Note: In addition to the obvious, this article discusses the ending of Mass Effect 3.
In one of the finer Ren & Stimpy episodes ever made, Ren succumbs to a malady known only as “space madness.” As his already precarious mental state deteriorates, Ren uses reverse psychology to tempt Stimpy into pushing the History Eraser Button. When Stimpy asks him what the shiny, candy-like red button will do when depressed, a maniacal Ren replies, “Maybe something bad. Maybe something good. I guess we’ll never know.”
That episode was very much in my mind as I played through the much-derided dénouement of Mass Effect 3. BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy is the story of Commander Shepard, a tough-as-nails space-marine hero type who fights to save the galaxy from an unstoppable wave of ancient, sentient machine exterminators known as the Reapers. It was touted as a revolutionary series, in that the choices you make in the first game carry over to the final installment—the implication being that your experience, by the time it was finished, might significantly diverge from that of another player who chose different paths. As you pull your bloody carcass up to the final stage of the last game, Shepard must choose between several literally armageddon-inducing buttons. Inevitably, whichever choice you make, the choices you made in the previous games immediately become irrelevant, your history effectively erased.
Years before Commander Shepard raged against the hostile machines, there was another human soldier fighting insurmountable odds—and making hard choices—to save humanity’s freeze-dried bacon. Wing Commander’s Colonel Christopher Blair fought the ferocious feline Kilrathi in a take-no-prisoners space-fight to the death. Despite Blair’s cockpit wizardry, the events of Wing Commander III: Heart Of The Tiger reveal the humans’ increasingly desperate condition. Conventional resistance is failing, so the Confederation—like the Alliance of Mass Effect 3—turns to genocidal techno-panaceas for salvation.
Released in 1994 for the PC, the space flight simulator Wing Commander III is equal parts movie and game. Mark Hamill stars as Col. Blair. He’s joined by Malcolm McDowell, John Rhys-Davies, and the guy who played Biff Tannen in Back To The Future. As in its predecessors, the action between cutscenes is 360-degree, first-person space dogfighting. The Kilrathi prove remarkably agile pilots for a race of large, hyper-aggressive cat people with no opposable thumbs. They also taunt as well as any fat, pimply schoolyard bully. Still, they are no match for Skywalk… er, Blair, and a long queue soon forms at the entrance of kitty hell. But it’s the time between missions, aboard the flagship TCS Victory, that the game reveals its depth.
The Victory is a place where our better angels get drunk at the bar just like everyone else. Racism rears its ugly head, as Hobbes—a Kilrathi defector and longtime friend of Blair’s—must stoically bear suspicion and outright hostility from the rest of the crew, despite his exemplary service record. Hobbes has proven himself time and again, and the loyal Blair always stands by his furry ally. Surprisingly, it’s the vile hatemongers who live to see their small-minded intolerance vindicated. Well, most of them live to see it. The real endgame of Wing Commander III begins when you come across one of your shipmates, Cobra, bleeding out on the flight deck. She spent time as a youth in a Kilrathi slave labor camp and holds a special enmity for Hobbes—who was a sleeper agent this whole time. The look in Cobra’s dimming eyes is not regret, but instead one of “I told you so” triumph.
In light of Hobbes’s betrayal and the Kilrathi armada’s proximity to Earth, Confederation command has determined that wiping the Kilrathi home world from existence is the only path to victory. All hope rests on the successful deployment of the Temblor Bomb. It’s a seismic weapon that, if dropped in just the right spot on the unstable world of Kilrah, will set off a tectonic chain reaction, blow up the planet, and win the war.
William Tecumseh Sherman once said, “If the people raise a great howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking.” The great howl raised against the cruelly intractable Mass Effect 3 endings echoes this sentiment, and not just because Shepard must choose which galactic civilizations live or die. Wing Commander III’s canonical finale faces a similarly distasteful scenario. The mission sees Blair loading up the T-bomb and flying down to the surface of the enemy’s planet. There he cloaks his ship and flies down a canyon trench, at the end of which he must unleash the payload.
Granted, if you need a man to fly down a narrow corridor and fire a weapon at a small, vulnerable spot to destroy a planet—metal, terrestrial, or otherwise—I guess Mark Hamill is your man. But this isn’t combat. It’s murder. And to do it while cloaked? Say what you want about Kilrathi, but they at least fight fair. Of course, if the Kilrathi win, they’d brutally enslave humanity’s quivering remnants, but after this whole T-bomb affair, I’m not sure we wouldn’t deserve it.
Once the planet is destroyed, the remaining Kilrathi surrender, and Blair flies back to Earth for some R & R. He doesn’t look remotely troubled that he is responsible for the near extermination of an entire species. This shameful ending should act as a cautionary tale to those who have clamored for a new, more “heroic” ending for Commander Shepard. The good guys shouldn’t always win.
There is, however, a series of decisions in Wing Commander III that doesn’t lead to the T-bomb and genocide, but instead sends Blair and Co. rushing back to Earth to repel the Kilrathi fleet. The battle is completely unwinnable, and it’s eminently satisfying for its desperate hopelessness and ensuing sacrifice. The fight quickly goes south, and after the Victory’s glorious kamikaze of a Kilrathi dreadnaught, Blair is captured by the enemy leader. As the titular “Heart Of The Tiger”—a term of respect Blair earned as a bane to the Kilrathi—they give him the option to beg for his life. If he decides not to bow to these smug Fancy Feast junkies, they honor him with a ritual claw to the gut. If he begs, they laugh at his unworthiness and disintegrate him. Either way, the last scene of the game shows the Kilrathi fleet flying over a bombed-out human city, with nobody left to stop them from turning Earth into a giant litter box.
At a glance, this darker ending looks similar to Shepard’s no-win resolution, with the hero dying despite his best efforts. It differs, though, in one critical respect. Although you’re unaware of their import at the time, a string of decisions made throughout the game leads to this starkly different resolution. Neither postscript is perfect, but the makers of Wing Commander resisted the urge to press the history eraser button, and made both endings matter in a way that Shepard’s never will.