I’m a latecomer, I know. I’ve been clinging to pieces of the indoctrination theory because it was the only thing that I felt could POSSIBLY excuse, let alone explain that monster of an ending.
And the more I think about it, the more everything fits. It just… takes getting used to.
I’ve seen lengthy analysis on both sides, weighed the arguments, and finally been pointed to the one last piece of evidence that I feel constitutes proof that something is legitimately weird here, and that BioWare did it on purpose. And suddenly, I realized I’ve been maddened because I’m not used to treating games the way I treat movies. But the non-interactive nature of the ending… sort of demands that treatment.
And if so… then the ending to Mass Effect 3 may well be the most legitimately amazing thing in the history of video games, and I am merely disappointed that the story seemingly ends before the best part — something I now hope will be corrected in the Extended Cut.
Before I continue, though, I will also add: I still stand with RetakeMassEffect and HoldTheLine.Com – and I refuse, categorically, to accuse anyone of disliking the ending because they ‘don’t understand it.’ Simply put: there are multiple levels to view any piece of fiction on, and this is a BIG jump to make in a series like Mass Effect. One that has never before asked us to question Shepard’s perception of reality, or our own sanity. Viewed on a surface reading, the ending makes no sense and is objectively terrible, violating many of the series primary themes and possibly condoning genocide. But I write this because I now dare to hope that there’s something behind that surface, something that is begging us to look deeper and question what we are being shown. I write because I am convinced that BioWare took a huge storytelling risk… and is now watching it backfire spectacularly, and handling it the best they can.
Indoctrination Theorists: I beg you, let the theory stand on its own merits. Present your evidence to all you wish, but accusing people of being “too linear” or “not understanding” does you no favors. In short, don’t be a dick.
Let me run through what convinced me, and see if it will do the same for you. I’ll start with the common evidence and move on from there.
1. Shepard’s dreams.
First of all, these dreams (like much of the ending) are barely interactive. There’s only one thing to do: move toward the kid, hear whispers, see shadows, hear reaper noise, watch kid burn.
Shepard has three of these dreams, getting gradually worse (more shadows, more whispers from dead friends, all that rot), but they’re all basically the same except for the last one. In the final dream, Shepard sees himself embracing the child, then watches both of them burn. Not happy, nor frightened, just staring at him. And since we’re talking about character models and not actors… we have to conclude that those expressions are very deliberate (Meanwhile the look on Shepard proper’s face is much more in tune with the nightmarish nature of the scene).
Side note: it could be argued that scenes like this are where Mass Effect 3 feels the weakest, and also the least like a video game. But that would be an entirely separate issue, and since Batman: Arkham Asylum/City both did it and got away with it, I’m willing to let it slide. Let’s move on.
The first two could be mere nightmares, Shepard mourning the loss of those he couldn’t save, but this one is different. It has a distinct meaning. And given the ham-fisted symbolism here it’s hard to read it more than one way.
The obvious interpretation: embrace the child at your peril. Following this child will lead to your doom, Shepard. Take heed. This is a warning.
2. The trees.
Shepard’s “unhappy place,” as I like to think of it, has very distinctive trees. These appear again as Shepard sloooooowly staggers forward toward the teleport ray (and a possible death at the hands of Marauder Shields…) after Harbinger’s beam, but not before. They had to be added deliberately.
One could argue that they’re simply reused art assets, but one would still have to contend with the fact that they weren’t there before Shepard was struck. Why add them unless something has changed?
Either Shepard is unconscious and dreaming, (fairly likely given the other logical inconsistencies that have been well covered by many others, such as Hackett’s radio call), or she is conscious, but hallucinating. A LOT. And lest we forget, the second game spent a LOT of time hammering home the idea that Harbinger wants Shepard alive. And right now, Shepard is right where the reapers want her.
3. Shepard’s wound.
Putting aside the questions of the pathway – how Anderson got here first, how he followed us up when there’s only one path, where The Illusive Man even comes from, why there’s still TRAFFIC on the citadel when it’s been cleared out by the Reapers… Ignoring all of that, even though it’s reasonably compelling on its own. Putting aside the question of how The Illusive Man could control Shepard without a control chip (something the game reminds you you don’t have several times, very deliberately – the plot point gets like three subplots devoted to it).
Shepard is forced to shoot Anderson in his lower left side… then shown shortly after clutching that spot on his own side, bleeding from a fresh wound. Don’t ask for a picture here: YouTube it if you want to double check me. It’s easy to spot.
