Why Confusion Reigns over ME3’s Ending
This article contains spoilers about ‘Mass Effect 3’
I was prepared for my Shepard to die at the end of ‘Mass Effect 3.’ The galaxy is at war with the Reapers, a threat no advanced race has ever beaten. With a threat so massive, so powerful, I figured only the ultimate sacrifice would save the galaxy. I didn’t need every question answered or the kick-ass hero ending many American action films have. Although the franchise has been promoted to players as a series of games based on choice, I know even the best plans don’t come to fruition. I have lost count of how many times my well thought-out plans have been turned to crud because of circumstances beyond my control. Shepard’s fate being out of my control is not why I am disappointed in the ending of ME3. I’m disappointed because of the many plot holes created by poor writing.
I like endings that are left up to interpretation as long as the narrative is constructed well and supports the ambiguity. Strong writing can produce an ending that answers some questions while leaving some to the imagination of the viewer or player. The endings of ‘Lost’ and ‘The Sopranos’ come to my mind easily as examples. There are many interpretations about the resolution of ME3. I latched on to the idea of evolution. The Reapers harvest advanced life every 50,000 years. I have taught biology for ten years, so I wondered if the Reapers were a force of nature, a force that should not be fought against. For new life to evolve, old life must die; not all life because life comes from life, but I am aware that humanity will one day go extinct, and I am positive our descendants will want to fight against the inevitable. If the dinosaurs could have stopped the asteroid from hitting the Earth, then we would not be here, but because the dinosaurs became extinct, it gave our ancestors the opportunity to emerge from their holes in the ground and dominate the land. Life that the Reapers sow becomes part of the Reapers, making the Reapers complete fossil records—they keep the knowledge of all life that has been, so humanity would be remembered, but humans and other advanced life would be eradicated so new life would have the chance to evolve.
The Reapers as a force of nature interpretation is bleak. There is another side to the idea of evolution in the game—the synthesis of organic and synthetic. Evidence is present in the games to suggest the goal should be bringing peace to organic and synthetic life. After Shepard is brought back to life at the beginning of ME2, Shepard has implants, so Shepard is a blend of organic and synthetic. One of the goals since ME1 is resolving the conflict between the synthetic Geth and the organic Quarians. In ME3, EDI transfers part of her programming into a body, and she often asks Shepard if an artificial form can be considered alive and if she can have a relationship with Joker, a human male. This is why I choose the synthesis ending. Synthesis could be the next evolutionary step, one made possible because Shepard is the first organic to be in the presence of the Catalyst.
The other popular interpretation of the ending is the indoctrination theory. Indoctrination is the process the Reapers use to slowly control someone’s mind. Saren, the antagonist from ME1, was controlled by the Reaper called Sovereign. Many think Shepard, after being exposed to Reapers and Reaper artifacts, was in the process of indoctrination, a process that can take years. The boy Shepard sees in dreams, the fate of the Illusive Man, and the Reapers insisting destroying them will result in the absolute worst fate for the galaxy is why some think this is the correct explanation of the ending—everything in the Citadel with the Catalyst happens in Shepard’s mind, and the player has to destroy the Reapers in order for Shepard to resist indoctrination.
No matter what ending a player selects or what interpretation a player believes is correct, there are many inconsistencies and questions left after the ending of ME3 that makes it difficult to resolve the main plot of the ‘Mass Effect’ series. These inconsistencies and questions are the source of confusion many players have about the game. Without some of these concerns addressed, many players will remain frustrated. The following are the questions I and many players have.
Did the destruction of the mass relays result in the destruction of many worlds? No matter which ending players select, the mass relays are shown exploding across the galaxy. In the “Arrival” DLC, the Batarian’s home system is destroyed after an asteroid collides with a mass relay. A point is made that the destruction of a mass relay will result in an explosion resembling a supernova, releasing enough energy to destroy a system. The destruction of the mass relays means those who came to help Earth are stranded, and if the relays released the energy of a supernova, then their home worlds are destroyed. Unless it was a special type of explosion, and the relays didn’t release the destructive power equivalent to supernovas. If this is the case, then how is this “special explosion” possible? Why make such a big deal about what happens when a mass relay is destroyed only to go against the established rule at the end of ME3?
