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.