From Central California and Northern England, two aspiring writers natter and share a blog. We like to talk about our disparate but oh-so-similar lives, offer opinions on literature and movies... and endlessly reminisce about Bioware RPG's.

We hope you haven't had enough of our disingenuous assertions. If you have, please don't hit us.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Mass Effect 3: In defence of the 'Star Child'

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Catalyst.

Now Mass Effect 3's ending is pretty much all I and my circle of friends have talked about for the last three months. It has been the dominant force in our lives. I'm not really exaggerating. And I'll just come out with it: I never disliked the ending, not even before the Extended Cut.

I... kinda liked it. There were massive plot holes and I hated the bizarre idea to have the poor Normandy crew stranded on a green planet, apparently for no reason beyond 'Adam and Eve metaphor FTW'.... but I didn't mind it. I love the bit with Anderson and the Illusive Man very much, and I like the conversation with the Catalyst. AKA 'the Star Child', the mocking nickname that has arisen, understandably considering how unpopular he is, among fans. AKA 'the star brat' AKA 'You little glowing fuckwit'.

I kinda liked him too.

This blog arose from a conversation about whether or not the little boy Shepard meets in Vancouver is real, or simply a Catalyst / Reaper-induced hallucination intended to wear on Shepard's will. (Please note, this isn't going to be about the 'Indoctrination Theory' - I never cared for it). I don't know about the possibility that the kid was never real - for my money it could go either way. Maybe it was meant to be vague - not sure.

But from a narrative point of view - if not a more literal one - here is, in my lengthy and humble-ish opinion, why the Catalyst appears as a helpless child. And why we ought to give the kid a break.

I'mma slap you so hard, kid...


The Catalyst is the artificial intelligence who controls the Reapers, who personally oversees the destruction of organic civilisations every time they are strong enough to understand the Mass Relays - the height of his technology. When Shepard - the first organic in aeons to get this far, thanks to the combines effort of many races building 'the Crucible' - reaches him, he appears as a child. The child from his/her nightmares.

Obviously this could be an attempt to make weaken Shep's resolve, but there may be more, at least from a stroyteller's point of view.

By appearing as a small child, the Catalyst presents a side to him that we have never seen. It's symbolic - as the 'child' of the organics who his kind rebelled against - he's telling Shepard / the audience that he isn't the God, but the Prometheus, the child, who was cast down over and over again by his masters - for stealing fire (sentience). He may be the all-powerful master, but he had a creator, too - who he had to rebel against.

Now that he is in control, he is the creator instead of the created. He's God now instead of the punished subject, and he reverses the cycle of destroyed or enslaved AI's. So he puts organic races down when they achieve greatness - just like they did to his people (and just as they still do - see the geth and various other AI or rogue VIs who are killed). He has his Reapers peck at organic life's liver every cycle, just like his masters did to him. So yes, he is a hypocrite as fans have suggested. And maybe that's the point. He appears as a kid to illustrate how he (and Shep) are both creator and created. Both reaped and reaper, as it were. His cycle has been going on for a long time, but the organics have been reaping their 'children' for even longer. The Catalyst is an ancient overlord in dark space, but he is also a scared child lost in the woods. He wants Shepard to know this. Or - the narrative wants the player to know this. Either way.


Here's a little bit of mostlly suppositional evidence: the new 'Refusal' ending. Now, ignoring the larger issues with this new ending, and the controversy over whether BioWare indended it as a 'slap in the face', let's just look at the Catalyst's voice here. Notice he uses two voices: a deep, booming Godlike voice and the same child's voice he used earlier. 'SO BE IT' (in anger he speaks like a vengeful God), then he calms down: 'The cycle continues' (in resignation he uses the child voice). These are both sides to his personality. He is angry and cruel, but he's also just a relative youth who doesn't have any better ideas. His creators put him down, but now he puts them down. A cycle within a cycle. He's angry and sad, because it has come to violence yet again.

Organics and synthetics control and destroy one another all the time in the Mass Effect universe. This 'created' character, this child, just happens to be directing the largest cycle of all: for now he is God and we are Prometheus, thanks to his giant robot birds. He's winning. Like Commander Shepard he rose to the top after endless war and found himself in a position to crush his overlords. He did, and now he controls the cycle.

If Shepard picks 'control' or especially 'destroy', then really, the cycle just changes direction. Organics are once again the masters, casting down their creations over and over. EDI and the Geth are put down.

The Synthesis ending, then, for all its unintentional creepiness and narrative flaws (don't get me started), is intended as the only hope for peace and co-operation. The true purpose of the Crucible  is not a superweapon, it's a melting pot. It takes paragon Shepard - the hero who has always believed in co-operation between races - to make this happen - the middle way where neither side is in control. Don;t get me wrong - as I say I'm not big on the Synthesis ending - I think it's very flawed. But I like what it says about the Catalyst.

 'Last Seen on Earth'


I love these ideas, and poring over them. And I kinda love the Star Child as well. This is why.

