Mass Effect 3: Understanding the Reaper Threat

So, I had an epiphany last night while discussing Mass Effect on Twitter with a few of the awesome people from my round table review session.

Specifically, on the nature of the reapers, and why the claims of the Catalyst… might not be as far fetched as I first believed. Though I firmly believe it is lying to Shepard, I am starting to glimpse the half-truths behind those lies.

Throughout the series, the Reapers make claims such as the following:

“We are your salvation through destruction.”

“We are the ultimate result of evolution.”

“Each of us, a nation.”

“We are eternal.”

“You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”

They claim to bring “order” to the “chaos” of the galaxy. And everywhere they go, they create brainwashed sleeper agents and mindless husks.

Mild spoilers follow:

The Catalyst (a character I am obviously no great fan of, and who I believe may be the reaper known as Harbinger in disguise) claims the reapers’ purpose is to prevent an ‘inevitable’ conflict between organics and synthetics by ‘harvesting’ organic races at the peak of their civilizations and “preserving them in reaper form.”

Now, obviously from the perspective of an organic who’d like to keep his current form, this makes no sense. But maybe it’s not completely crazy. If we pause to think about it for a second. What sort of conditions could give rise to a being with this belief system, however wrong headed and evil it might be?

I’m going to spin a theory about the origins of the “Cycle” in Mass Effect, and about the origin of the series’ ultimate villains.

This theory makes a few assumptions:

1) Indoctrination theory is true… mostly.

2) The Catalyst is telling PART of the truth, as it perceives it, but bending that truth heavily in its favor.

3) It has reasons for those perceptions, but they are still wrong.


We’ve seen how reapers are ‘born’ in Mass Effect 2. A horrifying process that transforms thousands of organics into a single massive synthetic – a reaper.

Imagine for a moment a galaxy many cycles in the past. Say, several million years or more. Perhaps even billions.

A great civilization is at the height of its existence, and gives birth to A.I. Like many sci-fi horror stories, it does not end well. A massive war ensues. By the time it nears its end, no one can remember who launched the first attack. It’s kill or be killed. Synthetic versus organic. Created versus creator.

This massive war goes on for hundreds of years. It is brutal beyond imagination. Whole species are wiped out by the synthetics. And still, it rages on. No end in sight.

Finally, one advanced species – or a small group of them, perhaps a cult of scientists – in what they realize is the twilight of their existence, has a final moment of clarity. The only way to preserve their species in any shape, any form… is to distill the essence of their species into a single massive cybernetic creature. Part organic, part synthetic, eternal, unchanging, and powerful beyond anything their time had ever seen.

And so they do it. They subject themselves deliberately to the process we witness forced on humanity in Mass Effect 2. They create what would be the first “Reaper,” – a name that would be given to them later by the future victims – their species’ last devastating answer to the threat of extinction. They embrace “ascension.” Not all are on board with this plan; many are forced into it unwillingly. But regardless, the process is – beyond all probability – successful.

Imagine for a moment the kind of horror that would motivate a species to embrace a plan like the one we witnessed as their last hope. Imagine the scar that would leave on their collective psyche. If you can comprehend that, even for a moment, you have some idea of how a reaper thinks.

This first reaper destroys the synthetics threaten its former civilization. But it has been unhinged by the process that created it. It sees itself as a godlike entity (and understandably, for what could stand against it?). It believes itself superior.

And yes, it believes that the conflict between organics and synthetics… is inevitable. It sees itself as the solution to this problem – its original mission. But its not a life form any longer. It’s a machine. Unchanging, eternal, yes, but inflexible. Rigid.

It believes that other races must be “uplifted” and become like it to stop the war with the synthetics. It believes that only it is fit to control, and that organics are inherently “chaotic” when left to their own devices. By taking control, it believes it is ‘helping’ – after a fashion. By destroying what makes them unique, what makes them alive. The first husks, the first reaper creatures are born from the remnants of its own species, and soon those of others… eventually leading up to the creation of yet another reaper. And another. And all this time, it continues the war against the synthetics as well, who are ill prepared to deal with something this powerful. Some of them, it bends to its will.

It sets about forcing this process on the remaining advanced civilizations of its time period, perhaps discovering the tricks of Indoctrination along the way. It feels few emotions, save the rage of its creators, and its own sense of pride. Its belief in its own infallibility. It believes that it was born from chaos, and brings order – no, it IS order. It believes that it must take control in order to prevent organics from destroying themselves; that destroying some civilizations is better than allowing them to spawn synthetics that could destroy ALL civilizations.

It is a product of its time. It sees the conflict that spawned it as inevitable, and communicates this same belief to its newly uplifted brethren. It believes that the most worthy races should join it in its ascended state, and that the weaker races should be culled. And it believes, yes, that organics will inevitably create synthetics and lead to the same conflict again.

(And unsurprisingly, it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. The reapers use synthetics in their crusade, turning them against their creators at times, manipulating organic and synthetic alike in their new purpose. We hear of this from Javik; it happened in his cycle, and this does not surprise us because the reapers used the heretic geth in the same fashion.)

And so begins the Cycle. The new breed of reapers set up the Mass Relays, the citadel, and allow civilizations to develop until they reach their height, then they arrive and destroy them, or – if they are found ‘worthy,’ – they force them to ‘ascend,’ creating new reapers to aid in their work. At first they are stealthy – they sweep in undetected, out of – perhaps – a last remaining sense of self preservation.

As their numbers grow, cycle after cycle, they become bolder. The last several cycles have all resulted in long, dragged out wars, during which the “Crucible” (whatever it really is) was devised and expanded on by the brightest races before the reapers destroyed or converted them.

