Here is a spoiler free bit. Some of you have asked “Everyone says that the ending is bad, what do you think? Shall I still buy the game? Which installment shall I start first? One, two, or three?” I would say, don’t let what you read or hear dampen your journey. True, some are outraged by the ending. But there are also some who like it. You can form your opinion when the time comes. The beauty of an open ending is that you write your story. You complete the ending. It is back to the very root of role playing, the media of good old pen-and-paper.
You may jump directly into the third installment without playing the previous games. Provided that you have the patience to read the in-game codex, you may still get a decent understanding of the lore. Since you do not have a chance to form decisions in the last two installments, the game will decide for you. The first play through is likely to take you 20 to 60 hours to complete, with an option to have a second play through for a better experience and outcome. You won’t get to experience a full story this way. But if you have limited time and resource, getting a taste of the game is better than having none.
Some would suggest new players to start with the second installment (first-person-shoot lovers I reckon). Would you watch The Matrix starting from the second episode? If you have 80 to 200 hours to burn, I strongly recommend to start from the beginning.
I hope this answer some of your questions. Now, let’s talk about the controversial Mass Effect 3 ending, an ending that results in the game developer to expand this summer due to online feedback. There will be spoilers from this point onward. Be warned!
“I am Commander Shepard. 5 years I have traveled across the milky way in the name of humanity. Is this really the end?”
The Year is 2186
It is hard to imagine that in less than 200 years, humans would travel across the milky way, encountering alien races, and realizing that we are a rather primitive race. There are far more advanced races in the outer space that pay little attention to our humanity. That is until a dark force launches a galactic level attack to all organic life.
Initially, no one believes Reaper exists. It turns out to be a highly advanced machine race of synthetic-and-organic spaceships. The entire sentinel race lies dormant within the dark space for thousands of years. When it wakes up, the Reaper lays destruction to the entire galaxy by indoctrinating key organic leaders and collecting the organic life one-by-one for processing. The suitable ones are dissolved and incorporated into Reaper’s gestalt consciousness. Most are used as raw materials in building the Reaper troops. During this cycle of extinction, none will survive except a very few. After Reaper has done its job, it goes back to hibernation in dark space and waits patiently for the next cycle. The few that are left behind will yet again populate the galaxy. The cycle repeats.
The Reaper believes that in every cycle, there is a natural tendency to chaos. Organic life will create synthetic life and once synthetic life reaches a certain level of intelligence, they will rebel against their creators. Reaper’s job is to maintain this fragile balance by harvesting all the organic life at the end of each cycle leaving only a few for a reset. Does this sound like Zion in The Matrix? It sure does.
What creates the first Reaper? When the galaxy is left alone, will organic and synthetic life form become one? Is the Reaper trying to halt the evolution so that they will continue to be the most superior race in the galaxy? The lore does not explain this bit. I could only imagine.
Take Earth Back
Back to current year of 2186, the Reaper invades Earth. With 400 processing centers killing 1.86 million human beings a day, it will take a decade for the Reaper to complete the extinction protocol. The human resistance led by Anderson is not going to hold the Reaper for long. Commander Shepard, that is you, needs to rally the races from across the galaxy to save Earth. The problem is, why would other advanced races lend their support when their homelands are invaded by the Reaper? What makes Earth so special?
Because human has discovered the blueprint passed down by previous cycles to build the ultimate weapon of mass destruction – the Crucible. And we are building it. The construction of this weapon of mass destruction has soaked up all the knowledge and expertise, as well as resources contributed from all races (or from most depending on how well you play your political game). The Crucible has become the only hope galaxy has against the Reaper. All is well but there is a missing component – the Catalyst. Without it, the Crucible will not work. No one knows what the Catalyst is. It seems that all attempts in building the Crucible by the races from the previous cycles have failed.
The Human Politics
While Commander Shepard goes about getting other races on board, humanity is breaking up from within. The organization Cerberus led by Illusive Man believes that human have found a way to control Reaper. With Reaper by our side, humanity can rule the galaxy. Hence, instead of human working together, internally, we are fighting against each other. You may think that it sounds stupid. But our human history says otherwise.
Shepard does not think that controlling Reaper is a good idea. Because it is a power we do not understand.
The Citadel is a space station that has multiple functions. It is where the Council and the ambassadors resides. It is where a lone Reaper vanguard signals the invasion at the beginning of each cycle. And, it is also the Catalyst as discovered by Illusive Man. Needless to say, Citadel is an important asset to all life in the galaxy as well as to the Reaper. When Reaper learns that human has discovered the secret to complete the Crucible, they transport the entire Citadel to Earth for protection. Why Earth? I suppose it is where their majority of forces are at. And they have the knowledge that Earth will be where the final showdown takes place.
