Mass Effect 3: Ending Explained

A large amount of players seem to hate the Mass Effect 3 ending. I have been fighting many long and hard battle on the bioware forums about it. Doing my best to fight the good fight but but it’s alot like playing whack-a-mole. I noticed multiple ending detractors refering to this article: Mass Effect 3 Ending Hatred 5 Reasons Fans are Right as proof that the ending is indeed bad. I would like to take this article on, and prove to you that the ending is actually not bad. Most of my philosphy is based on a “Indoctrination Theory” which I believe solves all issue and is the intended interpretation of the ending.

Basically the theory says everything that took place after Shepard was hit by the Reaper laser on his way to the conduit is inside Shepard’s head. It is a dream, but more than just a dream. It is the manifestation of his battle against indoctrination. Everything that takes place during the final scenes is Shepard’s way of dealing with and either overcoming or succumbing to indoctrination.

Indoctrination Theory Proofs

1. This is the only game in the series that has dream sequences. Playable dream sequences introduced early in the game force you to question what is and is not a dream because not all playable sections in Mass Effect 3 are reality. It opens the door for a dreamlike ending; especially events that take place after Shepard is seemingly knocked unconscious.

2. If you choose the destroy ending (the correct choice), Shepard is shown waking up or taking a breath while lying on concrete rubble. Obviously it’s totally absurd to think Shepard fell to Earth from the exploding space station and survived. This scene shows Shepard waking in London after being hit by the laser because he knows he has unfinished business.

3. The end sequence plays like the dream sequence. It is slow motion, wobbly, and the sound is distorted and distant. It is reasonable to assume this is because Shepard is super jacked on adrenaline, but the pretense of the previous dream sequences in the game set a precedent for this. Furthermore, each time Shepard dreams, he sees the child. The child appears here again. Possible to say the catalyst read Shepard’s thoughts to show the child, but once again, a precedent has been set.

4. During the dream sequence you have no HUD display, and your pistol doesn’t have ammo. These clues visually and mechanically remove you from reality. The developers/writers didn’t FORGET to give the gun ammo at the end, they are trying to tell you something.

5. When Shepard beams up to the Citadel he ends up exactly where he needs to be, about 200 feet from the crucible console. Anderson is already there, as is the Illusive Man, both of whom never made it to the beam and were never seen. It is possible to come up with some strange explanations on how they both got there, but it simply makes more sense that they are in Shepard’s subconscious. Shepard has an inkling that maybe the Illusive Man’s plan is right. After all, the Illusive Man was always right in ME2. So he appears in Shepard’s head like a devil on a shoulder.

6. Joker, the Normandy and squad mates that were with you on Earth are shown flying away from the battle and landing on some tropical planet. This doesn’t make sense in the context of the story, and is not a writing mistake. This isn’t a piece of the script that EVERYONE seemed to gloss over. The fact that the Normandy and the crew are no longer in the SOL system is yet another hint that this isn’t reality.

7. Never in the game are options so blatantly color-coded. The option is clearly “renegade red” while control is “paragon blue.” It is as if the game is trying to convince THE PLAYER that control is the “best outcome.” Because this is the first time anything by dialog choices have been color-coded, it is yet another hint that something is off.

8. Shepard imagines Anderson performing the Destroy ending and Illusive Man performing the Control ending. This is the first time Shepard is shown to use his imagination. Why didn’t Shepard imagine himself performing both endings? Also Anderson has always been a zealous paragon and is shown performing the color-coded “red” ending while Illusive man, a devout renegade is shown performing the “blue” ending. This might be Shepard asking himself “what would Anderson do and what would TIM do.” I think the Reaper influence is painting the solutions mixed colors to trick Shepard, and the proper Para/Gade characters are Shepard’s subconscious showing the real morality of the choices.

I hope understanding the ending in this context helps you come to terms with it. If it does not, then you are a dolt because this is the most refreshing ending I have experienced in a very long time. Finally someone had some balls and actually make an ending you need to think about. Not only that, but they actually broke the 4th wall and attempted to indoctrinate the player. Notice this tweet by Priestly, he seems to encourage players to extrapolate. I will take that as another hint.

Now that we are on the same page about the ending, assuming you are also familiar with the article in question, let me address each complaint.

5 Reasons Fans Are Right: Rebuttal

“5) Brevity

It’s not just that players are forced to choose from one of three nearly identical endings. It’s not even that they are presented with each choice regardless of what kind of game they played, so long as their EMS rating was sufficiently high. It’s that the player is never given any sense of how the choice they ultimately made affected the galaxy they worked so hard to save.”