That does not happen by accident. We are shown this very deliberately. We are meant to see it and question it and think about it. It gets its own close-up, and as an old girlfriend once told me, close-ups tell the story. A close-up only happens if the filmmaker (or game designer) wants to draw your attention to a detail.
In any film, this would be an obvious sign… and since the game is at its most film-like here (annoyingly enough: separate issue entirely, as I mentioned above) we have little choice but to interpret it the same way we would in a film. Conclusion? Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
4. The sudden reversal.
Suddenly, we are lifted from a setting with a few inconsistencies (but still mostly believable) to a world of seemingly utter nonsense. If taken at face value, this scene raises more questions than I can count, and the only conclusion I can draw is that it was meant to. For example?
- Why does the AI look like the child from my dreams when I’m the only one who knows what the damn kid looks like?
- Why am I shooting this tube?
- Who designed this crazy thing?
- Why didn’t they just make a big red threatening button and put a sign over it that tells me, “please don’t touch that?”
- No, really, WHY AM I SHOOTING THIS TUBE?
- Why can’t I argue?
- Why do two of the options presented – the ones this child claims are optimal – sound so incredibly STUPID?
- Why are we suddenly pretending that controlling the reapers is a paragon action when I’ve always paragon argued against it?
- What the HELL, space magic?!?!!?1!?!ELEVEN?1!?
And so on.
Mass Effect does not deal in “transcendent planes of existence,” – never has, probably never will, and if it was going to it damn well should have foreshadowed it somehow – so anything this illogical can only be a) completely real, poorly written, and therefore a giant waste of my time and money, or b) completely unreal, and a construct of Shepard’s mind.
It only makes sense if interpreted as a fundamentally unreal experience… and it only makes sense if you understand Indoctrination and are familiar with the two previous major villains of the series, Saren and the Illusive Man… One of whom you were reminded about when you watched him die, indoctrinated, not two minutes ago, and the other of whom you MAY have been reminded of at the same time when The Illusive Man shoots himself – just like Saren.
(Unless you’re like me and you just shot TIM yourself. And who can blame you?)
The AI offers you three paths, two of which it claims are better. Control and Synthesis. Control is advocated by The Illusive Man, Anderson (who has always been someone you trust and agree with) stands for Destruction… And Synthesis was advocated by Saren in the first game. Don’t believe me? Try this quote on for size:
I’m not doing this for myself. Don’t you see, Sovreign will succeed. It is inevitable. My way is the only way any of us will survive. I’m forging an alliance between us and the Reapers, between organics and machines, and in doing so, I will save more lives than have ever existed. But you would undo my work. You would doom our entire civilization to complete annihilation, and for that, you must die.
You, the player, are meant to remember this detail and question this. Shepard cannot. There is no other logical explanation for a reversal of this magnitude.
And lest we forget, I refer you back to Shepard’s dream. Siding with the child leads to her doom.
Proof? I can offer proof.
5. The music, and the final visual cue.
Sadly, these two last warnings do not appear until it is too late to change your mind. And had I not sought video of the two endings I didn’t choose, I might never have noticed them… and the first, I still might not have caught had it not been pointed out to me.
The first one is subtle. Right before making your choice, at the end of the pathway, right as the ending goes into full cut-scene mode (AAAARGH) the music changes. And right after the change, but before the soulful piano piece that now fills so many of us with rage and sadness… There is a brief musical cue. An interlude, if you will, separate from either track.
For Control and Synthesis, this cue is identical. It includes the distinctive sound of a reaper, and is dissonant and off-putting.
For Destroy, it is almost… Hopeful. Undeniably positive.
Listen for yourself at that point in all three paths and tell me I’m wrong. It’s there, and it’s deliberate, and it’s very obvious once you’ve heard it.
Music is never accidental in a big budget game, nor in a film. If that sound is there (and it is), it is there for a purpose. It is there for you, the player, to hear… even if you’re not consciously aware of it. It had to be written, uniquely for that moment. Especially for a cut-scene or a transition like that one.
The next point is a more common one. In the Control and Synthesis endings, Shepard’s eyes take on the appearance of Saren’s or The Illusive Man’s. The eyes of someone who’s been indoctrinated. And once again, we’re given a close-up to emphasize the detail. We see Shepard’s skin pulling back to reveal the same kind of metallic substance we saw on The Illusive Man’s face minutes ago. And then, we see Shepard seemingly die.
I remind you, close-ups tell the story. They highlight details the developers want you to notice.