The Final Assault
After the Reaper knows the coalition’s intend to counter attack, the war is escalated. All the war assets Commander Shepard gathered throughout the milky way have made good with their promise and they launch an attack to the Reaper on Earth. Meanwhile, Admiral Hackett together with his feet is bringing the Crucible to be joined with the Citadel. The only problem is that Citadel’s defense system has made it closed up from within. In order for the Crucible to work against the Reaper, the best guess is that Citadel has to be functional. Someone needs to get into the Citadel to open it up.
Since Reaper has opened up a conduit (or a vertical beam of light shooting from Earth’s ground up to Citadel in the sky) to facilitate the transport of human specimen for processing, the coalition’s plan is to launch a ground attack so that Shepard and the coalition forces can get to the conduit and hence reach the Citadel. As expected, the conduit is heavily guarded by the Reaper.
The Little Boy
In the beginning of this installment, Shepard has found a little boy hiding in one of the buildings on Earth destroyed by the Reaper. For some strange reasons, Anderson who is with Shepard does not see the boy. Only Shepard can. The little boy refuses to go with Shepard and evades the building by himself.
Just before Shepard leaves Earth to rally the alien forces, Shepard sees the little boy getting into one of the transport ships. The ship does not make it and the little boy is killed in action.
Throughout this third installment, the little boy appears in Shepard’s dreams. At times, the dream ends with the little boy engulfed in fire. One time, the dream ends with both the little boy and Shepard engulfed in fire.
The Crash Landing
Back to the final assault, Shepard and the coalition have made a significant impact on the ground against the Reaper. It is just a matter of getting the coalition transported to the conduit when Shepard’s ship unfortunately crash landed near the beam of light. All of a sudden, the environment seems dreamy with Shepard and the coalition running to the conduit on foot, dodging fire power shooting from above.
After Shepard makes it to the conduit, Shepard is beamed into the heart of the Citadel. There are piles and piles of dead human bodies awaiting to be processed. The scene is unfamiliar and as Shepard enters the gigantic control room overlooking Earth, Anderson is already there.
And so is Illusive Man, who appears to have been indoctrinated by the Reaper.
Under the influence of the Reaper, Commander Shepard shoots Anderson, and then manages to convince Illusive Man that all that he has done is not for humanity, but for the Reaper. After such realization, Illusive Man shoots himself. Shepard reaches for the control panel and opens the Citadel up.
Is this the end?
Meet the Catalyst
Apparently not. Even when the Citadel is operational, nothing happens. Crucible, the weapon of mass destruction, is not doing what it is supposed to. What is missing?
As Shepard suffering from multiple combat wounds collapses onto the floor, Shepard is ascended to the top of the Citadel and a ghostly figure that resembles the little boy Shepard has met at the beginning of the installment appears. It turns out that this ghostly figure is the Catalyst. He designs a solution for the Reaper to carry out what needs to be done in each cycle: bring order to chaos. In the past millions of year, Shepard is the only organic life that makes it this far. So, according to this ghostly little boy, this warrants a new solution. Shepard has a decision to make.
Why then a human being gets to decide the fate of the galaxy? Why doesn’t the Catalyst stick to the plan of ascending the older races (i.e. killing) and hence allowing the newer races to flourish in the next cycle? Does the Catalyst believe that organic life has reached a stage whereby a final peace can be attained? Or does the Catalyst believe that it is possible to build another Reaper race if need to?
What is the Catalyst? Like the architect in The Matrix? What does the Catalyst get out of this?
A New Solution #1 – Destroy the Reaper
Shepard is given three options. One is to destroy the Reaper. It appears to be something Anderson would do. By choosing this option, not only the bad Reaper is destroyed, but also all other good synthetic life as well as major technology currently exists in the galaxy. The ghostly little boy a.k.a the Catalyst thinks that by choosing this option, chaos will return. Wouldn’t this go against all that the Catalyst has planned for?
Interestingly, whatever decision Shepard makes will lead to a destruction of all the Mass Relays in the milky way. Intergalactic travel will no longer be possible. I suppose from the Catalyst’s perspective, the sole purpose of the Mass Relays is to facilitate Reaper invasion. Perhaps, this also hints that the Catalyst has decided to put the old solution to rest for good?
Not only that, no matter what, Joker – the pilot of Shepard’s spaceship – will leave Shepard behind and evacuate Earth together with Shepard’s squad mates. A curious decision Joker has made. I suppose it is an unspoken piece of story that Shepard must have signaled Joker for the escape.
Imagine for a moment that you are Commander Shepard. You have no foresight what will happen, though you are presented with scenarios promised by an entity you did not know until now. Would you order your spaceship to evacuate, along with the coalition forces that are fighting the Reaper in space? There is no certainty that Earth will be saved (in fact, for some players, Earth will be destroyed). Why take unnecessary casualty? Evacuation, in this context, seems to make sense.
