by Kyle B. Stiff
I know I’m a bit late, but I finally beat Mass Effect 3. I’ve already run the full emotional gauntlet that swings between “I beat the reapers, what a feeling!” and “How did the mass relays explode without annihilating all life, and why am I watching a scene in which Joker is running away like a goddamn gutless coward?”
Mass Effect 3 was an intense and deeply moving motherfucker of an experience, but it has some problems. So the reapers placed a teleportation beam in the middle of a heavily-contested battleground, and that beam led directly to the heart of the very thing the reapers were trying to defend, and only one reaper bothered to defend it and immediately left without scanning for signs of life… so that’s one problem. Another is that years ago the BioWare team stated that they weren’t going to have a “which door do you choose?” ending, then they did.
Like a lot of fans, I got my ass online to see if some dangling notions had been cleaned up by anyone. Amidst a firestorm of butthurt rage, I found Indoctrination Theory.
Indoctrination Theory is freaking beautiful. If you know nothing about it, watch these.
A thousand flamewars have already been fought concerning Indoctrination Theory and the end of ME3. A lot of the argument around Indoctrination Theory centers on whether it’s “true”. By true, they mean whether or not the writers intended it to be the canon ending during some sort of big reveal that will come later. I don’t think any of that matters. For one thing, I love Mass Effect, but the writers aren’t geniuses. Pick up one of the Mass Effect books or comics if you don’t believe me. Indoctrination Theory, on the other hand, is a genius ending. It turns a story about “which army can hit the other army the hardest?” into something heart-breaking and unbelievably beautiful: One soldier that everyone has pinned their hopes on is targeted by ancient monsters, and while his broken body lies in a pile of rubble he has to fight for his mind, no, for his freaking soul, in the aftermath of the galaxy’s last final push against an invader that cannot be defeated. Using precise tools of logic and all that shit, you can’t really beat Indoctrination Theory; it’s air-tight compared to the canon endings. But it’s so dark that a lot of people who rail against the theory do so most likely because of purely emotional reasons. We want to see the good guy win. We don’t want to think that he wasted time gathering forces and giving speeches to fight a war that can’t be won…
… despite the fact that it makes for an amazing ending that the player will never, ever forget.
One charge I’ve heard against players who didn’t enjoy the ending is that it was too “artsy” for them; the insinuation is that most Mass Effect players wanted a jarhead-friendly ending. This is most definitely not true. I have a healthy streak of what a lot of people would call pretension (two of my favorite games are Shadow of the Colossus and Katamari Damacy). I loved the verbal showdown with the Illusive Man. If the developers had gone with their original idea of having a final boss fight against a cybernetically-monstrified version of the Illusive Man, it would have been ridonkulous and cliché beyond belief. So I applaud the developers for that. But the endings, as they are, are not “artsy”. In fact, they’re a little bit on the Hollywood side: A final Thing is triggered, rays of light spread in a CGI shockwave, and the bad guys are ousted with a swell of inspirational music. That’s not artsy, you guys.
Still another charge is that fans are butthurt only because they can’t deal with the emotions that bubble up when a beloved series ends. Before I finished ME3, this is pretty much what I thought was happening. I mean, how could the guys who wrote Saren’s suicide, the fall of Sovereign, and the amazing suicidal battle against the Collectors possibly mess up the ending? After finishing ME3, I can see that the fans are not butthurt over nothing. Nobody got mad when Frodo leaped ass-first onto a boat at the Grey Havens or when Darth Vader threw Palpatine into a futuristic wood-chipper. Even the most emotionally convoluted and fragile nerds where able to find peace when those beloved series ended – they just needed skillfully crafted closure.
But maybe I’m just fucking around. There’s no sense in harping on problems with the non-IT endings that others have already brought up. I’ll leave that to other websites far less exciting than this one.