The problem: the reapers logic is flawed, because it does not see the value of free will, of independent thought. It sees those aspects of organic life as problems to be solved – because it assumes that the same patterns will always repeat themselves in the chaos. At first, it sees its course as the lesser of two evils. Eventually, it sees it as the only correct course. The “solution.” It ignores the values of diversity, seeing them as problems as well.

Essentially, the reapers are a product of the environment that spawned that first reaper. But because they lose what made them ‘alive’ in favor of becoming eternal machines, they are inflexible. They are unable to consider the horrifying possibility that they might be wrong. They are motivated to preserve themselves and create more like themselves, and they are motivated to control and devour in an effort to strengthen their forces. And, as they begin to see themselves as the superior beings, they desire other creatures to see them in the same way – part of the Indoctrination process creates a sense of “superstitious awe” in some of the victims.

After that… it was simply a matter of spending a few hundred thousand years perfecting their PR campaign to the point that they fell for it themselves.

They are selfish. They are inflexible. Eternal, perhaps, but stagnant. They are domineering, with a pathological NEED for control. They are the Reapers.

(And just for the record: in MY version of events, that first reaper was Harbinger. We needed more Harbinger in ME3…)

To be clear: the reapers are wrong. Horribly, hideously wrong. But not as incomprehensible as they’d have us believe. To say I understand them is not to say I agree with their reasoning. To agree with them is to submit to indoctrination, and like Shepard, I must fight.

And the reapers MUST be destroyed if the cycle is to truly end. Any alternative presented is merely a distraction. Which leads us to the choice presented at the end of Mass Effect 3 – a choice the Indoctrination Theory would tell us is more than it appears, and simultaneously not an honest one… because the result you choose is a reflection only of whether you believe the lie you’re told.

Saren believed the Reapers could bring unity between organics and synthetics (synthesis). But organics combined with reaper technology merely create husks; they are not superior by any stretch of the imagination, except by the reaper’s definition. As tools to control, they are superior. Saren was wrong.

The Illusive Man believed that destroying the reapers would be wrong; that by controlling them, he could help humanity evolve and achieve perfection. The problem is, the reapers define perfection as themselves. The human reaper we faced in ME2 is where that line of thinking leads. He was also wrong.

Shepard has always known how the conflict with the reapers must end. The galaxy must be allowed to evolve and grow on its own, without the interference of the reaper threat.

The cycle must end.

But in the meantime, I need to finish these calibrations.


4 responses to “Mass Effect 3: Understanding the Reaper Threat

  • Rory O'Connor

    Very interesting to see the differences in theory, though only a few it changes things quite a lot. Then again, I’m overly understanding half the time anyway, and forgot half the background for some parts. Looking forward to seeing if this sparks further discussion or debate about the history of the Reapers, be it on parts we didn’t think of or checking for flaws in our own theories.

  • Sarah Marie Fannin

    Oh my goodness, THANK YOU!!! You have completely verbalized everything that I think about the Reapers, their origin, and their “solution” to the organic/synthetic conflict and it’s “inevitability.” It’s really awesome to hear your thoughts out on the potential origin of the Reapers. I’m with you on all this.

    I always get kind of sick to my stomach when I hear people accept the “inevitability” of the cycle–or attempt to justify the reapers actions. For the record, I do not believe the “cycle” is truly inevitable. Why? The Geth. EDI. Legion. They want to cooperate with organics. They break the “inevitable rule.” And if they did, how many other synthetic races destroyed by Reapers in the past may have come to the same conclusion? And you know what? Even if it WAS inevitable, the Reapers course of action was horribly wrong. If they truly wanted to stop the destruction of organics by their creations, why didn’t they act as true guardians and protectors of the galaxy–teaching synthetics about the value of organic life and the necessity for cooperation–and if necessary, defending organics from rouge genocidal synthetics? They were able to “indoctrinate” the Geth into fighting the a war against the Quarians they really didn’t want…so why couldn’t they just “indoctrinate” other genocidal AI from destroying their makers in all the generations past?

    I greatly appreciate the things you’ve said and the backstory you speculated. I also agree with your speculation. In both “Control” and “Sythesis” the Reapers are allowed to endure. What’s to stop them from leaving this galaxy and moving on to another–where they may inflict their “order” on others. The people used to make new Reapers deserve rest. The dead deserve justice. They tacked on pious ideology to billions of years of genocide. It would be the equivalent of “harvesting” all nations capable of nuclear science–(because they’ll inevitably bring about nuclear war and global extinction)–while leaving second and third world nations behind while you go take a 200 year nap in Antarctica. You let them “develop” into nuclear nations as well. Then you come back, repeat, take resources, become more powerful, go hide, wake up again in a few more centuries. All in the name of preserving life on the planet. Could you really justify that in the real world? Families being torn apart, children dying in the streets, whole civilizations being burned to the ground–justified because some super powerful dude says nuclear war is inevitable–we’ll all destroy eachother if he doesn’t destroy us first. So it’s all for our own good. Atleast that way “primitive” nations can survive and we won’t ALL go extinct. No? Then you can’t justify the reapers. The whole cycle worked out conveniently benefical for them anyways–just like the Illusive Man said, “Why kill what you can control.” They have a cycle of endless resources that allow them to continually grow in power, knowledge, and strength…..oh yeah, and it “saves” the galaxy from total organic anhilation. Yeah right.

    Bah! Sorry–got away with myself and wrote too much!!! None of my friends are gamers so I can’t vent my frustrations without causing an epidemic of blank stares! lol! It’s cool for others to disagree, but in my opinion, I’m with you–the Reapers must be destroyed. Thanks for writing this. I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts out.

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