In Defense of the Ending of Mass Effect 3 (Spoilers)

It’s almost a complete consensus: the ending to Mass Effect 3 was a disappointment. No resolution. No meaningful buildup. No closure. By all accounts, a failure on every front. However, after pondering a little more and thinking a little deeper, my question is: is it a bad ending? Or is it potentially the most epically epic ending ever?

Don’t get me wrong; as it stands, it’s a pretty subpar ending. It’s full of inexplicable plotholes. It ends a series built on dynamic choices by shoving three rigid choices down the players throat that have nothing to do with the thousands of preceeding choices to that point. It spends no more than seconds explaining what happens to the characters we have invested hours cultivating meaningful relationships with and getting to know.

So, yeah; by all qualifications, this ending is pretty mediocre, and I can agree with that. Fans aren’t even clamoring for a happier ending, necessarily, just one that doesn’t directly contradict the freedom and tone the entire series spent establishing. That’s like changing the ending of Harry Potter 7 to a black-and-white noir thematic style, where Harry removes his glasses in dramatic fashion and rips the head off Voldemort. Cool, maybe, but it defies everything the series stood for.

How can this ending be anything but a failure? Only if there are events going on that are a little deeper than how they first appeared.


Proponents of this idea have dubbed it “The Indoctrination Theory.”

Basically, the theory is as such; at some point during the ending of Mass Effect 3 (the point that is generally accepted is the scene where Shepard is running toward the device that will teleport him into the Citadel and gets face-laser pwned by Harbinger), Shepard becomes indoctrinated. The ending that we experience is actually all in Shepard’s indoctrinated mind, as he tries to overcome the Reaper’s fancy mind control.

Sounds crazy? Maybe. Sure. On multiple levels. But if you take a second and actually think about it, there is a surprising amount of evidence that supports this theory. Let’s walk through it.

1. Are we supposed to buy that Shepard survived that laser blast by Harbinger, wakes up in a sort of floaty, dreamlike environment, and suddenly has no party members, a pistol with infiinite ammo, and no armor?

2. Admiral Anderson makes it to the Citadel as well. How? Did he somehow evade the laser that took out everything in your nearby vicinity, including yourself, and then use the device to teleport into the Citadel?

3. In the endings to the game, we see crew members coming out of the Normandy, which has crash landed onto some lush planet. How? Did the Joker swoop down and pick your team up? And then race to launch from a Mass Relay before it was destroyed?

4. The same boy that Shepard watched die in the beginning and has had dreams about is the form that the catalyst takes. If Shepard is not hallucinating, how does the Catalyst know what form to take? Are we supposed to buy that it is just “space magic”and can read his mind?

5. Speaking of the boy, there are subtle hints that the indoctrination on Shepard may have taken hold a lot earlier. Evidence: no one at any point acknowledges the boy, and we never see the boy outside of Shepard’s perspective. In the beginning, he’s playing in a field with Shepard watching from the window. Shepard later finds him in a vent, but Anderson never sees the boy and when we look back the boy is gone. And finally, when the boy is boarding the ship, no marines or civilians attempt to help him, or pay him attention of any kind. Is there a chance I’m reading way too far into this? Of course. It just seems like a strange direction for Bioware to take if there really is nothing deeper happening.

6. At the end, you are presented with three choices by the boy. The entire series, Shepard has fought against every accepted truth; whether you chose a Renegade or Paragon path, one thing has remained consistent: Shepard wants — needs — to destroy the Reapers. And yet, at the climax of the story, he just accepts the plain three choices laid out by some ambigious entity?

7. The three choices themselves are terrible, but the way they are presented was initially confusing, and now fascinating. Option A is to control the Reapers, in which the Reapers live. This is the option the Illusive Man sacrificed everything to achieve, and yet it is presented in blue, a color that has clearly symbolized Paragon choice for three entire games. The choice to destroy the Reapers (and, in turn, all synthetic life), is presented in red, the Renegade choice. And finally, there is the beam of light in the middle that allows you to synthesize all organic and synthetic life, resulting in a new, hybrid DNA. If we believe there is something deeper, these choices represent Shepard attempting to break Reaper indoctrination. We’ll go based off of each scenario’s best ending:

