WARNING: Plot spoilers inside. This article most definitely discusses the ending of Mass Effect 3.


For a few weeks now, Mass Effect 3 has whipped up a firestorm in gaming communities online. It all started with disaffection over the ending of Mass Effect 3, one loudly declared nonsensical and unsatisfactory by many angry gamers. A great many gamers accuse the ending of not giving closure to what has been an epic, unbroken story across three full games of character development, relationship-building, and galaxy saving, all let down by shoddy writing in it’s final moment of glory. Do not believe them. The ending is exactly as it should be.


The true meaning of the ending sequence of Mass Effect 3 was entirely missed by many gamers, it seems. The reasons why people missed it, and how they might actually interpret it after some careful thought, are perfectly illustrated in two excellent Mass Effect 3 articles on Forbes.com of all places. First, let’s look at how Mass Effect 3’s ending should be interpreted.


Paul Tassi’s article starts by suggesting a possible explanation of the ending, invoking the Shepard Indoctrination Theory. This theory posits that Mass Effect 3’s ending sequence is actually a battle inside Shepard’s mind between Shepard and the Reapers who are trying to corrupt Shepard’s willpower in order to indoctrinate him, just as was done to Saren from Mass Effect 1 and The Illusive Man from Mass Effect 2. The theory posits that the final battle is really about resisting Reaper indoctrination, and that only one of the three choices presented to the player is the right one, the other two simply being the fallacies used to indoctrinate Saren and The Illusive Man. Tassi credits BioWare with being master storytellers for creating such an intricate ending to their story, one most people miss at first glance because they interpret the sequence too literally. The logic of this theory is sound, and I will leave the longer explanation to the excellent video linked in Tassi’s article, also embedded below.

Now, let’s talk about why people missed the significance of the ending and are accusing BioWare of messing it up. The explanation starts easy: it’s popular to hate on game companies these days. DRM has ruined great games for many gamers and tarnished many game companies’ reputations (looking at you, Ubisoft). DLC is everywhere, much of it maligned as ways of making more money off of what “used to be included in games”, i.e. map packs, skins, weapons, etc (hi, Call of Duty). It’s easy to understand people’s cynicism and expectation that nothing is “done right” anymore, and everything is simply about the bottom line for the greedy corporations. In this line of thinking it’s entirely reasonable that BioWare, most assuredly in decline like every other “once-good” game company, would fudge the ending of their epic space opera so they can “correct” it later with ‘REAL ENDING DLC’, all yours for only $9.99.


This line of reasoning also accuses the Shepard Indoctrination Theory of being the easy way out, as Dave Thier expertly opines. Disappointed by what he sees as a “and then he woke up” ending, Thier predicts that BioWare will claim the theory as their own, ‘falsely’ stating it was their plan all along and that it perfectly explains their ending. They couldn’t possibly have actually written such a complicated story on purpose. Not BioWare, who have zero experience in good storytelling (tongue in cheek, folks).


Thier expects more story, either for free or paid, because he doesn’t see the story as properly concluded, citing the choices at the end of Mass Effect 3 as necessitating further clarification of the consequences of these choices. To follow along with this reasoning is to expose oneself as being coddled by the ‘choices’ BioWare have offered us over the last three games. We’re used to making consequential choices in the Mass Effect universe. More importantly, we have seen, and are expecting to see the consequences of our choices. The whole gimmick of choice carry-over between the Mass Effect games relies on this desire. So when the story is suddenly taken out of our control, it feels wrong. But, this is the prerogative of the storyteller.


BioWare never stopped telling a story just because they offered us choices. Although we were allowed to make differences in people’s lives, and determine the fates of other beings in Mass Effect 1, the story was never about anything else than stopping Saren and the Reapers from wiping out the council as the first step in harvesting all life in the galaxy. Although we determined the fate of beloved (or hated) crew members in Mass Effect 2 and whether to hand over Reaper tech to Cerberus, the story was never about anything else than stopping the construction of a Reaper inside our galaxy. And so, when you arrive at the end of Mass Effect 3, think of this bigger story, and remember that the final choice you are given is not another indulgence of ‘player choice’ in order to justify calling this an interactive game experience. It is the conclusion of a story spanning three games that has tried to teach the importance of one thing: Hope.


Mass Effect 3’s ending makes perfect sense because it stays true to the entire Mass Effect story. Hope is a key concept in each of the games, with Shepard defying the odds and achieving the impossible. Stop a giant living machine ship from wiping out the galactic leadership? Check. Die and then come back? Check. Survive a suicide mission? Check. What would keep anyone going through all this? Hope. Shepard is the embodiment of our hopes for ourselves, hope that we can overcame unknown challenges and make a better future.


The very last choice you make is about staying true to this one value. You can either select the false choices Saren and The Illusive Man made and end up being indoctrinated and controlled by the Reapers, or you can choose to resist them (destroy them) and make a choice where humanity survives to face the challenges of the future. That is a profound ending, true to what Mass Effect has always been about, and one that inspires people to think the future can be better. It may not be the most original story to tell, but it is a good one.


In the end, you will have to decide what the ending means for yourself. Your choice will depend on just how cynical you are, and how you view your time spent in the Mass Effect universe. Every character you met, every relationship you explored, every little story you uncovered, was lovingly crafted for you to enjoy while you explore a larger story that gives this whole fictional universe a purpose. It would be a shame to view Mass Effect 3’s ending as a betrayal because it didn’t recognize or conclude every single action the player made along the way. It told it’s story, and it told it well, letting you create a hundred smaller stories along the way. With this accomplishment, BioWare have never stayed truer to themselves.