The title of this reason is brevity but the actual explanation is something else. This is the often seen “your choices don’t matter” argument. This complaint doesn’t resonate with me because your choices in regard to the ending are no less important in ME3 then they were in ME1 or ME2.

In Mass Effect, no matter what choices you made the game still ended with the citadel under attack, Saren dead and Sovereign defeated. You make two choices at the end, save or sacrifice the council and who to leave in charge Anderson or Udina. Your previous actions have nothing to do with either of these two, and these two have almost no relevance in ME2. The ending animation plays out almost exactly the same with a slighting different space battle which has the council lives/dies.

Mass Effect 2 is different because your choices greatly affect the ending but it is actually not that relevant because simply playing the game thoroughly all but ensures that you get a particular ending. If you beat all the loyalty missions then you will probably have a 90% survival rate (probably just losing Mordin). The only choice you make is to keep or destroy the collector base which once again isn’t at all effect by any previous choices.

In actuality Mass Effect 3 offers you more choices than the previous two games. You get three entirely different choices. Although the cut-scene that plays is nearly identical, conceptually each option is very different. I had to think long and hard about what I thought the right choice would be, I felt like a true decision maker. I am not as troubled as everyone else that all the endings look the same at the end. That realization would only affect me on my 2nd play through. On my original experience (the one BioWare caters to the most) I felt awesome about my choice and I was happy with my cut-scene.

After you stop the reapers you need to use your imagination. To me that is very easy and I don’t understand why people demand to have their hand held by a montage of the entire galaxy. I suppose I wouldn’t have hated some stills of all my friends celebrating as the credits rolled but don’t need to see it to understand it.

4) It is Confusing and Under-Developed

Anderson, despite having come up the Conduit behind Shepard, beats him to the secret Citadel control panel room.But the majority of the ending is an exercise in increasing incomprehensibility, beginning with the abrupt appearance of The Illusive Man.

It turns out to be a ridiculous AI whose visual representation is the young boy haunting Shepard’s nightmares throughout the game. It is never explained why this is the form he chooses; we don’t even get the courtesy of the “I chose a form you were comfortable with” cliche.”

These continuity issues are solved by indoctrination theory. People appearing in places without explanation is a classic dream element. The boy has been in Shepard’s all game and is something I would consider a dream sign. We know for a fact the boy is either not real or dead. We know that each time Shepard dreams he sees the boy. Why would this time be different?

“The AI then claims that he created the Reapers billions of years ago as a means of solving the problem of synthetic life forms killing their organic creators. The Reaper’s whole purpose is to save Organics by killing them, and turning them into synthetics. So that Organics won’t make synthetics who will then kill organics.”

I have seen this pointed out many times as if it is something profound. First and formost, irony isn’t a plot hole. It is perfectly fine for a race of synthetics to feel like they need to keep organics from developing AI. The reapers do not kill organics, they ascend them. They also do not destroy all organic life; they only take the most advanced races and leave the rest to develop. They fear that if organics go unchecked they will create an AI that will grow more powerful and destroy all life. The Reapers goal is NOT to destroy all life.

Also it is perfectly reasonable that the Reapers are wrong. You don’t need to agree with them to accept what they are saying as fact. The same way you don’t need to listen to the Illusive Man or Saren; you can disagree with the Reapers. You can display your disagreement by choosing the “Destroy” ending breaking the cycle.

“3) Lore Errors, Plot Holes

No matter which of ME3′s endings you choose, the Mass Relays are all destroyed. Yes, despite the weakness of an ending that robs the galaxy of critical technology, the multicolored explosions (player choice!) are certainly pretty. But in The Arrival, it was firmly established that the destruction of a Mass Relay would result in an explosion resembling a supernova, destroying the relay’s star system. In Mass Effect 3′s ending, the Mass Relays are destroyed in explosions so massive that they’re depicted as being visible from a perspective that resembles the Normandy’s Galaxy Map.”

This isn’t relevant. There could be many reasons why they went nova in “Arrival” or why they aren’t going nova this time. We have no idea how they work. The crucible pulse is a totally different event than hitting the relay with a giant rock. This isn’t a plot hole or a lore error.

“Unfortunately, the burned husk of Earth certainly can’t support the combined military forces of the galaxy. And remember folks, Turians and Quarians can’t eat human food anyway. The assumption then has to be that everyone scrambles to find a colony to support them, and/or they all die. In all likelihood — faced with starvation, the krogan slowly eat everybody.”

Maybe this is 100% true. Maybe everyone stuck in the Sol system is going to have a really hard time? … So?

