We’re Out of Our Goddamn Minds: Mass Effect 3 (spoilers, spoilers, spoilers)

As the title of this post implies, I’m going to jump on the Mass Effect 3 ending critique bandwagon and ride it just this once. Also, as the title warns, there are spoilers, but why would you be reading a post about the end of Mass Effect 3 if you hadn’t finished it already?

At first, there was a shitstorm of criticism about the ending to this game, because outwardly it makes no sense and leaves a lot of unanswered questions. What happens to your teammates and former teammates: Tali, Garrus, Wrex, Jack, et al? What happens to all the fleets in orbit around Earth? And why the fuck is Joker flying the Normandy–your ship–through the Mass Relay, away from Earth? These are pretty valid questions. Shamus Young, writer of the Experienced Points column on The Escapist website made good points in an article about the controversy. It feels weird for me to explain this, because most of the people I know who would be reading this are certified experts in literature (teachers, journalists, and former English majors working at Starbucks) and high-grade film snobs, but Young points out the three things a good story needs, as far as the ending goes: Affirmation, Explanation, and Closure. Essentially, this is what the result is of all the hard work the characters put in, why it happened (what universal truth do we learn), and what happens to the characters and those associated with them after their victory or defeat. As far as I can tell, not one of these three ideas are adequately addressed at the end of Mass Effect 3.

The Indoctrination Theory

There is a theory, gaining support on the Web, that Shepard was indoctrinated by the Reapers from the moment s/he came into contact with the first Reaper of the series, Sovereign. If you’d like to see an example of a decent explanation of this theory, check out this YouTube video (if you don’t want to sit through 20+ minutes of video, keep reading). The video’s a bit convoluted and there’s a lot of text to keep up with, so the guy from The Angry Joe Show has a video explaining it a bit better.

Those are long and sometimes repetitive, so here’s a basic synopsis. The entry on Reaper indoctrination in the codex in ME3 states that those who are indoctrinated suffer from headaches, hearing buzzing sounds, hallucinations, and so on. The Rachni queen in ME1 tells you that the Rachi’s songs (their method of telepathic communication) were clouded with oily figures. Shepard suffers from headaches after exposure to the Prothean artifact on Eden Prime (where the Reaper Sovereign was also present). The rogue, indoctrinated Spectre Saren was very adamant about joining (synthesis) with the Reapers. In ME2 “The Arrival” (downloadable content), Shepard is exposed to a Reaper artifact that causes hallucinations and headaches. In ME3, the child Shepard sees at the beginning can also be seen running into the same building outside of which we fight the first Husks of the game, and which is blown up and set aflame by a Reaper laser. The indoctrination theory writes the kid off as dead at this point. Anderson doesn’t seem to notice him, and later, when the shuttles are being loaded, the soldiers don’t hurry him aboard. Later, Shepard has weird, dark dreams involving the kid and oily shadow figures. Also, James asks you what some buzzing noise is.

More evidence for this theory is the eyes of the indoctrinated. Eyes of Saren and the Husks are a turquoise-blue with two concentric circles and two dots as the irises. We see this later in ME2 in the eyes of the Illusive Man, whose goal, it turns out, is to control the Reapers through their own technology. When you choose either the Control or Synthesis endings to ME3, and the energy appears to be burning burning Shepard away, you see the same eyes, more or less in him/her.

More evidence claimed relies heavily on the charge to the beam in London and the final conversations on the Citadel/Crucible. The video claims that the instant Shepard is fried by Harbinger’s laser, everything that follows is not real (7:08 in the first video: “The next scenes can’t be real. That is a fact.”). I’ll address the factualness of that “fact” later. What does seem to be a fact is the presence of the trees and shrubs from the dream sequences behind you as you stagger toward the beam. Another fact is the infinite ammo pistol you get so you can dispatch the last Husks and poor, poor Marauder Shields. Also facts are the straight shot to the console when aboard the Citadel, Anderson’s displacement in time and space, and the Illusive Man’s appearance from … somewhere. This also happens: you shoot Anderson in the gut when the Illusive Man busts out some angry Reaper-based mojo. You also happen to be bleeding from the gut. The god-child appears as the child from earlier in the game and, subsequently, Shepard’s dreams.