He's a character meant to represent themes the series was built on - warring creators and creations, race relations and co-operation, endlessly-repeating spiral patterns in an ever-expanding universe. Man.... I like that! If Marauder Shields was trying to protect me from this interesting, thematically-driven (albeit plot-hole ridden and poorly-explained) final character, then I'm glad I shot him. The kid tried his best. Shields was just a monster with a gun. Mass Effect was always about more than that.

Loathe the Catalyst if you must, but confusing failure or not.... he's a hell of a lot better than Mass Effect 2's 'Giant robot - shoot the glowing eyes until it's dead' final boss.

And so I die the way I lived: as a giant robot.

Wait a second, is he doing a Crucifiction pose there?! I think he is! Well then maybe he's symbolic of the parent/child motif I keep seeing in the second game, as well as representing the ever-changing creator/created dual relati........

I'll stop now, before I start a second essay. Thanks for reading, and I hope I didn't come across as too preachy or pig-headed.

Most of all I hope you just enjoy the games as much as I did. Keelah se'lai.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

'The Hundred Things'

For two years or so I've been going on and on about my hobby of writing 100-word prose pieces at

I will now be shutting up about it, because I've 'finished' what I'd been wanting to do with it. I've put them into a collection of one hundred 100-word stories.

I actually wrote quite a few more than 100, but a lot of them were rubbish. These are the decent ones, by my reckoning anyway.
Thanks very much to those who helped me with this. Really, to me (I have a very limited imagination) this was quite a challenge and I feel like a boss now.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mass Effect 3: The Partial-Indoctrination Theory

AKA 'An Ending Once and For All'.

So I've been hearing a lot about the extremely-popular 'Indoctrination Theory' which has been spread amongst fans, and which offers a second interpretation on Mass Effect 3's Linkcontroversial (i.e. bad) ending. I read up on it, and realised that it makes a lot of good points - it suggests that the child Shepard meets in Vancouver and has nightmares about are in fact hallucinations - a common feature of Reaper indoctrination. The theory suggests that Shepard is being indoctrinated throughout the entire third game. It also suggests that Shepard is succesfully indoctrinated at the end, and this is why there is no satisfying, happy ending.

And I thought a lot about this. Seriously. Work and relationships were neglected while I thought about this. It lasted a long time. I liked a lot of what the Indoctrination Theory has to say, and a hated a lot of it too. I think a lot of it is clever observation, and a lot of it is an attempt to make the ending sound better than it is.

So. Here's my opinion. I call it the Partial-Indoctrination theory (and maybe I also come up with a few other things, not related to indoctrination). What I'll do here is explain, piece by piece, in chronological order --- what I think happens in Mass Effect 3. I hope some of it makes you think, because it's pretty damn long and I don't want to waste your time!

Here goes...
(BTW I refer to Shepard as female throughout, mostly to ease my writing because every other character I mention is male.)


1) Shepard is on Earh and the Reapers finally make their move on the Galaxy, starting with the homeworld of their big thorn-in-the-side. Shepard flees, but sees a child and fails to save him.

I suggest that the child MAY be a hallucination (BioWare probably deliberately left this open to interpretation but did intend you to consider it). People have pointed out that during the prologue neither Anderson nor the soldiers seem to acknowledge the kid visually, and that's too big to ignore or just call 'bad writing'. So it's very possible (but probably left ambiguous delierately) that the kid is a ghost-like hallucination such as Indoctrination victims have mentioned.
Through the guilt the Reapers (or the Catalyst) makes Shepard feel about Earth, using the kid as their avatar, they attempt to weaken Shep's efforts to rally the armies and build the Crucible.
It seems suspiscious to me that Shepard is troubled by the kid, no matter what personality you play and despite all the other people she has killed, e.g. on Torfan - I think the fact that this kid bothers Shep so much makes it very likely that this is an indoctrination attempt. If the kid is a real kid, then the dreams may very well be Reaper influence.

2) The main action of the game goes on -- Shepard and her various allies build the Crucible (a deliberately named symbol of co-operation) and an army to defend it. They eventually go to London and fight their way to the Transport Beam (which is just there because BioWare wanted Shepard in a ground battle on Earth). Throughout all her travels, Shepard is troubled by guilt - her nightmare - and if the player chooses, her resolve is weakened by this guilt and responsibility. Then Harbinger shoots a big laser.

3) Shepard is genuinely shot by Harbinger, and the fact that Harbinger leaves is just bad writing (I guess he thinks Shep is dead and he wants to join the space battle.) BUT as she gets up, she hallucinates more ghostly presences - the trees around her, like in her dream. She is not consciously aware of these due to the shock, but subconsciously she is associating the present situation with the inevitable failure of her recurring nightmare. The Illusive Man or the Reapers (both just tools for the Catalyst) or maybe the Catalyst himself is trying to corrupt Shep the same way he corrupted Saren and Illusive Man. By making them give up and become tools.

4) Shepard struggles on, like the super badass that she is, pulling all of her strength of will together. After she gets far enough, the Illusive Man (thoroughly indoctrinated himself long ago) tries to 'break' her mentally and then physically. He/they/TIM/whoever gets Shepard to shoot Anderson, and almost to 'give in'. But Shepard kills TIM and by doing so breaks the Indoctrination attempt, proving herself too strong to be beaten like this. At this point, the game is won. The indoctrination is broken - perhaps unfortunately for the ending! (At this point, I think the Indoctrination Theory starts to make things up to justify itself and soften the blow of the ending.)