  • Option A: Control the Reapers — You die, the Reapers live. Even though you pointed it out to the Illusive Man moments before, you don’t control the Reapers; they control you. The Reapers are victorious.
  • Option B: You synthesize all life — You die, the Reapers live. Sure, synthesizing SEEMS like a nice option…until you remember the Reapers use organic material to create new Reapers, thus in a way already synthesizing life. The Reapers are victorious.
  • Option C: You destroy the Reapers — You live. They die. Also, in the final moments of this ending, we see Shepard’s torso among rubble, and he takes a breath before the screen cuts to black. However, the rubble isn’t Citadel rubble…it looks suspiciously close to the London warzone you were just a part of. Which makes sense: we clearly see the Citadel being destroyed in the ending sequence. Did he fall all the to Earth from space…and survive? No. What you’re seeing is him breaking free of indoctrination, awake and able to finish the fight. You thought we were going to talk about a cliffhanger ending and not reference Halo 2? Shame on you.

The entire game, the mantra of the Reapers has been “your salvation lies in your destruction.” By choosing the first two options and dying, you make a choice to make this a reality. You die. They win. Prophecy realized. However, if you’re smart enough to see past the deception and illusions of choice presented to you (I’ll admit, I was not initially and chose to synthesize), there is another chapter yet, ready to unfold. At least I’d like to think so. There is much more evidence in the game that there is more to this ending than meets the eye, including specific dream-like qualities to the scenes and various, specific quotes by developers hinting at fans to be “patient until they have all the facts” and to hold on to their copies and saves of the game.

Even if you buy into this theory, the question remains: why would Bioware troll their fans this hard? Those people have legitimate opinions, and nothing I say here will probably change them.

However, I urge you to realize what an epic undertaking — and gamble — this method of storytelling would be. Sure, you can accuse them of releasing an unfinished game, but if they handle it correctly (for example, releasing free DLC of the final chapter), they will be breaking new ground and implementing a sort of meta-method of telling their story. In a way, not only did they have their lead character undergo indoctrination (which is a facet I questioned his immunity on for the entire game), but they sort of indoctrinated their entire audience. You were fed an illusion of the ending, and only by thinking on it and not just going with the flow can you overcome it. Not since BioShock has a game so masterfully deceived its players and made such poignant commentary on the nature of the medium. Furthermore, with pirates going through and spoiling the endings and plots of so many high-profile endeavors (Terminator: Salvation is infamous for actually changing its ending because the original was pirated and spoiled), Bioware has implemented an ending that is free of this happening.

I’m willing to admit that I could be wrong, and somehow, someway, the writers who delivered us the greatest sci-fi saga since Star Wars completely dropped the ball on their ending. However, until I’m forced to believe otherwise, I’m going to trust in the writing team that they knew what they were doing, and believe the developers when they say more is on the way. I have to…because I don’t want to think about the alternative.

7 thoughts on “In Defense of the Ending of Mass Effect 3 (Spoilers)

  1. I am a huge fan of the indoctrination theory. I might truly cry if BioWare’s free DLC doesn’t confirm it. Hell, at this point, I think no matter what BioWare really was thinking with the ending, they should just make the free DLC confirm the indoctrination theory to give a nod to the fans that spent so much time and energy compiling a scapegoat for what was (I felt as I finished my first run through of the game) a complete disappointment and let down.

    1. Nice to find another Indoctrination Theorist! We now know how Bioware is going to address this ending debacle The good news? They are releasing a FREE extended cut ending this summer. The bad news? It is highly unlikely we’re getting the Indoctrination Theory DLC we want. You win some, you lose some…

  2. I haven’t played yet outside of a launch event, but I’ve heard about this theory from a few places. Bioware is definitely capable of massive twists, like the ending of the first KOTOR. hopefully ME3 will be more like KOTOR 1 than KOTOR 2

    1. Well, Bioware wasn’t actually responsible for KOTOR 2, so it’s understandable why it paled in comparison. I’ll hold out hope for this massive twist you allude to, but it’s not looking so good.

  3. I’ll just say that I didn’t read this for the (I hope) good reason that I haven’t played through ME3 yet. But I’m glad to see that there is some dissent in “the ending sucked” furor. I tend to get a little suspicious about these kinds of complaints, because people may very well have had overinflated expectations about what the game should have delivered. So I look forward to coming back to this once I’ve had a chance to play through the game.

    1. Good plan, definitely keep an open head going into the ending. And there is definitely a population that is happy with the ending. In the sake of avoiding spoilers, I would just say play the game with an open mind and get back to me when you’re done.

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