Foreword by J.C. Wigriff:
I, like many fans, was initially upset over the Mass Effect 3 ending. One of the major selling points of Mass Effect was how your decisions impact the game; that your choices will significantly impact the narrative. Players carried their Mass Effect save file across all three games, building alliances, saving races, and fostering relationships. With the controversial ending to Mass Effect 3, BioWare seemingly negated all of this effort in one fell swoop.
In the wake of outrage, several theories have begun to emerge that strongly refute the accusation that BioWare failed their audience. The following article eloquently articulates one such theory. If the following proves correct, then BioWare has far surpassed anything ever accomplished in video game storytelling before, transcending into the realm of what would be expected from David Lynch or Christopher Nolan.
The possibility does exist that BioWare intentionally crafted a purposely ambiguous ending, anticipating such speculation on the part of gamers. BioWare could simply be waiting for a breakdown to emerge that would eclipse anything they hoped to accomplish, before pinpointing it as being the definitive explanation. We may never know.
Regardless, the following theory is fascinating. If it proves to be true, the ending of Mass Effect 3 concludes the most ambitious achievement in the history of video game storytelling. Without further ado, I present you with:
Commander Shepard’s Final Repose
By Terry Richardson
NOTE: I cannot stress enough that there are heavy, heavy spoilers for Mass Effect 3 within this post. You have been warned.
NOTE #2: I use the generic “he” when referring to Shepard. This is not meant to slight those who play a FemShep (I do as well); it’s just easier than making sure each instance says “s/he”.
NOTE #3: All of the “evidence” and conclusions for this theory can be found in many places online. I am not attempting to say that I am the one person who came up with this theory. I had the idea and read what others said about it, and below is my argument for the theory, which includes evidence found by others, etc.
NOTE #4: I like notes.
There has been a great deal of discussion, and outrage, over the ending of Mass Effect 3 within the online gaming community, with droves of longtime series fans crying foul over the way that Bioware seemingly pulled a bait and switch. An online petition asking for Bioware to change the ending has gained a large following, and the Retake Mass Effect movement raised over $30,000 for Child’s Play, a charity founded by Penny Arcade creators Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins that organizes toy drives for children’s hospitals.
The primary complaints seem to be rooted in the concept of your in-game choices throughout the entire trilogy not “counting” in regards to the decision made at the end of Mass Effect 3, despite repeated statements to the contrary by Bioware reps over the past several years. My purpose in writing this piece is to show that such complaints are, in my opinion, exaggerated.
Put on your tinfoil hats, my friends, and join me as I outline why the ending to Mass Effect 3could actually turn out to be the greatest accomplishment in the history of video games. Please keep in mind that this will require some suspension of disbelief, which I know can be an issue even when dealing with video games that deal with faster than light space travel.
When I read all the vitriol spewed by those who had experienced the ending to Mass Effect 3, I was intrigued; what could possibly cause such an outcry?
As I looked up general information on the game prior to playing, I hit some posts on an online forum where spoilers were not indicated, and ended up reading a decent amount of what the ending was before I even realized it. The cat was out of the bag, so I chose to adopt the cat (even though I am allergic) and read more thoroughly about the ending.
What I found, while troubling for reasons similar to those expressing their concern, fascinated me; did Bioware simply choose to troll a fanbase who had been fanatically following the entire Mass Effect universe for five years? Or was there something deeper? I wanted to find out, so I found each ending on Youtube, and watched them repeatedly.
What I found in the Destroy/Red ending, especially when comparing it to the Blue/Green endings, really got me thinking, so I watched it several more times, noticing new things almost every time. I started to formulate a theory based on these viewings, but I felt that perhaps I was just seeing things that weren’t there.
After all, I didn’t really think that Commander Shepard was being indoctrinated, did I?