Who said life would be easy after a galactic war? Would you prefer death? This was a very dark plot and many BILLIONS of individuals from all races died. Every race knew the risks and they pretty much expected to die defending all life. Being stranded in a non-ideal situation is actually not that bad of an outcome considering. With the new-found peace all the survivors can band together and begin the rebuilding process.

“This is probably the biggest WTF of all. As the Mass Relays explode, we see a short clip of Joker furiously scrambling in the Normandy Cockpit, followed by the Normandy barely staying ahead of the chain of explosions. Eventually, the Normandy crash-lands on a convenient, Earth-like jungle planet. Joker survives, and as he staggers out of the ship to see the new, presumably permanent home, he’s joined by members of Shepard’s crew. In almost every ending, these crew members include Shepard’s love interest and at least one person who joined Shep in his/her final push.”

This is another issue that is explained if you look at it as part of Shepard’s dream. That didn’t actually happen; Shepard is just imagining his closest friends barely surviving the ordeal and ending up on a lush relatively safe planet.

“2) Key Philosophical Themes Are Discarded

*Tolerance and Unity

But where tolerance has always been an option in the games before, and has always been achievable before, it is discarded wholly in the end. There is no tolerance permitted among the Reapers or by the Guardian. And in fact, the synthesis ending dismantles the idea of tolerance and unity altogether by forcing homogenization on all the life in the galaxy, synthetic included. The control ending forces the Reapers to tolerate you, with the assumption that eventually, synthetics will ruin everything again through their lack of tolerance; the destruction ending, as the Guardian claims, will mean the eventual destruction by all synthetics.”

Once again the player is welcome to reject this assumption. If you think the Quarian Geth peace is enough to reject the assumption you are given the option. The option is called destroy. Break the cycle and take your chanced. Also for the record, when speaking in the scale of 50,000 year cycled. The peace between the Quarian and Geth which has lasted all of a few days after a 300 year war adds up to exactly nothing. Hardly “proof” that organic and synthetic life can and would coexist. Give the Geth another 40,000 years of expanding and evolving and then tell me what they would thing about the pathetic meat bags.

Regardless, you can disagree. This is just the Reaper’s opinion and belief.

“Mass Effect continually asks “Can’t we call just get along?” and as Shepard, players can work toward that end for three full games. Doesn’t matter how many alliances you broker or how much understanding you cultivate: it makes absolutely no difference.”

I cannot even wrap my mind around this. During the course of this game you work toward uniting the entire galaxy. Bitter rivalries like Krogan and Turian and Geth and Quarian are solved. Everyone comes together to fight side by side for a common cause. This is the absolute APEX of “all get along.” Unless you are seriously suggesting that we should get along with the Reapers also.

I really want to not believe that people actually want a big group hug ending in which Shepard somehow convinced the Reapers to “cut it out.” The Reapers have been doing this for … what, billions of years? You think some nobody named Shepard is going to convince them to stop it? He is going to think of something new to say? I am so happy this didn’t happen.

“*Free Will and what it means to be alive

The concept of free will is alluded to, sort of, in the final conversation with the AI, but it has no bearing on any of the (identical) outcomes. Instead, much like the victims of the Reapers themselves, the player is robbed of all free will or even the chance to make the case for it. They must do as they are told, and choose.

Another rehash of the “choices don’t matter’ argument. The endings are only visually similar but conceptually very different. Every single choice in Mass Effect plays out the same way. “They must do as they are told, and choose.” Well… yeah pretty much. But you DO get to choose right? Not sure how else this could be.

>1) Player Choice Is Completely Discarded

They are all functionally identical. Once players reach the Citadel, they are taken along a low-interaction pathway, engage in conversation with the Illusive Man that can only end with him dead if you wish to proceed further, and then have a conversation — with a very limited set of responses — with the AI child. This experience is the same regardless of your Shepard’s moral alignment, and regardless of the decisions you made to get to this point. The AI does not alter his dialogue if you kill the Geth, he doesn’t offer different justifications if you spared the Collector Base; he does nothing different.”

Your alignment dictates your choices, not the other way around. There has never been a “Renegade or Paragon” ending to a Mass Effect game. You are always presented choices and you can pick either one. It doesn’t matter how many paragon points you had when you get to choose to save or sacrifice the council in Mass Effect 1. If you choose to sacrifice them, then do your previous paragon choices not matter?

The goal was to gather a huge army to fight the Reapers. Every single choice you made helped you reach that goal. Shepard had no idea how the Crucible worked, all he could do was make his chance of success as high as possible by winning favor. Why does the AI care about the collector base, or the geth or the Krogan? Those things were a means to an end, the end is now and you need to make yet another choice.

