On Mass Effect 3’s Endings – On What It Could All Mean, and Why?

Spoilers galore to follow, so if you’ve yet to finish the game or haven’t even begun, please stay clear till you’re done and dusted with this epic finale to one of the greatest gaming franchises of all time.  I must add that the commentary below is largely my own speculation, plus that of another theorist.  In no way is this proven (yet) by Bioware, but it makes sense to me.

The endings.  If you’ve played the entire Mass Effect trilogy over the span of 5 years, invested much of your time, effort, and emotions to developing your Shephard, building the relationships with other characters, and making the right calls to ensure the preservation of the universe, it would come as a shock to you how Mass Effect 3 ends.

Disappointingly, there is no option to save the universe, destroy all the Reapers, and ensure you get back home to enjoy a drink at a bar with all your friends.  It’s what the game sets you up to think, what you fought all this way for.  Instead, it is grimly revealed that the Reapers were designed many eons ago to ensure order returns to the universe, by wiping out all advanced organic lifeforms.  That it has always been this way, and it will be this way again, regardless of whether humanity resists or not.

If we follow this line of thought, the development of the story, and the options presented before us make a whole lot of sense, even if we don’t like it.  Namely that the Crucible was a Reaper invention, despite Alliance misconception that it was Prothean in origins.  We thought the Protheans invented this device in the hopes to one day use it to destroy the Reapers once and for all.  That was the entire point of Mass Effect 3.  Only to discover that we just played right into the Reapers’ hand.

The Crucible is a trap – because it seems to present a solution to the Reaper problem, but in effect, all we’re doing is bringing about the end of another Cycle as the Reapers want.  This can be proven in the three options presented to us:

1) Destroy all Reapers and synthetics – thereby ending a “cycle” for now, although the ghost-child claims that this is only a temporary peace, with synthetics sure to arise again and pose a threat for all organics.

2)  Control the Reapers – thereby ending a “cycle” for now, although Shephard will be subject to indoctrination in the way that the Illusive Man was – and eventually, the Reapers will be back to fuck shit up again.

3)  Synthesis – this may seem like the most saintly, heavenly option by virtue of creating peaceful union between synthetics and organics – and is the one that is most metaphorically and literally presented to the players throughout the game.  This is where the quality of Bioware’s writing shines through:

The continual allusions to unity of both synthetics and organics are played up throughout the game – EDI and Joker’s relationship, the peace between geths and quarians, Legion’s discovery of self, EDI’s discovery of self, the quarians slowly but surely weening off dependence to their life-support system, your Cerberus-born creation, the Illusive Man’s own indoctrination, etc.

In fact, it is seemingly the “perfect” choice – in that it takes into account all the good between synthetics and organics up to this point.  And if you are sympathetic towards EDI and Legion’s development towards having a soul, then this would seem like the most favorable option to take.

Repears may seem like horrific creatures, relentlessly overwhelming in force, and devious in their schemes to end the entire galaxy as we know it.  And yet, they have no ulterior motives for themselves – they aren’t doing this to establish dominion over all, and even Legion claims that their motives are completely unknowable and beyond him.  In fact, the right term to describe the Reapers is as “indifferent”.

It’s a reference to Lovecraftian mythos, that there is this uber entity out there in the universe that we cannot fully comprehend, and that makes humans seem even more insignificant.  That they put this grand plan in place for a bajillion years, and we as humans are only experiencing it now, as we are “young” in relative comparison to the other alien species.

It’s scary, but all that has happened by the end of Mass Effect 3 is the restart of the galaxy as the Reapers had intended.  Any ending we choose has this outcome.  This “choice” that we get, is in fact, no choice.  And it is why we may have such an adverse reaction to it.

Things get a little more meta because a lot of gamers who’ve finished the game are disappointed and betrayed that all the decisions and actions you’ve made in all the games in the trilogy up till now won’t matter – as the endings are fixed.  That may be all part of Bioware’s master plan conclusion for the Mass Effect trilogy – that this tension between choice and no-choice, and our struggle to have a say on a cosmic level event that is greater than us, is ever tumultuous.  That no matter what we do, the universe will continue turning.  It’s frighteningly illuminating in the face of all this real end-of-world talk that we’ve been hearing of late i.e. 2012, the Rapture, etc.

