Interpreting the Catalyst: A Mass Effect Analysis, Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is the second 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.

Read Part 1 here, which outlines the evidence that leads to the extrapolations and conclusions below.

Author’s Note: Game Front Deputy Editor Phil Hornshaw contributed greatly to this analysis.

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 3 here

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.

Welcome to the second part of our grand analysis and interpretation of the full billion or so years of Mass Effect lore.

In Interpreting the Catalyst: A Mass Effect Analysis, Part 1 (which you should read first before continuing), we laid out the history of the Catalyst, establishing it as the creation of ancient aliens known to us as Leviathans, which “went rogue” and killed its creators in the first of the Reaper harvests. This was done ostensibly as the Catalyst carried out its mandate to preserve the civilizations of advanced beings from extermination at the hands of synthetic helper (robots). But the Reaper harvests are not the ideal solution to that mandate, something we postulate the Catalyst concluded long ago, and thus it incorporated the Crucible superweapon into its galaxy-wide “experiment” in order to bring about a better solution.

Today, I explain what that that better solution is, why the Crucible is necessary for it to work, why the Catalyst lies to Commander Shepard in the ending moments of Mass Effect 3, and why Shepard has to make a choice.

As I did yesterday, I’ll be citing throughout a separate page containing some embedded videos, which feature key bits of information and exposition from throughout the Mass Effect games. This will be handy if you want fact check me and debate my points in the comments, which I welcome. Click here to open the video reference page in a separate window.

What is the point of the games the Catalyst seems to play with Shepard? That’s the big question. Why lie to Shepard about the capabilities of the Crucible, but still let him potentially destroy or control the Reapers? If Synthesis is the best option, why present Shepard with the other two at all?

The answer must be that Shepard making the choice at the Crucible is part of the Catalyst’s experiment.

The answer must be that Shepard making the choice at the Crucible is part of the Catalyst’s experiment.

The Catalyst and the Leviathans tell us that the Reapers’ plan, the harvest cycles, have been running for eons (the Reaper corpse Leviathan of Dis is dated as being a billion years old or so), and we know that the Reapers have altered and improved that plan over time. If we assume that the Reaper cycles are actually an imperfect method of eliminating, or at least preventing, the conflict between synthetics and organics, the evidence suggests the Catalyst at some point developed a possible new solution, which it would use the information and insights it gained from its many harvests to reach.

Thus the Catalyst would establish the benchmark I mentioned earlier, as a way of testing civilizations and driving them to improve. The benchmark is a standard of cooperation, in a sense. To reach that benchmark, a civilization would have to be able to build the Crucible and then use it with the Citadel, a task that, in Mass Effect 3, requires the combined forces of the entire galactic community to complete, and which they still only barely accomplish. And none of that would have been possible without a linchpin like Shepard pulling everyone together, and so the odds of this effort succeeding are extraordinarily long.

That kind of cooperation suggests an ability to move beyond the differences between species and live together in (relative) peace.

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18 Comments on Interpreting the Catalyst: A Mass Effect Analysis, Part 2

Dr Dray

On January 21, 2014 at 9:31 am

Please do a reinterpretation of Super Mario next, I’m sure you can create all sorts of fantastical head-cannon if this is anything to go by. I’ll start you off with an existing theory, which is that the only ‘real’ game was the first one and everything since has been retellings of the same tale by Mario himself. The only things to back this theory up are that the second game (US and PAL release) was a dream, and the third game is designed to look like it’s a stage with the curtains at the beginning and everything clearly running on motors and springs instead of just floating around in the air. Nevertheless it provides as much scope for a multi-part analysis as ME3′s pretentious nonsense of a nothing ending.


On January 21, 2014 at 9:33 am

@Phil The genophage was not a form of subjugation. Mordin would have bitten off your head for even implying the idea. It was a way to simply equal out the playing field. Limit the birth rate to that that of other species. To make them equal.


On January 21, 2014 at 9:38 am

Not this is total BS……………. Your own site censored my writing of the word genoph-age, while it clearly written in the article. Come on guys…………………. fix your fcking site. This is such a fcking joke. It censored the word ph-ag out of my word. How homophobic of you.


On January 21, 2014 at 9:46 am

@Phil While this is a very interesting and valid interpretation so far I can’t help but feel you’ve put way more thought into this than Bioware or EA did. If we take just the core ME3 game how are we supposed to come to any of these conclusions? Going by the game released it just felt to me that BW wanted to make a game about singularity and leave us with the choice of destroying the Reapers (Shepard), controlling them (Illusive Man), or becoming one with synthetics (Saren).

Ron Whitaker

On January 21, 2014 at 10:20 am

@thedog – Not sure what happened there, but I fixed your post. Overaggressive filter, I guess. *kicks server*


On January 21, 2014 at 11:52 am

Nice head-canon there, but the truth is, it’s still really stupid.


