Interpreting the Catalyst: A Mass Effect Analysis, Part 1
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series analyzing the ending of Mass Effect 3 through the lens of the complete run of content of the Mass Effect series — that is, all the DLC, including (and especially) the Extended Cut ending. The focus here is not to evaluate the effectiveness or quality of the ending; for that, you can read our previous posts about the end of Mass Effect 3.
Instead, this analysis looks to gather textual evidence from key moments throughout the series to try to better understand BioWare’s intentions with the Extended Cut ending, and what that might mean for its plans for the future of Mass Effect. This is just one interpretation of the material, and we encourage to share your own in the comments.
Author’s Note: Game Front Deputy Editor Phil Hornshaw contributed greatly to this analysis.
Warning: Everything in this editorial is a spoiler for the entire Mass Effect series thus far. All of it. It’s 100-percent spoilers. Seriously. It’s also best for you to have played through at least Mass Effect 3 before reading, or some of this will be pretty confusing.
As it existed on March 6, 2012, the ending to Mass Effect 3 was a bit of a botched job.
The ending presented players with three choices for resolving the Reaper War (“Destroy” the Reapers, “Control” the Reapers, or render the Reapers obsolete by melding biological life and synthetic, or robotic, life through “Synthesis;” the latter two endings resulted in Shepard’s death), but it gave no real feel for their consequences. That lack of clarity in what the choices meant, and how they were meaningfully different from one another, was one of the biggest issues with which many folks had grievances.
But what also drove me crazy was how the stated purpose of the Catalyst and the Reapers — to prevent all organic life in the galaxy from being wiped out by the synthetic life advanced civilizations are prone to create — was so at odds with the idea that the synthetic geth and the artificial intelligence party member EDI were just more people in the present galactic civilization.
There was not much to explain the apparent contradiction, and players didn’t even get the opportunity to argue with the Catalyst about it. “Welp, this sucks” was about the extent of Shepard’s response when the Catalyst explained why it had been killing everyone.
But the combination of the Extended Cut and Leviathan DLCs changed everything. The final conversation with the Catalyst became much longer, and the Leviathans — the race that had created the Catalyst more than a billion years earlier — gave a slightly new perspective that came with some interesting wording for what the Catalyst and Reapers had been doing all this time.
“Welp, this sucks” was about the extent of Shepard’s response when the Catalyst explained why it had been killing everyone.
I recently played through the entire Mass Effect Trilogy again with all that DLC intact — a task I had been neglecting — and through that experience I’ve come up with a new explanation for what the Catalyst was really thinking as it had the Reapers carry out its many harvests of organic civilizations, why it gave Shepard options for a new solution, and where BioWare may be taking the series from here — assuming I’m in the ballpark with this hypothesis.
Before we dive in, allow me to explain how best to consume the information I’m about to provide about my new interpretation of events. The last page of this feature contains several embedded videos of portions of Mass Effect games, which contain among them the bulk of my sources — for example the Catalyst’s conversation with Shepard, the Extended Cut epilogues, and other crucial items like that. When appropriate, I’ll refer to a specific video on that page as a way of sourcing specific information and assertions, and so if you want to fact-check me as we go or follow along the evidence, you should keep that page open. Click here to go there in a new window.
Today, in the first part of this grand analysis, we will dive into ancient history as I discuss what we’re told about the creation of the Catalyst, and what it did over the course of the next billion years that laid the groundwork for the events of the Mass Effect games.