Debate of the Day: Did We All Miss the True Mass Effect 3 Ending?


Uh oh.

The past few weeks, everyone on earth has been lamenting how truly atrocious the Mass Effect 3 ending was, but now new evidence is being produced that perhaps it was that opposite of bad. Maybe even…brilliant.

It’s called “The Indoctrination Theory” and it’s outlined in the lengthy (but worthwhile) video above. I’d heard whispers about it, that the entire last sequence was merely in Shepard’s mind and was a test of his resistance to the Reapers, but I thought it was desperate fans grasping at straws.

But then I watched the video, and I  have to say, I was convinced about a third of the way through. Why? (obvious spoilers ahead) There are just so many little details that point to the theory being a reality. The visions of the child, which make little sense outside of this explanation. The fact that you shoot Anderson in the same place where you later have a wound. The fact that two of the choices you face, Control and Synthesis were those extolled by the indoctrinated Illusive Man and Saren respectively. The fact that only in the destroy ending do your eyes remain un-blued, the catalyst disappears and Shepard stirs in rubble back on earth.

And finally, it’s the fact that Bioware has created a brilliant story this entire time, and it’s completely out of character to make an ending that was that poor. If this theory is true, it turns out they were smarter than anyone gave them credit for (though what happens after your decision still makes little sense, even with this theory). True or not, Bioware can now run with this idea and if need be, pretend it was their intention all along even if it wasn’t. There’s enough evidence there where fans would believe them if they really did pull the “it was all a dream” card.

Sadly, I fear this all may be a plot just to sell more DLC, and if true, it’s a terrible creative decision to keep this reveal under wraps. I further discuss my own thoughts on the topic at length here, but right now, I want to hear from you. After watching this video, do you believe the indoctrination theory to be true? Why or why not, and how does this effect what happens next for the series?

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  1. I’m about 95% sure this is how the ending was supposed to be taken. If the indoctrination theory is wrong, then I’m not sure what to make of the final product. It’s so awful that it lowers the overall perception of the narrative ceiling of video games for all of the industry’s harshest critics. If it’s not wrong, it’s the most brilliant ending in the industry’s history, but it’s still woefully incomplete. Any DLC released to provide the actual ending should be completely free.

  2. Yeah made a comment about it another one of your ME3 posts. I’m firmly sticking to the theory that it won’t be DLC to address this (but there will be other mid-game impacting DLC), but Mass Effect 4. I don’t remember them ever saying this was the final game, only that we were taking back Earth. Kinda similar to how in Halo 3 you could only save Master Chief in one sequence. You can end ME2 with Shepard dying. No reason the other versions of the game ending are just failures. And waking up in the pile of rubble ==> Mass Effect 4.

  3. I want to believe the indoctronation theory because it does make sense to an otherwise nonsense ending(see what i did there). The problem that I have with it (as you pointed out above) is that if it was their intention all along to make a “true” ending DLC from the beginnning, then Bioware is going to lose a considerable amount of popularity and respect from fans. I know I am one of them.

    The theory does make sense. It continues to make sense the more you think about it. Best example for me is why is the “Perfect” ending the only one that has Shepard live? My money is on either this theory or Bioware just…well…..fucked up at the end.

  4. Agreed. The whole dream sequence thing was very Blade Runner in that regard and when the Reaper AI took that form it was hard not to think that the Reapers had been in Shepard’s mind. Bioware has just announced that they will indeed be putting out DLC to flesh out the ending. All I’m saying is it that as a gesture of goodwill to the fans it had better be free after all of this outrage over the ending. How bad of a precedent would it be to make gamers pay to see the true ending of an RPG series?

  5. I’d found a forum that discussed this very ending (and watched this exact video last night), and the video pointed out some things I didn’t realize the first time around (Reaper growling after the first encounter with the kid). I believe this is true, and will stick to it until it’s completely proven wrong. It just makes so much sense when put into perspective.

    I started replaying from ME1 again and am noticing all kinds of random fore-shadowing, including a sorta backwards view by that credit-funneling AI on the Citadel in ME1, about how all organics must enslave or destroy synthetic life.