The rest of the theory goes that the Control and Synthesis options are not the “correct” options–that they’re tricks that end up in indoctrination for everybody and are to be avoided. This holds some water because, interestingly, the morally dodgy choices in ME2 of saving Genophage data (created through barbarous means) and giving the Collector base to the Illusive Man (seen as repugnant because he’ll just use it for evil) turn out to save lives in ME3. Saving the data saves the Krogan woman, Eve, thus rallying the Krogan fully to your cause. And saving the Collector base yields the computing power of the destroyed Human Reaper head, supposedly adding to the effectiveness of the Crucible. Those were Paragon/Renegade tricks, so why shouldn’t the end of the game be one too? Answers to that in a minute.

So if we combine all that with Sovereign’s soliloquy about how everything they’ve done (Mass Relays, technology left behind, indoctrination, etc) is to guide organic life in a certain direction, and the Prothean VI’s explanation on Thessia about something else guiding the Reapers (and thus the patterns of extinction), you can come to a theory that Shepard was indoctrinated the whole time.

Eine Kleine Counterargument

I’m a big fan of strategy games, and one of the first rules in chess–and in debate, or at least its modern incarnations–is to never play on your opponent’s terms. The first video I linked in this post states at the end that any counter argument to the indoctrination theory must (must!) answer a series of questions, which, of course, it provides. Luckily, I’m not out to debate anything. I’ve found that little truth can be found in picking sides, and the truth I’m attempting to find in this post isn’t the merit of the indoctrination theory, but the worthiness of the ending to Mass Effect 3. Still, I think providing the posited questions and my answers to them may help iron out issues with the ending as a whole. So here they are in order. Some I’ve answered pretty thoroughly, others I couldn’t answer well at all.

What do the dreams mean?

Dreams often manifest as a collection and parsing out of events, images, and psychological issues. Those who played ME3 for a few hours after first getting it may have had interesting and thematically relevant dreams that night. Someone who just saw a child murdered by a giant robot, and who has been in a constant state of battle since before the Mass Effect series started is bound to be stressed enough to have nightmarish recurring dreams.

Why does nobody notice the boy?

In the beginning, Anderson is checking out the next room, which was on fire and possibly full of Husks, so he probably wasn’t paying attention. The fact that the boy disappears silently after Shepard looks away means nothing. It’s a common device for creating tension. Also, the boy is in the duct work, and the destruction of the building doesn’t necessarily mean his death, though it would be hard to imagine his survival. At the launching pad, the Destroyer is looming overhead and soldiers are shooting at Cannibals and Husks, and are probably too occupied to grab the kid. The doors to the shuttle don’t close until the kid’s on, so perhaps someone noticed.

Why would Shepard be immune to indoctrination?

Possibly for the same reason Shepard’s the only one (aside from a Reaper-modified Saren) who can survive the mind meld the Prothean beacon lays down on him/her in the first game. S/he is strong willed and a unique specimen of humanity and organic life. It’s possibly the same reason s/he was being considered as humanity’s first Spectre. (Even considering Cerberus’ investment in the matter, Shepard would still have to be top notch to convince the council.) Granted, Saren was supposed to be special, too, and strength of will has its limits. But the hero of this game could never be an Average Joe type, and had to be kind of a superhuman in some way or another.

Why does Harbinger take a special interest in Shepard?

Because Shepard killed Sovereign. A single person figuring out how to murder a killer robot as old as time should garner that kind of attention.

Why are there trees from the dream around the beam?

Supposedly, Shepard is mortally wounded. When people are near death, they supposedly sometimes hallucinate, even seeing people or things from the past.

Why does your sidearm have infinite ammo?

A plot device, perhaps. Perhaps the same reason time slows down when you have to kill Eva the evil Cerberus robot and make the final shot on the Reaper on Rannoch. It’s perhaps a game-based manifestation of intense focus that’s designed to get the player from Point A to Point B with as few frustrating retries as possible. Can you imagine trying to get past Marauder Shields with just a pistol if he had the same stats as the Marauders you faced just minutes ago in the missile defense mission?

Why does the beam lead directly to the panel that opens the Citadel’s arms?

I’m going to interpret this as a gameplay point. If we’re going to be stuck in slow motion for the duration, players aren’t going to be amenable to wandering through corridors for 15 or 20 minutes, especially if we’re not allowed to save at this point.

