Opening the Time Capsule Killing Machines: Playing Devil’s Advocate With the Ending of Mass Effect 3.

My Really Long Theoretical Introduction

Unless you hid under a rock somewhere, you’re probably aware that Mass Effect 3 has a new extended cut ending. Many are outraged at the ending, as they were before, and many are pleased. However, I haven’t seen any attention given to why the ending may be pleasing, and perhaps that’s because it’s so easy to rip it apart. I have to admit, I also felt the same way. I felt betrayed that Bioware didn’t change the ending at all, but just clarified to  to be the same. I was one in the camp of hoping that the Indoctrination theory was correct. While this theory would make for an amazing story telling experience and an incredibly innovative and immersive gaming moment, it is actually only that. A true story, a story in a book or a good graphic novel or a good movie does not have these characteristics. A true story does not make you believe that you are the hero or that you are in the world, but makes you wish you were. A great story makes you idolize your favorite characters, not make you believe that you’ve always been that character. In addition, I have never found a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story that actually was a good read.

This would be the challenge for a game writer, and it was the challenge for the Mass Effect writers. The problem is that if a game script writer wants to tell a good story, it must always have a purpose. Not necessarily a moral, or something as elementary as that. But, as Aristotle once pointed out in the Poetics, a story must delight and inform. Therefore, it must be fun to read and allow the player to leave while understanding something in a different perspective. With this in mind, a game story writer has two options when telling a story:

1. An immersive story where the character identifies with the main character and is forced through a series of trials in which the character, and therefore the viewer, comes out with a different perspective.

2. A third-person story where the player is shown a character that is pushed through many trials, but ultimately the true purpose of the story is shown through metaphor. Battles, characters, trials, and choices all have meaning beyond what the surface layer may tell. This type requires a third-person or overhead perspective because it requires the player to be able to see the story from an overall perspective.

As I understand it, the writers either originally planned option #2 or opted for option #2 because they did not like what was presented to them for option #1. Unfortunately, a game like Mass Effect lends itself to option #1 very easily, since there is a significant amount of interaction and immersivity. We are told to create a character, name it, identify with it even, watch the character and make choices for the character. Ultimately, this article is not meant to justify the decisions of the writers in this case, as I feel that their decision to choose option #2 was faulty and did indeed conflict with how immersive the game really was. However, I would argue that the game would not be nearly as innovative, interesting, or successful without it being designed on the principles of option #1. In fact, I would argue that games designed around principle #2 are now passé. Many of you know these games well. Games like Sam and Max, Grim Fandango, Gabriel Knight, and Space Quest.

Notice that I listed all adventure games. I believe that these games follow the path that the ME writers were taking. All of these games feature characters that you move, make choices for, and experience life vicariously. However, these characters have their individual looks, desires and personality. You cannot create or customize, you can only lead. Therefore, in Space Quest, you never identify with Roger Wilco (thank the gods!), but instead you laugh at his misfortune as you try to figure out how to get him out of the latest sticky situation.

Unfortunately, these games would not succeed today. Good stories are no substitute for a truly immersive game. People want to live as their characters. It’s totally natural, as games are typically an escape for many, and it’s certainly inviting to believe that you are experiencing life within another world that follows rules that you understand (and can even bend). Immersive games are addictive and satisfying. A game with a good storyline is only fun once (unless you’re one of those weird people that read the same book over and over again – tee hee, I kid).

In fact, I would argue that the Indoctrination does make for a great story #1, but one that is cliché and hollow in reality. It’s only strong point is a convincing trick that pushes you deeper into a rabbit hole that leads to nothing that you can take into the real world. The only lesson is that you never trust anything you see. While that can be useful in moderation, it’s also cliché by now, and also fairly unhealthy.

In any case, this is why you and I felt betrayed by this ending. We were led into a game that was option #1, and given an ending that was option #2. In no way am I suggesting that the writers were correct in doing this. In fact, sticking to their guns would be their downfall. However, it’s worth it to see what they were actually trying to tell you.

A Hive Mind and a Time Capsule – Can You Say Metaphor?

Let’s start off with the most controversial part of the ending. The little synthetic boy. Within the new ending, we are told that this boy is actually an AI created by those that created the first Reapers that works as a Hive mind-like representation of the entirety of Reaper knowledge.

But the first thing to understand about this boy is that Reaper knowledge is much more special than just the knowledge of some ancient race. You see, the Reapers (as we are also told in this new ending) are a culmination of all the races that have risen and fallen over the millions of years. They consume and collect knowledge, technology and culture. That makes them a time capsule, of sorts, for the history of the galaxy and the accomplishments and failures of all life forms that ever existed within the galaxy. This is an interesting position to place the Reapers in, and the biggest question is why the writers did that. However, before we get to that, look at the middle of the paragraph. They collect this knowledge. How do did they collect us? They used the Collectors.

