Mass Effect 3’s ending, the Indoctrination Theory, and why great writing can’t save poor design

April 10th, 2012 by jkastronis

The Mass Effect 3 ending has gotten a lot of negative reaction for a variety of reasons. I won’t really touch on those here; while I agree that the ending taken at face value is bad for a variety of reasons, others have covered the topic in depth and there’s no real reason to rehash it now.

What I do want to talk about, however, is the so-called Indoctrination Theory, why if it is true it’s a brilliant piece of writing on BioWare’s part, and why this is an utterly terrible thing.

For those who haven’t heard of the Indoctrination Theory before, it essentially interprets everything that happens after Shepard is hit by Harbinger’s beam to be a hallucination induced by reaper indoctrination. Several things that happen after Shepard wakes up are used as proof that Shepard is actually indoctrinated, such as the sudden appearance of shrubs and plants on the pathway to the teleportation beam, the fact that no other character ever reacted to the little kid, Shepard’s nightmares having things in common with descriptions of indoctrination from other sources, and a few other things. The claim is that the reapers are attempting to indoctrinate Shepard as a last resort to save themselves and that Shepard’s eventual “choice” at the end of the game is all in his head; the Paragon choice to control the reapers winds up with Shepard indoctrinated and turning over life to the reapers, the Synthesis choice has Shepard turned into a husk, and only the Renegade choice frees Shepard from the indoctrination.

There are some issues with this theory, and it takes some liberties with imagery to make everything fit but it DOES fit. And it makes the story ending so much better because of it. You can see a full explanation of the theory here.

If the Indoctrination Theory is true and was BioWare’s intent all along, it is a brilliant piece of writing. It is utterly subversive and very smart. The danger of indoctrination has been set up throughout the series and strong-willed characters are shown to be indoctrinated. The players assume Shepard is different simply because he is the PC, but there’s nothing in the games to back this assumption up. In fact, indoctrinating Shepard would be a great strategic move by the reapers.

It also takes advantage of a favorite tool of mine: the unreliable narrator. By being indoctrinated, Shepard becomes an unreliable narrator and the player must pick up the truth through hints rather than direct statements. It makes reading much more challenging, but much more rewarding. It also allows for different interpretations of the story, which is a strength in good story telling. It keeps people talking and discussing what REALLY happened and what it really means.

It’s a wonderful shock that seems to come out of nowhere, until you go back and dissect everything and realize that parts just don’t quite add up. The realization that the ending is actually a brutal subversion of the typical bittersweet ending is fantastic.

So as a story convention, Shepard being indoctrinated is lovely. If this were a movie or a book or even a different type of RPG.

But for the game that BioWare wrote, it’s a very poor choice.

Because Shepard is not a narrator. He is not just a character in the game. He is the player. This is not a book where the events occur independently of the reader. Neither is it something like Final Fantasy, where you are watching a story unfold on (essentially) rails where the player has no choice, or even something like Chrono Trigger, where the player’s choices have only a minimal impact.

The game can have choices with unexpected consequences, or ones where either choice has something bad happen. The Mass Effect series does both of those quite well already, especially in Mass Effect 3, where either Mordin is sacrificed to save the Krogan, or the Krogan are doomed to a slow, depressing extinction.

But an ending which does not let you know the consequences of your choice is fundamentally unfulfilling. Perhaps not as much as the ending where your choices wind up being utterly pointless in the first place, but it is still a poor game decision.

And this is where gameplay vs storytelling clash. By building up a world where choices are put front and center and the consequences of those actions are readily apparent, giving an ending where suddenly everything becomes muddy is a poor decision. It removes the driving force behind the series, choice and consequences, and replaces it with a writing twist.

Even if the writing twist is good, it still guts the heart of the series.

And that’s not even touching the additional fault of the ending, Indoctrination Theory or not, that all the choices made prior to the ending are rendered irrelevant. It does not matter if the player helped the Krogan, or saved the Geth, or let the Rachni die. If the ending is taken at face value, all those choices are rendered moot by the final choice that overrides all the rest. If the Indoctrination Theory is true, your choices prior to the end still have no relevance. They have no effect on the ending at all.

The Indoctrination Theory makes the ending better from a writing standpoint, but doesn’t fix the issues with it from a gameplay and satisfaction standpoint.

The announced DLC is supposed to add closure to the ending. If this means it will add credence to the Indoctrination Theory or obliterate it is irrelevant. Even if it adds in cut scenes to show what happened to the crew and how all your decisions impacts the universe, it doesn’t matter. Because the ending is about that final choice, and the final choice is divorced from the rest of the game, no matter if Shepard is indoctrinated or not.

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