A read through of Wiki (yes, I know it may not be the best source, but bear with me) says exactly “Cosmicism tends to emphasize the inconsequentiality of humanity (or in Mass Effect’s case, of the entire galaxy) and its doings… For example, in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories, it is not so much the absence of meaning that causes terror for the protagonists as it is their discovery that they have absolutely no power to effect any change in the vast, indifferent, and ultimately incomprehensible universe that surrounds them.”

At this point, it is alright if you either violently reject my theory, or are mind-blown as I have been.

Another forum denizen has tied this all into a huge Bioware-plot of epic proportions to lay on another level of meta for gamers:

Lookingglassmind on Bioware’s forum wrote that what we face by the end of Mass Effect 3 is real-player indoctrination. I’m going to copy his theory word for word below.  Note that anything in these [ ] are my thoughts on his writing.

“Bioware’s intention during this sequence is to flag the player with as many markers as they can: this current reality playing before your eyes (the Citadel, the Catalyst, The Illusive Man, Anderson) is a reflection of Shephard.

It is the product of his/her mind.  The meeting with the Catalyst may or may not be rooted in reality [some theorists believe the entire end-game takes place in Shephard’s mind after being hit by the Harbinger’s beam – which is why, if you get the after-credits Shephard cut-scene where he is discovered alive, he is found on Earth breathing – as it would seem illogical that he would survive after the Citadel explodes in space].  The reality presented on the Citadel is an amalgamation of archetypes of everything Shephard has seen in the trilogy…

Think about it carefully. We arrive on the Crucible, and are faced with an archetype of manipulation, the Catalyst. Taking the form of a child that has come to represent everything that is horrendous about the Reapers to Shepard, the Catalyst/Harbinger provides Shepard with three strange and disorienting choices. He first presents Shepard with the option of Destroy, making swift and empty assertions about how it is the wrong choice because it would kill all synthetic life and Shepard herself/himself. At its surface, this seems like the renegade/chaos option, and is even insidiously portrayed in Renegade Red [color], a direct nod to the Player himself/herself. Directly appealing to your experiences with how the game works. He then goes on at great length about the Control and Synthesis options, portraying Control as the blue paragon/order option. Again, directly appealing to the Player. He argues that Control is the best option, implies that Shepard is the new Catalyst, and leaves us to contemplate the possibility that we could use it to try and save the people we love; after all, we are Shepard, and we would never become like The Illusive Man.

Synthesis is the last option explored, and it is portrayed as a compromise [as there is sometimes an option such as this in-game] or as being the Brave New Hope for the galaxy.  [However, note that the Reapers themselves are a perfect combination of synthetic and organic lifeform, so in choosing this option, you are inevitably, just playing into the Reapers’ hands.]
This moment, when you are standing there, agonizing over your choice? This is your indoctrination moment. This … is the moment when indoctrination and all of its insidious power becomes as real as it possibly CAN be to the Player. Think about it! We stand there. We agonize. We freak out about [our only] ridiculous choices, and we wonder (like Shepard would) why we just can’t ARGUE with the Catalyst (like Shepard would). And then, as this reality seems to be the only way forward (much like how indoctrination presents a version of reality to the indoctrinated that he/she sees as being the ONLY REAL OPTION — echoes of The Illusive Man, Kai Leng, Saren here), we begin to accept it. Tremulously, we start to make our choice.

If you choose Control, then you, the player …have been indoctrinated… — the one who moves through the game though Shepard’s eyes; every choice s/he has ever made in the game has been directly because of you… It may have been because you thought you could save your crew, your love, or that you really could gain perfect Control over the Reapers because you are Shepard. Regardless, you have been duped [– in the same way the Illusive Man was].  Indoctrinated by the game.  Your slow exposure to the Reapers since the first game culminates to this final choice – complete [destruction of] free player agency and determination.

If you choose Synthesis, you face a fate similar to that of Control. It’s debatable to me at this point as to whether or not you have chosen to fulfill the Reapers’ purpose [it does fulfill the Reapers’ purpose because you have combined both synthetics and organics as the Reapers have, and also because it fulfills the Cycle prophecy that they propagated in the first place] …

If you choose Destroy, then the Player Indoctrination Theory submits that this is you, the player, deciding whether or not Shepard overcomes the indoctrination attempt being rained upon him/her by Harbinger/the Catalyst/[Bioware, for that matter]. If you decide this option, and if you have enough Effective Military Strength to ensure that Shepard has enough real-world time to get through the indoctrination attempt/hallucination — Shepard lives. We see him/her breathing in the rubble of London streets at the end of the game. Shepard has defied indoctrination. You, yourself, have defied [Bioware’s player-destruction/]indoctrination.”