Indoctrination or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Reapers
I really did; or, at the very least, believed that the events that happened after getting shot by Harbinger were some kind of hallucination and didn’t really happen. The signs, although tentative and not altogether conclusive, were there, but I wasn’t sure if I really believed it or if it was simply an interesting sidebar I was using to amuse myself. I began to believe the latter, until I found a thread on Bioware’s forums that asked the question: was the ending a hallucination?
Maybe I wasn’t crazy after all.
I read the key points, many of which matched up with thoughts I’d had, and some that hadn’t occurred to me at that point. For the first time, I started to believe in my theory, and my belief has since grown into the closest thing I can come to certainty for something so vague. I asked Herr Wigriff if he was still bitter about the ending, and when he affirmed that, I laid my (and a lot of other people’s) theory on him. He was skeptical, but suggested I put it all down in text in order to post it on his website, and I agreed.
What follows is the Indoctrination Theory, with what I see as evidence (circumstantial or not) that leads me to believe that it’s The Truth.
The theory, in case this is not clear by now, is that Commander Shepard is being indoctrinated by the Reapers – although there is a much deeper and more fascinating layer to this that I will get to later; it is the true centerpiece of the theory, but I don’t want to give it away here. Because of this, many of the events seen during the ending are a hallucination caused by Shepard’s indoctrination, and possible other factors. Now, this is clearly a bold statement, but it’s possible that, due to varying factors, the indoctrination has been more gradual/slowed, and not readily apparent. In addition, the indoctrination is not complete. However, it is my belief that it is there and has been there, at the very least, since the events in Mass Effect 2, and I offer up the following points to support it. After that, we’ll do a more in-depth examination of the ending.
1. The Codex—The codex entry for Indoctrination in Mass Effect 3 reads as follows:
Reaper “indoctrination” is an insidious means of corrupting organic minds, “reprogramming” the brain through physical and psychological conditioning using electromagnetic fields, infrasonic and ultrasonic noise, and other subliminal methods. The Reaper’s resulting control over the limbic system leaves the victim highly susceptible to its suggestion.
Organics undergoing indoctrination may complain of headaches and buzzing or ringing in their ears. As time passes, they have feelings of “being watched” and hallucinations of “ghostly” presences. Ultimately, the Reaper gains the ability to use the victim’s body to amplify its signals, manifesting as “alien” voices in the mind.
Indoctrination can create perfect deep cover agents. A Reaper’s “suggestions” can manipulate victims into betraying friends, trusting enemies, or viewing the Reaper itself with superstitious awe. Should a reaper subvert a well-placed political or military leader, the resulting chaos can bring down nations.
Long-term physical effects of the manipulation are unsustainable. Higher mental functioning decays, ultimately leaving the victim a gibbering animal. Rapid indoctrination is possible, but causes this decay in days or weeks. Slow, patient indoctrination allows the thrall to last for months or years.
Why is this relevant? Several bits of information in this codex can easily be construed as clues for Shepard’s ongoing indoctrination. These will become more apparent as we delve more deeply into this.
2. The Child—The scenes where you meet/see the child at the beginning of the game, during the Reaper attack, definitely have more going on than meets the eye. First, he goes through a locked door which, according to the color indicator on the outside, remains locked the whole time. In your initial encounter with him, he appears in the vent after you pass by it, during which time it is clearly empty. I find it very curious that Anderson doesn’t comment on Shepard clearly talking to someone else, or at least ask what he is doing at the vent opening. In addition, the child promptly disappears without making a sound, which seems unlikely if he is truly a terrified child in a situation like that.
When you see the child again while leaving on the Normandy, he has no interaction with any of the NPCs there helping other civilians onto the shuttle. Even when he climbs up into the shuttle, no one reaches down to help him – although there is a soldier standing very close to his location and the child is clearly struggling to get into the shuttle. In a situation like that, helping a child becomes even more paramount, as the potential survival of the species is at stake. Not attempting to help a child in escaping is incredibly out of character for the typical Alliance soldier, given our perspective on such individuals throughout three games.
