More Mass Effect 3 SPOILER Ending Thoughts – The Indoctrination Theory

OK. When it came to the Mass Effect 3 ending, I’d said my piece (spoiled and non-spoiled) and counted to three. I was good, I was finished, I was content. Then I had a brief conversation with a friend yesterday. He’d never played any of the Mass Effect games and wanted some questions answered, so he could put the frothing waves of rage into context. I answered them from my perspective. Then he said something about a theory that was the hot thing on the Intarwebs, something I’d paid zero attention to, a little thing called the Indoctrination Theory. I decided to check into this theory. What I read changed everything.

Essentially, my friend took a stick and jammed it into the anthill of my brain and stirred it all up. The rat bastard.

Oh, and if I haven’t been entirely clear, there are spoilers below the “Read the rest of this entry”. SPOILERS. Spoilers. (spoilers)

So, what is the Indoctrination Theory? You can go here to read about it, see a video that a fan created examining the ending, and all that stuff. I’m going to summarize it here, and give you my thoughts and observations about why it might be true. For the record, I’m happy with the ending as-is. I can live with it. Do I want more? Yes. But I have to say this: I want this theory to be true. I am Fox Muldering all over this shit. And if it is true, then the people behind this have the biggest set of balls I’ve ever seen. Like Santa’s sack huge. I mean, fuck brass balls. These guys have balls of pure shining adamantium the size of Wolverine’s Canadian skull.

So here is the theory in a nutshell: the ending isn’t real. It’s an attempt by the Reapers, specifically Harbinger, to manipulate Shepard, because Shepard has been indoctrinated. They are attempting to use a subtle means to steer their greatest enemy towards the goal they want. The ending is essentially a dream sequence, and the real ending will come out later, through DLC.

As Neo would say in this, and to be fair, every, situation: Whoa.

This has fucked with my head, to say the least. It’s made me look back at Mass Effect 3 and examine some of the little things in it, some things that were completely innocuous at the time, other things that struck me as a little off when they occurred. Everything. I’m going to try to organize this a bit. We’ll see. My brain is still scrambling furiously, you see.

Indoctrination: OK, first off, the idea that Shepard has been indoctrinated before ME3 starts: entirely possible. We’ve been told for years now that indoctrination is insidious, people hearing voices, guiding them subtly to achieve the Reapers’ ends. Merely being around Reapers and their artifacts is enough to do, as we’ve been shown a million times. Who in the galaxy has been around Reapers more than Shepard without becoming indoctrinated? Nobody. Shepard was inside a “dead” Reaper that wasn’t, reading the logs of those who were indoctrinated by it. Some of those logs talked about the dreams they were having, which will be relevant later. Shepard’s been around more Reaper artifacts than anyone who, again, isn’t already indoc’ed (tired of typing it out already). So the idea that Shepard has been somewhat affected isn’t just possible, at this point it’s likely.

The Kid: So if I look at the game like this, the first thing I notice that’s off happens early. Like, really early. When I played the demo, this part stood out to me because something seemed a little….off about it. I rationalized it away and didn’t think about it. See, after you escape the Reaper attack on the Alliance fleet council chamber thingy, you and Admiral Anderson start heading towards the Normandy. On the way, while Anderson is in another room, you hear a noise. You find a kid, the same kid you’d watched playing from your “cell” window earlier. Like any good person, you try to help the kid, and his answer is a little off-putting and strange.

“You can’t help me.”

I remember thinking how odd that answer was. Here, a scared kid, all alone, sees an adult while the kid is ostensibly scared and running for his life, and his response is… odd. Of course, after this is the heart-wrenching scene of the kid getting on the escape shuttle and taking off… only to get blown up by a Reaper. Looking back, I notice that no-one helps the kid onto the shuttle, no one reacts as if he is there at all. Is he?

From that point forward, the kid is a prominent and, again, odd part of the game. At various points in the game, you enter a weird dreamworld, where the kid is running through a ghostly, burned-out forest. You move in slow motion throughout while hearing the whispers of the last words said to you by people over the course of the game. The feeling is one of despair. You catch up to the kid, who bursts into flame each time. You can’t save him. I rationalized the dreams as just an expression of Shepard’s struggle internally, and as an atmospheric move. It’s the only time in the game where the fundamental gameplay is changed. I accept it completely. Hey, it’s a dream, right?

So, at the end of the game, you meet the AI that is behind the Reapers. What form does it take? Why, it is the Child you can’t save. Again, I rationalized this. The AI has plucked an image from my brain that I will accept and identify with. Now, typing this now makes me think I should’ve been like, “Hey, I’m obviously being manipulated here.” I didn’t. Why? More on that later.

