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What is the dialectic?

Martolives September 6, 2012 User blog:Martolives

The dialectic is the idea that history is shaped by opposing forces. The predominant force, idea, movement, or paradigm (the thesis) is challenged by an opposing force, idea, movement, or paradigm (the antithesis), which results in a third new force, idea, movement, or paradigm (the synthesis). The synthesis, in turn, becomes the new predominant force, idea, movement, or paradigm (the new thesis), and the process begins all over again. The dialectic is the process of creation, and resolution of contradictions.

It's also how to tell a great story, and Mass Effect, to me, is a great story, with a range of complex dialectic contradictions at its core, not the least of which are at the end of Mass Effect 3. A lot of people were unsatisfied with the ending, even when it was reconstituted with the Extended Cut, but I'm going to explain why it was a great ending, even before the additions were made.

Obviously, the primary 'thesis' of Mass Effect is civilisation itself, made up of a number of minor 'theses' represented by each race of the galaxy. The quarian face an obvious antithesis, the geth; the salarians have the krogan; humanity, as a fledgling galactic entity, faces intolerance as they simultaneously fail to show tolerance for civilisation they need to become a part of. We watch how these situations "synthesise" in order to resolve - and in this we can see it is not just a standard model of storytelling with a beginning-middle-ending structure, but a more complex melding of cultural and situational paradigms that carefully balance ideologies that exist for each unique thesis-antithesis situation until an ultimate synthesis is resolved at the end of the story, where galactic civilisation (the new thesis) faces the Reapers (the antithesis).

I wrote a literature review for this game a few weeks ago for my university library in which I stated, "Mass Effect is not just a game, but a cultural paradigm - hundreds of thousands of players, both old and new, frequently return to play it again and again, even those that found little joy in what was considered by many literature reviewers to be a profoundly complex ending. The dislike for the third game's ending however should have been expected, as the complexity of the themes may have been expecting too much, or alternatively (considering the contradictory elements) too little from players. The 'rage' wasn't at the ending, but at the subconscious offence taken by players that up until now, had enjoyed a fairly straight-forward storyline. However, the storyline has been quite a bit more complex right from the moment we finish creating our first Commander Shepard in the first game."

I was not gentle with the game, and I did not miss the fact that prior to the alterations being made to the ending, there were some serious flaws with it. However, that doesn't change the underlying thematic design, which was inherently brilliant when paralleled to other stories, such as Star Wars or even Halo - both of these demonstrate a relatively straightforward story model, as opposed to Mass Effect. Everyone begins in the same way, but even though the differences to the endings are more obvious now, everyone ends in a similar form of victory. You don't have to choose synthesis for a form of synthesis to still be taking place.

The destroy ending is fairly straightforward, and simplistic, which is why it's the easiest to achieve. It's still not the most ideal, as many players will form 'bonds' with characters such as Legion and EDI, but it ultimately represents a synthesis of 'human' ideals over artificial ones. In the destroy ending, the antithesis is no longer represented by just the Reapers, but ALL non-organic intelligence, 'alive' or not. Synthesis occurs by overpowering the antithesis, by 'deleting' the contradiction. It represents, to me, the ignorance of humanity, and a fear of change and progress. It is also a perfect example or how with any given synthesis, every step toward progress (such as the negation of a threat bent on wiping out civilisation) there must be a regression as well (such as the paradigm shift of civilisation itself by the loss of all artificial intelligence, the geth in particular). Here we see a perfect example of 'two steps forward, one step back'. This would not be my first choice of ending in hindsight, having had this much time to review the options. This would be a last resort, in my opinion, which is probably why it's the easiest to achieve.

In control, the antithesis is a type of cognitive dissonance in which the real enemy is, again, change. It is no more or less 'synthesis' of the dialectic than destroy, because there is still a regression to consider. In learning that the alternative of destruction includes the death of an entire artificial race, control becomes, first of all, harder to achieve (requiring higher EMS), and secondly, the alternative to which one must 'resort' to avoid actual synthesis (the third ending) which one may fear. Face it - the third option of synthesis is the 'final stage' of evolution as postulated by the Catalyst, and it's a big change. The regression on control is denying the galaxy that synthesis, due to cognitive dissonance - even though it's better, it's less easily understood and more easily feared, as it is with all new situations that humanity will face. This is, then, one step up from destroy on the scale of what I think would be the 'best ending'. In control, the synthesis occurs as a form of subjugation, rather than alliance - the antithesis isn't deleted like in destroy, but beaten to submission. I affectionately refer to this ending as the 'getting the bully back' ending. This ending is actually revenge.

My first choice, however, would be synthesis, were I only given one opportunity ever, and given the time to review all choices. This would never happen however, and if put on the spot like Shepard was, I must admit, a degree of cognitive dissonance would be kicking in right about now. Having spent the entirety of the game planning destroy, come the eleventh hour, it may just be my default setting regardless of what's rational, but synthesis is, in my opinion, the best ending. The thesis and antithesis actually form a true synthesis, and the regression is minimal, almost undetectable, but still there nonetheless. The cost of progress in this ending is being forced to adjust to a whole new level of existence. It's not just a form of dialectic synthesis though, but also an integration of plots where all the theses and antitheses of the game instantly synthesise, and the new thesis faces no real immediate antithesis, perhaps giving weight to the idea that organic-artificial synthesis is, indeed, the final stage of evolution, perhaps even creation. This ending is my personal favourite because of that, and because it's not even theoretically or even ideologically contradindictive of today's cultural dialectic. What it represents is what's possible, but perhaps only in the face of one terrifying antithesis. In a way, it's a scary thought, that to evolve that far humanity must first face such tremendous adversity, and it's not unsupported throughout the game - even in Mass Effect 2, Mordin Solus talks about how civilisation and culture can only progress if faced with adversity.

But what happens when it's gone as far as it can? And how do we know when it's gone as far as it can?

I'm not defending the poor quality of presentation of the endings, just the ideology behind them. Mass Effect didn't end in the last fifteen minutes of the third game, but the entire game itself was a series of dialectic contradictions that set up the ending from the very beginning. That's what makes it brilliant for me, and why I could enjoy the endings even before they were altered.

Thanks for reading.

Some Final Thoughts

I think synthesis is what Mass Effect's themes eventually encompass, as a whole - that is, the dialectic paradigm shifts of reality, rolled into a modern-day mythology where the sacrifice of the hero can feel like it's worth something. In the real world, the real heroes don't get the songs and stories they deserve, and on one level, we seek an escape to that alternate reality where they do. Simultaneously, the degree of 'escape' that we get is limited by the realistic way in which the story recreates one possibility of a 'realistic' future, so we find ourselves escaping reality, and recreating it at the same time, but in our 'own image'. We are synthesising our own fantasy when we play through a game like this, where the story itself synthesises real life, and in that the game itself synthesises the dialectic contradiction between fantasy, and reality.

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