“And then, you are given the same three choices, choices that you must accept even though none of them fit with anything Shepard would ever have done at any previous moment in the entire series.”

The entire game your job is to destroy the Reapers. So in the context of Shepard doing anything but “destroy” you are right. It doesn’t fit with his character. And you clearly made the wrong choice (because you somehow were convinced that destroy isn’t the right answer: indoctrination). If you choose destroy, then you are doing exactly, EXACTLY what Shepard has been trying to do the entire series.

“Whether the choices succeed or fail depends solely on your Effective Military Strength score, and nothing else. And once made, the only difference between them is a slightly different cutscene, and a different-colored explosion.”

Well I guess this is partly true. I mean your goal all game was to “fill the green bar” which is accomplished by “playing the game” and the more you play the game the more you fill your bar. It really is no different than experience points or just completing levels. Frankly I don’t see how this is a complaint. You need to play the game to have a higher chance of winning and this game mechanic is cleverly disguised by a very reasonable story of you convincing everyone to help you. So I guess the ending cut-scene is based “solely” on your score. But that score is based on all the collective choices and game-play you performed. So I guess you are rewarded for completing the game… and nothing else? This is a problem?

Casey Hudson, the executive producer of Mass Effect recently spoke up about the ending. Not sure if his comments do much very much to give players the closure they want, but it does confirm that the BioWare staff loves this game as much as the fans. To me, this says that it is very unlikely that the writers and developers made stupid mistakes wrapping up the game they have been working on for many years. I think his sentiment is a fitting way to conclude this blog post.

17 replies
  1. John
    John says:

    Well….didnt Bioware refute The Indoctrination Theory? If they did, then now whats your explanation? Its their game, they take responsibility for how it comes out. Do you change the ending of Moby Dick in your head too if you didnt like it? Ridiculous. Even presuming the Indoctrination Theory is correct for a moment, this is a video game, not some avant garde movie. “So all those choices you made in previous games DO matter….but only in your own head!” WTF dude? They royally screwed the pooch, just admit it.

    Reply
  2. Stevie
    Stevie says:

    WOW! This absolutely blew my mind. I honestly was fine with the ending even without looking at it this way, but this version gets my creative mind going in a way the original way never could. When I thought about it I realized that it actually starts back at Earth when the kid appears in the vent. You turn away for a moment and then he’s gone. Next you see him he’s back on the ground. How could a child navigate that chaos and make it back to the ground from a vent in a burning building? I’m going to replay ME again with this in mind to see what other things I can pick up on. Thanks so much for the article!

    Reply
    • AlexKrasny
      AlexKrasny says:

      Hey don’t mention it! I loved this as much as you did when I first read it. Glad I could share it with you.

      Reply
  3. Rex Jordan
    Rex Jordan says:

    The Galaxy (ME3 players) have been divided into two sects again :

    1) Paragons : believers of Indoctrination Theory {(Order seekers) Indoctrinated. claiming mysteries in Bioware’s excellent ending}
    2) Renegades : non-believers of IT {(Chaos routers) people claiming their moneyback}

    The Harbinger (Bioware) laughs while the Sovereign theme plays in the background.

    🙂
    —————————————————————————————————————————————
    ** Agree with Altera Kiwoske. Don’t overthink. Enjoy what has been given to you and as it has been given to you. Take deep breath clear your mind and focus on the other Games you have bought. Don’t get indoctrinated yourself people. Leave that to Shepard to deal with..!!

    Two questions to ask yourself.

    1) People supporting IT, by same logic are you people being indoctrinated by Bioware to twist and see the ending in the way you like it ? 3 game titles are a big time to indoctrinate someone’s mind, isn’t ít ?
    Are you hallucinating to assume somethings which may or may not be there ? Are you imagining things that even the creator of the games failed to imagne..??

    2) People who don’t support IT, the renegades, are you people oversimplifying things ? Taking everything as it is, where is your imaginative faculty? After 300 hours of playing didn’t you enjoy your journey from 1 to 3 ? Didn’t you wanted to know what happens next everytime you were stuck at some tense situation ? Then what is holding you back from cherishing that feeling afterall games are meant for that only, isn’t it ?