The Dreamstate: OK, remember how I said the dream sequences play differently than the rest of the game? They are floaty and slow-motion, your HUD is gone, it’s different. So, at the end of the battle across Earth, you and the soldiers of Hammer are running like hell for the big beam of light, explosions all around. One happens right next to you. When you get up from it… you are playing in an exact duplicate of the dreamstate from before, floaty and slo-mo. Everything from there to the end of the game is in the same state. You aren’t even shown as actually getting into the beam of light; when you get close, the screen flashes white, and you are on the Citadel. I rationalized this away, of course. I’d just been blowed up. The game is heightening the atmospheric tension. I’ve been indoctrinated. Not Shepard. ME. More on that later.

Also, despite the fact that your comrades were all around you, when you enter the dreamstate, they are nowhere to be found. Anderson, who goes to the Citadel after you (he tells you this), ends up ahead of you and won’t wait for you. It’s all strange, seemingly plot-hole-ridden, and I’m still accepting it.

The End Sequence: OK, during the “ending”, you see Joker flying madly away from Earth, chased by the big-ass blast of energy that you’ve unleashed. The Normandy is caught in it and begins to break up, crashing on a strange planet. You see Joker and others disembark. Many have wondered what Joker was doing in flight; it makes no sense. I rationalized it thusly: after the Hammer assault, there would be no reason for the Normandy’s crew to sit on the planet, in hostile territory, in a forward base now emptied of soldiers. Of course they’d leave.

Two problems that now seem huge in retrospect:

1. The Normandy is being destroyed by the wave of energy. Why? No other ship (except Reapers) are affected. The Normandy, though, will clearly be destroyed.

2. The people who get off the ship. If you chose the Control or Synthesis endings, then you see Joker, EDI, and your love interest get off the ship. Destroy, though… since EDI was killed by your actions, you see Joker, then your love interest (probably Liara if you didn’t choose one, but I’m guessing), and the third person…well, for me it was Javik. Who was with me for the final push. I’ve watched other people’s endings. In every case, the person 3rd off the ship is someone they fought the final battle with. How did they get there?

Well, someone asked the Mass Effect Twitter feed, and here was their response (I got this from this article, which collects other cryptic notes from the devs):

User 7: “Its not that the ending was taken in the wrong direction its that it makes NO SENSE. Ashley was on the Normandy? she [was] with me.”

@masseffect: “Probably a good thing to be cautious of.”

Well. That’s indicative of something afoot.

Of course, you also have the part where the grandfather is talking to his kid, who wants more stories about the Shepard. “OK. Maybe one more.”

Something else: You are specifically told that Harbinger is the Reaper at the beam, trying to stop you. Why is it explicitly mentioned which Reaper it is? It just happens to be the one that you’ve encountered most, besides the now-dead Sovereign. Described as one of the Oldest Reapers. Maybe even the oldest of them all. Hmmm.

Then, finally, the part that can only be seen if you chose Destroy and played multiplayer to increase your Army Points or whatever they were called. You see rubble, someone in an N7 suit of armor lying in it, and a gasp of breath. It’s Shepard (not definitively, but suggested). You survived the Citadel’s destruction! Or did you?

Because that rubble looks a hell of a lot like Earth just before your dream sequence.

We’re Indoctrinated: I don’t mean Shepard. Us. Game players, and players of Mass Effect. First off, when you buy a game, that game is a complete package, beginning and end. No one in a million years would think that you’d buy a game and NOT GET THE END. We don’t think it’s possible. We’ve been indoc’ed that it just doesn’t work that way. The idea of a true ending coming out later? Come on. We know better.

Secondly, as Mass Effect players, we’ve been indoctrinated by color. Blue is Good. Red is Bad. Despite being told that Renegades aren’t bad, just bold lone-wolf types, we clearly associated them as good and bad. If you’re a Renegade, your skin cracks and glows red. You don’t look like a loner. You look like a fucking demon. Blue Good, Red Bad, Tree Pretty. So when we’re given our three choices at the end, why, looky here. They are color coded. Control Blue. The Good Color. Shown as being performed by the Illusive Man, who is obviously not a Paragon. Red is Destroy, such a MEAN thing to do, but it shown as being done by Anderson, clearly a Paragon. And the middle choice. Ahh. Peaceful Green. You only get this choice if you worked hard and amassed enough points. This, then is the true way: a blending of synthetic and organic in peace and harmony. No more war. We are told by the Child AI that this is the next step of evolution. You merely need to sacrifice yourself to do it. Well, we’ve been taught all along that the game is about Sacrifice. The third choice has to be a reward for playing well.