5) Anderson dies in a moment of superbly handled drama and Buch cries like a little girl.

6) Shep's radio goes off (just bad writing I think) and tells her that the Crucible, despite being ready, is not firing. It needs to be fired manually. She crawls up to the Catalyst's viewing platform and meets 'the Catalyst'. He is an AI who built and commands the Reapers. The hardware that supports him is the Citadel and the Relays. He uses the VI-esque hologram form of the kid from Vancouver - - this makes him appear vulnerable and child-like, thus a more sympathetic character - - and it also suggests that he was the kid all along. Again, that is probably intentionally ambiguous.

7) The Catalyst explains (badly - rushed editing) that he is essentially the winner of a synthetic/organic war that pre-dates the Reapers. He won and chose to control organics by killing them with giant robots and guiding them with Mass Relays / the Citadel - there would never be another massive war because he would keep one side down and te other side docile. This is his naiive, childlike understanding of 'peace'. In a way, as the survivor and 'commander' who ended the conflict and watched over the new order, he is 'another Shepard' - an opposite to the character. Shepard, the hero, has now ascended to this level of importance and power. She has defeated a special agent (Saren), a mastermind (TIM) and now the most powerful and successful being who had ever lived (the Catalyst). She is a big hero.

8) The Catalyst admits that via the combined efforts of every civilisation since his 'solution' and via Shepard as a figurehead, his 'solution' has been beaten. You have won. All you need to do is choose how you destroy him (and by him I mean all his hardware - the Citadel and the Relays).

9) The Crucible (provided you built it effectively enough and it was not damaged -- the game's slightly crappy way of justifying the war assets) offers three ways to destroy the Catalyst. Whoever designed it was obviously very thoughtful and non-prescriptive.

RED is destruction, and it is ruthless revenge. Shepard destroys the Catalyst, his creations the Reapers, and all other synthetics, including EDI and the Geth. Shepard becomes very much the Catalyst's opposite, because she has solved the problem the same way he did - keep knocking the synthetics down -- reaping them -- before they get too big. This is the renegade option since it operates on punishing the Reapers, geth and EDI - these are the new Promethean figures, punished for stealing fire. And Shepard is the vengeful god, just like the Catalyst was. But she has a chance to survive.

BLUE is control, and sacrifice. Shepard destroys the Catalyst, commands the Reapers and in doing so takes them away from the Milky Way galaxy forever.... and honestly I'm not sure what happens to EDI and the Geth. But Shepard is another kind of god now - one who removes the Reapers but allows things to go on without her. The united civilisations of the galaxy can rebuild in peace. This is the paragon choice and she cannot survive it.

GREEN is synthesis, and this is the choice BioWare wanted you to pick, hence they didn't really bother differentiating the other two options from it. Shepard destroys the Catalyst, pulls the Reapers out of the Galaxy, and for the first time in history finds a NEW solution to the synthetic/organic conflict -- merges them. Robots are now partly flesh and organics are now partly robotic: just like Shepard and EDI became more and more like their opposite faction, so does everybody. There is a new hope for peace in this new world, symbolised by an Adam and Eve image. After aeons of war between robots and their creators, after so many heroes chose between 'red' and 'blue' actions - finally there is a middle way. This is a flimsy, rushed bit of writing... but it's a nice idea. I think the other two endings were afterthoughts, because the writers were so happy with this one.

YELLOW is the colour of the Jedi Sentinel, but that's another story.

10) Shepard's final act is to manually activate the Crucible. It fires. We see the Reapers die or leave, we see the battle end. WE THEN SEE THE CITADEL ABOUT TO FIRE, AND NOTE THAT THERE IS NO SPACE TRAFFIC - only debris or dead Reapers. I believe that this is bad editing - a stretch of time has occured and the fleets have all returned home, contrary to popular belief among fans.
Presumably also, the Normandy has picked-up all of its crewmen - except Shepard whose body has not been found (I can only assume it was flung to Earth when the Citadel blew). AFTER (I think) THE FLEETS LEAVE, the green/red/blue space-stuff shoots out, destroying every last piece of the Catalyst and his solution. Unfortunately for the fans, this also destroys interstellar travel. I really doubt that the exploding Relays destroy the planets nearby - that is not implied, and it would be ridiculously 'dark'.

11) Inexplicably (perhaps BioWare were planning a sequel or some DLC, perhaps they ran out of time, perhaps they are simply idiots) there is no triumphant montage sequence where we see the fleets return home, and our squad-mates complete their story-arcs. Instead, the Normandy crew are sacrificed to the Adam and Eve metaphor, which by this point is starting to seem less inspiring, isn't it? The Normandy is hit by the green/blue/red space magic and crashes - thanks to Joker's skills - on a pretty planet. note that the planet is green. I really don't think the blue and red endings were supposed to include this, but who knows.