Shepard also dreams of the child multiple times, with each dream seeming to be a metaphor of his failure to save Earth. However, this actually appears to be the indoctrination attempting to further manipulate Shepard. In addition, the final dream shows you and the child burning; this seems to be Shepard’s subconscious attempting to warn him not to trust the child or anything he represents.
It is my belief that the child is a hallucination, which, if you recall the codex entry I mentioned previously, is one of the hallmarks of indoctrination.
3. The Humming—At one point while in the shuttle bay of the Normandy with James Vega, James asks “do you hear that hum?”. Seems innocuous, but the Codex entry mentions that “organics undergoing indoctrination may complain of headaches and buzzing or ringing in their ears”. Isn’t it possible that the entire crew has been exposed to some form of indoctrination by being on the Normandy? It seems plausible, because…
4. Cerberus—Cerberus built the Normandy. It has since been retrofitted, yes, but the infrastructure is – for the most part – still in place. Cerberus has been attempting to study and use Reaper tech for some (undetermined) time, so the possibility of them using some form of it when building a state of the art ship cannot be ignored. In addition, they rebuilt Shepard himself using biosynthesis, which can also be construed as using Reaper tech; this could be the initial cause of indoctrination. It is also possible that Shepard’s exposure to Sovereign and other Reaper technology throughout the first two Mass Effect games is responsible for it.
5. The Tendrils—I wanted to keep talk of the ending separate, but this part is very central to the indoctrination of Shepard. During the scene with the Illusive Man and Anderson, black tendril-like shapes appear at the edge of the screen. If you encountered the Rachni Queen earlier in the game, she mentions hearing “songs the color of oily shadow,” which clearly points to the Reapers and their attempts to alter the Rachni; their indoctrination. The Reapers have definitely corrupted the Rachni with their communication via these songs, and describing them in such a way makes it quite plausible that there could be some form of shadowy manifestation within the context of the indoctrinated person’s perspective. In addition, similar tendrils are seen within the dreams Shepard has, which allows us to hypothesize that the tendrils also represent a dream-state.
The End Is the Beginning
In order to more accurately and efficiently discuss the ending, I will divide it into sections. Please note that, for the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming an EMS of 5000+, as some things I am going to mention only appear if you have reached that level.
I. Before the Conduit
While running towards the Conduit, Harbinger is firing shot after shot at Shepard and company and finally hits close enough to cause Shepard to stagger and fall, then everything goes black. Moments later, Shepard wakes up and you regain control, but things are definitely odd. The backgrounds are very blurry, the movement seems off, you do not heal, and you suddenly have a gun with infinite ammo that can kill Husks in one shot. In addition, you do not see any of your squad among the dead, just random Alliance soldiers; clearly, they would have been hit by the blast as well.
II. Into the Citadel
After Shepard goes through the Conduit and reaches the Citadel, you hear Anderson mention that he went in after you did but ended up in the “correct” spot before you, which is definitely an odd occurrence, but perhaps the Conduit simply dumps people into random places. After Shepard reaches the platform where Anderson is, the Illusive Man (TIM) appears out of nowhere, which is another odd coincidence, and with him come the tendrils I mentioned previously.
He discusses the benefits of using the Crucible to control the Reapers, while Shepard and Anderson argue against it; you can clearly see that TIM has been indoctrinated to some degree, both by his words and his eyes: they have the same pattern that Saren’s did in Mass Effect. During this exchange, TIM exerts some form of control over Shepard, and forces Shepard to shoot Anderson. Shortly afterwards, TIM commits suicide, much like Saren in Mass Effect (he even has similar looks at this point). At this point, there is a scene in which Shepard opens the arms to the Citadel then goes back to Anderson, who is bleeding from the gunshot wound; in another odd occurrence, Shepard appears to be bleeding from the exact same spot.
In another oddity, Shepard and Anderson appear to have no troubles breathing in what appears to be the vacuum of space. Anderson dies, and Shepard tries to get to the console when Hackett messages in to say that the Crucible is not firing; Shepard can’t quite make it due to injuries, and blacks out again.