Angry Collector is Collecting

As we find out in ME 2, the Collectors are actually the galaxy’s version of us in this last cycle, the Protheans. Throughout the events of ME2, ME3, and the Prothean expansion for ME3, we learn a great deal about these Protheans. However, they aren’t exactly the amazing race that Liara hoped they would be. They are actually more terrifying than we thought, and appear to be very similar to the Roman Empire. I like to think that the Protheans would have led a Renegade play through and chose the Control ending. The Protheans were threatened by a hostile machine intelligence (like the Geth), and decided to “unite” the galaxy by dominating all lower races, enslaving them, and forcing them to fight this Geth-ish intelligence until they were ultimately destroyed by the Reapers. Our own fight against the Geth within ME1  along with the knowledge of the Protheans in ME2 and foreshadows the eventual coming of the Reapers.

As a result, it’s an ironic punishment for the Protheans to be enslaved by the Reapers and forced to fight and collect organics. They did it so well when they were sentient, why not use their skills again. The funny thing is that the Reapers are essentially preserving the culture and technology of the Protheans by using them in this way. Therefore, the Reapers continued to fulfill their purpose as Time Capsules, even after a race is consumed.

However, another bit of foreshadowing appears when we learn (through ME3 or the expansion, I don’t remember now) that the Protheans gained their mastery of technology after finding the ancient ruins of the Insuannon, just as we gained our technology from the ruins of the Protheans. Just as the Insuannon gained their technology from somewhere else. And somewhere down the line, some race created the Reapers and created their purpose, although we are not told how or why, as it is not important anymore.


So, now we return to the little robot boy. At this point, our Shepard has come a long way. But more importantly, our galaxy has come a long way. The Insuannon may or may not have created the mass effect fields, but they were passed to the Protheans. The Protheans then enslaved the galaxy and created the Crucible, but they were too late and passed their knowledge to us. Now, we have built the Crucible, docked it with the Citadel, and are about ready to use the weapon that another civilization has created to end the cycle. The boy says that the cycle cannot continue, but he lies.

In truth, the cycle can continue, and Bioware now gives us the option to make it continue through their new 4th ending sequence. Instead of making one of the three choices available to us, we can take option D and tell the boy to take his 3 options and shove it. We tell him that we will kill the Reapers our own way!

…and in our defiance, the galaxy is wiped out again. Liara then records our own time capsule and leaves it for the next cycle. Just as the Protheans left us a time capsule. Just as the Insuannon left a time capsule. But each proceeding capsule is more and more detailed. We are told in the epilogue that the cycle is eventually ended as the next inhabitants of the galaxy (apparently something that looks suspiciously like an Asari) inevitably defeat the Reapers. Obviously this is not the most ideal ending for Shepard, our companions, or the rest of the galaxy. Everything dies. It does begin again, but it begins despite our arrogance.

But this ending does tell us something very important. Information is power. These time capsules of information allow us to eventually end the cycle of death. These time capsules are also, interestingly enough, exactly like the Reapers. In the same way that the Reapers rise, dominate, assimilate, and collect, each civilization rises, dominates, assimilates, and at the end of their lives, collects and disperses. Where the Reapers do not gift, the surviving race does, because it realizes that only by sharing it’s knowledge, can the next cycle avoid it’s mistakes. The Reapers represent the destruction and failure of other races as they consume themselves. Just as the Roman Empire died because of their arrogance and neglect of those they dominated, so did the Protheans die because of their arrogance.

So it’s almost like the Reapers are exactly what their name suggests: specters of death coming to herald the death of a civilization. However, since they are a culmination of the technology, culture, and history of all previous civilizations, they also represent the power that heeding the mistakes of the past can have. By giving us the gift of the Crucible, the Protheans left us our own Reaper. Heck, we even got our own frozen Prothean to talk to! We have the biggest and baddest metaphorical Reaper that any civilization has ever gained. No wonder things are different now.

I also want to point out that this theory has been recently validated by a rumor of some more DLC coming that was hidden in some code for the Extended Cut DLC. There is a rumor that new DLC may include a rogue Reaper named Leviathan. This name may refer to the famous book of theory by Thomas Hobbes and the hell demon it’s named for. The book’s main contribution is to suggest that ordinary citizens must give up some of their autonomy in order to gain the benefits of a stable society. In other words, this book introduces the social contract theory. I am unsure whether this theoretically rogue Reaper would represent the Leviathan that we must sacrifice ourselves to in order to gain power and security, and thus lending to my theory that Reapers = Information = Power and by discarding our ego, we can gain that power, or whether he represents the book itself, and thus is here to impart the secrets of his own time capsule and therefore gives himself to us as an ally.