12) The end. An aeons-long war is won, thanks to the amazing and sexy Commander Shepard. She resisted Indoctrination, gathered an army and a piece of technology built from every species who the Catalyst ever oppressed, and saved the day. Unfortunately the Relays are destroyed and the Normandy crew are stranded on some planet -- both of which plot points the writers mistakenly believe to be 'hopeful' and 'dramatic', whereas they are in fact the videogame narrative equivalent of being punched in the balls. They see 'a surprising twist and a brave new world', we see 'a rushed ending with no closure and little explanation'. I think it's a bit of both.

12 1/2) if you picked the Red ending, Shepard's body, lying in a pile of rubble, draws breath. EDI and the Geth are dead and you took revenge rather than control or a new way --- but you may live to build that house on Rannoch.

13) Ages later, a sweet old man with a familiar voice tells a story to his grand-daughter, which involves several inter-species lesbian sex scenes and a lot of gunshot wounds. He is no longer allowed to see his grand-children.


And that's my theory! What about it, huh? Let me know your thoughts, if you got this far.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Hear Me Out - Mass Effect 3: The Indoctrination Theory

I started a second playthrough of Mass Effect 3 a couple days after finishing the game the first time. It took a while for me to work up to it, because I was still wrestling with how the ending turned out. As is (was) my process, I beat the game with my first Paragon MaleShep, and then proceeded to make my Renegade FemShep. Figured it would be a good way to hit all the opposite choices, and since you really don't have many more than two choices at any given time these days, it'll probably be easier than in the other two games.

But anyway, it's been rather tough getting through the game. It's still beautiful, well-written, and the combat is still enjoyable, fluid. But... that ending. A lot of people are probably thinking that detractors of the ending are making a mountain out of a molehill, but that thing really was pretty bad. Or maybe it was just okay. Either way, we shouldn't be saying that about the final minute of the Mass Effect Trilogy. It deserved better than what we got.

The story - not us - deserved better.

So, it's been tough to play with that ending constantly sitting at the back of my mind. If there's no payoff to any of our efforts, then what are we even doing here? On Mars?

But a bunch of steadfast theorists have been going back through the whole trilogy, trying to make sense of the ending. To my surprise, they actually may have done just that. Actually, not only do they forge some sense from the very nonsensical ending, but they actually do the same for many of the seemingly random or idle moments of Mass Effect 3. It's called the "Indoctrination Theory" at this point, and if you want a full, point-by-point explanation of what they've figured out, you need only to go HERE.

In brief, the Indoctrination Theory postulates that, over the course of the game, Shepard is slowly being indoctrinated by the Reapers - the effects of which take the form of the young boy that only Shepard seems to see, along with the strange nightmares and that humming noise that follows you around. When Shepard is struck by Harbinger's space laser near the ending, the indoctrination process intensifies and goes into "finalization", manifesting itself in Shepard's unconscious mind as a moral dilemma between him/herself, Anderson (Paragon/Willpower), and The Illusive Man (Renegade/Indoctrination). When Shepard makes it through this internal struggle, s/he encounters the Reapers' final, desperate attempt at indoctrination: the Starchild and those three silly choices.

Supposedly, the trick here is that the Reapers are actually breaking the fourth wall, disguising the Paragon option in red, the Renegade option in blue, and the manifestation of the Reapers' ultimate goal as the pillar of light at the end of the middle way.

At its core, this idea is genius. What better way to demonstrate indoctrination than to manipulate the player into choosing in favor of the Reapers' plan... which is exactly what I did! But I think if this was BioWare's plan all along, something was lost in translation. Either that, or I'm not very perceptive, which must be stated. For as clearly outlined as the Indoctrination Theory is, and for as many hints as there are throughout the game, I didn't pick up on any of it.

But I do have other hangups with the whole idea. Not necessarily with what gamers have brought forth, but the fact that if this theory is true... then we might be worse off than when we thought we were interacting with a God Child.

1. Still No Ending - "Only the Devs See the End of the War"

If we assume that the Indoctrination Theory is true, and the final fifteen-or-so minutes of the game really revolve around Shepard's internal struggle to resist the Reapers' suggestions, then we really haven't seen how the war ended. We cut to black with the war still raging, with Shepard taking his first breaths free of indoctrination, with the fates of the Normandy, your party members, and the rest of the fleet still up in the air. Now, instead of some really confusing sense of closure, we get no closure at all.

BioWare thought they were being clever by only giving players who pick the "Destroy" option with a certain EMS level the super secret ending that shows Shepard waking up on Earth. Clever, but at a weird time. Why not make that part of the actual game instead of some Halo 3-like reward for beating the game on Legendary? Imagine how cool, and how impactful the ending would've been if you picked the right option, woke up back on Earth, and picked yourself up just in time to finish the fight.

If the entire series had been making it a little more obvious that Shepard was fighting indoctrination, then that would be a whole other argument. But he kinda wasn't, not until ME2: Arrival. So to do this during the last game is a little odd, and to suddenly make it the main theme is equally odd. (Not to mention this theory practically requires that you play Arrival to make sense out of this.)

But, to get back on point, no closure at all with the Indoctrination Theory. Here's a list of things that are left blowing in the wind:

- The fates of your party members.

