialogically express, and would(/might) draw the video game forever into serious discussions of art—i.e. we wouldn’t have pieces in The Atlantic still reading vids as (only) adolescent, puerile, onanistic fantasies.[8] It would also evince a level of technocratic, corporate control over the individual experiences of players that would be unprecedented.[9] They didn’t achieve such a feat in Mass Effect, and though I wish they had (and also don’t), to dismiss a text for what it didn’t do is always problematic.[10] Such a game will appear that does achieve something like this. I guarantee you. It is the horizon of possibility for the mega-narrative. But for the moment, Mass Effect continues to make clear “the dissidence between inherited forms and our own reality.”[11] And perhaps we need to look closer at a few aspects of the game to understand its ending. For what is incredibly weird about the ruckus raised by the ending (the blue, green, and red similarities), no one has really said anything about the ending itself—i.e. what it means, how we might read it, why might have the narrative ended that way rather than another, etc. You know, basic hermeneutic stuff, critical attention, which the game so obviously deserves.

First off, Caleb A. Scharf’s Mass Effect Resolves the Fermi Paradox,” deserves special attention. Scharf, an astrobiologist himself, argues that “the biggest idea, the biggest piece of fiction-meets-genuine-scientific-hypothesis is the overarching story of Mass Effect. It directly addresses one of the great questions of astrobiology—is there intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy, and if so, why haven’t we intersected with it yet?”[12] (This question is at the root of the Fermi Paradox.) The ending(s) of Mass Effect, whichever of the actually truly distinct endings you consider, answers this question, but each in a different way. Anyone perhaps unfamiliar w/ video games will notice that, even though each ending is only a touch bit different, the sixteen endings are distinct. (See this.) For instance, my “bad” ending (my personal favorite, for obvious reasons), has galactic eschatological implications for futurity—i.e. no Earth, species cut off from each other, stranded and wandering the galaxy—as opposed to other endings where there is at least an Earth, species still cut off from one another; or else a kind of utopian possibility of the coexistence of biology and AI; or the dystopian nightmare of a Shepherd/Reaper controlled galaxy, etc. These are actually incredibly different.The “bad” ending is a kind of M.A.D.; the conflict between synthetic and organic life is projected as always apocalyptic; this conflict can result in nothing but utter destruction. I adore its nihilism. The other endings are still catastrophic, but reveal deeper levels of connection and/or control between technology and biology.[13] (And the game also shows the effects of your decision at a local level, implying that there will be distinctly different destinies for the characters and, most importantly, their progeny.) No matter the ending, however, each one concerns the simple fact that, w/o speculating a technology like the mass relays—the gateways to the stars—galactic civilization simply is not possible. In this sense, the game destroys its own initial premise in the final minutes, which is a stroke of utter metafictional brilliance, and, given what we know about physics, it explores the dissidence of inherited forms (the space opera), with reality: that travel between the stars may simply not be possible w/o the godlike hand of a massive artificial intelligence.[14] There is thus something deeply nihilistic in the shared aspect of each narrative ending. And in this sense, one might say the game moves from a kind of fantastic messianism to a nihilistic realism, from the form of the 20th c. space opera to a hyperarchival realism in which we might, and this is to acknowledge all of ME’s ambition, lay to rest the shaky physics the 20th c. space opera always depended upon for its realization—i.e. FTL travel. ME, for all its ambition and complexity, is also a highly nuanced commentary on its own form and on the tradition of SF that went before it. As such, I believe we are actually invited to read the ending w/in an even longer history of SF. (But will leave that for others.)

At the level of characters w/in the game itself, it is important to note that in the dénouement your character becomes a “Legend,” literally “The Shepherd.” The obvious Christian reference aside, she is still deified. So, it should be presumably clear that the next installment in the ME universe will probably be in the (quite distant) future.[15] Either way, the distinct endings one might receive at the end of ME3 imply different universesthat one might import to a future title. Whatever universe might be possible, it is still a universe defined by the decision you, as a player, made.[16] Yes, this decision was boiled down to three simple options. But that was the point. The entire game had presented your options in black-and-white terms. You could either decide to be a paragon or a rebel. So in one sense, the introduction of this third way, this other path, is the point.

One way of reading the questions of choice and free will the game presents, then, is to understand that Shepherd’s coming into true consciousness (rather than, say, her considerable athletic intelligence) happens as a result of her realization that there are more than two options to solve a particular problem.[17] The “difficult” decisions you were forced into throughout the game were rarely a decision between a clearly correct and incorrect path, let alone a “good” and “evil” path, to the game’s credit. Regardless of the ethical complexity constantly confronting the player, however, whatever you did choose to do put you a step closer to the end. No matter the decision, the game was overwhelmingly teleological. No matter what you did, really, the end was always contained in the beginning, even if you made considerably different decisions to get to the final scene. This, unless I’m incorrect, doesn’t really resemble anything like true choice. Shepherd, even though she is “you,” is still an archetypal hero. So one might suggest that only where fate led her was where a real choice presents itself. And of course this still isn’t much of a choice at all, but is the one choice beyond which you as a character cannot go,[18] the choice w/ the most massive effects on the galaxy. And this choice is whether to blow something up, jump into a laser, or take control of the Reapers.