One thing I will mention, and which I haven’t heard elsewhere, is that the endings of ME3 effectively quarantined the future of the Mass Effect series. The second game had to branch slightly in terms of the first game’s ending choice: Do you save the Council or let them die? This makes for extra work from the development team, but it’s nothing insurmountable. But how in the world can a game ever be created that takes place after the events of ME3 that takes into account that the player has changed the very nature of the galaxy? How can a future installment work within the parameters of 1) a galaxy in which all life is networked, cooperative, and has glowing green eyes, or 2) a galaxy that is defended by powerful sentient robots controlled by a dead hero, or 3) a galaxy without reapers, and which would most likely be declared canon, but which would nullify the Synthesis and Control options chosen by a large number of players?
There’s the rub. I want to play a pre-reaper Mass Effect game about the League of One, or Saren’s friendship with Nihlus, or the Krogan Rebellion just as much as anyone, but if we ever want to see a Mass Effect game that takes place after the Reaper War (which would be the only direction to go if we wanted to see any really big surprises), then the writers at BioWare are going to have to grow a pair and canonize Indoctrination Theory. Otherwise, how strange will it be to play in an evolving series over the years but to always know that the game developers can never go beyond a certain date? (Not without canonizing one ending and undermining the others, at least.)
Thankfully, that’s also the reason why Indoctrination Theory can never be disproven by the series creators. What are they going to do, create a Mass Effect 4 that has the budget to take into account all three endings? That’s not going to happen. These writers are human. They’re not Entertainers like you’d read about in Demonworld who are willing to sacrifice their lives in the name of telling memorable stories; they’re just guys trying to get through life without too much trouble. They didn’t even have the end of ME3 pinned down while they were working on the freaking game. If I drew near the end of my Demonworld series and I didn’t have an ending for the tenth book, do you think that would work out? Hell no it wouldn’t! Fuuuuuck no, it most certainly wouldn’t work.
Alright, it might sound like I’m scorning the writers of Mass Effect. I’m not. They’ve done an insanely wonderful job. I’ll prove that I love these guys by defending something about ME3 that others have disliked. More than one reviewer has said that the writers took away a lot of the role-playing elements by having more linear dialogue. Occasionally Shepard says things without the player choosing to say them, unlike in the first two games. This is a pretty absurd accusation. The writers have already revolutionized video game role-playing by doing away with the good/evil dynamic, in which players were offered the choice between sounding like a boy scout or an immature psychopath. Back in the day, if an NPC offered you something, you could either say the equivalent of, “Thanks!” or “Fuck you, I’ll take that and everything else you’ve got!” Obviously an evil character is incapable of saving the galaxy, or anything at all, from any sort of threat. But with the paragon/renegade morality system, you get to choose between being Wyatt Earp or Jack Bauer from 24, Batman or the Punisher, Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks or Sawyer from Lost. They’re all heroes, but they go about it in different ways. This shit revolutionized the hell out of role-playing video games. But in ME3, there are some instances (not many) in which Shepard will speak without asking the player what she should say. Some butthurt players took this as BioWare jerking the reins out of their hands. But really, imagine that introductory scene where Anderson pulls Shepard out of lockdown and tells her that the galaxy is about to get bent over by the reapers. It’s a fast and dynamic scene with a lot of people running around and carryin’ on. Do we really need yet another opportunity for Shepard to choose between, “Thanks for giving me the skinny on the intel” and “Fuck you and fuck all the help you’ve given me, Anderson” ?
Of course not, dear readers, of course not!
If you’re still excited about the future of Mass Effect, I’ve got some goodies for you. If you’ve picked the Destroy, Control, or Synthesis ending, I’ve written some extremely short fan-fiction pieces (God help me) that show the inevitable outcomes of those endings.
DESTROY: The Crush: Shepard’s Last Mission
CONTROL: Big Goddamn Hero
SYNTHESIS: The Ghost
If you’re interested in an outline for a future Mass Effect game that takes into account the canonization of Indoctrination Theory and shows the true end of the war against the Reapers, then check out something I wrote called Mass Effect 4: Indoctrination Theory. Unlike Mass Effect 3, this game has only one ending. That ending can be colored many, many different ways through player choice, but the ending also makes future installments of the series once again possible.
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Hey readers! If you liked this post, you should check out some of my books. I’ve got an epic series called Demonworld, which is equal parts Mad Max and Lord of the Rings (think “science fantasy”), and a much-loved gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder which is currently a hyperlinked Kindle book but will be a fancy phone app any day now.