As far as theories go, it’s a little stretched – but whatever the real answer is (and it may very well be that all this is nothing more than poor writing on Bioware’s part), I personally believe this is a new level of end-game literary epicness.  Bioshock’s own meta commentary of player-indoctrination was ground-breaking, but this is even more profound as it is not spelt out to you.  And yet it is something you can just feel in your bones.  That’s why so many have violently rejected the endings.  It’s just so repulsive to think that you have no choice or say in the matter.

It was such a violent reaction for me personally that when the game ended and I went to sleep (in real life), I dreamt of my perfect ending: reuniting with my squad after the war had ended, and that it was peaceful as I had always imagined it to be.  What I had was a poignant, surrealistic experience, in that like Shephard, I had died and I was seeing the world as I wanted to, but the reality of what finally happened to the galaxy was a far different affair.  Even the dying Illusive Man says, “you should see Earth the way I do… it is perfect”.  Perhaps the crash-landing of the Normandy on the new world, and the remaining squad members’ survival (which were unfairly never explained to the player) was also all a figment of Shephard’s imagination.

It is sad, it is tragic, but it is a kind of profoundness that makes me applaud and hate Bioware at the same time.  We never expected it to end in this way, we wanted an ending that made us proud of all our accomplishments.  I would have been happy to have gone out in a blaze of glory after being hit by the Harbinger’s beam, as long as I could see Earth saved.

But I still love this game, and hopefully, one day, I’ll come to accept the incomprehensible nature of Bioware’s vast machinations.  Just maybe.

12 thoughts on “On Mass Effect 3’s Endings – On What It Could All Mean, and Why?

  1. Nice article and very illuminating. But here is what I think. I like endings where things are spelled out. If you played Deus Ex Human Revolution, The 4 endings and their ultimate philosophical repercussions were spelled out for you, and they are deep. In Mass Effect 3, they were as Illusive as the Illusive Man, and confusing. I get all the indoctrination part. Symptoms of indoctrination on Shepard were evident through out the game. Shepard hallucinating about the boy, bad dreams, headaches etc etc. What I hate about Mass Effect 3 is that we as the Gamer (or Reader) dont know the why. Why was Shepard being indoctrinated? If he was, what was the goal of the indoctrination??? If there were only three choices to funnel through, why does it matter to indoctrinate someone in the first place? If it is the indoctrination that limits the choices, why would nt it limit to a single avenue/”choice”? Why not two choices, where one is bad and the other is worse? The third choice makes no sense. and once executing those choices… what happens to the universe?

    Ok lets leave all of that philosophy bit alone for a sec, lets talk about the Normandy and Joker. What was he doing, where was he going, where did he crash land? Is he the one who starts civilization anew, renewing the cycle? Maybe the questions I am asking are the answers. But as the final chapter of the series, it should be answering questions not raising questions. I get it that that want the gamer to think and use their imagination and contemplate, They should do so while giving closure at the same time.

    Truth be told, the more I think about it, the more I am starting to like the game on the whole. But thats just me filling the blanks for all the void that Bioware left out. It feels like a bad break up where you dont get your questions answered, and all you are left with is a big question mark as to why. Sure its character building and what not, but but but….. Argh!

    Ok I give up! I loved the game, the ending just feels so exhausting, thats all.

    1. lol, yeah it was only after giving it more thought and reading up on the ME lore that I came to see that at the very least, some of the events that transpired in the finale of the game made sense somewhat. if we piece it together.

      the one thing that makes me mad is that Bioware chose for a high-brow ending, rather than one that is close to every player’s heart, and that makes me absolutely irate.

      I would’ve been absolutely okay if the game just ended with the Reapers being eradicated and everyone living happily ever after. I wanted Garrus and Shephard to retire on a beach somewhere as they said they would.

      alas, instead, we have a conclusion that is at once troubling and bittersweet.

  2. (And that, TV watchers, is the video game version of a phenomenon called a Fanwank.)

    Maybe the Bioware writers were watching a little too much Game of Thrones, and are secret fans of Joss Whedon, or they took a leaf from BSG (what has happened before will happen again, cylon mythos, etc).