Upon waking, there is the ghostly image of the child Shepard has been seeing throughout the game. The image explains that he is the Catalyst, the Citadel is his home, and he controls the Reapers. Note that Shepard is no longer bleeding from the stomach, and his hand/arm is no longer covered in blood, dry or wet. The child explains the purpose of the Reapers, which is to prevent chaos by eliminating organic life in order to protect them from synthetics. Seems legit. The child then outlines three possible choices for Shepard to make:
A. Destroying the Reapers
This choice is represented by the red text of the typical Renegade choice, as well as the image of Anderson destroying the terminal representing synthetic life. The child explains that destroying the Reapers will also destroy all synthetics, including Shepard, since he is partly synthetic, as well as most of the technology the various races depend on. In addition, the child states that with this option, the peace gained will not last, as future generations will create synthetics, and the chaos will begin anew.
B. Controlling the Reapers
This choice is represented by the blue text of the typical Paragon choice, as well as the image of the Illusive Man using the terminal to control all synthetics. The child explains that TIM would not have been able to control the Reapers because they already controlled him, but that Shepard could control them. The child also states that selecting this option will kill Shepard, but the Reapers will obey him.
This choice is represented by the neutral color of green. The child explains that by adding Shepard’s energy to the Crucible (thus killing him), all organic and synthetic life will have its code, or DNA, rewritten and combined into one. The child goes on to say that, by choosing synthesis, the cycle will end, and that it is the final evolution of all life forms; peace will last by selecting this option.
VI. Anatomy of a Choice
So, which one do you choose? As with every choice you make in the Mass Effect series, it depends on several factors. Are you trying to toe the line and go the Paragon route? Are you the galaxy’s biggest badass motherfucker and piss on authority? Are you a tweener, just trying to make the best decision you can at any given time?
What do you want to do? What happens if you choose the “wrong” one? There are several different endings, many quite similar; they are based on a combination of the choice you made and your EMS level at the time. However, it is my belief that there is one ending that is canon, while the others are a malicious sort of red herring. How so? Because all of the discussion regarding the choices, and the choices themselves, are the final attempts by the Reapers – and specifically Harbinger – to fully indoctrinate Shepard.
1. Synthesis—This choice is shown as a neutral one, which makes sense within the context of the three choices. By sacrificing himself, Shepard will end the cycle, although he will be giving up everyone’s humanity (or whatever you want to call it) in order to combine organic and synthetic life. That seems like a small price to pay to ensure the end of the cycle, right?
Well, no, not really. By making this choice, you are essentially completing the current cycle by destroying all organic life; the fact that they become synthetic and continue their “lives” is irrelevant if their humanity, identity, and individuality are stripped away. In addition, what happens if somehow organic life rises again in 50,000 years? Are the Reapers, and by extension, all synthetic life forms, going to sit idly by and allow them to live their lives, when their entire history is based around the opposite? I find that incredibly hard to believe. Also note that, during the ending if you make this choice, Shepard’s eyes get the same pattern as TIM and Saren; he has been indoctrinated.
There are many parallels between making this choice and Saren’s beliefs back in Mass Effect; he believed that submitting to the Reapers and being synthesized would be the only way for organic life to survive, even if it meant no longer being organic. But making this choice simply means that you’re willingly giving the Reapers what they’ve wanted all along: the end of organic life.
2. Controlling the Reapers—As the Paragon choice, this seems to be the one with the highest potential for peace, if you are able to actually control the Reapers. Again, it requires the sacrifice of Shepard’s life, but that definitely seems like a small price to pay in order to control the largest threat there is.
But is it really the Paragon choice? Shepard’s raison d’être since discovering the Reapers and their mandate has been their destruction; why does controlling them suddenly appear to be the “right” decision? In addition, showing the Illusive Man doesn’t really make sense, as he clearly does not have the traits of a Paragon; quite the opposite, in fact. So, what’s up with this?
