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.