  6. I keep going back and forth on this one. I really, really want to believe it because all the small details fit so perfectly. If it’s what Bioware intended then it is rather brilliant and does something I haven’t seen another game do – the player really does become the character and is tested outside of the game. That said, I think they’ve tripped on the execution, because even if this theory is true it means they still have a convoluted ending and a pissed off fanbase. I think they may have gotten so wrapped up in their own creation that they couldn’t step back, realize it was executed poorly, and honestly thought it was good. Regardless of whether the theory is true or if they actually intended the game to end this way, I think they got completely blindsided by the reaction and are now scrambling.
    I guess we’ll see in April?

  7. If this was their true intention they still could have had some more scences after showing the effect the choice you made had on the galaxy. Otherwise each choice only changes the emplosion color. Not showing the effect your final chioce made is where they really dropped the ball.

  8. This makes so much sense to me. I noticed how goddamn weird the ending was from the final assault on the citadel onward but considering how pissed off I was by the end, I just chalked it up to Bioware screwing the pooch. Should have given them more credit. Though it would have helped if it hadn’t been so hard (stupid ass galactic readiness) to get the “best” ending with Shepard breathing. I like this quite a bit, though. Happy to say that I successfully rejected Reaper indoctrination.

  9. I firmly believe this is what Bioware intended form the beginning, but my biggest fear is that they’ll scrap an ending based on this theory for something a little more simple to appeal to the angry masses. That would really, REALLY suck…

  10. Okay so here is what I don’t get: Shep is assaulting, the big red laser hits him, he retreats into his own mind and the game portion ends. For the sake of argument this happens instantaneously.

    All that shit that went down in the end is in Shep’s own mind. If awake in rubble is the ‘true’ ending, and Shep is Shep again, isn’t there still a giant effing battle of Reapers slaughtering Earthlings? I mean, huzzah, they didn’t get Shep! … buuut they’re still coming. That red laser is still firing, and most everyone is ash.

    Unless the DLC is you wake up and Shep is ‘space magic synthetic’ and just goes slaughterhouse on all the humans or you wake up as you were and finish the fight against the Reapers, I’m still pissed and disappointed.

    (or maybe someone else won the battle while Shep was in his own head? I mean, wtf, this still blows. It’s wicked cool, but it still blows)

  11. There’s just one big problem with this.

    The ‘destroy’ ending that the theory says is the solution to escape indoctrination – the Boy specifically says that it will destroy the Geth too (and, the ending implies, EDI).

    You could argue that this is the Reapers mechanism to ensure Shepherd doesn’t choose that option (it’s red, it involves destruction, it involves killing the Geth after 2 games of convincing us they have a valid right to exist) – BUT the Geth thing is still brought up if you did a renegade run where you helped the Quarians destroy the Geth.

    Why would Harbinger raise the destruction of the remaining Geth question to a renegade Shepherd?

  12. @NY not NYC: The only way to get the best possible ending is if you have an effective military rating of over 5000. To me that kind of implies that your military forces were strong enough to protect Shepard while he was unconscious.

    @Jon: If that happened in your game, I’m pretty sure it was a glitch. While I saved the Geth in my game and got that warning, my wife’s playthrough was completely different. She sacrificed the Geth and there wasn’t a word said about them at the end of the game at all.

  13. *If you haven’t played the first two games, massive spoilers here*

    While I’m not the biggest fan of sequences taking place in characters’ heads, this is a rather interesting point of view, and not completely out of the blue, considering at least one npc found it surprising that Shepherd was still sane after interacting with a broken beacon. For all we know, the Reapers could have been applying an extremely subtle form of indoctrination through Shepherd’s interactions with Saren, the Collectors (who were implanted with Reaper tech), and the artifact encountered in Arrival.

    *End spoilers*

    The possibility of an amended ending is also interesting, because it speaks to the fluid medium of video games, as opposed to the static nature of most other forms of art. I think the best example of this is Fallout 3’s DLC, Broken Steel. I had enjoyed the game as it was before the ending had been changed, but this was the first game I played where I was allowed to continue to interact with the world I had just saved (or doomed, but I like playing as a hero). When combined with the incredible modding community Bethesda PC games have, this allowed me to enjoy a game more than I had thought possible.

