Editor’s Note: Much has been been written about Mass Effect 3’s final moments, mostly in the form of scathing critiques and generally harsh words by those who felt slighted by it. That’s not what we’re doing here. Sherry has stepped up and placed the crosshairs firmly on her own head, as she discusses the reasons why the ending isn’t so bad after all. SPOILERS AHEAD, so enter at your own risk.
The only thing I wanted from the ending of Mass Effect 3 was for Shepard to die. It would have been a fitting end. Throughout the game, she* had emphasized how the fight for Earth would require the sacrifice of lives, so if by some miracle she had been allowed to survive the final fight, it would have been anticlimactic to me. I wanted her to go out in a blaze of glory. Apprehensive about finishing the game due to rumors of it “sucking,” I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my Shepard did, indeed, die at the end. At least they got that right!
Actually, they did more than that. To my surprise, I found that the ending was extremely satisfying for me, and was surprised at how vehemently some people felt they had been gypped. I understand their frustrations, although I still feel that most of the reactions are a bit over the top (“entitled bitchwhining” is the phrase that comes to mind). I’m not a BioWare toadie; I’ve got a few gripes** about the ending of my own, although not enough to overcome to sense of overwhelming catharsis that it elicited. However, I’d like to discuss some alternative interpretations that give the ending a different spin, and if they don’t exactly solve the choice problems, at least they present them in a different light.
As soon as that dream child showed up at the end, I immediately thought that Shepard was probably hallucinating the entire last five minutes. I wouldn’t go so far as to say she hallucinated her entire last visit to the Citadel, but I definitely think that she died right after Anderson died, and that the entire following sequence starting with Hackett telling her the Crucible wasn’t working was the hallucination of a dying mind. Or, for a more pessimistic but slightly more realistic take, she died as soon as she collapsed on that platform after being unable to figure out how to get the Crucible to fire. In the former interpretation, it is still possible to believe that the Crucible worked as planned, but in the latter, it is implied that the Crucible failed and the Earth was destroyed. But that’s pretty far-fetched for a video game, isn’t it? Maybe I had been watching too much Taxi Driver?
Apparently not. There is a theory, gaining steam on the BioWare forums, that the ending was a hallucination that shows the extent of Shepard’s Reaper indoctrination. It’s not entirely out of left field either – as previously mentioned, the end sequence has many dreamlike elements, and BioWare did initially plan an indoctrination ending that didn’t make it into the final cut of the game due to time constraints. Could some strain of it have crept into the official endings? The theory goes that two of the three possible outcomes (Control and Synthesis) suggested by the dream-child-reaper are attempts to get Shepard to do exactly what the Reapers want under the guise of saving the Earth. The final outcome, the “good” or “perfect” ending, represents Shepard breaking free of indoctrination, destroying the Reapers, and possibly surviving the conflict.
The crux of this theory involves giving the element of choice back to the player at the end – because it could be interpreted as BioWare successfully indoctrinating the player over the din of collapsing fourth walls. User lookingglassmind explains:
“Does this theory make sense? Maybe not. When we consider BioWare’s real-world motivations and risks (profit, losing a large fanbase over the disgusting wretchedness of the endings as they currently exist), then the theory is hard to support. But if, for just one moment, we can let ourselves believe that BioWare may just have lived up to their celebrated philosophy of Player Choice and Player Actualization, then this theory becomes awe-inspiring. Is it possible? Could BioWare have sacrificed the potential for safe profits in order to bring the most insane and beautiful gaming experience of all time to its fans? The most unprecedented example of player immersion of our times? Would BioWare have truly allowed the risk for profit and angering a serious amount of their fan population in pure deference to the story, and its lore?”
To me, the indoctrination theory is elegant but flawed (and also highly improbable). What I thought as I was watching the ending cinematic unfold (I picked Synthesis, because hell yes I want to be an android) was that the encounter with the dream-child and the “choices” were Shepard’s way of dealing with the cycle of mass species genocide, some of which she had personally been involved in.