So, rather than reading the end as a lack of choice, a lack of any real “meaning” to your individual decisions, perhaps we should read it as the one moment in ME where you (as a player) have the most power over shaping the narrative w/ your decisions. B/c ME’s narrative trajectory is concerned with the eschatological horizon of life, whether life continues as biological, synthetic, or what have you, and your decision determines how the ensuing manipulation of this horizon will play out, by avoiding one apocalypse, you rewrite another. This may also constitute a new galactic cycle. Though life emerges spontaneously from the galaxy, even something as immense as a galaxy has a carrying capacity, and like any ecology, has some cyclical elements. (Or else this is ME reflecting on Nietzsche’s eternal return.)

In this sense, I would like to emphasize the point that Shepherd is the vehicle through which the narrative of the world of ME is told, rather than the world being a mere setting to explore her (i.e. the player’s) narcissistic fantasies. And indeed, depending on how you play, this is a point she continually makes through dialogue. ME, then, is far less about Shepherd, at the end of the day, than it is about itself, about its world/galaxy/universe. This is why the endings are so distinct. They all imply radically different futures, radically different galaxies, even if they all share the brutal, nihilistic realism of no real galactic future civilization being possible.[19] ME’s ending(s) reveal an incredibly deep history, and so to focus on the tiny bit of that history the few years of its narrative represents, is to fundamentally misread what is at stake in the game.

As the epilogue to the game emphasizes, Shepherd is primarily a figure through which the galaxy’s history and narrative can be understood. She is a significant node (but only a node) in the development of its complex ecology. More than any decision one makes in the game, she is such b/c of whichever of the three paths you pick. Yes, there are narrative inconsistencies, which might largely be attributable to the fact that we simply don’t know what happens between Shepherd entering the Crucible and the Normandy escaping. (This will probably be in the DLC, btw.) If the mass effect relays’ destruction really does destroy the solar systems they reside in, all the better. The inevitability of extinction, the blip of galactic time sentient life thrived and communicated across species and the galaxy—it is the anomaly of this that ME concerns itself w/. What the reaction to the ending of ME reveals, then, is that it is actually a game that is quite rigorous, as it eschews the easy narrative choice of redemption in favor of a cosmic eschatological perspective. Your choices, in the galactic scheme of things, don’t matter. The importance of any one individual—even the most heroic, storied, badass individual whose final decision has galactic import and changes the very life-cycle of the galaxy—is minimal. Rather than be upset about the fact that one’s individual gaming experience was “disrespected,” perhaps we should be thankful that a text as popular as ME had the gumption to refuse narrative normativity and to critique the cult of individuality the game’s very success is grounded upon.


[1] This is more-or-less the ending I experienced, except my character was a black female w/ blond hair, blue eyes, and wickedly luminous facial scars; a striking Commander Shepherd. Also, I am firmly of the (similar) mindset that by revealing some aspects of a text’s narrative (esp. its ending) it is thus “spoiled,” really probably means there wasn’t much to be spoiled in the first place. This is not the case for Mass Effect.

[3] Which I will not be doing here.

[4] It need hardly be mentioned that Mass Effect also had a very large budget.

[5] These inconsistencies have even caused one particularly industrious group of people to formulate an involved (and convoluted) theory that supposedly “explains” the end in logical fashion.

[6] Sparky Clarkson, “Mass Effect 3’s Ending Disrespects its Most Invested Players,” Kotaku (3 April 2012), http://kotaku.com/5898743/mass-effect-3s-ending-disrespects-its-most-invested-players.

[7] Laura Parker, “Why BioWare Shouldn’t Change Mass Effect 3’s Ending,” Gamespot (13 March 2012), http://www.gamespot.com/features/why-bioware-shouldnt-change-mass-effect-3s-ending-6366066/.

[8] Even if they often are.

[9] This is what is so ultimately disturbing about ME and the clamor for individualized endings. It is in the interest of the corporate mega-narrative for its reader to become as absorbed as possible in their IP, potentially at the expense of all other texts. What is more absorptive (and reifying) than a massively disseminated text that is capable of giving the illusion of actual individual subjectivity and agency? No matter the potential for aesthetic realization represented by the video game mega-narrative, there is also the potential for unprecedented control—viz. WoW.

[10] I.e. why weren’t there Transformers in The Wizard of Oz!? That would’ve been so much better.

[11] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 130.

[12] Caleb A. Scharf, “Mass Effect Solves the Fermi Paradox?” Scientific American (15 March 2012), http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/life-unbounded/2012/03/15/mass-effect-solves-the-fermi-paradox/.

[13] I’m sure there is an excellent Deleuzian reading out there.

[14] This, to be sure, is also the problem of Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2006).

[15] And the intellectual property that is ME would obviously thrive if such games were made w/ the same attention that the trilogy received.

[16] And seriously, how much more entitled can be when becoming a god of myth and legend is not a satisfactory enough individual experience w/ a game!? Are we all such delicate little important flowers that this isn’t enough?

[17] If I do have one criticism of the ending, it is that the Bartlebian option of preferring to do nothing wasn’t available. Though of course that is one ending of ME2, to its great credit—i.e. everyone dies, you fail, galaxy destroyed, before ME3 even begins. Which, of course, is another “possible” ending to the ME universe—i.e. you don’t even get to 3.

[18] Unless she lives. Well, of course she lives. She is a comic book character. Though I prefer my ending in which she dies.

[19] The same point can and should be made about Skyrim. Your character is far less a figure that you feel connection w/ than a vehicle through which to traverse the true “hero” of the game: its complex, vibrant world.