If you want to understand Mass Effect’s conclusion, you have to start not at the beginning, but at the end, the very end. After the credits roll, an old man—and a child who appears to be his grandson—stand in a grove of trees looking out onto a spectacular night sky. The child listens in wonder as the grandfather finishes Mass Effect’s narrative, then asks if the grandfather will tell him another story about “the Shepherd.”
In creating a series that spans hundreds of choices, a spectrum of morality decisions, battles in which any number of characters can die, and various overall design adjustments, Mass Effect manages to finish with a coherent epilogue that encompasses all possible narrative conclusions. Beyond the color-coded final choice offered to Commander Shepard at the pinnacle of the transformed citadel-plus-crucible device, whether you played before or after the expanded ending, the Mass Effect universe ends the same: life goes on, and Commander Shepard was the key piece in deciding how that life would continue.
Secondly, the grandfather epilogue provides a meaningful connection back to the single most-repeated word over the course of dozens of hours of gameplay: Shepard. Think about all the times you heard that name. Remember the YouTube videos that compiled characters saying it again and again. And whether it’s superficial or not, the connection to the epilogue’s Shepherd—the protector—cannot be taken for granted. What Commander Shepard would become was decided before the player even presses start at the first game’s opening.
“But it takes away player agency at the last moment!” you cry. Perhaps it does, but weren’t you paying attention as all those hours of dialogue, cutscenes, and Codex entries rolled by? Races in the Mass Effect universe have only the illusion of choice. Everything goes back to the inevitable cycle which ends with the coming of the Reapers.
“But I chose to wipe out all synthetics!” you say. That’s all well and good for you, but according to the narrative content (which you only ignore if you’re under the delusion that you are making the story, not experiencing a story authored by someone else) synthetic life will again reemerge when a technologically advanced race invents it. So there it is, cyclical thinking, just as the game narrative has presented from day one.
Are there other ways the designers could have concluded the trilogy, yes. Could the voice acting have been better in the epilogue, certainly. But it is the epilogue that finishes Mass Effect, not the choice of Commander Shepard (or the player). The series, it seems, strives to make two points concerning the end of its narrative. The first is that even in a veritable universe’s worth of decisions, all choices lead to the same eventual end. The second is that choice defines character, and character is more important than events.
When the grandfather tells the story to his grandson, when the events of Mass Effect have become tales from long ago, it is not what happened in the story that matters but who.