Note: This was written before the “Extended Cut DLC” and thus doesn’t take it into account.
Fair warning: The rest of this article has deep spoilers about the ending of Mass Effect 3.
While many people might be spending time analyzing what the ending to Mass Effect 3 means in a deep philosophical sense, I instead was more concerned about what it meant to the characters in the universe itself.
ME3 offers Shepard three choices in its final moments. Though the game fails to provide much insight as to the aftermath of each of the choices, enough is revealed about them in order to make some useful analysis. Regardless of which ending Shepard chooses, two things are certain:
- The Reaper threat is ended (for now at least).
- The Mass Relays are destroyed.
Now, the former item is what the Shepard has spent the better part of two games trying to ensure. The latter, however, is an unexpected, unplanned, and troublesome side effect. The Mass Relays represent a huge piece of galactic infrastructure and are necessary to the normal functioning of the society that has been built up. Their absence, coupled with the devastation of numerous colonies, homeworlds, and stations, means, on its face, an end to the intergalactic status quo that has existed since the Asari found the Citadel.
At first this seemed like an insurmountable hurdle to the remaining species. However, as I thought about it, certain details that had been revealed made things seem less dire. Taking the reconstruction of the Mass Relays as easily the most important post-Reaper activity causes the three endings to rearrange themselves in order of best possible outcome.
Destruction: The Reapers–and all other synthetic life in the galaxy–are destroyed. It is clear that this includes AIs, like EDI, the Geth, and the Reapers, but it is implied that some or perhaps all VIs would also be destroyed.
Domination: Shepard, by sacrificing herself, asserts total control over all synthetic life. It isn’t clear if this is by redefining the synthetic life to be subservient or if Shepard becomes some sort of machine god, controlling them like puppets. The precise details are unimportant to the examination.
Synthesis: Shepard, again by sacrifice, forces an evolutionary change on both synthetic and organic life throughout the galaxy. Each has parts of the other forcibly combined into them, resulting in a single hybrid “synth-organic” gestalt. Without this clear division, the war ends.
The question that must be asked, then, is which of these endings is most likely to bring about the quick restoration of galactic stability? What we know from the first Mass Effect is that the Reapers were the ones who built the Mass Relays. Furthermore, we know from the Arrival expansion to Mass Effect 2 and the beginning of Mass Effect 3, that the Reapers possess FTL technology sufficiently advanced for them to cover an inter-Mass Relay distance in no more than 6 months. This, according to the codex, is substantially faster than any of the Council races.
With both of these facts know, it is instantly clear that Reaper technology is the key to a quick restoration of the Mass Relays and a return to the previous galactic order. Unfortunately, given the lack of progress with the millenia of study that the Turians, Asarai, and Salarians have put into the Mass Relays, it is unlikely that they would be able to reproduce them without assistance from the Reapers themselves. Therefore, it with certainty that I say that Destruction is the worst of all possible endings. It is certainly worth commenting that, by having the entirety of the Crucible development staff (perhaps the greatest assemblage of technological, scientific, and engineering minds in their time) near the Reaper graveyard it might be possible to salvage and develop the technology behind the Mass Relays. This would, however, be a task of likely similar in scope and resource allocation to the building of the Crucible itself. Now, however, their only means of material support are the remnants of the human developments in Sol and nearby systems and whatever they can salvage from the fleet.
With Destruction removed as a viable option, we are left only with Synthesis and Dominion. While there are certainly ethical concerns raised by the subjugation of several species of sentient life, those are not at issue here. Instead, the question is merely bring back galactic normality. To that end, Dominion is a more sure choice. Under a Synthesis ending, the already enigmatic and complex motivations of the Reapers become even more unclear. Though they, by their departure, seem no longer interested in the destruction of sentient, highly-advanced, organic life, it isn’t clear that they would be interested in assisting their fellow hybrid creatures in rebuilding, either.
With the distinction of organic vs. synthetic origin gone, it might be reasonable to assume that the creatures would enact a non-interference regime, similar to those used by Council species to avoid altering the development of “younger” species. Moreover, if they do take a less extreme anti-interference stance, they might consider their original construction of the Mass Relays to be an impermissible interference and refuse to assist in their reconstruction, even if they do help in the reconstruction of devastated worlds. Along either anti-interference path, the situation is arguably worse than in the Destruction ending: there, the materials existed to be studied; here, they’re still mobile and might simply leave. This line of reasoning seems to argue that the downside risk is probably greatest in the Synthesis ending; though, it would be unfair to say that there is no hope here. The Reapers might wish to enter into a more peaceful existence with the younger races. If so, this could be a path not just to restoration, but to enhancement and evolution.
The simplest solution, though, and the one which is guaranteed to restore galactic order is the Dominion ending. Here, the Council races can simply force the Reapers to use their advanced technology to both rebuild the Mass Relays and presumably assist in the rebuilding of destroyed planets. Unlike in Synthesis, there is no chance of negative response.
Knowing which solution to choose is only part of the solution, though, it is also worth considering the timetable of the restoration. Earth, devastated by the brunt of the war and now one of a very small number of ports for the largest fleet assembled in 50,000 years, will need to reopen Mass Relay corridors as quickly as possible in order to have any chance of rebuilding. Luckily, the homeworlds of the majority of the fleet–Asari, Turian, Krogan, and Salarian–are just two jumps away from Earth by Mass Relay. Even better, the first jump to all of those locations is the former location of the Citadel.
This leads to a very clear strategy for rebuilding. First, a new Mass Relay would be constructed in the Sol system. Once completed, it would begin being moved immediately, via FTL drive, to the former location of the Citadel. A second Relay would then begin to be constructed to be the final Sol Relay. Once those two were completed, the same strategy could be performed to link up each of the Council homeworlds back into the network.
With that, it would mean that the total time to repatriate the fleets to their homeworlds would be:
Time to Citadel Relay Usable = (Construction Time) + Max( (Reaper flight time), (Construction Time)) Time to Next System = (Construction Time) + Max( (Reaper flight time), (Construction Time)) Each Additional = Max( (Reaper flight time), (Construction Time) )
Given that the Crucible was a product produced within a few months time, it is probably reasonable to say that the construction time of a Mass Relay is less than the projected Reaper flight time. The above formulation then collapses down to a series of some initial constant for the construction of two relays and their alignment time plus 6 months for each additional relay that needs to be built. Under these assumptions, the major four major fleets would be repatriated within 3 years.
The Geth and Quarian, however, are easily 5-7 jumps away from the Citadel, and so will once again be stranded away from their homeworlds for an extended period of time. I’m not sure if this is an ironic fate leveled by Mass Effect 3‘s writers or simply an interesting coincidence. Either way, it certainly helps to cement the Quarians’ status as galactic chew toy.