  14. Addressing the arguments at the end of the video:

    1) What is the meaning of the dreams? Shepard’s grief and guilt represented by the ghost of the boy, a sign of his strained mind and the haunting of despai threatening to engulf him. There are options during the game to show Shepard’s getting overcome by the weight of his responsability.

    2) Why does nobody notice the boy? It can’t be proved completely. Just because people don’t say “hey, there’s a boy here!” doesn’t mean he’s an illusion in Shepard’s mind. Anderson might simply not have heard Shepard talking to the boy, there was only a dozen Reapers screaming and exploding the whole city, no big distraction. And in the transport, maybe the soldiers had more important things to do than help a boy
    (that managed to get on in the end), like shooting incoming hostiles trying to kill them. Even if the boy IS an illusion, it may still only represent Shepard’s failing willpower, not necessarily indoctrination.

    3) Why would Shepard be immune to indoctrination? Maybe he isn’t. He did in fact come in close contact with indoctrinating artifacts multiple times. As was pointed by Liara, Shep’s got a remarkably strong will – stronger than Saren’s, for example, and perhaps strong enough to resist indoctrination. If the ghost boy is a sign of his failing will, it still doesn’t necessarily mean he gave in.

    4) Why does Harbinger take a special interest in Shepard? Because he’s the main antagonist to Reapers. He’s the one who tried to warn all organic species against the Reaper threat and the one they turned to when the Reapers attacked. He defeated the Reaper’s main agent (Saren), his ex-Prothean servants and sent Harbinger running. I guess that’s enough to earn someone’s attention.

    5) Why are there trees from the dream around the beam? They are there before Shep gets hit by the laser (around 6:50, right side of the screen, you can see at least one tree). And last I heard, there are trees outside dreams. Maybe it was a park, a garden before the Reapers attacked, whatever… it wouldn’t be so incredible that some burnt trees remained. Why do they look exactly like the ones in the dream? First, you can’t say that. Second, because the modelers probably saw little sense in making two different models of trees for the dream and the final battle.

    6) Why does you sidearm have infinite ammo? Imagine you’re about to do the interrupt where you shoot the Illusive Man to save Anderson. Alas, you’re out of ammo. Sorry, Anderson, should have spared a couple clips. Then you ragequit the game and throw your monitor through the window. To avoid such thing happening, infinite ammo. I didn’t even carry a pistol in my Shep at the final battle. Another sign of indoctrination? Nope, how many cutscenes have Shep holding a pistol even if you didn’t equip one (or using the lame standard rifle when you were equipped with the badass Mattock)?

    7) Why is the beam directly leading to the panel that opens Citadel’s arms? For the same reason you don’t have to walk Shep to a bathroom to take a dump every few hours. If you were teleported to the far end of the Citadel’s arms and had to WALK the whole distance to the panel in that condition… well, the game would be a lot longer and lamer.

    8) Why are corpses everywhere on the Citadel, just like on the
    collectors ship? They’re not everywhere, not in the panel platform at least. If I remember correctly Anderson or Hackett says they are using the beam to transport stuff from the surface to the Citadel. Like dead humans to make another Human Reaper. They surely weren’t harvesting Earth to make oatmeal.

    9) How did Anderson enter the beam before Shepard? Anderson was part of the attack on the beam, it could well be he reached it before Shepard got hit, before the Reapers laser-roasted everyone there (which would explain why he isn’t as fucked up as Shep).

    10) Why was Anderson teleported to another location and how did he arrive at the panel first? He could have been teleported closer to the panel, in the same room as Shepard, and got there first simply because he was 50 meters ahead. There’s little delay between Anderson telling Shep he got there and Shep reaching the same spot.

    11) How did Hackett know that Shepard made it to the Citadel after the entire force was decimated? Shepard’s radio was still functional (as resilient as the new iPad it seems), at least enough to speak short distances with Anderson. And Anderson wasn’t so beaten up, so his radio might be in perfect conditions, enough to reach Hackett and tell him “I’m here, Shep’s coming right behind me”.

    12) Why is Shep bleeding at the same spot Anderson was shot? I guess Shep was bleeding ALL OVER. Maybe the blood pooled there when he sat beside Anderson.