Why are there corpses everywhere on the Citadel, just like on the Collector ship?

There was a conversation about the beam’s purpose, which was to take people up to the Citadel. And the characters assumed it was to grind people up to create another Reaper like the one in ME2. If that’s true, the bodies make sense. If it’s not, then the beam is simply a plot device to get us onto the Citadel, at which point it makes no sense within the story (unless you’re a diehard believer in the indoctrination theory) and we see some lazy writing start to surface.

How did Anderson enter the beam before Shepard?

Unknown. Perhaps Anderson wasn’t knocked out before reaching the beam, as Shepard was.

Why was Anderson teleported to another location and how did he arrive at the panel first?

If people are being led to the beam by the hundreds, they can’t all appear in the same place. The beam has to scatter them (in a controlled way) so they don’t beam into each other. It’s possible he beamed into that very room, or into another that we don’t get to see because it complicates gameplay.

How did Hackett know that Shepard made it to the Citadel after Hammer was destroyed?

That’s not clear. Perhaps Anderson checked in without telling Shepard. Perhaps the transmitter is an implant and has a tracker.

Why is Shepard bleeding at the same spot Anderson was shot?

Shepard is holding that spot on his/her body as he walks down the hallway with the Keeper. It’s a previous wound, probably from Harbinger’s blast.

How come the Normandy escapes with Shepard’s last two squad mates?

That wasn’t true in my game. I went through the last battle on Earth with Liara and Garrus, but the Normandy scene on the unknown planet included Joker, EDI, and Liara. Looks like Garrus pulled the short straw. Still, why would they flee through the Mass Relay? If Shepard is really dead or dying, they have no more reason to stay, unless they wanted to keep fighting. If Joker saw the energy bubble coming out of the Crucible, perhaps survival instinct would tell him to turn tail and run.

Wouldn’t the explosion of Mass Relays cause supernova-like destruction as put forth in The Arrival DLC?

It would seem so, unless destruction via Crucible energy is much more controlled than blowing one up with an asteroid. This just seems to be a hole with no answer as far as the ending of the game is concerned, and doesn’t have much bearing on the validity of an indoctrination theory.

Why can’t Shepard kill the Keepers or Anderson?

Probably for the same reason you can’t just go on a murder spree on the Citadel (before Reaper control) or shoot Udina in his office in the first game. There’s no point to it and it would needlessly complicate things.

What is the growl that Shepard hears on the Citadel?

If the Citadel is Reaper tech or related to Reaper tech, it probably makes the same kinds of noises that the Reapers do when it’s in destroy-the-galaxy mode. That or the growl can from outside, because in Mass Effect, we can hear shit in space.

Before I move on…

Before I move on, there are additional questions raised by the video on indoctrination theory.

If everything that happens after Shepard gets knocked out on the ground is not real as the video states, and all of it is an internal struggle in Shepard’s mind, how are any of the endings possible? Shepard never makes it to the Citadel, never not-shoots Anderson, never shoots/suicides the Illusive Man, never confronts the god-child, and never destroys, controls, or becomes one with the Reapers. The Mass Relays never have a reason to blow up. The Reapers are not destroyed; nor are the Geth, nor anyone aboard a starship. Shepard somehow makes it to a pile of rubble instead of staying where s/he was blasted by Harbinger. In short, the last-sequence-as-hallucination theory makes no sense because if the trip to the Citadel is a dying dream, then there is no choice and there is no ending.

The eyes as a sign of indoctrination. Indoctrination is essentially becoming one with the Reapers, however that comes about. The Illusive Man had the eyes, as did Saren and the Husks (now sing Saren and the Husks like “Bennie and the Jets–tell me when you get that out of your head). We don’t see the eyes in Shepard until the actual Control or Synthesis endings. It’s not necessarily true that Shepard had those eyes all along because we just see them once Shepard is changing–not necessarily burning away. It’s possible that the process of control or synthesis makes that happen and we’re watching their creation.

Does it Matter?