    It’s been a very long time that I’ve seen this sort of reaction spring from game endings. It’s something one would call stupidly brave, but I think for Bioware, it paid off – even a punch in the gut takes time to recover from, and that’s probably the feeling that they deliberately wanted you to feel.

    Really liked some of the parallels the guy drew from your extract, Jun.

    1. yeah – it was stupidly brave, and there is such a huge reaction in the community right now to the way things ended. but the more I think about it, the more I feel Bioware’s endings were true to form of the sheer vast wonderment that is the Mass Effect universe. did you finish the game Perr?

  3. The Catalyst never said that the Crucible was their invention. He even said that your success to this point proves that his plan wasn’t sufficient. What we do find of the crucible is that it’s been discovered and improved upon by species after species during each cycle, all of them unable to complete it and utilize it, but that’s elsewhere in the game. That the Reapers moved the Citadel specifically to stop this plan shows that it wasn’t something they wanted to happen.

    1. That’s a good point. But it seems to me, ever so slightly, that in spite of our success in bringing the Crucible to fruition (and it is a symbol of hope and sheer determination for the galaxy’s survival), the Catalyst adapted the situation in its favor. After all, in the end, we are still left with the choices that the Catalyst presented to us. After all, we still NEEDED the Catalyst to work.

  4. Hi all just finished Mass Effect 3, I gotta say I was also very dissapointed with the Ending. I do believe that Shepard just dreams the last part considering that Shepard was badly damaged and already having dreams.

    I´m goign to point a posible ending to make a more productive discussion and not just ranting at Bioware for making the worst ending they could think of just because they took more time integrating multiplayer than working on ALL POSIBLE ENDINGS you can get think of ALL THE CHOICES we had to make during the Mass Effect lifespan.

    The Crucible clearly worked, the scientists and even liara knew that the Crucible itself could inflict a powerfull energy that could couse damage by itself, it just needed a Catalys to point that energy into something, that´s why the catalyst was so important, and if we think about it, since ME1 the Citadel was the Mass Relay to bring all reaper forces into the heart of the galaxy from Dark Space and from there link to all posible Mass Relays, so basically if there´s one posible way to kill the reapers was exatly the same tactics, kill the source of their world (Dark Space) and then follow up by killig the remains in the galaxy. So basically I see the Crucible as a BIG ******* EMP BOMB and the Citadel as the way to make the EMP energy flow to all the galaxy and Dark Space home of the reapers. That´s my undertanding of the end concidering that aside from the Mass Effect Scientific background to be unexisting in the game the whole Mass Effect series relies on the same rules as the real world.

    So my ending would be, as better as I prepared the galaxy the better it recovered from the EMP blast, meaning that ALL organic CAN bring back to life Synthetic form, but it will be a choice, and the Mass Relays clearly exploded concidering that it didn´t have power to sustain the movable parts that Overloaded with the EMP blast. But it doesn´t mean that they can´t study from synthetics lying around the galaxy, it would be so cool to have a mass effect 4 recovering from the blast, and by that said Shepard can actually make it (depending of the war assets theory) and the ending movie would be most of what happened on the blast, like who lived or died concidering the readingess from all the choices, and that could be diferent variable scenarios.

    What do you guys think.

    The Wold of Mass Effect didn´t die with this horrible ending, it just made it open for better tought of posibilites. And they clearly didn´t have time to make a worthy ending, and I think that was everyones foult, US to demand the game as soon as posible, and EA for demanding Mutiplayer experience.

    1. Thanks for your input Manny, in fact it may very well be that Mass Effect 4 follows some thread of that plot – that if you chose Destroy, you could consider bringing back the synthetics in some way or other. I’m not very well-versed in the science of Mass Effect, so I’m not sure if what was destroyed means the synthetics can no longer operate but I really think that the last bit with who emerges from the Normandy and the grandfather bit should be cut out entirely.

      That said – I disagree that EA and Bioware didn’t really consider their endings carefully. They spent 5 years putting together the story for the trilogy, and I doubt that they only thought of the endings at the very last minute. It was all planned, it’s just that their approach may seem a little bit heavy-handed for our liking. I’m expecting Bioware to come clean with why the endings were the way they are, sometime in the future – after the dust has settled.