Of course, blending the synthetics and organics into one sure sounds like the Reaper Way, when you think about it. And the AI behind the Reapers clearly thinks it’s the best way.

When I first did it, I chose Blue and Control. Why? For a myriad of reasons, but one of them was this, and it’s a simple one: It was Blue. It was obviously Good, despite everything. I’ve been manipulated. Not Shepard. ME. Clever.

Conclusion: So, is this all just smoke, the manifestation of wishful thinking by a huge group of disappointed gamers? I don’t know. But I believe it is true. BioWare has always set out to make Mass Effect different. The idea of importing saved games from one installment to another was revolutionary. Their creative team has created the best game experience I’ve ever played. Would they have just started writing shit, ridden with plot holes and inconsistency? It seems unlikely, doesn’t it? But we, as gamers, are quick to lash out. It’s EA’s fault! They ruin everything. We’re indoctrinated, every one of us.

I want this to be true. I believe that it is true. And if it isn’t, and I’m an executive at BioWare who thought the ending was hunky-dorry, I am getting the creative team together right fucking now, and I am making this cockamamie conspiracy theory come true. This whole thing is a marketing dream – look at the free publicity and hubbub. This kind of move can only be done once, and right now BioWare has carte blanche to do it. I think it happens. I think it HAS to happen.

I want to believe.

How about you?

About Alan Edwards

An indie writer who does accounting full-time on the side.

Posted on March 21, 2012, in Philosophizin' and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I don’t know if this reply belongs on this thread or one of the other ones, but here goes. One of the things that’s interesting about this whole debate is the question of the very nature of video games, particular with regard to the relationship between players and designers, particular in a series. In a book or movie, the general audience pretty much has zero input in what takes place in the story (yes, there are editors, etc. so I’m not saying stories are ever written by a single individual, and yes, in some rare cases, writers do make changes based on “general” feedback). In a video game, players clearly have at least some stake. How much stake varies from studio to studio. Bioware has always seemed to be willing to give players a fairly high stake. So, the line between audience (player) and writer is much more blurred in a video game than any other medium, which I think contributes to the intensity of some of the dissatisfaction. From a personal opinion standpoint, there’s a question of whether this line can swing to far to the audience’s side. When I read/watch another writer’s story, I usually like to be surprised and go along for the ride so to speak.

    Whats interesting about this in terms of the indoctrination theory is what if Bioware decides to put something like that as DLC or even just say “yes, that’s the actual truth”. Will people believe them if they say it was their idea all along? The way its presented by players is very highly detailed already. I don’t think it would be wrong of them to go with it either way, but its interesting to think about what it says about the intersection between players and designers.

    What do I want? I’m not sure. Part of me wants to go the “its just a game” route and try to start thinking about other things, though obviously this hasn’t worked that well so far (damn you!). I’m pretty sure if Bioware did any kind of alternative endings (or a “this is the real truth” ending), I’d almost certainly end up taking a look just to see. There’s definitely an appeal to the Indoctrination ending, but does it take away from the game coming down to an ultimate choice and an ultimate sacrifice? I keep coming back to the idea that there’s just so many ways one could view the story, and what its really about.

    • There is definitely a difference with the relationship of writer to audience between books and video games, I agree. BioWare has gone out of its way to make the players feel even MORE involved than usual, which I think is a testament to their abilities, but also a problem right now if, say, they had no intention of doing anything else with the ending. I do think that the idea of catering too much to the audience’s whims can be a horribly bad thing. I’m sure the audience would have wanted Mordin to survive, and having to accept him dying was tough for me, but I’m glad that I don’t have the right or ability to clamor for it to change.

      I think that if BioWare does do a DLC ending thing, most people will accept it as legit, just because they’ll believe that they really meant to do it. Like the thing with the kid in the airshaft: there’s no need for that scene. If you began the game seeing the kid playing, then ended the beginning seeing him die, it still would have hurt. If they do it, I’ll always remember the middle scene that didn’t need to be there and his odd choice of words. And if they don’t, well, then they made some weird writing choices, heh.

      At this point, honestly, I can see it going either way. I do have to give them credit, though: this won’t go away, and I can’t stop pondering it. Credit goes to them. The bastards.

  2. Oh, and one minor point, my love interest wasn’t shown being on/disembarking from the Normandy. I guess its possible that this is impacted by EMS, but I thought it had to do with who was in your crew or already on the ship at the end.