Ooh, I know this sounds like a cop-out question, but stick with me. The indoctrination theory is all well and good. I honestly don’t care if it’s the ending BioWare meant to have. What I do care about is how it was executed. Assuming the indoctrination theory is “correct,” it was so obtuse that it took players many weeks and philosophy classes to suss it out. If we’re going to talk about what’s correct, though, let’s start with not having an epic 120+ hour sci-fi game series that has an ending so ambiguous that it has to be explained by literary theorists and Internet philosophers.

However we got to that ending, indoctrination or something else, the choices we are given–Control, Synthesis, or Destruction–yield only one slightly different ending narrative out of three possibilities. Is that OK with everybody? Can we just have a big goddamn zero at the end of this epic? That kind of final erasure of characters, setting, and motivation is a device used to fuck with an audience. Ren and Stimpy did it in the “Space Madness” episode to comic effect, but that was less than twenty minutes long. And Inception did it to say something about a world in which reality was truly a relative thing, but that was about two hours long. A hero-based story about, collecting allies, making moral decisions, fostering peace and cooperation between enemies, and beating the odds during the attempted destruction of organic life by giant robotic shellfish needs an equally impressive ending. I say this not because this is an entertainment product and I expect an entertainment product ending. I say this because the story we got in all three games, up until about two-thirds of the way through ME3 is not about a zero sum game.

Hey, Wait! Nihilism?

It could be argued that BioWare always wanted this series to come down to a big fat zero. Hell, the first Spectre we meet is named Nihlus, and he gets shot in the back of the head just as the first mission is beginning. And if you look at each game as a progression, there’s not a lot of real progress made. Let’s say you save the council and put up Anderson as your recommendation for the first human councilmember. In ME2 Udina is still pretty much running the show. If you let the council perish, and set up Udina instead, there’s still an alien council in the second game. Nothing changes. In ME2 the decisions you make can cost the lives of your squad mates and crewmen aboard the Normandy, but in the third game, anyone who dies is either replaced by someone unknown but equally competent, or is completely nonexistent and unable to help you gather the resources you need. Destroying or saving (controlling, anyone?) the Collector base determines whether or not you have a super fast computer for the Crucible. Does any of this make a difference in the end? Not really. Apparently, the amount of resources you gather determines how many of the three final choices are available to you. But this still doesn’t give you the satisfaction of knowing whether you did the right thing. Everyone is still dead or stranded on a distant planet, future genetic stability from initial population not looking great. So what are we to believe–that we made all those decisions, saved all those lives, and rescued all those people from slavers, mad scientists, and Reapers for nothing? Not even the indoctrination theory answers this.

So who shall we tell to go fuck themselves?

The initial reaction is to get up in BioWare’s grill about this. It’s their story, their game, and their mistake. This is bolstered by the hints dropped (see the second video I linked earlier) that BioWare has something else coming that will fill all these holes. So, wait, they released an incomplete game? What a bunch of asswipes, right? But since when is this not a commonly accepted practice in the videogame industry? The Call of Duty and Medal of Honor series do this, and charge players extra money, without blinking an eye. The Mass Effect series itself has about $57 (about the cost of ME3) of extra in-game usable content, including “The Arrival,” which is apparently a key to understanding the indoctrination theory. And the people complaining bought it all with minimal griping. So let’s say that it is true: Mass Effect 3 isn’t really the end, but is sort of a Breaking Dawn, Part 1 and that the true ending is really a DLC or two away. That’d be OK, right?

No. Not right. Not right at all. Mass Effect 3 was sold to the public at least implicitly as the third and final chapter to a great series, after which BioWare would clean their hands of it and move on to bigger and better projects. It wasn’t sold to us as a dead horse that we’d have to beat with a new sticks, which BioWare would sell us once the old ones wore out, until they could find a way to write a good ending. And then we could all learn to love again.

But maybe it’s our fault. Maybe we’re the indoctrinated ones, following the destructive path of videogame logic so blithely that we don’t see what’s right in front of us. Maybe by spending those 120+ hours playing games instead of reading books and interacting with real people, we’ve become so stupid that we don’t know a good ending when we see one. Maybe they were right when they said I should have gone into plastics.

The other possibility is that they lost their goddamn minds and/or fired their best writers (or sent them to work on their Star Wars project) right before they got to the last pages in the script. But, the general consensus seems to be, this is the company that put together two engaging and immensely enjoyable games, and made an improvement upon those in the third game until the very end.

Hell, even Han got boarded sometimes.