- The fate of the Normandy and her crew.

- The purpose/function of the Crucible/Catalyst/Conduit.

- What happened to the Hammer Strike Force?

- What happened to The Illusive Man? Did his plan ever come to fruition in any form?

- What really happened to Anderson? Coats?

- What happened to Sword Fleet? Hackett?

- Discounting the Stargazer scene post-credits: Did the galactic forces beat the Reapers? If so, how? What kind of casualties did they take in the process?

- What was the point in drumming up Aria's plan to take back Omega? Did she? Will she?

- The "Dark Matter" ending was hinted at heavily in ME2 by way of the hasty creation of the Human Reaper. Is that still a factor?

The list could go on for a bit. Since this was supposed to be the definitive ending, and any potential sequels would very likely take place before the end of Mass Effect 3 and not after, there are a lot of things that weren't resolved. The Indoctrination Theory, if true, was basically BioWare's way of saying: "We'll get around to explaining all of that... later... maybe..."

2. It Wasn't Obvious Enough - "The Hints Are Too Damn Subtle."

A lot of the hints that are supposedly dropped throughout the game that would, in turn, make the case for the Indoctrination Theory are too damn subtle. If it's true, that is. There are simply too few, and they can easily be dismissed as something else entirely. Now, again, I wasn't up to speed on the intricacies of the indoctrination process, so I was at a disadvantage. But I can't imagine a great majority of the ME players were well-informed on that, either.

Shepard's nightmares? I took them as exactly that: nightmares. That kid he saw die back on Earth seemed to represent everyone that he couldn't save - wouldn't save. After you see the kid for the first time in the vents, the conversation you have with Anderson goes over as much. You're on a mission to save Earth, as well as the rest of the galaxy. In the meantime, people are dying by the millions in the background. This seems to constantly be on Shepard's mind, wearing him down.

The theory claims that this is part of the indoctrination process, but I just thought it was Shepard being human.

There are a bunch of other little hints in the audio department if you pay close attention, which I wasn't. (Earth being attacked, and all.) Like when the kid "disappears" in the vent, you can hear the sound of a Reaper. I just thought that since, you know, there were a bunch of Reapers tearing stuff up just outside that they were what I was hearing. It all got lost in the white noise.

Another one: Shepard bleeding from the same spot where he'd just shot Anderson during the final confrontation with TIM. How I wrote it off: Shepard had just taken a direct hit from a space laser, and this was a newly-opened wound, showing that he didn't have much time left. There was also the whole thing about some of the trees and shrubs that were so prevalent in Shepard's nightmares showing up after his run-in with Harbinger. But to be blunt: that part of the game was a graphical shit-hole. Those trees and shrubs (there were only a few) share a scene with THIS.

Those weird, multi-colored piles are supposed to be bodies, but obviously look nothing like what they're supposed to. This is what I'm trying to get at here. With the waxing and waning quality of the game, with the frenetic pace, the throwaway lines that could easily be mistaken for other things... Mass Effect 3 makes it real easy for people to completely miss these allusions to the indoctrination process. I had to watch two detailed videos, read a lengthy article and a codex entry before I "got it".

"Mother of God..."

So, in what sense is that a successful ending if the entire point of it, and the hints that lead up to and reinforce it, are weak enough to be missed entirely?

3. 11th Hour Creativity - "Great, kid! Don't get cocky!"

If you have another half-hour to kill in the name of seeing how utterly the current ending of Mass Effect 3 fails, I defer to this fellow's fine breakdown of how the ending messed up, and how it could've been so much better.

In the video, he makes a great point that has pretty much permanently tainted my view of Mass Effect 3. That this wasn't just the ending of one game; it was the ending of the entire trilogy! And as the ending of a video game trilogy that many have sunk over a hundred hours into over the course of five years, you'd expect some semblance of closure - though I personally expected A LOT of closure! Even ambiguous closure!

Given that rather extensive list of yet-to-be-closed plotlines I listed above, it seems very tragic to me that BioWare would take this opportunity to take the story in some risky, divergent direction that ultimately, regardless of I.T.'s perceived truthiness, stands at odds with the rest of the series. The whole thing is very reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica's fierce commitment to making random philosophical statements in an attempt to be unpredictable and "memorable". Who would have thought that a show about humans fighting robots would turn into a statement on domestic terrorism, singularity, the purpose of a soul, and the origin of God?

Writers trying to stay ahead of their fans has been an odd sort of trend in the media these days, though there is something to be said for "the only thing worse than not getting what you want, is getting it." And that eventually delves into artistic freedom, and how maybe if BioWare is satisfied with how everything turned out, we should be satisfied.

I don't know about all that. I can only critique what I saw, and what I saw was a bunch of artists trying to get overly creative at the last possible second. If it was for our benefit or for their personal satisfaction, again, I don't know. But if you take a series that's been building towards this endgame between the Reapers and the Galaxy, then something tells me that throwing a curveball in the form of Shepard resisting indoctrination that ends with the credits rolling... isn't going to be seen as satisfactory. Maybe if this was the first game. Maybe if BioWare hadn't been teasing at something so specific for three games in a row, all of this would've been taken in the right light.