    13) How come the Normandy escapes with Shepard’s last two squadmates? Joker’s the best pilot in the Alliance 😉 As for the last two squadmates, maybe Bioware put them there to give some emotional reward to the player: someone you cared about survived! I suppose these squadmates vary depending on a range of factors, but they’ll never be the ones you brought along for the final attack.

    14) Wouldn’t the explosion of Mass Relays cause super novas like in THE ARRIVAL? Good point. Maybe when the relays do their magic (like destroying/controlling sinthetic or merging them with organics) they use all their power source and don’t explode so fiercely. If I remember correctly Shep destroy’s the Relay in THE ARRIVAL by throwing an asteroid at it. That could make all the difference.

    15) Why can’t Shepard kill the Keepers or Anderson? For the same practical reasons you have unlimited ammo. What the hell would you kill Keepers for while the galaxy’s last hope stands a few meters from you. And why the hell would you kill Anderson at this point? If you did it could create an awkward situation for the dev team (ok, so we lost 1/3 of the characters for the final confrotation, what now?) Or maybe they’re like kids in Skyrim and protected by a NGO.

    16) What is the growl that Shepard hears on the Citadel? His stomach? A fart? Or maybe a Reaper growling like they do. But he’s in space, you no one can hear you scream in space. Nor can you hear spaceships blowing up, but you hear it all the same at the beginning of the battle. Maybe it’s just part of the music playing in the background (in the track ‘Leaving Earth’ you can hear sound similar to Reaper’s growls).

  15. @HarshReality79: I remember reading in an interview Bioware’s CEO or ME3 director saying this was the last Mass Effect game with Shepard. I don’t feel like chasing down the source though.

    @Dustin: I read somewhere in the ME wiki you DON’T need to play the multiplayer to get the best ending. You just have to gather enought war assets in single player. MP and its galaxy readyness is just another way for player who would rather kill enemies than scan whole systems for a freaking cruiser.

    @NY not NYC: Maybe the whole thing happening in Shep’s mind doesn’t mean he just lay there during it. Maybe it only begins when you reach the Citadel. Afterwards you see Shep’s still breathing body amidst the fallen debris of the Citadel.

  16. I just wanted to add a small bit of “evidence” for the indoctrination theory. I know you’ve mentioned that it would be out of character for Bioware if this ending was simply bad writing, but if you really followed Bioware through their history you’d realize just how out-of-character it really is. As Yahtzee said in his review for Mass Effect 2: (Paraphrasing) “Of course the writings good, but Bioware doesn’t get points for that anymore. Birds fly, fish swim, and Bioware games have good writing.” I’ve been a Bioware fan for some time and I can’t remember a single instance of bad writing in any game created by them. They even created the game that has arguably the best story in any RPG ever: Baldur’s Gate 2. It would be extremely hard for me to believe that this is simply bad writing from Bioware. If it is, I have to believe this is EA’s doing…

    You should also watch It gives even more evidence for the indoctrination theory, including from Bioware themselves.

  17. A lot of us, myself included, are kicking ourselves for “missing it” when after reading about the slow-indoctrination stuff makes it all seem so simple. Here’s the thing. Is it really a success or virtue to make your storytelling gambit so subtle that 90% of your audience misses it?

    *sigh* Frustrating. Had this been a complete game, I would be shouting from my yard about how amazing the reveal was.

  18. @Aloke: “…but they’ll never be the ones you brought along for the final attack.”

    Negative: I had Liara and Garrus with me for pretty much the whole game after getting them,t o include the last mission and final attack. The folks that got off the Normandy on “Cyber Endor” were Joker, EDI, and Liara.

    My wife brought the same two, and Joker, the comms specialist, and Garrus were the ones that came off (different decision, you can probably figure out both by who i listed).