The Three Choices

So now, let’s return again to the little boy. We have a galaxy united (as before), yet this time we come with our own Reaper, of sorts, that we will call the Crucible. We have shown that we can learn from the technology and mistakes of the past. This time, we united the galaxy in peace, not war, and built the Crucible in time. But now, we must make the ultimate decision. There’s really only one right decision, and this is a little irritating for many, considering how free-form the game was for most of the series. However, we are still with 3 choices. The boy informs us that these choices are only here because things are different this time around, as I said before. The cycle won’t work, he says. But why? Well, we have proven to be too efficient at examining the technology of the past. If we are killed, then as  we learn, the next generation will defeat the Reapers. The cycle can’t continue if it’s doomed to end.

But the purpose of the Reapers was always balance. The purpose of knowledge, is balance. The Reapers kill, but they do not destroy. The Reapers kill, but they preserve, because knowledge is a balance to power. They never destroy all civilizations, but they leave some to continue to pass knowledge. You could say that the Reapers destroy power and leave knowledge.

But now the Reapers are in the opposite situation. We now have knowledge that is greater than their power. The cycle cannot continue. Thus, they deem us worthy of opening the time capsules, should we ask them.

Now we come upon the three options. We can digest these three endings in two ways. First, understand that these three options mirror the options that all dominant civilizations have when confronting a defeated foe. As organics have now officially defeated synthetics, the organics must decide what to do.

1. Destroy: You declare that all associated with the foe (synthetics) are dangerous and should not be trusted. Therefore, you kill them all. But the boy warns that the peace will not last, because as with the cycle, there must always be balance. If you repress a civilizations knowledge, culture and technology  (The Reapers, in this case) and refuse to acknowledge them as being equals (synthetics), then you are doomed to continue the cycle as the foe’s culture becomes a counter-culture that will eventually surface again as our descendants inevitably study that culture, gain knowledge, and begin to realize the imbalance between power and knowledge.

2. Control: The Prothean and late Roman way. Conquer, dominate, enslave. This does not necessarily mean enslaving individuals, but definitely you can exercise control by keeping the dominated’s culture and information in a protected bubble. Propaganda, Cultural Reprogramming, turning the foe into the “other” that should be feared and hated. These are all ways of Control. Yes, they will do as you ask, but because they have no choice. They will not like it, but it does maintain a semblance of balance, only because one party controls both the power and the knowledge, but never destroys either. But he does warn that “you will lose everything of yourself.” For Shepard, this is literal, as Shepard merges with the machines. She is no longer Shepard, she is Reaper. In the same way, if one civilization dominates and attempts to suppress or control them, then that civilization will inevitably become known for such suppression. The Nazi’s tried a “Destroy”-like tactic, but inevitably was more successful at “Control.” Their culture, then, was shattered and replaced with the culture of death and domination, until the Nazis fell. The Soviets began as a culture fighting for the values of Karl Marx and the working man, but their brutal attempts at counter-culture turned them into a nation that had no culture but that of death, until the USSR fell. Arguably, China is facing the same problem. By suppressing culture, the suppression itself becomes your culture.

3. Synthesis: The boy recommends this option, and we are naïve for not believing that he may be right. Many of us want to believe that this boy is tricking us, but once again, if we distance ourselves from the game and look at it from an objective perspective, why would the writers trick us at this point in the story? They wouldn’t, because that’s just a stupid idea. By now, the results of this ending should be obvious. We approach the civilization in a way that early Romans approached defeated foes. Bring them in, adapt their culture into ours, use their technology to improve ours, use their knowledge to fill the gaps in ours. The Romans became as powerful as they did because they did this through the most influential years of their growth. Throughout the Roman empire you will see a hodge podge of different art styles. By looking at the Roman Pantheon, you will see gods from hundreds of other civilizations that were worshipped by the dominated civilization. By looking at Roman structures, artwork, cities, etc., you will find the influence of the Etruscans, the Egyptians, even the Persians, and many others. In today’s international politics, cultures are becoming increasingly segregated and isolated from each other. People interact, but they must not meld cultures. We don’t want to learn the ways of those people. They’re terrorists. They’re capitalists. They’re communists. They’re weird. They’re evil. They’re barbaric. However, we humans don’t evolve on a physical level like animals do. The only thing we have that has kept us alive is culture. But we cannot improve and evolve culture without learning from others around us. At the same time, organics and synthetics will never have peace unless they come together and pool their strengths. Synthesis seems a bit extreme, but it is a metaphor for two cultures coming together, learning from each other, and taking lessons from the other to improve themselves.