    Reply
  4. Craig
    Craig says:

    I bought the trilogy just over a week ago and loved it all except the ending, after spending working through all three games I’ve got rather attached to Commander Shepherd and his friends working to destroy the reapers so I never had a doubt to make the destroy choice. however I expected Shepherd to get saved from the citadel at the end before it blew and rejoin the Normandy to leave an opening for mass effect 4. But as this didn’t happen the next mass effect game will be all new characters apparently 🙁

    Reply
  5. Altera Kiwoske
    Altera Kiwoske says:

    I agree that the ending can completely capture the imagination and that even with the indoctrination theory going on…there is still something to be desired. However, IT IS JUST A GAME! Seriously people, if you don’t like the choices you made restart the friggin’ play through. There are settings for that you know. I think everyone needs to take a deep breath, clear their minds, and focus on the facts that it is meant for entertainment; NOT testing who you are as a person. For all we know, the meanest, nastiness player out there could actually be a nun relieving stress! Not likely, but possible. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, that is how it is meant to be; but keep the word ‘GAME’ at the front of the mind next time you play or discuss ME1-2-3 huh?

    Reply
  6. Bacon
    Bacon says:

    The only question I couldn’t find the answer to is “Do your choices matter at the end?” Not in the sense that you’re limited in your choices or some dumb crap like that, I mean, if the ending sequence, after you get hit with Harbinger’s laser, is all a dream… What actually happens outside of it?

    If you choose destroy and see Shepard take a breath at the end… What is actually happening outside? Is Harbinger still blasting people away with his doom laser? After all, all you did was have a dream about destroying all synthetic life, you were never really up there in the Crucible. Or is it okay to believe, taken from your dream in the Crucible (where you see Anderson actually choosing to destroy), that Anderson did eventually make it up there and finish the job?

    Comments, opinions? My biggest concern is what actually happened outside of the dream… Because if we don’t know, then it’s just as good as having chosen the refuse ending, the cycle continues, even if shep is indoctrinated or not… Because the reapers have really big guns.

    Reply
  7. Thomas Moberg
    Thomas Moberg says:

    Thank you for writing this well thought and meticulous explanation. It has brought a lot of peace to me as I pull my third play through to a close.

    Reply
  8. Bobo
    Bobo says:

    Wrong bioware denounced the indoctro theory by confirming the red ending explanation . Google it. Posted by Casey Hudson’s team .

    Reply
  9. Stephanie Meow
    Stephanie Meow says:

    Even if the indoctrination theory is true and the Destroy ending is the only ending in which Shepard overcomes indoctrination, that still leaves the problem of NOT HAVING ANY RESOLUTION TO THE SERIES. PERIOD. Shep wakes up in London, nearly dead, realizing that the Reapers are still alive and need to be stopped. Then the screen cuts to black and no one gets to see what ACTUALLY happens. How is that acceptable? Indoctrination theory or no, the ending looked very unfinished to me. It’s much more likely that the developers ran out of time and/or resources to build a proper ending and had to go with the bare minimum.

    Reply
    • Chris
      Chris says:

      Who’s to say that there isn’t multiple interpretations of the indoctrination theory? Everyone seems to think there is only one (Shepard wakes up, Reapers still there, game isn’t finished). I have my own interpretation that I use, instead of having the developers decide for me.

      Reply
  10. Shane Anderson
    Shane Anderson says:

    So basically you have to accept that Shepard Indoctrination is true otherwise every single theory you present falls apart? I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure that’s a logical fallacy of some sort…

    Reply
  11. Benni
    Benni says:

    Really good theory! I can’t understand people who claim that the ending is bad because you don’t quite understand at first sight whats going on. For me, this is just another moment in the trilogy, where I have to turn on my brain and think about what happened on screen. LOVE IT
    Personally, I like to think that everything that happened on the Citadel actually did happen in RL not just in Sheps dreams. But thats just me, I like how you can interprete so much in this game and its ending!

    Reply
  12. Matt
    Matt says:

    Thank you for writing this. I agree with you on every level. As soon as I beet the series last night, after a two week marathon, I realized immediately after I chose control, that I, the player, had been indoctrinated and I felt that I actually “lost” the game. But I wasn’t mad. I was blown away. Best series, and ending, I have ever experience in any medium.

    Reply
    • Nikola
      Nikola says:

      Yeah , i feel the same way…its absolutely incredible how the game actually indoctrinates you and not just the player..on the last choice i remember feeling so confused,like i didnt even know what to choose anymore..and the whole blue/red thing made it even harder…i actually first went towards control but halfway there turned around and went the other way…that all made the overall experience absolutely complete only i didnt realize it then..reading this and finally understanding everything feels incredible…i actually felt the game sucked before this as i didnt like the gameplay or all the other changes made from me2 …but actually it all fits perfectly..i remember not noticing any of this as i was playing (also for 2 weeks straight),which basically blends my experience and shepards experience perfectly.As soon as i got hit by that laser and got up i remember wanting to get to the beam so bad,not even looking around or noticing the trees and stuff..the illusion was just that powerful…absolutely incredible…

      Reply

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