Well, this is where that additional layer I mentioned earlier comes into play (although it factors into all of the endings; this one a bit more specifically). Harbinger is not only trying to indoctrinate Shepard: it is trying to indoctrinate YOU, the player. By showing this as the Paragon choice, it is attempting to ensure that those who are on the straight and narrow go along with it without question, and thus end up doing their work for them. By making this choice, you again see Shepard indoctrinated (the eye pattern); in addition, although the Reapers leave, they return to the Citadel as its arms are closing, a definite clue that the control “choice” was just bullshit.
3. Destroying the Reapers—Ah, the Renegade choice. Clearly this is not the way to go about ending the threat; it’s the Renegade choice after all. Or is it?
As I mentioned before, Shepard’s entire goal has been the destruction of the Reapers, so why would that suddenly be the “wrong” choice to make? In addition, showing Anderson as the one who destroys the Reapers doesn’t make sense, as Anderson is not a Renegade (punching Udina aside). So, what’s going on?
The child tells you that this will destroy all synthetic life in the Galaxy, including the Geth. Why mention the Geth? Well, if you have helped the Geth and they ended up on your side during the game, this makes it appear to be more of a Renegade action, as you will be destroying “friends”. In addition, the child says that, even with this option, the peace won’t last. Harbinger is throwing everything at you/Shepard in order to deflect you from this choice; it certainly sounds unappealing, comparatively. But that is the point. You are supposed to pick another, more synthetic friendly choice.
Making this choice is also the only way to see Shepard alive, which is one of the lynchpins to this entire theory. After the Reapers are destroyed, you see smoking rubble, and then an armored body (complete with N7 dog tags) lying in its midst. After a moment, you hear something like a sharp gasping breath and the body moves, and the screen goes black. The clear assumption here is that Shepard lived if you chose the Destroy option (and your EMS was high enough), but there is still a question: how did he get back to London (which is where you assume the body was lying, as the Citadel platform had no concrete structures and that was his previous location)?
Is This You Being Meta?
If the body is indeed that of Shepard, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, it seems unlikely that he landed on Earth and survived. It’s possible that he could have been flung into the Conduit and it somehow transported him back, but that seems unlikely considering that he wasn’t near the Conduit at the time of the events on the platform. The clearest explanation, IMO, is that all, or at least a majority, of the events after blacking out from Harbinger’s laser are hallucinations/dreams of Shepard’s. The meeting with the Catalyst might be a hallucination/dream, or it might have some basis in reality, or it could be metaphysical in nature; it’s impossible to be certain.
The relevant part of that entire sequence, however, isn’t Shepard, but you, the player. The entire ending sequence involving the choices is the game, and Bioware, attempting to indoctrinate you. As I mentioned previously, there are parallels with Mass Effect; these parallels seem to exist to allow you to have the proper perspective, like Shepard, to make the required choice. By not questioning the way the choices are represented (Paragon, Renegade, Neutral), the player runs the risk of being fully indoctrinated and destroying all organic life in the galaxy. This is YOUR decision, not Shepard’s; Shepard being there is simply an avatar for the player. While that is technically true in any game, I believe in this instance it is more profound than the typical decision, even those previously made in the Mass Effect games.
Take a moment to view one definition of a word that is significant within the context of the game and the ending, and might help understand where I am coming from.
Crucible—A severe test; a trial.
Essentially, if you choose the Control or Synthesis options, you have been indoctrinated. Selecting the Destroy option is the only way to both escape the indoctrination and allow Shepard to survive. This is your test; your trial; your crucible.
There are issues with this theory; I am aware. And not all of the questions, both for and against it, can be properly answered. Even with those concerns, I think it’s at least a strong possibility that this was the intention all along, that Bioware wanted to take gaming to the next level, a metagaming experience like no other. Clearly, each ending is open to interpretation, and you can reach your own conclusions. I just like to think that Bioware had a grand plan in place all along. And if not? Well, I still got to play three of my favorite games of all time, so I think that’s a fair trade-off.