In destruction, those visual cues do not appear. We see Shepard’s eyes are his own. We get a close-up, again, to hammer this point home. We see Shepard idiotically walking toward the exploding tube in a very purposeful manner, and then…
We get the same bullshit “visions of hope” in all three choices, assuming your EMS was high enough to not destroy the universe by mistake. And if your EMS is high enough, in the destroy ending… You get that ridiculous teaser of Shepard breathing in rubble that does NOT look like anything on the citadel. At all. Especially if (as some of the writers have evidently asserted) the citadel isn’t destroyed in any of the endings.
And several have pointed out that it’s possible to see EDI alive in the Red ending if she was in your final squad…
Shepard breathes that last breath only in the destroy ending… despite the child’s claims that it would kill you, as well, on the grounds that “even you are part synthetic.”
Explanation? Simple. The kid is lying. I mean, seriously. He’s trying to con us. Make the two endings he favors (Control, Synthesis) appear as “good” as possible by claiming that the consequences of the red ending will be dire. The Geth are incredibly sympathetic characters, and the little brat knows it. He lies to you to make you hesitate to do what you have ALWAYS known you had to do. It’s a hostage situation, and he thinks he can use the Geth as shields to protect the reapers from your wrath.
Simple fact: we have no more reason to accept his word on the consequences of our choice than we do to accept that his “solution” is better than ours, and everything about this scene is designed to make us question his statements. We, the players, have to take the step he tries to steer us away from… and yes, that includes illogically shooting the exploding glass tube.
So why won’t BioWare just admit that this is what they meant?
When asked about Indoctrination Theory, the panel at PAX refused to confirm or deny it. Jessica Merizan has also refused to refute it on the grounds of “liking literary analysis,” which honestly is probably true (and let’s not forget, she is a fan, like us, and may not have the information she’d need to officially confirm or deny it anyway. And as always, the disclaimer that her tweets represent her own opinion and should not be taken as “word of God/Dev” applies. Be nice to her. She’s cool. Seriously. Don’t make me send out the owlbears, because I will.)
But I think there may be another reason why they haven’t confirmed it – despite the plentiful and now apparent clues that it MUST be true, or something like it. Keeping in mind that this is only speculation on my part (I know, we hate that word…)
I’m glad you asked. The answer is actually pretty simple.
Because they can’t.
They literally cannot tell us that this is true without completely destroying the point.
Think about it. If the entire point was for us, the players, to come to this conclusion on our own and wrestle with the damn thing, telling us it’s true ruins the puzzle. And if the theory is true, that would go against the entire purpose of the exercise.
Of course, the problem with this defense is that even if it’s NOT true, they probably still wouldn’t tell us, because it’s too brilliant. But let’s assume, for the moment, that we’re dealing with skilled writers here, and that they actually have crafted something incredible, if VERY frustrating.
My chief frustration in all this is that I was told before buying the game that it would be the end of Shepard’s story, and that this is not an ending: it is merely the place the writers stopped writing. If all this is meant to indicate that the real ending to the story hasn’t happened yet, I want to see what happens NEXT.
But now… I’m getting the distinct impression that BioWare has changed their tune.
Repeatedly since the outcry began, we have glossed over the message of the StarGazer (mainly because we were so ANNOYED by him after that perceived clusterfish* of an ending and the call to purchase more DLC while we were still emotionally fragile. It takes a real quad to ask someone for money after you’ve just kicked them in theirs.)
*Thanks to htewing for coining that one.
That message: One more story.
Blog posts from BioWare in response to our outcry have even casually (between all the apparent PR approved doubletalk and perceived marginalization of our collective voices) suggested the possibility of both story DLC and full Mass Effect games to come, along with the quote, you haven’t seen the last of Commander Shepard.
What do we do now?
We wait. There is every possibility that the free ending DLC (The Extended Cut) will clear this issue up, or at least make the game more satisfying without having to constantly play detective. Not that I’m against playing detective, mind you, but it is getting to be a bit of a headache.
We wait. We hold the line. We keep holding out for what we really need (the REAL end to the story and the fate of our friends) and support BioWare’s staff as best we can.
For me, there can only be one option.
I am an Indoctrination Theorist: I have Seen The Ending Within The Ending, and I Want to See What Happens When Shepard Wakes Up. I have Faith in BioWare, in Commander Shepard, and in my Fellow Gamers. I Trust that BioWare will Resolve This Controversy Well and Effectively, and Address Our Concerns, and promise that When they do so I shall Sing their Praises (and probably purchase everything I can find with a Mass Effect Logo On It). Until I Am Vindicated, I Will Hold The Line.