The Mass Effect 3 extended cut is almost upon us and over the next few days I’m going to talk at length about the ending to this remarkable trilogy of video games. There is a lot to say about this ending, interpretations, the community reaction, the reaction to the reaction, and meta-interpretations. I’ll just take it as I go, but for today I’ll be stepping through a number of interpretations of the ending. Spoilers will be abound obviously.
Before I start, let us clear something up straight away. A literal, face value, evaluation of the ending is stupid and wrong. If you’re mad because of supposed plot holes and inconsistencies the ending created that’s because you’re a fucking idiot who actually thinks that a bioticly powered Illusive Man caused Sheperd to murder Anderson. You believe that Sheperd is able to breath in open space without a functioning suit. Do you see how absurd this sounds? Claiming it is a sudden oversight on Bioware’s behalf is not a legitimate excuse when you realise the number of variables and concessions they accounted for in the entire game up until this point. The game’s ending is soaked in symbolism and metaphor; refusing to believe this is sheer ignorance. So with that out of the way, here are my three interpretations of the ending.
Destroy the Crucible
As the mission draws to a close, Liara comes to Sheperd’s room and talks about a time capsule she’s developing. Her own little version of the Prothean beacons if you will. She tells the whole story up till that point, deifying Sheperd as a messianic figure. It is from the contents of this time capsule that Stargazer (Buzz Aldrin) is telling the story of ‘The Sheperd’ to his sweet. Found by a later humanoid civilization, thousands of years into the next cycle, Sheperd’s tale has become legend of near religious significance to the possibly pre-spacefaring civilization that found it. Living in a world of peace, they are oblivious to the Reaper threat figuring that Sheperd defeated the Reapers once and for all.
Sherperd didn’t defeat the Reapers. Sheperd died and that death occurred right about here.
That’s why after that hit everything is hazy. There’s blurry lines all over the screen. The forest from Sheperd’s nightmares is suddenly real and in London. The inside of the citidel is covered in corpses and mirrored walls. The Illusive Man shifts in and out of reality. Sheperd has visions of Anderson and the Illusive Man carrying out the final options. Not to mention the platform itself forms a giant, colour coded dialogue wheel. None of these details actually happen. The details are, as Stargazer says, “lost in time.”
Sheperd died. And whether the Crucible worked or the Reapers really were defeated remains conjecture, just like Stargazer’s story. Perhaps those people are the distant descedents of Joker and the Normandy survivors. Perhaps they are spacebound and live in a galaxy without mass effect relays. We don’t know, it’s up to speculation. And I’ll have more on that later.
Control the Citadel
A well known, although not well liked, interpretation is that Sheperd is indoctrinated by the Reapers. The details are exhausting and the best thing I can do is link you to this very well edited and put together video.
If you don’t feel like watching an hour and half documentary I’ll sum it up. With Sheperd’s regular and prolonged exposure to Reaper technology, most notably entering a derelict Reaper and the incident Object Rho during the events of Arrival, the early stages of indoctrination have begun by the start of Mass Effect 3. The first of these signs is a child Sheperd encounters during the opening events of the game. This child is never acknowledged by any other character in the game except Sheperd, who believes he dies while trying to evacuate Vancouver. Sheperd is haunted by this child in nightmares throughout the game. Sheperd’s nightmares have other aspects, such as oily shadows and Reaper klaxons, that match symptoms of indoctrination as described by the game’s codex and indoctrinated characters.
As the game concludes, in Hammer’s final push to the beam, Sheperd is knocked unconscious by Harbinger and enters a lucid dream. This dream is an internal battle for control of Sheperd’s mind. Sheperd shoots Anderson, but clutches his own side. Sheperd is continually elevated as the struggle takes place on higher levels of the mind, eventually culminating in a final decision that the catalyst positions as one for the future of the galaxy but is really a struggle for conscious control. The final scenes of mass relay destruction, a galactic dark age and Joker ditching the Normandy on a planet are visions implanted by the Reapers as consequences for Sheperd’s actions.
In The Final Hours of Mass Effect 3, it is revealed that plans to have the player physically lose control of Sheperd to indoctrination were discussed, implemented but ultimately scrapped, due to gameplay design problems, in November 2011. This points to the very obvious conclusion that the writers intended to have Sheperd indoctrinated all along and that they only struggled with how to represent it. This evidence for indoctrination theory would be bulletproof if not for the fact that Final Hours was put together by serial dickhead Geoff Keighley; a vile, evil man who represents everything that is wrong with gaming journalism today. I felt physically ill having to buy Final Hours for research purposes, even if it was only $2.99, because the thought of Keighley receiving some of my money was so distressing.
Synthesise the Catalyst
Indoctrination theory has been described as being a little deep, or even loldeep. The truth is, this interpretation doesn’t go deep enough for my pretentious tastes. As far as I’m concerned, ending is a metanarrative representing the discourse between gamers, game developers and publishers. The young imaginary boy, the catalyst, Starchild, represents Electronic Arts. The Reapers represent Bioware, controlled by EA/catalyst and the entitled gamer is obviously represented by Sheperd. The key line discussing the power relationship comes from EA/Starchild; “the created will always rebel against the creators.” EA, controlling Bioware, had them construct an ending that would evoke a passionate fan response: a rebellion against Bioware.
But hold on, you ask. Isn’t Starchild referring to synthetics as the created, naturally rebelling against the organic life who created them? And that Starchild created the Reapers to control that? This type of stupid, circular thinking led to retarded image macros like this one:
The Reapers though, are the creators. The mass relays, the Citadel. It was the Reapers who made it possible for asari, salaries, protheans, humanity et. al. to reach the stars. Sovereign states in the first Mass Effect:
“Your civilization is based on the technology of the mass relays. Our technology. By using it, your civilization develops along the paths we desire. We impose order on the chaos of organic life. You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”
Bioware as the creator gave us, the gamer, three games that we followed. Bioware structured all the content, all the variables. We played the games because they released them and the games ended when they demanded. In this sense the gamer is the created. The entitled gamer though has forgotten this, they believe they are the creator. The entitled gamer believes Sheperd is theirs and the story that unfolded across the trilogy was one they crafted through their decisions. The entitled gamer rejected the ending of Mass Effect 3 and ultimately rebelled against the creator, Bioware. Similarly Sheperd, and humanity as a whole reject the notion that their whole existence, their galactic empire was built around Reaper design. In refusing to acknowledge Reapers as the creators, Sheperd by extension denies that organic resistance to the Reaper harvest is a rebellion and naively suggests that creators and created could work together. Sheperd, and the entitled gamer are in denial that their existence was merely the whim of a higher power.
The last words of the script were “…downloadable content”
Any piece of art is a product of its time. In our time, that product is often contentious, speculative endings. The ending to The Sopranos is often cited as a prominent example of this. Other contemporary examples of inconclusive endings to popular fiction include Inception, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Bioshock. For better or worse, our time is one where success is measured in hearts touched, public consciousness and money earned. Mass Effect 3‘s ending was scientifically designed to achieve those things – speculative endings are designed to achieve those things. It gets people talking, increases media saturation and keeps the brand prominent and valuable.
Tomorrow I’ll talk more about the community response to the ending. Or maybe I’ll continue the train of thought I began in my head when writing that last paragraph there. Or maybe by the time I type again the new, extended ending will be out. We’ll see. For now I’ll leave you now with one final snippet from Final Hours. The following is a scrap of note paper where Mac Walters jotted down musings for the ending. There is a lot to take in but pay close attention to the very bottom.
We fucken played right into their hands.