Is Shepard actually Shepard? At the beginning of ME2, Shepard dies. The Illusive Man used Cerberus technology to resurrect Shepard, but Shepard may or may not be the same Shepard from ME1. Shepard has cybernetic implants, making the commander not 100% organic. Video footage seen during the attack on the Cerberus base raises the suspicion that Shepard could be a construct. Shepard could be a clone with implanted memories or some other creation by the Illusive Man. What does this have to do with the ending? When Shepard died, any influence the Reapers might have had would have been severed. If Shepard is a construct created by the Illusive Man, then was the indoctrination (if true) started by the Illusive Man? At the end of ME3, it is clear that the Illusive Man has succumbed to indoctrination. Was part of the Reapers’ plan to have the Illusive Man weaken Shepard’s mind so indoctrination could begin? If so, why? Why wouldn’t the Reapers just have Shepard stay dead? Without knowing Shepard’s true nature, it is difficult to discern if the indoctrination theory is possible.
Why is indoctrination necessary? At the end of ME2 the size of the Reaper threat is revealed. Before the revelation, all players know about the Reapers is that they used the Rachni to start a war about two thousand years ago, and they indoctrinate various individuals to accomplish certain tasks. If the Reapers are small in number, these actions make sense. Indoctrination allows a small force to recruit others to use against their own kind. However, there are thousands of Reapers. During the course of ME3, they are everywhere. Since there are so many of them, they have a powerful laser as a weapon, and they are almost indestructible, why do the Reapers waste time indoctrinating individuals when they can take over a planet in hours and the galaxy in a matter of weeks? According to the Prothean, Javik, it took the Reapers a hundred years to complete their tasks, but how the Reapers are depicted in ME3 makes it seem as though the process would be quicker. Because the Reapers are not fully developed, the process they use to cull advanced life is not clear. More clarification on why such a powerful foe needs to use indoctrination would help players understand the threat the Reapers pose.
If the indoctrination theory is correct, then how are the Reapers destroyed? According to the indoctrination theory, everything that happens after Shepard is hit with the Reaper’s beam occurs in Shepard’s mind. Nothing is literal. Shepard does not actually go to the Citadel using the beam. Shepard does not actually meet the Catalyst. If Shepard is not in the Citadel, then how do the arms open? Who or what actually destroys the Reapers? How can a person resisting indoctrination cause the destruction of the Reapers? Does resisting indoctrination weaken the Reapers’ shields? Does it cause them to self-destruct? This is my main problem with the indoctrination theory. Shepard resists indoctrination, but how does that one act end the Reaper threat?
Why does destroying the Reapers result in the worst ending and the best ending? Throughout ME3 players have to build their galactic readiness. The higher a player’s galactic readiness is, the better the ending. If the readiness is below 1750, then the only available ending is destroying the Reapers. In this ending, the Earth is vaporized, the crew dies, and Shepard dies. This is the worst ending possible. If a player’s readiness is above 1750, then controlling the Reapers becomes an option. The synthesis option does not become available until a player’s galactic readiness is 2800 or higher. The higher score indicates that more time spent in the game and playing multiplayer will result in a better ending. The more prepared Shepard is the better ending a player will receive. This suggests that synthesis might be the preferred, or the best, option. However, the only way to have Shepard live is to have a very high readiness score (4000 & Anderson living or 5000+) and choose to destroy the Reapers. Since destroying the Reapers is the one option that is always available, one could argue that this is the one true choice, but why does destroying the Reapers result in the death of everything if readiness is low and in the saving of everyone if readiness is high? Because the results of the synthesis ending is the same (Earth is saved, crewmates become a combination of organic and synthetic, and Shepard dies), this could signal that synthesis is the one true ending. [Source: IGN]
I love the ‘Mass Effect’ series. I am not outraged by the ending, but I am confused. I don’t need or want DLC; instead, I would like the writers to answer a few of the questions many players have about the story. With some of these questions answered, then closure can be achieved.