Mass Effect 3′s Ending as an Allegory for Hope
NOTE: This is an guest editorial piece by David Jensen. The comments and views expressed therein do not necessarily represent Project COE as a whole.
My initial reaction to the ending of Mass Effect 3 (ME3) can be summed up as: “WTF just happened?” I’m confident I wasn’t the only one to experience this, based on all the recent uproar about the endings. The Mass Effect (ME) trilogy has been pegged as gaming’s first true epic and regardless of your opinion of the endings to the recently released ME3, you have to admit playing all three installments have been quite an experience. But with such a thrilling ride provided along the way, how do the endings hold up as a finale to a great series? Many fans have criticized the endings for many reasons, but the main one seems to be the lack of choice, both in the number of available endings and in the impact previous choices have on the endings. I think the endings do a phenomenal job of wrapping up the series and here I’ll explain just why I’m satisfied with the conclusion to ME3.
So what did actually happen in the ending? Overall, I think the indoctrination theory provides a fascinating option. I have heard other theories, but the indoctrination theory seems the most complete. I highly recommend the following video. At 20 minutes it’s a bit lengthy, but it does a phenomenal job of elucidating the indoctrination theory quite thoroughly. Please note that the video was not created by me, but by another fan.
The indoctrination theory, in summary, proposes that the final sequence of the game (from the point when Shepard makes the final charge towards Harbinger and the ascension beam to the Citadel) occurs within Shepard’s mind, showing the inner conflict (s)he faces as the reapers, who have been attempting to indoctrinate him/her since ME1, make a final attempt to subvert him/her against humanity. Choosing either the Synthesis or Control options allows the reapers to fully indoctrinate Shepard. By attempting to subvert the reapers or merge with them, Shepard is acknowledging the need for the reapers to exist in some way, shape, or form. By accepting their presence, Shepard has lost his/her steadfast commitment to defeating and destroying the reapers, and the reapers are able to take control of him. Only by choosing the Destroy option does Shepard remain free prevent his/her indoctrination by remaining defiant towards the reapers. At the end of the Destroy ending however, the ending does return to reality (well, reality in the game world anyway) to show Shepard taking a breath, indicating that he still lives (Synthesis and Control result in Shepard’s “death” in some form).
The final sequences were criticized for being too similar, but I think that view is too narrowly focused. The entirety of ME3 serves as the “ending” to the series, not just the final sequence. The Rachni are either eradicated, except as slaves to the Reapers, or they are given a second chance and begin re-integration into galactic society. Mordin can come to terms with his involvement in the creation of the genophage and the Krogan are given a future to rebuild, or are doomed to a slow extinction. Decades of conflict between the Quarians and the Geth conclude with brotherhood or genocide by your hand. The point is that throughout ME3, the player witnesses the culmination of their choices from the previous games and how it affects the galaxy. When the time comes to retake Earth, the galaxy is a different place due to Shepard’s choices. Characters, and entire species, rose and fell by your choice, and now those remaining stand with or against you against the final obstacle: the Reapers.
The Reapers represent an unstoppable force. The game states numerous times that the Reapers cannot be defeated by conventional means. The Crucible is an unknown weapon/device, but represents the only chance of defeating the Reapers. The Crucible, however, has been in development for countless cycles, handed down by the races of each cycle to the next. While each cycle, so far at least, has fallen, their will to fight the Reapers, the hope that the Reapers will eventually be defeated, has not faded.
Shepard represents that hope. At many points in the game it is stated that Shepard is seen as a hero, a savior, more than a mere man or soldier that is capable of feats no one else can accomplish. Even Shepard’s surname lends itself to this end, as Shepard is The Shepard that will lead the rest of the galaxy. Javik says it most poetically when he calls Shepard the “…avatar of this cycle, the exemplar of victory…for all life.” Shepard has become, to borrow a page from Batman Begins, a symbol, an undying embodiment of a virtue. What that virtue is, specifically, has been defined by Shepard’s actions up to this point. The decisions (s)he made define the person (s)he was, the virtues (s)he stood for, and the virtues that the rest of the galaxy will rally behind and live and die by. The final decision of Control, Synthesis, or Destruction, is merely the icing on the cake, so to speak. The last, defining moment where Shepard decides what he will stand for. This decision is not stand alone, and must be considered in conjunction with the rest of the decisions the player made through all three games. The combination of all these decisions represents what Shepard stood for. So, granted, in terms of imagery and cinematography, the three endings appear almost identical, but the underlying moral meaning behind each is quite different.
Many sci-fi works are highly allegorical, where the story serves to comment on current events, societal trends, or to convey a moral message. To facilitate this, many sci-fi’s stories have ambiguous endings, abrupt endings, or endings that generally leave things open or questions unanswered. By leaving the final sequence vague, the game allows you to read into it what you will, based on the image you have of your own personal Shepard. While the ending is not very clear-cut, it remains open so that it is applicable to each players’ individual conception of their own Shepard.
ME3 is a truly epic game. Epic both in scope (it’s basically the space-apocalypse) and in the emotional connection of the player to their Shepard ([s]he’s basically space-Jesus), the other characters and universe in general. That people are getting so upset about the endings is a testament to how much they care about these games. I am not saying that the endings should or shouldn’t be changed, that’s a separate argument. I simply think that the ending, as it is now, is noteworthy for the message it contained. While the endings don’t provide a definitive end to the conflict between the humans and the Reapers, it represents that the will to fight the Reapers, the hope that galactic life will one day overcome them, lives on.
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