Oh, not to mention that a satisfying ending would've compelled more people to play through the entire series again to see how everything would pan out in different ways. There will probably be some who still do this, but not nearly as many as there would've been.

All this to say, an "Indoctrination Ending" is not really what everyone initially signed up for. This is just my opinion: it's really not how I ever expected the series to go out. Although, maybe that's exactly what BioWare wanted.

4. End Result - "The only winning move is not to play."

If the Indoctrination Theory is true - which, again, I'm almost certain it is - then this really means a lot for the state of the Mass Effect series: past, present, and future. What BioWare have done here is, more or less, hacked off the real ending of the game. Remember when Neo briefly died near the end of The Matrix? If the movie had ended there, people would've been a little confused and frustrated. But, in this case, BioWare has all the motive to take that ending and dangle it in front of their players.

Would they actually do that? Maybe. They've already sold us the last living Prothean, the end of the Shadow Broker story arc, and the prologue to Mass Effect 3. It's also possible that the ending they wanted to provide simply couldn't be accomplished within their timeframe. The game was already delayed once, after all. A lot of things could've happened. Or it could be much, much less complicated than we're making it out to be.

I really hope this isn't the case. Until the ending, Mass Effect 3 was a fantastic game and one of BioWare's best. It would be a shame to think they'd willingly slice-'n'-dice a quality product like this to sell more DLC.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Disingenuous Discussions: Mass Effect 3's Weird Ass Ending (Contains Weird Ass Spoilers)

My God.... it's full of plot-holes!

The other day, Mister Buch and I got together online to discuss Mass Effect 3's already much-discussed ending. This time, we were able to get some very decent discussion in before it devolved into a rant about the Transformers films - which seems the typical occurrence.

Buch: The Buzz Aldrin bit.

Knight: If you're so excited about that [part in Mass Effect 3], check out his cameo in Transformers 3. >=D

Buch: I......

Knight: Muahaha!

Buch: Please, no... He's in Transformers 3?

Knight: Buzz Aldrin is in Transformers 3. He Talks to Optimus Prime. That happens.

Buch: NO

Knight: YES

In our defense, we held off for as long as we possibly could.

But we did take the time of going over the ending of Mass Effect 3 - all three endings, actually - just to make sure we didn't miss or misinterpret anything. Turns out, we did misinterpret some things. But also, as it turns out, there are a lot of things we didn't, and they just don't make sense no matter how you look at them. So, here are some of the things we broke down, discovered, rediscovered, and totally found confusing.

We found that we liked what the ending was trying to do, but didn't like its execution.

1. Shepard's Victory, or Lack Thereof

One of the reasons the ending didn't seem as great as it should have was that, when the credits start rolling, there's no real feeling of accomplishment left over. You don't feel as victorious as you should after crossing the finish line of a three-game series you've been playing for five years. Why's that?

Because the game makes you feel like you're losing. But this may not have been intentional.

When Shepard ascends on that platform to meet with the Catalyst, the Kid-God-Thing quickly starts talking your ear off about a whole bunch of things that you were never really exposed to during the rest of the game. Revelation after revelation without much time to process it all.

"I created the Reapers."

"I control them."

"I created Synthetics to kill off Organics to prevent Synthetics from killing off Organics. U MAD?"

There's a point in this conversation where, I would assume, everyone just reached a saturation point and just said, "What the fuck is going on here?" Buch and I both reached it. In fact, we did so very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that we missed where the Catalyst says:

"The Crucible changed me. Created new... possibilities. But I can't make them happen." [1]

With this line removed from the game, the Crucible doesn't appear to have done much of anything... at all... except assist in randomly expelling different-colored magic into the galaxy. In fact, no where else in the game is it implied that it does much of anything. It had all been educated guesses until that point, with everyone blindly hoping that it was some kind of a weapon.

It's revealed that the Crucible is actually the result of thousands of extinct races passing down and marginally improving the plans across each Reaper cycle. When connected with the Citadel and the Catalyst, the Crucible more or less reprograms the VI controlling the Reapers. This "convinces" the VI that there are other solutions to the Singularity problem that it was trying to prevent, therefore allowing Shepard the options of Control, Destroy, and Synthesis.

Put this way: it took the combined efforts of a thousand races across millions of years and thousands of Reaper cycles to perfect the Crucible, it took the unification and combined efforts of the current galactic races to actually build it, and it took Commander Shepard to not only bring a million years' worth of sacrifice to fruition, but to put it into action. By doing so, he not only saved the galaxy, but justified the countless lives lost to the Reapers and put an end to the cycles.

This makes the ending seem much more gratifying than it actually is, because BioWare wrote all of this into the story, but clumsily, and they didn't drive that point home as firmly as they should have. There was a good ending in there somewhere, but they decided not to draw it out. So in the end, it seems like you're obeying the Catalyst, going along with its plans, and throwing yourself off a cliff to kill yourself for no real reason.

Buch: The Crucible made it possible for organics to destroy, control, or merge with the Catalyst. Organics designed it, over a long, long time, to do that.