A New Solution #2 – Control the Reaper
This second solution seems like something Illusive Man would do. Shepard could choose to control the Reaper. But Shepard will die. My interpretation is that before Shepard perishes, Shepard can issue one final order to the Reaper. It could a retreat. Or it could be anything else. The ending never says. It is up to your imagination.
A New Solution #3 – Synthesis
Neither of the first two solutions seem ideal. A part of me believes (or made believe) that when the dust is settled, chaos will return. Reaper may in fact have a role to play in order to ensure the continuation of organic life. A third option is to synthesize the two by combining the DNA of the Reaper and the organic life. This becomes the pinnacle of evolution when we are part organic, part synthetic.
This is an attractive option because – again my interpretation – this could be the final test that says our universe is ready for synthesis. Through Shepard’s action, organic life has stopped fighting against each other. First time in the galactic history, all alien races stand united. This could well be the reason why the Catalyst is giving Shepard a free will to decide the fate of the universe. Reaper could be destroyed, but in doing so, chaos returns and a new Reaper will rise to bring order to the galaxy. Reaper could be controlled, but the cycle may return. Synthesis appears to stop the cycle and bring forth the ultimate peace.
There is a small price to pay. Shepard has to pour his or her energy into the conduit in order to initiate the process. In doing so, Shepard will cease to exist.
Option one appears to be the only option that Shepard may survive. But many have sacrifice their lives to get to this far. If this is it, wouldn’t it be selfish for Shepard to think of self perseverance at this final stage? Wouldn’t self sacrifice be a beautiful ending to such a long saga? An ultimate sacrifice as decided by the individual player and not by the game developer?
You get to choose to live or die. You get to decide on the fate of the universe. Before the final assault, while Commander Shepard is having a final word to the squad members, one has already hinted that the battle ahead will be both physical and mental. Even Shepard has prophesied that he or she may not join them for a retirement but rather seeing them from Heaven (OK, Mass Effect has no religion so it s not explicitly written as Heaven).
On the record, I chose option three.
I felt good after choosing option three. BioWare has mentioned that the journey of Commander Shepard ends in Mass Effect 3. It is the pinnacle of evolution and it is an option that has to be earned through the three games. Depending on your war assets, you may not have option three. You may not even have option two.
After a few hours savoring the victory that is five years in the waiting, suddenly, something hit me. Was I not supposed to kill the Reaper? That was my mission, was it not? To destroy the Reaper at all cost? What was I thinking? I did some research on the Internet and I have found this wondering video that explains a totally different interpretation: Indoctrination Theory.
Under this theory, it is said that since Commander Shepard has proven to be a force to reckon with, it is of Reaper’s priority to indoctrinate Shepard in doing its will. However, since Shepard’s will is exceptionally strong, this indoctrination process takes time. This explains the dreams and vision Shepard has experienced (codex on Reaper indoctrination can be found in here), as well as all the discrepancies in the ending sequence.
What if, from the moment Shepard crash landed near to the conduit to the final moment Shepard finalizes a decision, nothing is real? As in, it all happens inside Shepard’s head in this final stage of indoctrination? Are you as an individual player being deceived to do Reaper’s will?
If so, this could be a monumental milestone in our video gaming history. Millions of gamers are manipulated by the game developer to potentially choose an option to do Reaper’s will. Some of us have forgotten our mission and our identity dies in the process. This explains why option one is the only option whereby Shepard may potentially survive. This is evident by the final clip when we see Shepard gasps and wakes up inside a pile of debris. My interpretation is that after Shepard has fought off Reaper indoctrination will he or she wake up from the crash landing. The war still goes on. But it is likely that some may have already been beamed up into the Citadel and fired off the Crucible. It could well be Shepard who does the honor of firing. Either way, it does not matter. The battle is won when the last Reaper defense to the conduit is broken, be it as Shepard being indoctrinated or not.
The Legend Continues
Like some of the European movies, Mass Effect 3 has an open ending that is up to our interpretation. Regardless of the option chosen, there is a small video clip showing a grandfather telling the Shepard story to a little boy. Whether or not you buy the indoctrination theory, humanity continues for at least a couple of generations.
In my opinion, while the story of Shepard ends here, the Mass Effect universe may continue. We are introduced to some of the troops who broad the same transport ship and fight alongside with Shepard towards the end of this game. The war may not be over. For all we know, BioWare may create a new Mass Effect game from another character’s perspective. Or they may make Mass Effect a massively multiplayer online game in the future.
Even when the franchise ends right here right now, it is still one of the best sci-fi themed video games we have seen in recent times.
“Who is going to inherit this helmet?”