If you have the From Ashes DLC, Javik hints at the problem with typical Prothean eloquence (“Organics do not know who created us. Synthetics know their maker, and they know that their makers are imperfect”). Throughout the entire game, the theme of races purposefully wiping each other out, and especially a “created” species killing their “creator,” had been building. The Quarian-Geth conflict is the obvious one, but also you could make the case that the Krogan had been created in their current form by the Salarians, first by the Salarians uplifting their civilization, and then by sterilizing them. All Alliance culture and society had been “created” to an extent by the Reapers, since all of galactic civilization is made possible by Mass Relays and reliance on Element Zero (the Asari, in fact, had been outright stealing from the Protheans for thousands of years). Killing the Reapers only perpetuates this cycle on another level, and none of the endings ensure that humanity, or the other Alliance races, would be safe from another iteration of this in the future, since all of the outcomes contain the possibility of another synthetic race being created, or a return of the Reapers.
None of the options presented to Shepard really solve the problem – and that’s the point. Destruction of races or even a bizarre conciliatory synthesis doesn’t end the cycle of violence. The only thing that does possibly end the cycle is the destruction of the Mass Relays (and no matter which option you pick, the Mass Relays always gets destroyed). With the relays gone, galactic civilization effectively gets bombed back to the Stone Age. Interstellar trade and commerce would collapse, military hegemony would end since it would be impossible to deploy anywhere in a timely fashion, and it would be each race, each planet for itself (as implied in the dialogue between the old man and the child at the very, very end).
Each race would be forced to discover the secret of creating Mass Relays on their own. Each race would be isolated from each other, unable to interfere with each others’ development or imperialize each other. It would also render each race weak enough to prevent the Reapers from taking interest in them for a long time – and by then, perhaps they will have advanced enough, on their own terms, to be able to fight the Reapers on fair ground. Or to figure out the secret to everlasting galactic peace. But in any case, no more piggybacking on the achievements of previous species. If humanity is to inherit the galaxy, they must earn it.
Shepard understands this as she dies – presumably not ever knowing if the Crucible worked or not, but knowing that in the long run, it wouldn’t matter anyway. It’s not choicy, no — but it’s a pithy and worthy end to a long-running series, and I feel that creating an ending that is open to interpretation but still establishes certain things as canonical is exactly what BioWare intended (and not just for the DLC possibilities).
There was never any doubt BioWare was intending to create an epic more than a game with this final installment, and the final scene with the stargazer and the little boy confirms this. Like any epic, the details may be lost, but the effects remain, and the player in this case is also the storyteller, infusing the story with his own twists, his own reactions. It seems this particular scene is a bit inflammatory since it could be interpreted as BioWare basically giving the player the old “screw-you”. It could be seen as implying that everything you just played for three games didn’t “really happen” (although what “really happened” in a science fiction video game is kind of illusory to begin with) but was just some bedtime story the old man told to his kid. I thought it was BioWare’s tongue-in-cheek parable of their relationship with their fans, as well as coyly setting the narrative stage for some DLC.
But it does establish the story as an epic, and clearly you can’t have vastly divergent endings to an epic. No matter what you have the characters do when you tell the story, Troy always burns at the end.
Is this the correct interpretation? Most likely not, but it worked for me – more than worked, in fact, for I was genuinely moved. I cried when Thane died (although not when Mordin died, since an audio bug prevented me from hearing any dialogue or music during that particular scene) and I was teary eyed watching android-Joker and EDI walk off into a pristine forest together. Mass Effect was a great series (though flawed, like all great things are) and deserved a great ending, though it is possible, perhaps, that BioWare did err in not managing expectations better so that people could have had the catharsis they wanted. I wish that more people could have had a similar experience, but I’m selfishly happy that I got a good ending, in my mind. And in the end, that’s all that matters.
* Canon or no, my Shepard will always be a woman to me — one that kind of looks like Major Catherine Li from the Spin State novels, who I secretly think inspired BioWare’s “Ruthless” “War Criminal” femShep.
** I was mostly hoping to see more of the allies I had collected at the end. I would have liked to see a Quarian/Geth fleet in dogfights with Reaper ships, and Krogan running around head-butting banshees, and the red laser points of Salarian snipers.