‘Mass Effect 3’ Endings Explained? The ‘Indoctrination Theory’ Answer

The Mass Effect 3 “ending controversy” has been dominating industry news headlines for over two weeks – ranging in topics that include initial frustrations, early responses from game director Casey Hudson, a charity drive, comments from BioWare officials, as well as reassurances from studio co-founder Dr. Ray Muzyka. However, as more and more gamers complete the Mass Effect 3 campaign, the tone of the blowback continues to heat-up (just look at this especially emotional response) and, despite promises from BioWare that some fan-frustrations will be addressed in future DLC, it’s hard to imagine that the anger and disappointment will die-down anytime soon.

That said, what if a lot of the questions in the system were little more than an erroneous misreading of the game’s finale moments – and that BioWare had actually delivered one of the most interesting, and downright ballsy, endings in video game history?

While some Mass Effect fans have likely heard of the “Indoctrination Theory” in passing over the last few weeks, a lot of players who have been busy expressing their outrage on BioWare forums, may have missed-out on an especially intriguing analysis of the, now, controversial endings – one that isn’t going to solve all their frustrations but might, just might, help convince them that BioWare actually tried to do something pretty special with the final chapter in Shepard’s trilogy.

From this point on we will be presenting MAJOR SPOILERS for Mass Effect 3 as well as the prior installments in the series. If you haven’t completed Mass Effect 3, and do not want to be spoiled, turn away now and come back when you’ve experienced the endings for yourself.

Still here? As mentioned, the “Indoctrination Theory” has been gaining momentum over on the BioWare forums – ever since a few especially observant fans began to dissect the final fifteen minutes of the game (essentially everything that occurs after Shepard and company dash to the reaper beam). Over the last few weeks, as more and more gamers complete Mass Effect 3, other players have begun to contribute ideas, connections, and A/V content to the Indoctrination Theory community. The result is a pretty compelling alternate take on the Mass Effect 3 finale – a take that might explain why BioWare delivered an ending that was “unsatisfying” to so many people.

Mass Effect 3 Boy

The Indoctrination Theory isn’t likely to provide gamers with a lot of the answers they’ve been seeking (such as what happened to all of their in-game friends) or remedy their frustration over the lack of “choices” in the game’s final moments; however, the theory would indicate that, not only is the ending much deeper (drawing from countless ideas presented earlier in the series), BioWare wasn’t actually being lazy with the ending, they were actively attempting to do something really ambitious.

At its core, the Indoctrination Theory asserts that, in the final moments of Mass Effect 3, Shepard is wrestling with reaper indoctrination and (in some variations of the theory) that he never actually makes it up to the Citadel at all. His final confrontation with the Illusive Man and his rendezvous with Anderson (as well as the Citadel AI) never actually happened – instead, the game presents a series of moments that showcase the degradation (or liberation) of Shepard’s mental state as the reapers attempt to fully-indoctrinate our main man.

The Indoctrination Theory thread at the BioWare forums is currently sitting at over 815 pages (and counting) – you can read the full posting HERE; however, we’ve included some of the more interesting tidbits below, including an amazing must-see video that lays-out all of the theory highlights as well as ties the Mass Effect 3 endings to events in prior installments with carefully selected footage and audio from Mass EffectMass Effect 2, and Mass Effect 3:


Here are a few of the main highlights from the theory thread (again, for the lengthy breakdown – head to the full BioWare forum post):

  • Shepard could have been indoctrinated on multiple occasions – through various interactions with Reaper-controlled characters and systems including Sovereign, the Mass Effect 2 “Human” Reaper, and “The Arrival” artifact.
  • No one but Shepard interacts with (or even notices) the Vancouver child – the one who appears in Shepard’s dreams and is revealed at the end of the game to be the Catalyst. The boy is merely an avatar used by the Reapers to manipulate, and ultimately indoctrinate, Shepard.
  • The final “choice” in the game is nothing more than manipulation by the Reapers in order to indoctrinate Shepard. Harbinger presents the three options in a way that plays-to Shepard’s emotions – to coerce him into letting the Reapers live.
  • If Shepard chooses Control, he essentially gives-in to Reaper control – since they are already, in part, controlling his mind. During his argument with “The Illusive Man,” Shepard made the exact same point – though Harbinger attempts to convince Shepard that he, unlike The Illusive Man, has the power to control the Reapers – which is, in the end, just a lie.
  • If Shepard chooses Synthesis, he opens the door for every organic in the galaxy to be infected with Reaper code – a process that was detailed earlier in the game by Legion with regard to the Geth indoctrination. Similar to Control, in this case, the Reapers successfully indoctrinate Shepard.
  • If Shepard chooses Destroy, he successfully resists indoctrination – though the overall outcome of the game (what happens to friends as well as the Reapers outside of Shepard’s head) is, ultimately, unclear. Unlike the other two scenarios, Shepard is shown waking-up (where as he’s fully-indoctrinated after either the Synthesis or Control options).

Note the reversal of Paragon and Renegade options when saving Anderson from being shot by The Illusive Man and at the end with the final “choice.”

Assuming the Indoctrination Theory is true, it certainly won’t get BioWare off the hook for the lack of side-character closure or the lack of multifaceted choices in the game’s closing moments. That said, compared with a surface-level interpretation of what is shown in the endings, it’s hard not to (at the very least) want to believe that BioWare didn’t slip-up, and instead delivered  one of the most ambitious closing acts in gaming history – even if it went over a lot of heads. The Indoctrination take on the ending actually makes a lot of sense and could explain why the end was so unsatisfying to many gamers – since, if you’re taking it at face-value, a lot of the events are pretty underwhelming.

Mass Effect 3 Control Synthesis Destroy

Players might not be faced with the choices they were expecting – but that’s because the choices in the end-game are exceptionally complicated – and, despite what it might seem, are rooted in a lot of subtle information that was delivered throughout the series’ three installments.

BioWare forum member “LookingGlassMind” puts it best:

“This moment, when you are standing there, agonizing over your choice? This is your indoctrination moment. This is where, it could be (fantastically and insanely) argued that this is the moment when indoctrination and all of its insidious power becomes as real as it possibly CAN be to the Player. Think about it! We stand there. We agonize. We freak out about the ridiculous choices, and we wonder (like Shepard would) why we just can’t ARGUE with the Catalyst (like Shepard would). And then, as this reality seems to be the only way forward (much like how indoctrination presents a version of reality to the indoctrinated that he/she sees as being the ONLY REAL OPTION – echoes of TIM, Kai Leng, Saren here), we begin to accept it. Tremulously, we start to make our choice.”

Ultimately, it’s unclear at this point whether or not the Indoctrination Theory outlines BioWare’s true intentions or is merely, as can be the case with subjective storytelling interpretation, an explanation that has been retrofitted onto an abstract and open-ended finale.

Even if the theory is spot-on, it’s equally unclear where the developers will take players next – given that an interesting ending doesn’t mean it’ll be satisfying to angry players. Even the “good” Indoctrination ending (achieved by destroying the reapers) concludes on a cliff-hanger with Shepard simply waking up – and does not address what happened to fan-favorite side-characters, among countless other issues that frustrated fans have pointed out.

While we’re certainly not endorsing the Indoctrination Theory as irrefutable, it’s worth sharing if for no other reason than to reflect on the end-game choice we each made – and whether or not, after considering this alternate take, we’d make that same choice again.

Mass Effect 3 is available now for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for further updates.

Source: BioWare Forums

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