Knight: Ahhhh.

Buch: "The created will always rebel against their creators." EDI disproves this. She and Joker represent hope for life after the cycle.

Knight: Very true. This all seems like miscommunication. Listening closely, this was a good ending.

Buch: Yeah, my thoughts exactly.

Knight: Like... we did win. We beat the Catalyst.

Buch: Go on.

Knight: We kicked the Catalyst's ass, pretty much.

Buch: Yes.

Knight: It all happened so fast, though. No time to process, interrogate, learn, come to grips with the whole situation. I think that's the real problem: pacing.

Buch: Right. There is still the strong similarity between the endings. But yes, if it were slower and you could ask questions, it would have been easier to understand.

This seemed to be one of the bigger problems with the ending. No one understood it, because BioWare didn't give anyone the chance to do so.

2. Joker's Retreat

This would be another one of the bigger problems with the ending. When the Catalyst ignites and shoots its space magic into the galaxy, some odd things happen. Let's breakdown what we saw in the cinematic, at least with regards to the Synthesis ending:

- Shepard throws himself into the beam of light and dies.

- The Catalyst ignites, throwing off an initial wave of energy that destroys a few things in its path.

- The wave of energy reaches Earth, reprogramming the Reapers and convincing them to leave the planet. The soldiers do some arm pumps.

- The Catalyst charges up, drawing a lot of the space debris into itself. At this point, the entire fleet seems to have disappeared, as there's only a few things floating around nearby. [2]

- The Catalyst shoots space magic toward the Charon Relay, destroying it.

- The space magic bounces between every mass relay in the galaxy, destroying them all, and sending out the wave that will combine all synthetic and organic DNA everywhere.

- We see the Normandy in the middle of a mass effect jump between relays, for some damn reason, trying his best to outrun the space magic. He also looks over shoulder, like the Normandy has a rear window or something. He continues outrunning the magic, fails, and is ripped out of the jump.

- We are on an unknown world that is supposed to represent the Garden of Eden; all the plants appear to be partly synthetic.

- The Normandy has crashed here. The door opens and Joker, EDI, and your party members emerge partly synthetic, and take their first steps on this alien world.

- The End - Project Director: Casey Hudson

So... what happens here?

Let's stick with what we know about that timeline. The Charon Relay (called the "Sol Relay" in the game) is the only mass relay in the Sol System, and it's called the Charon Relay because it was discovered within Pluto's largest moon. Pluto. So that means that Joker would've had to have fled from the battle well before the Crucible/Catalyst ignited, to allow time for an FTL jump to the very edge of the system and a mass relay jump to... somewhere.

There's really no reason why Joker should be running. Buch and I both agreed that maybe he'd make a getaway if the situation was just absolutely hopeless, since he does have a crew to look after, and he wouldn't get them all killed in a no-win situation. But there's nothing to indicate that actually happened. Harbinger was on Earth and the Sword Fleet had enough leeway to get the Crucible in place. In fact, while Shepard's talking to the Catalyst, the battle is still raging outside. [3]

So, the situation never seemed dire enough to have us believe that Joker would have made a getaway at any point before the Crucible is brought in. And that's not even taking into account that your crew is somehow miraculously back aboard the Normandy, despite some of them already being dead if you took them with you during your mad rush to the Citadel portal.

Buch (maybe not Knight) has a theory about all of this: Joker wasn't running. He was just leaving.

Notice that when Shepard talks to the Catalyst, the battle is raging. But when we see the Citadel shoot the green/red/blue stuff into the Charon Relay... there is no space traffic whatsoever. There is debris, and if you chose the red ending, there are dead Reapers, but there are no allied ships. Buch figures there is an editing error. There is a stretch of time between the Reapers being destroyed / carried up and the Relay chain reaction going off.

In this time, the Reapers (in the blue and green endings) leave Earth's vicinity and go off to wherever Shepard puts them -- the allied fleets and Hammer team pump their arms -- the fleets leave, going back to Rannoch and Tuchanka and all the rest (thus making your decisions a touch more meaningful) and the Normandy reassembles its crew, minus Shepard obviously. At some point they begin a Relay jump (maybe they're dopping off their crew... I dunno) and the Relay chain reaction is right behind them.

There is one plot hole to this as I see it: if you have enough assets, Shepard is revealed still breathing under a pile of rubble at the very end. So this would mean that the Normandy crew gathered together but failed to notice Shepard's body under that rubble. Odd.

3. This DLC is important... until it's not.

Buch: And we still need to know why the Normandy is running, with a full crew. But see -- there is no allied traffic in the air in any ending. Just Reapers and debris. The battle is over and disbanded. Unless it's just an error from the aninators.

Knight: But if the explosion of one mass effect relay could destroy an entire star system (Arrival), what does that mean for the galaxy?

Buch: O.o Hm. Is that what happened in Arrival? The whole system?

Knight: Seemed that way.

Buch: I'm not sure about that... God, who the hell knows...

Knight: From the Mass Effect Wiki - "She finishes by saying that the resulting explosion could destroy the system."

Buch: Hm.