  19. Side appart… I’m a little disappointed by the history in the ME3 because looks like matrix revolution… the fight in Matrix are always repeated by humans and the machines > in mass effect, it’s a perpetual fight by biotic against symbiotic! In matrix the war is a cycle that was ender by the sacrifice of Neo -> in ME3 Shepard ended if chooses symbiotic etc… What you think of this perspective?
    Another thing, when i played ME1, its a pure RPG, with basic elements of third person shooter… In ME2 they focused in third person shooter and they put the RPG apart.. In ME3 they merge the two games… Clever move from Bioware… Given the idea of evolution of game…
    For me this game looks a epilogue of they started in Star Wars KOTOR. The system of paragorn/renegade is like the light/dark side in KOTOR… Non linear history… In KOTOR I played the best video game’s histories!!! The KOTOR I have the best twist in history of video game!! The KOTOR II they explore in depth the Star War’s force origin’s… WONDERFULLl!!! Game’s that put in shame the last movies of SW series!!!
    I look the Mass Effect like a KOTOR with a refined gameplay…

  20. @Aloke

    Ten-4 good buddy! A whole lot of that mess is answered with “because it’s a g-damned video game and it would make no sense otherwise”.

    Regardless, I don’t like the fact that Shepard, the most badass of badasses, was rendered unconscious for the final battle. That’s dumb.

    Sidenote: can you start ME3 with dead-Shep from ME2 and still get the ‘good’ ending?

  21. @Steve, you’re right. I took Liara and Tali with for the final attack and in some of the endings Tali appeared with EDI (Synthesis) or Javik (the other 2). I don’t know how this works, probably something intrincate like the suicide mission in ME2. But it doesn’t make sense that the squadmates who accompanied you to the final attack are safe and well aboard the Normandy. First, because they should have been incinerated when the Reaper laser hits you. Second, because everybody was in the area (you get the chance to say your farewells before the final push) and the Normandy is taking part in the battle above Earth. Even Joker wouldn’t be able to go back to surface, locate your squadmates and get out of the system before the mass relay explodes.

    At first I was convinced by this theory, but now I think it’s just wishful thinking.

    @Kyle, I love Bioware games too (even Dragon Age 2 which everyone hated – I found much more enjoyable to play than Origins). I even liked the endings, but I agree they were poorly executed. It’s Deus Ex HR all over again, just hit a button. They could at least have tied the options to what you did during the trilogy. If you were an anti-robot Shep (not reactivating Legion, destroying the Geth, ensuring EDI stayed computer-like) you shouldn’t be able to pick the Synthesis ending, for example. And for Christ’s sake you made 3 goddamn games how much work was creating 3 different cutscenes – that was shamelessly lazy. BUT MY POINT IS Bioware can fail, yes, even them. Lately they’ve been dropping the ball, ever since they were bought by EA. Their works don’t feel so handicraft anymore, they’re more commercial. DA2 dumbed down the franchise to some (I don’t agree), but I bet it was EA’s decision to do that. Or to make From Ashes a separate DLC. Even Old Republic which got me hyped for months was a disappointment when I played it.

  22. This is amazing. I was puzzled by the ending, reminded me of the Matrix 3. But i wasn’t angry with Bioware. I simply didn’t understand it.

    But now with this Indoctrination explanation it was starting to make sense. And I have done some more research and now I know for sure. The ending is great!

    I am currently doing a second run now to check if my assumptions are correct. But if they are you can play a single player campaign and no multiplayer and you can get the following outcome:

    Shepard lives
    Citadel and Mass relays intact
    Geth and Edi live
    Fate squadmates and friends unknown
    Earth survives
    Reapers survive

    ME4 starts with Shepard in a pile of rubble on earth. He survived a final indoctrination attempt by the reapers. But he still has to deal with the remaining reaper force on Earth and the rest of the galaxy.

    If all of this is true. I think Bioware made an extraordinary ending. I am enjoying my second run with these new insights and I can’t wait for ME4. It is the biggest cliffhanger in game history. I hope Bioware stays true to this ending and doesn’t change anything. I don’t need a DLC on the ending and I don’t think they made this ending with a dlc in mind.

  23. Am I the only one that thinks the new dlc could be the greatest thing ever? What if this theory is right and for the people that picked the indoctrination decisions Shepard is now the bad guy in the dlc? You got to control joker for a little bit in me2, why not let you control Anderson or hacket having to kill Shepard?

  24. Well, the indoctrination theory is plausible and compelling – however, as much as I would like to believe, this is true, I have doubts and feel that the simple explanation might just be that Bioware (under the indoctrination of EA *harhar*) has simply failed to deliver.

  25. Nice discussion – I Appreciate the specifics , Does anyone know where my business might be able to get ahold of a sample a form version to use ?

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