      1. Well Bioware did respond to the feedback, but they basically said that Single Player DLC will be comming out with “fan feedback” in mind. I think EA messed up bit time with this game, I´m sure they want to make the best profit out of this game, but they should also consider human emotions in their sales strategy, most of the fans got pissed and feel that they ruined a fine story and product, I guess quantity than quality is always the best preference for business.

  5. I’m going with the Indoctrination Theory on this one. I was disappointed after the game ended. It all was over on such a flat not. I started looking around on forums and came upon this “Indoctrination Theory.” If this was Bioware’s plan all along, they just succesfully crafted (in my opinion) the greatest story ever told. Lets hope for some DLC to conclude the REAL ending! (By the way, I chose to destroy the Reapers. Boo Ya!)

  6. You also see Major Kirrahe who promises to fight by your side no matter which way the political tide turns. What is frustrating is that I expected a full scale, epic battle where all sorts of people I have rallied were fighting by my side. Literally. I don’t think that this was a wrong or misleading assumption. But this isn’t what I got. Perhaps my expectations here were far too high.

  7. Hello, guys.
    I am reading through the massive amount of whining by beautifully clueless people here, so I wanted to give you a piece of my mind.

    I understand that the immense importance of the quality of immersion into the actual player indoctrination may escape you at the moment, but I will try to bring to you a bit closer to the magnitude of what you have just ben a part of by pointing out a couple of simple points:

    1) The outrage: take a moment and look around you. Look at all the people engaged in a world-wide years long on-Internet and otherwise discussion, study and contemplation of the ME3 final scenes. For a universe to have moved us so deeply to warrant such a reaction, you have to appreciate its authors, their commitment and their writing skills. This is indesputable.

    Now, you can take from it what you want. I personally am deeply appreciative of all of you outraged crybabies. I love every line you write, because I am in a way a part of a single push, a single piece of art that has produced such lively debate accross the world on a theme I think is very important to all of us today – indoctrination (propaganda? mains stream media? politics? education?), its invisible subversive effect on our freedom and the discomfort and the powerlessness it causes in our lives. This gives me some hope for humanity; that we can actually devise cooperative rather than competitive ways to discuss things of vital importance to all of us on global scale. Now this is just a game, but I feel we have been given a glimpse of so much more, a potential for cooperative information revolution of sorts, with all the threads and discussion and humor (Marauder Shields is just priceless) and agonizing over a problem yet unsolved. I just hope that BioWare will carry your massive reaction as a badge of honor, rather than try to curb their ambition in the future story calibrations.

    2) You have to appreciate how the lack of understanding leaves you profoundly empty, angry and makes you feel powerless. Again, you can take what you want from this, but I choose to relate it to the real life feelings of powerlessness, emptyness and anger when faced with attempts to change the world for the better. This, however, is just a matter of your perspective and a point brilliantly, or perhaps unintentionally, made by BioWare writers. Let me explain.

    Shepard doesn’t fight the physical reapers after that beam encounter; he is instead facing the very first enemy on the much longer way to victory – the indoctrination. For all we know, none of the stuff after the beam encounter happened in reality; the Reapers could still be there (and most likely are) regardless of your choice, many of your team are probably dead, the Crucible could have been just what the Reapers wanted you to construct and bring to them to interface with the catalyst (hell, it may be what they needed in every cycle to soncsturct the new Reaper and your indoctrinated stupid ass helped them, just like Protheans did in their time) – all of this is irelevant. Your entire journey through the ME3 consisted of making alliances, friends, loved ones, taking stands on small and big issues, but still remaining firmly in the grip of the Indoctrination.

    At the end of the journey we are given a taste of what the awakening from our slumber may be like. Our avatar Shepard gets a chance to realize that he has been doing the right things, but going in the wrong direction and fighting the wrong fight. Shepard may draw another breath and take the good things he has built so far and direct them down the right path, now that the veil of indoctrination has been lifted. Or maybe Garrus was right and the best he can hope for is to “…be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”, dreaming some pretty landing on some remote planet and an imaginary stories of his legend living on. I know my Shepard just screams for another fight – this is just the beginning.

    Overall, what you had a chance to experience in ME3 final scenes is nothing short of the best immersion with the sharpest point in any game to date; not an ending per say, way better than any “ending” you could have gotten otherwise. The right choice in Shepard’s dream is a larger victory than you could have achieved in any battle in a game or reality – freedom from indoctrination.

    I would like to thank you for making me write this and I want you to know that your whining is important and necessary. Now off to do some calibrations.

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