We here at Living With a Nerd thought the ending to Mass Effect 3 was a fitting, beautiful way to cap off the Mass Effect trilogy, so we’ve decided to break down our opinion step-by-step, inch-by-inch. We’ll be doing this by looking at themes explored throughout the trilogy, and comparing them to how they’ve been represented in the final moments of Mass Effect 3.
It goes without saying that this article is filled to the brim with spoilers, so if you haven’t finished ME3, it’s highly recommended that you turn back now.
The Buried Truth
Sometimes, you have to look past what you’re shown, and discover the true symbolic meaning within. This is a theme that’s been presented throughout the entire series: Saren, the Geth, the Council, the Rachni, the Thorian, the Genophage, Cerberus, Miranda, EDI, the Protheans, the Collectors, the Reapers, the Illusive Man…all of these things were covered throughout the trilogy, and every single one of them proved themselves to be much deeper and more complicated than they were originally presented. Time and again, we’ve been given reason throughout the trilogy to never accept things as they initially appear…so why are we suddenly doing that with the ending? The long and short of it is that you simply can’t take the ending literally.
There are numerous interpretations of what “actually” happened at the end of the game, the most popular of which seems to be the “Shepard was indoctrinated” line of thinking. This one actually makes a lot of sense, ESPECIALLY in the context of the whole series. Think about it: Shepard realized there was a Prothean marker on the Asari homeworld, because, as he/she put it, “you never forget what it feels like.” Have you ever considered the possibility that Shepard had been indoctrinated since the very beginning due to his/her encounter with the Prothean Beacons and the Prothean Cipher in the first game? It would make sense, since in the greater context of the story, everything Shepard did, regardless of his/her choices, led to essentially the same events in the end.
This, of course, brings up the question of free will. Bam. Symbolism.
(NOTE: GamesEyeView did an AWESOME job of doing some in-depth analyzing of the “indoctrination” theory. I highly recommend you check it out. It’s a long article, but read the whole thing; you’ll be glad you did.)
This “symbolism” line can also be applied to the oft-berated scene at the end of ME3 where the Normandy appears to crash land on some random planet. If you paid attention during the third game, you might remember that most (if not all) of your crew mentioned wanting to go somewhere that’s relaxing, beautiful, and quiet after the war ends.
Well, the war ended for them when they were killed during the final battle. Crash landing on the planet and emerging from the destroyed Normandy unscathed, along with the expressions of happiness they all had on their faces, implies that they had all reached ”heaven”…they all found their way to the place they wanted to go to when the war was over.
Can’t win for losing
It was made quite clear that this final battle was going to be extremely difficult, something the collective might of every species in the galaxy would likely not overcome. This wasn’t something thrown in at the last second: over and over since the Reapers were first revealed, it’s been said that there was a very real chance the galaxy would either outright fail, or be wiped out trying to win. Let’s face it: when you’re dealing with something that has been harvesting the most technologically advanced civilizations in the galaxy every 50,000 years like clockwork, your chances of success are extremely slim.
The only logical outcome is the one which has already happened countless times before: the destruction of advanced civilizations. This perfectly sets up a situation that Shepard would throw him/herself into, as proven by the fervor with which he/she threw him/herself into the suicide mission in Mass Effect 2.
The truth of the matter is that it’s unlikely any of the ending sequence actually happened. Just as the Normandy crash-landing on the planet is symbolic of the Normandy’s crew reaching their version of heaven, Shepard’s version of heaven is wiping out the Reapers at all costs (or controlling them, depending on the ending you chose.) This is further proven by the fact that Shepard never spoke of anything after the war…he/she focused solely on the task at hand.
There’s no way Anderson and Shepard survived while everyone on the ground attempting to reach the beam was destroyed by the Sovereign Reaper. It’s impossible. The truth is, indoctrinated or not, Shepard was killed in that blast, and ascended to his/her version of heaven, as played out in the final moments of the game.
You are free to do as we tell you
Many have expressed that the ending completely demolished any weight your choices had in the previous games. However, your choices DID matter: they directly impacted the lives of literally millions of people across the entire galaxy. On more than one occasion, you chose the fate of an entire species, condemning them or blessing them with a single decision. You reunited families, put people out of business, fulfilled dreams, and embodied nightmares. Every single action you took throughout the trilogy had a massive impact on the galaxy at large. Just because the power of choice was taken away from you in the final moments doesn’t mean your previous choices didn’t hold any sense of influence or reason.
This is proven by the mind-boggling variety of narratives possible across all three games. I challenge you to find someone who experienced the exact same story you did across the trilogy. Even if we accept the whole “indoctrination from the beginning” line of thinking, you’re choices still had significant impact across the duration of the trilogy. Your choices carried real consequences with them that wildly influenced the meat and potatoes of the story, and as such, they DID mean something.
Going back to the suicide mission in ME2, we’ve been given proof that Shepard will do whatever it takes to continue his/her mission, regardless of the odds. With that in mind, the final events in ME3 were, for all intents and purposes, beyond Shepard’s control. Regardless of whether you follow the indoctrination theory, the literal theory, or the ascension to heaven theory, the final events were set on a rail.
In a world full of choices, sometimes we have no choice; nevertheless, we still have to try all the same. That’s what separates the true heroes from the common soldiers, and it’s what separated Shepard from everyone else.
You may think you were cheated because you didn’t get some 20 minute cutscene explaining everything to you with neatly-written subtitles, you may think it was a “waste” because your choices “meant nothing”, or any number of other complaints. The truth, though? The truth is that, if you really paid attention throughout the entire trilogy, the ending in ME3 fit neatly into the themes explored throughout the series. One could even call it a foregone conclusion.
Of course, this brings up an obvious question: why is all this symbolism and interpretation necessary? Why couldn’t Bioware just give us a straight-up ending?
The answer is this: what Mass Effect means to you and what it means to me are two very different things. My experiences and memories with the trilogy are COMPLETELY different from yours. Symbolism opens the door to interpretation, and interpretation will play out differently amongst different people. It may not tie everything up in a neat little package, but it does provide an experience that is wholly unique to you.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what the Mass Effect series has always been about.