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 controversial (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!
(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.