There is a second way to take these choices, and it is a representation of history and knowledge. Just as the as an understanding that the Reapers are representative of the best and brightest of synthetic technology and culture, in this game, they also represent time capsules of history and knowledge of all that organics have achieved, and all mistakes that organics have made in the past.  It is a unique ability of synthetics to collect and analyze information, so understanding these interpretations also represents an understanding of the power of the synthetic culture. However, more importantly for this section, these three choices reflect the choices we have when dealing with history and inconvenient information

1. Destroy: Burn the books. Kill the scholars. Normally destroying a people must involve destroying it’s culture. However, as the boy says, this is only a temporary victory. You can never completely destroy knowledge. Even if the knowledge is incomplete, it’s whispers will carry on throughout time to exist longer than you will. Destroying synthetics is a way to temporarily remove the problem, but when synthetics are created again, and gain knowledge, and then gain knowledge of our destruction of their predecessors, knowledge will once again seek to balance power.

2. Control: Outlaw free press. Publish government-approved material. Hire “experts” to “disprove” the information. Spin the news. All of these things are clever ways to control information rather than destroy it. Destroying information is too messy and inefficient. However, as long as the information exits, it is dangerous. Control only exists as long as the controller does. And information and culture exits much longer than we do. We can seek to control the Reapers, and they will obey as long as we command them, but we will lose our autonomy and become one with the Reapers. Thus, eventually, that which is “we” or “I”, will disappear, and the Reapers will gain autonomy through your assimilation.

3. Synthesis: Once again, the only acceptable ending. As the boy is the culmination of knowledge of all prior civilizations, it’s a bit naïve not to listen to his advice. Synthesis almost seems like my understanding of art and “beauty” as I wrote within my Seminar paper. When we read a good book, view a beautiful painting, experience a beautiful moment, we lose ourselves in the beauty and let it merge with us. We give ourselves to the experience and we receive enlightenment in turn. It’s a fair trade, but both sides must sacrifice for the betterment of all. In the same way, synthetics lose autonomy, but gain a permanent place as equals among organics. Organics take synthetics into their genetic code, therefore changing them forever, but maintain a sense of autonomy that the synthetics lack. Synthetics that already exist would presumably gain some of the weaknesses of organics, but would gain the benefits as well.

Unanswered Questions

Well, that’s my incredibly detailed analysis of part of the ending. I will be the first to admit that I don’t explain everything here, and neither does Bioware. The most controversial parts, however, now have meaning for me, and I, perhaps, finally understand the writer’s intent with this ending. However, there are still a few things that I just don’t get.

The biggest problem I have is with the ending sequence for Destroy. Why does Shepard appear to live only in this ending. Well, I suppose it’s really the only ending that doesn’t definitively kill Shepard, but it still doesn’t make sense. Synthesis turns Shepard into a martyr so that her “essence” somehow acts as glue to put synthetics and organics together. Control disintegrates Shepard and turns her into some kind of wireless hive mind beyond even that of the little boy. And yet, it appears that Control blows up the Crucible, or at least part of it, and somehow lands Shepard in a bunch of ruins on Earth. Why, if they systematically destroyed all aspects of the Indoctrination theory, did they keep this little mini-sequence in? Are you telling me that Shepard was blown up, fell from the Crucible, didn’t burn up in the atmosphere, hit the ground, probably at the speed of sound, and managed to take a breath? I don’t get it. It makes no sense.

Another problem that many will have is with the boy and the dream sequences. The dream sequences appear to have no real purpose anymore, other than just being a simple reminder of Shepard’s guilt. The fact that the AI takes the form of the same boy isn’t, in this ending, a premeditated action, but a result of looking at Shepard’s state of mind and understanding what will give her a sense of piece but also obligation to listen. While it’s still cool to think that the boy is something ever-present in her mind, and having to do with indoctrination, I highly doubt it, now. If anything, it’s just representative of Shepard’s “special-ness” that the AI accumulation of the Reapers manifests himself in a physical form or in Shepard’s head. However, I simply think that the AI takes the boy’s form at the end just for psychological reasons.

And certainly, this theory does not justify the fact that the retarded 2D slideshow at the end is a cheap attempt at giving players closure. So obviously, there are problems with the ending, but at least the extended cut finally clarified the intent of the writers and, for me, improved the experience of the game.


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