When I finished Mass Effect 3 for the first time, I felt sad. Shephard had sacrified herself for the greater good and although I got the ‘win’ ending where she’s apparently survived, she’s still somewhere in a far-flung corner of the universe with no clear way back to her loved ones, and her decision has resulted in the destruction of EDI and all the Geth, who in my playthrough were loyal allies. What I didn’t feel for one second was cheated. It never occurred to me that I was somehow entitled to a different ending. I replayed and tried the alternative of controlling the Reaper forces and decided that although that meant EDI and the Geth survived, I liked it even less, as it was still ambiguous to me as to whether Shephard had truly reached that decision herself or if, like Saren and the Illusive Man before her, had merely been indoctrinated.
The fan rage was really interesting to me, and I think I’ll save that for a later post. For now I just want to examine the ending(s) in a little more detail and consider their impact on the story as a whole and the effect of interactive elements on the ending.
One of the more positive, constructive fan responses to the ending was the Indoctrination Theory. Its basic premise is that much of the ending was part of a reaper-induced hallucination, or at the very least, that Shephard’s mental state during this sequence could not be trusted. It gained some traction with fans and I noted on my full replay of the trilogy that although Shephard didn’t show the physical indicators of indoctrination (glowing blue irises and darkened complexion around the eyes) prior to specific ending choices, we saw with both the Illusive Man and Saren that these external manifestations took time to develop. The fact she sits in the Illusive Man’s chair following his defeat could also be symbolic of her taking on his mantle – assuming she’s operating in humanity’s best interests when really she’s being manipulated by Reaper forces.
Another replay observation was the ambiguity of dialogue that previously seemed (or didn’t seem) incredibly emotive. Killing Kai Leng was imbued with far greater significance following romancing Thane Krios in ME2 (Leng kills Thane earlier in ME3) Similarly much of the conversation between Shephard and her absent friends close to the game’s climax is carefully pitched to allow interpretation as either invigorating leadership pep talk or romantic declaration of love. As an example, she says to Miranda: “You have to believe, we’re not done yet.” The “we” in this statement could refer to the Normandy’s team as a whole, or Miranda and Shepherd as a couple. “…not done yet” could refer to the team’s mission, or the couple’s romance. So, depending on the player’s previous interactions with Miranda, they can interpret this as a request for Miranda to believe in the mission, or her future with Shepard. The game doesn’t need or attempt to record or access the player’s previous interactions, instead allowing them to do all the narrative heavy-lifting through their interpretation.
These two types of ambiguity (of Shephard’s ultimate fate and of character interactions) could position ME3’s ending as somewhat subversive, at least by videogame standards. There’s an assumption amongst many fans that games will always have a ‘correct’ ending – a win state and a fail state, or shades in between, or at least an ending that leaves no room for interpretation. Ambiguity and downbeat endings are not readily attempted in games in the way they are in film or literature, possibly because of the potential for players to believe they’ve somehow ‘missed something’. Even examples where an event is unambiguous but negative and outside of the player’s control can lead to confusion and repeated replays in an effort to change the outcome, for example attempting to save Aeris in FF7, or John Marston in Red Dead Redemption. While critical responses to Heavy Rain were mixed, the downbeat endings were rarely a point of contention, possibly because they matched the depressive tone of the game as a whole, and could be alieviated if the ‘correct’ choices were made.
ME3’s ending subverts ludic expectations in other ways too. There is no ‘final boss’. All the big enemies are defeated relatively early on in the ‘final act’, with Kai Leng, a Reaper, the Illusive Man and multiple waves of high-level enemies all giving way to a much slower paced, combat-lite ending. After the final lower-level enemies have been defeated prior to Shephard boarding the Crucible, there is no further fighting to be done leaving the ending to be decided purely via conversational choices.
The Catalyst, ostensibly existing to reward the player with answers regarding the Reapers, in reality has little to offer. Without the Leviathan DLC there’s no explanation of who created the Catalyst and regardless of the player’s DLC packs, there’s no explanation of who designed the Crucible and the Catalyst remains cagey about who will survive in the event of opting to destroy the mass relays. Forcing the player to make a choice without having all the information at their disposal (even when all win conditions have been met) is another device rarely used in mainstream games.
The possible endings (assuming the player has achieved all necessary criteria) are as follows:
In what I’ll call “The Ultimate Renegade Ending” Shephard refuses to engage with the Catalyst and will not decide the fate of the galaxy. In response, the Reapers destroy the Normandy and we see a recording left by Liara to explain that the resistance failed but the Crucible is bequeathed to future generations. A final epilogue serves to speak of future victory thanks to this recording, paying lip service to the player that their efforts were not entirely in vain. This ending could be equally argued as fitting or unfair depending on perspective. It could be considered fitting that a game that places importance on decisions throughout should punish players for indecision, or unfair that withholding choice is not perceived as a valid choice.
Next is the Paragon ending. Coloured red (the colour usually associated with Renegade options throughout the trilogy, further pointing towards IT as a valid theory) this option results in the destruction of the Mass Relays and ‘death’ of all AI species but (assuming necessary conditions are met) Shephard’s survival. Many players have therefore interpreted this as the ‘correct’ or ‘best’ ending as preserving the player-character is seen as the ultimate goal, although its relationship with some of the game’s core themes (respect for AIs and preservation of species at all costs) was seen as contradictory.
There’s the Renegade ending (this is coloured blue, again inverting the expected colour coding) in which Shephard sacrifices herself by merging her consciousness with the Reapers and taking control of them. This results in survival of everyone except Shephard, who ceases to exist as herself, instead becoming a Reaper. This fits with the concept of Shephard as the selfless hero making the ultimate sacrifice, but the possibility of indoctrination raised concerns for many players that this was not the ‘right’ choice either.
Finally, there’s the Synthesis ending. This is coloured green, a colour previously associated with (often malicious) AIs. Here Shephard uses the Crucible’s power on herself rather than the Reapers, dispersing her consciousness through the universe and giving every living thing (including AIs) an ‘upgrade’ allowing them to transcend their individual species and live out a harmonious existence as one race. Many felt this was somehow thematically inconsistent with the prior installments of the trilogy, but for me, this is the best ending. Shephard’s mentor dies here, and depending on player choices, her lover may have also perished. It’s fitting at this point that she should choose the fate of the galaxy over her own. EDI, frequently presented as a character who has literally overcome her programming to be both her own person and ‘good’ narrates this ending, making Reaper indoctrination unlikely (unless this entire happy-ending scenario is a hallucination presented to Shephard by the Catalyst, which seems far-fetched). The Geth are finally rewarded for all the hardships they’ve faced, as is Joker. I’ll take this one, thank you!