A lot has been written about the ending of Mass Effect 3, both good and bad. Hundreds, if not thousands, of very intelligent people have written up valid defenses and criticisms of it. I’ll admit I’m far more sympathetic to the criticisms of the ending than I am with the defenses of it. In my view, the ending was a bait-and-switch… rather than following through with the overarching story of the three games (Shepard versus the Reapers), we received a meta-textual post-narrative post-modern diatribe over philosophical issues which were resolved throughout the three games and pigeon-holed into three choices which represented compromise (accepting defeats) to get what is wanted.
As much as I would love to analyze the ending, I think everything that could be said about it has been said. So rather than looking at the ending and echoing everyone else’s words, I want to try something different. I want to look at the logical consequences of the ending. I think doing this can give a different perspective on the Mass Effect 3 ending.
1. The Mass Relays
In the Mass Effect 2 DLC, Arrival, we learn that a mass relay contains enough energy to destroy an entire solar system. I’m not sure if that means it destroys every planet within the system or the radiation of the explosion renders the entire system uninhabitable and impossible to navigate. For simplicity’s sake, I will take the DLC at its word and assume that the destruction of a mass relay will lead to the destruction of an entire solar system.
The original ending of Mass Effect 3 had every mass relay in the galaxy explode. In the Extended Cut DLC, every mass relay in the galaxy was damaged. BioWare took the questionable position that there were different types of explosions, which would make it possible for a mass relay to explode without destroying an entire solar system. I suspect this is a rationalization as if there were such a thing as different explosions for mass relays, it is reasonable to assume it would have been talked about in the game.
If the mass relays all exploded and it led to the death of quadrillions of sentient alien species, it would be tragic… but it would also really prevent any way to talk about consequences of the ending. All I’d type is “and everyone died. The end.” Not very interesting. So rather than that, let’s focus on the amount of energy contained in a mass relay. It contains as much potential energy as an entire solar system, all contained within that structure. When the mass relay was destroyed, or damaged, it released all that energy that were contained within there.
After the mass relays released all the energy, no mass relay in the galaxy would be powered. Finding out how to replace that power would be the first problem anyone would have when trying to rebuild the mass relay. It can’t be easy to generate more power than what’s contained within an entire solar system. And considering nothing like that at all was ever discussed in the game (the Protheans could only manage a minuscule one when compared to the size of normal relays), or even tried for that matter, it would take years (in the ideal situation) for any team to come up with how to generate that kind of power. So we can imagine the galactic community being separated for years. We can assume some places will do better than others when it comes to replacing the power source, so it could be decades, if not centuries, before every system can power the relay.
Assuming the power problem can be overcome, there’s also the problem of repairing the mass relay. Those things are pretty much indestructible. And massive. It would take a year, at least, to mine and process material needed (under ideal situations) to make replacement parts. Repairing the damaged parts? Wow. That could take a few years, since chances are… nothing like this has happened before. For the systems that don’t have the resources or infrastructure to do the repairs… well… they are separated from the rest of the galaxy until someone from the outside can find a way to make contact.
So a real consequence of the mass relays exploding is galactic separation for at least five years. And even then, it would take decades, if not centuries, for a fraction of the systems to be reconnected together.
2. FTL Drives
FTL drives allows ships to travel between star systems at a local cluster. This is how it was used in the three games. The Normandy tended to use up its entire fuel reserve traveling through a local cluster. The fuel consumption is a very important point here. Ships need fuel to make it to their destination. And the FTL drive eats up fuel rapidly.
In Extended Cut, it showed the entire fleet jumping away using their FTL drives. Casey Hudson claimed the fleet would find a way to improve on their FTL drives to replace mass relays in the short term.
No matter the speed of the ship, the major limitation has to be the fuel. We know a Reaper ship can go roughly 30 light years in 24 hours… and most ships in the galaxy can, at best, go half that fast. So that means maybe a few ships can manage to get 15 light years away before their fuel starts to run out. Not looking very good there. The nearest star to us is Alpha Centuri (4 light years). After that is the Bernard Star (6 light years). The stars get progressively further and further out. Not too many of these systems have planets. So chances are, there won’t be any place to refuel.
There would be a lot of desperation to improve on the FTL drives after the battle ended. The fleet would quickly realize they were trapped. So they would begin experimenting, trying to find a way to get more out of their fuel. This wouldn’t be a calm scientific research. This is a matter of survival. How many accidents do you think there will be, all to try shortcuts? It would be a mad race against time, once they see how long it would take for the mass relays to be repaired.
I can’t estimate how long it would take them to figure out a way to improve on their FTL drive. But improving on technology isn’t as easy as Hudson makes it out to be. And since he was going for realism in his game, I think we should apply it to how long it would take to improve on existing technologies. I’d estimate a year. Maybe two.
This wouldn’t do much to help bring the galaxy back together in any semblance of order as it used to be. The modifications wouldn’t be universal. It would be done in one system and then that technology would slowly spread out. And give the size of the galaxy, I can’t estimate how long it would take to share this sort of technology with everyone. It could take centuries, easily. Dozens of centuries.
So a real consequence of this would be the same as for the mass relays: galactic separation.
3. The Economy
In a free market system, specialization occurs frequently. For example, most of the food in the U.S. is grown in the mid-west. It’s an ideal location for it. The same will apply to the Mass Effect universe, since it is free market. Some planets will be far better at growing food than other planets. Some planets probably have more resources. Some planets would have skilled laborers for building. None of this is a huge stretch. It’s fairly reasonable to assume this is what happened in the Mass Effect universe.
And when everything separated, the galactic economy collapsed overnight.
Worse, until anyone can reach the planets that specialize in growing food, there will be galactic famine. Galactic shortages of needed supplies. The causalities from this would be mind-boggling. The population of the galactic community could shrink down to a small fraction of what it once was while the population size corrects itself to whatever food is available.
4. And so on
For those who claim that the people who hated the ending of Mass Effect 3 only wanted a “happy ending”… I don’t think they truly understand why people don’t like the ending. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a happy ending. Hell, that’s why we play video games. Real life sucks. Video games are a great escape from it.
The three aspects of the ending that I looked at are fairly reasonable. I didn’t even look at the societal factors that would come into play. One of them I am confident would lead into the first Asari War. But that’s for another post….