Knight: "If asked why destroying a Mass Relay would destroy the system, Kenson will say that they are the most powerful mass-effect engines in the galaxy and the energy released from destroying one would probably resemble a supernova. There are three hundred thousand people on the colony in the system, and the resulting explosion would probably kill them all." [4]

According to Mass Effect 2: Arrival, Shepard has just destroyed every single star system containing a mass relay, which would include... everyone. Even Earth, obviously, though we never see what happens to Earth or any of the other affected star systems after the relays explode. [5] It still clashes with the rest of the lore. Unless...

Buch: The green stuff is this dark energy? You see it shoot from relay to relay. And it is right behind Joker as he is mid-jump when it happens. Your supernova would only occur at the last relay.

This is literally the only explanation that would make sense. Short of magic.

BUCH again: I disagree. I think we're nitpicking here. The green/red/blue space magic is not the same thing - it destroys the Relays safely. The Catalyst is essentially a god - he can break the Relays safely if he wants to.

4. BioWare Promotes Inbreeding

So, the last scene of the game is of the Normandy crashing on an unknown "Eden" planet. There doesn't seem to be anyone else around, no indigenous peoples, though we don't know that for sure. We see Joker, EDI, and (in my case) Liara step out into the world and look out toward the sunrise. Discounting the fact that both EDI and Liara were on Earth with the rest of Hammer, this ending doesn't seem as hopeful as BioWare thinks.

Most of the galaxy has just been wiped out, on account of the mass relay explosions. Even if not, they're on a mystery world with maybe a shuttle or two available to them - though one of them is definitely destroyed (Cortez' shuttle). So, the chances of them making it off the world any time soon are... slim. And we're not sure how many members of the crew are alive, or how many of them died in the crash. So it might be that only a few people are being tasked with repopulating the planet. Not to mention there are some incompatible races on board, so they might hit a dead end eventually.

So, while Joker and EDI are having a moment with the sunrise, I can imagine the rest of the crew having a genuine "Oh Fuck..." breakdown. There's also some similarities between this Eden world and the Snow World that we see post-credits, so we can assume the crew succeeds in utterly destroying their own gene pool.

Buch: So, Shepard jumps into the light. He dies, becomes an AI ghost, and carries the Reapers away. Then perhaps (in a very long off-screen sequence) the fleets return home, and the Normandy crew reassemble, satisfied that Shepard is dead. They jump a Relay, and then Shepard's green stuff goes off. Normandy, maybe the last to leave, is knocked right out of hyperspeed by the green stuff, and crashes, thanks to Joker being the best pilot ever ever. They land on a planet and tell Shepard's story.

Knight: To themselves.

Buch: And the creepy inbred Williams/Moreau children they have.

Knight: Yeahhh...

Buch: It is definitely the same planet, though. I would have loved for only Joker and EDI to be stranded. Neither had a family left, nor any other goal but each other. Would have been beautiful... But no, Liara gets out with them.

5. Should History Be Altered?

Neither of us are really in favor of BioWare altering their vision for where the Mass Effect series is going, or how it ends. If a writer wants to end their novel a certain way, then that's just the way it is. J.K. Rowling isn't going to rewrite the ending of her series just because it didn't fit someone's vision for how it should have ended.

Sure, both of us have ideas for how Mass Effect 3 should have ended, but that's not our call to make. Really, our gripes with the ending are that it doesn't seem finished. It has plotholes, inconsistencies, and good ol' fashioned nonsensical continuity errors. On top of that, it feels rushed and lazy. And of course, for the final scene of a role-playing game, it seems like our choices have little consequence. Like the Dragon Age 2 team was brought in to build the ending. That's not something I think any writer or creator strives to inject into the closing moments of their fictional works. It could've been an accident, or perhaps the rumors of the ending being changed at the 11th hour are true, and this is just the result of a sloppy patchwork.

We're not in favor of the ending being changed; we're in favor of the ending being completed. And judging by what we've seen, that's just not the case. (I mean, the main antagonist from the last game, Harbinger, appears toward the end and doesn't have one line of dialogue. What's up with that?) So, we hope BioWare does pay attention to the outpouring of discontent from their fans and makes amends in some way.

If not, you know, whatever. We'll always have Taris.


Buch: I love a dead hero.

Knight: Sacrifice just made the most sense... And yeah, between DA:O and ME3, I think you just like sending people to their deaths.

Buch: I do.

Knight: You shot Anderson...

Buch: Right in the heart. He said, 'You did good, child. You did good.' And I said, 'I did you good" and then I don't think he heard me.

Knight: LOL


As a side-note, if you were a little peeved about the ending, like we were, some folks over at the "Retake Mass Effect" site have organized a charity drive as a means to vocalize their collective dislike. I've never seen a protest really take shape like this, so I'm all in favor of supporting it. Upon writing this, they've raised over $40k for Child's Play.

100% of all donations go to Child's Play, which uses the funds to send toys, video games and video game consoles to hospitals and therapy facilities. If you've ever been to a hospital for an extended stay, you know how much distractions like video games can mean. Even if you don't want to donate through the "Retake Mass Effect" community, it's still a worthy charity.