    • I guess that was an erroneous assumption on my part – since it is certainly possible that your love interest may not necessarily be a part of the crew. It held for Lisa and I, and I assumed it would be the case universally. Small sample size. My bad, heh.

  3. …I just spent the last hour pouring over that Indoctrination link and video, and raptly reading this review. I wasn’t really interested in trying out the ME series before because my spouse said, “Ugh! That series feels like you’re moving in soup!”

    Now I know why. LOL I also want this storyline to be the truth. And if it’s not true, then I agree with you — someone should make it true. Because it. Is. Awesome.

    Going to start with ME1 as soon as I get home.

    • Ha! I hope you like it. I love the games (obviously) and like the combo of action and interaction with the world and people. It’s not for everyone, but any game that can spawn this level of mind-numbing conjecture has to have something going for it.

  4. Shawn Fitzpatrick

    Shepard……Alan…..waaake……uuuup!

  5. Okay… I have had little interest in the ME games — they aren’t on the Mac, and I’m not fond of playing on consoles (am only playing Reckoning on the PS3 because I wasn’t going to skip it, and had a PS3 to play it on…). I’m not big on tactical combat games, and despite reviews describing it as an action RPG, the “action” moniker has always, until recently, made me assume the RPG part was a second class citizen.

    However, I *do* love great narrative, and really good narrative twists. And in another Bioware game I played recently, Dragon Age 2 (which I liked more than DA:O even though many others panned it…), I encountered the best narrative twist I’ve ever seen in a game. (For those who’ve played, I refer to a certain highly-cinematic action sequence involving Varric and his brother…) I was really confused when it happened, and when the reveal occurred I was all “That was *awesome*!”

    So I’ve been curious about and reading the ME3 reviews and feedback from friends – including spoilers because I never really expected to play the game. It wasn’t until I read this that I realized that A) I hope this theory is true – because it would be an even more awesome narrative twist, and B) Now I’m curious enough to actually *really* want to play the entire series…

    …which still isn’t going to happen anytime soon because I’m not going to play it on a console, and I don’t have a PC to play it on. I *do*, however, have a 4 year old PC that might be upgradable (my old Mythbox 2), or I might be getting a new Mac laptop in the next year which I could actually put Bootcamp on. We’ll see.

    Crossposting on FB for friends there…

    • I find the RPG elements of Mass Effect to be on par with if not exceeding those in Dragon Age. It’s a well-built world with excellent RPG elements.

      I think you’d like it – and if ultimately this controversy gets more people to play it, well, that’s something extraordinary in itself.

  6. I got to the ending of ME3 and just thought, wow. I had no idea how I was supposed to make the choice. Either I zoned out when the catalyst was talking or I was supposed to figure it out myself. I figured it out, chose control and found that EDI never showed up, and I wondered why. I also wondered why I saw the mass relay get destroyed. I thought to myself, I chose control not destroy. If anyone could help with that, thanks. Anyways, I didn’t really notice that or the whole blue-paragon thing until I read this post. I thought shepard was going to get resurrected or something when that grandpa said ‘one more story.’ That was enough to send me crazy. But after reading this…god it’s insane. Absolutely insane. My mind has two theories to deal with and is desperately scrambling for solid ground. I don’t really know what to think, but I do know that Bioware has got to make this happen. I’ve played ME1 and thought it was okay but missed ME2. I wasn’t a great fan of the series until I played this game. Bioware needs to make something happen. Shepard has to get resurrected or this theory has to be true. This has to happen. This needs to happen. Everyone, we need to talk to Bioware about this. If they say it wasn’t intentional, we have to hold the line until Bioware MAKES IT HAPPEN. HOLD THE LINE!

    • HOLD THE LINE! Indeed.

      The mass relays getting destroyed is something the bratty little catalyst slipped in among his exposition – no matter what you chose, the mass relays would be destroyed by the explosion of energy sent out from the Citadel. So no matter what, those puppies were going down.

      ME2 is definitely worth playing if you ever get time or the inclination. A lot of people feel like it’s the best in the series, which I don’t necessarily agree with (I think 3 is a masterpiece, ambiguous ending notwithstanding) but it is a lot of fun. Having characters like Mordin and Jack on the crew alone make it worth it.

      I still believe the Truth Is Out There, and I will be waiting for my ME3 ending until I’m suffering from dementia and wheelchair-bound in a rest home, muttering about The Shepard, if need be. I need a poster like Fox Mulder had, only with a Reaper instead of a UFO.

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