I didn't realise how important the Stargazer, the nameless old man who appears briefly after the credits in Mass Effect 3, was to me, at first. It took some significant changes to the way the game's final 10 minutes are told for me to realise how crucial he always was to my story.
I'll just get this out of the way up front: I don't hate the Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut. I was okay with the original version, and for the most part, I'm still OK with the expanded version. I'm not here to argue whether or not BioWare should have made the DLC. For the most part, what's done is done, and it's fine. But one particular change doesn't sit well with me:
I wish the Normandy stayed on the planet where it crash-landed.
I'm OK with evacuating the crew; I'd have been fine with, say, Alliance shuttles showing up to ferry away those who wished to leave. But with everyone packing up and going, leaving that planet empty in their wake, suddenly the Stargazer doesn't make any sense.
That moment, with the old man telling stories of The Shepard to a young child, filled an absolutely vital role in the original endings. What it originally indicated, to crib from another epic, was that history became legend. Legend became myth. And the true facts of the story became lost in the mists of time, as events were told and retold.
But what mattered was that the living endured. They crashed, the galaxy burned, and everyone was forced to adapt and survive. And thousands of years later (in my mind, always 50,000 years later), there are descendants of the long dead, ready once again to try to reach for the long-forgotten stars.
Shepard — man or woman, kind or brash, it can always change in the telling — died. Those with whom and against whom Shepard fought are long gone. But the galaxy lives on in hope, on a thousand thousand different worlds, because this time, this time, the Reapers are not coming. Beings of every type from every world can reach out to find each other once again, and this time no mass extinction will follow. Hope, and life, endure.
While exploring the galaxy over the course of the three games, you can find many planets that bear the scars of Reaper destruction from cycles in the far, long-gone past. The people who lived and died there millions of years ago can't speak to you. And there are none left to tell their stories: the best we get is a pile of Prothean antiquities, from the cycle immediately before.
But this time? Any option (except the newly added "refusal") that Shepard chooses means that the cycle is well and truly broken. The Stargazer and the child are indelibly symbols of the future, proof that your success had meaning not for you and your contemporaries, but for all, on a cosmic scale almost beyond imagining.
Now, of course, the Mass Relays never were that damaged to start with, and everyone of every race and species continues to work together after the Crucible fires. And the slideshow — whoever is narrating it, and whatever they have to say — has one more layer of meaning that makes me sad.
Instead of the Stargazer being a symbol of hope, keeping an oral history alive for a generation that may someday once again reach for the stars, he is more like Grandpa Simpson. He's an old man, rambling. His message to the child, that anyone could be out there among the stars, and that someday, the child may be able to go out there and see for himself, no longer seems to fit. It's the babbling of a man who has forgotten his history lessons.
Because this new, repaired Milky Way? It's a galaxy that would have the history lesson featuring reasonably accurate information (as close as these things ever get) about who Shepard was and what she accomplished. And it's a galaxy in which someone, somewhere, is still travelling from world to world among the stars. Originally, it wasn't.
After sobbing my way through the last 20 minutes of the game, I needed that beacon of hope. As Shepard became mythic, and made decisions on a nearly unimaginable scale, I needed that tie to smaller lives, no less meaningful that our hero's. I needed that symbol of faith, that the war was worth it. I needed that proof, that the sacrifices of an entire generation of life, across the whole peopled galaxy, were worth it in the end.
The fight still was worth it. But we don't need the old man to show us that. Not anymore.