On January 21, 2014 at 2:12 pm

@Phil…not to recklessly over simplify, but I see this analysis as a devil’s advocate approach towards seeing how the narrative in its entirety makes sense; and, we use the Catalyst (the star child) as a center point of interpretation because it (deus machine) truly attempts to rewrite/construct the narrative in a way that Sheperd’s choice of light’s makes sense. I could probably stand to read the analysis a few more times, but I still find it difficult to interpret the Catalyst as anything more than a plot device that weak stories employ to transition to a resolution. I’ll stop there…


On January 21, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Interesting read.

Indoctrination theory, while dispelled by Bioware, was way better though.

IF I ever get around to playing the ME series again I’m just gonna just pretend that happened (haven’t downloaded the extended cut because screw that, at least the original ending allows the Indoctrination ending to work).

In any case… look forward to the next part of this analysis.


On January 21, 2014 at 3:18 pm

Very nice, lets end the war against syntetics and biologics by kill all advanced societys….very VERY smart for ancient people that lives more than a milion years…..yeah why not kill a LOT…..and let this flow? Why not stop the catastrophe 1 time, just kill all life in universe….its ok. No, not smart….lets kill 99% each 50 0000 years…..yeah thats better.


On January 21, 2014 at 3:48 pm

It seems moot that organics should ever cooperate with synthetics. I take it, based on the Geth example, that organics don’t help each other in each cycle when one species is overthrown by its subjugated synthetics, and thus the synthetics spread like wildfire and wipe out all other organic races. So what matters is, whether or not organics cooperate with synthetics, organics must ultimately cooperate with each other to be able to withstand synthetics, as they did against the Geth in ME1, the Human Reaper in ME2, or the Reapers in ME3. All that said, couldn’t the Reapers just have helped organics fight back and/or cooperate against the rebellious synthetics before the organics got wiped out? Wouldn’t the Reapers be a better solution as the “good” robots helping fight off the “bad” robots? Instead, didn’t the Reapers become part of the problem (or just simply the main problem) rather than part of the solution?


On January 21, 2014 at 4:24 pm

Personally, I think the Catalyst is just an AI that’s gone insane over the ages. It was designed to end the conflict of synthetics and organics, but instead BECAME the conflict of synthetics and organics. Let’s look at Phil’s quotes:

“The created will always rebel against their creators.”
The Reapers were the created and they rebelled against their creators.

On the Leviathans: “When they asked that I solve the problem of conflict, they failed to understand they were part of the problem themselves.”
All races are part of the problem in the Reapers eyes, Leviathan or otherwise. They see the potential for conflict before it even occurs, so just remove the civilizations that can cause that conflict to occur. Hence, they wipe out advanced civilizations before things get out of hand. That’s their bright idea. They don’t bother checking to see how things are going, they just hit the reset switch.

“Organics create synthetics to improve their own existence, but those improvements have limits. To exceed those limits, synthetics must be allowed to evolve. They must, by definition, surpass their creators. The result is conflict, destruction, chaos. It is inevitable.”
The Reapers surpassed their creators and the result was, indeed, conflict, destruction and chaos, and has been ever since. Have they done anything to try and halt this? No, they’ve actually made the situation worse. They’ve put advanced technology in the middle of space for advanced races to find, so that the cycle repeats over and over again. The Reaper technology is placed into robots, the robots follow the same path as the Reapers because the whole damn thing is tainted, and before you know it you have yet another Geth/Quarian war on your hands. The Reapers are the cause of the problem, not the organics or synthetics.

“Reapers preserve all life, synthetic and organic.”
Really? They turn up, don’t bother asking questions or seeing how society is getting on, then start a galactic war that ends in billions of deaths and the creation of new Reapers to make the next cycle all the more brutal.

As for the Crucible, well, did that even do anything? Shepard, on the brink of death, was lifted up through a solid ceiling by a glowing white elevator that didn’t even exist a moment ago. Then he’s suddenly up and walking around, talking to a glowing kid, while standing in open space. Doesn’t this seem like a dream sequence? We know Reapers can control minds, so this Reaper pops into Shepards head while he’s unconscious and uses the kid that was in his dreams as its ‘avatar’ to appear as a non-hostile entity. It then questions Shepard, explains the situation, and finds out what Shepard would do if given the option.

Why? Because “Synthetics seek perfection through understanding.”. This is likely the first time the Reapers have come to losing, so finding out what their enemy really wants to do with them is part of that learning process and allows them to be more prepared come the next cycle.

It’s as possible as anything else.

Some Old Guy

On January 21, 2014 at 7:51 pm

I have enjoyed reading Phil’s analysis so far. I think his take on the (stupid) Star Child is a bit of a “retcon” of sorts but it is at least plausible. I also suspect that this is a whole lot more thought than BioWare actually put into the ending, otherwise they would not have promised “15 distinct endings” which amounted to basically three color-coded endings times five levels each where nobody actually cared about the five levels.

I appreciate the analysis Phil has done very much, but one thing I have noticed is that there was very little contribution from the first two games. There was the scene from ME1 where Shepard talked to Sovereign, but I don’t recall anything from either ME1 or ME2 that suggests that the Star Child was going to show up anywhere in the game, or that the Reapers were going to be the manifestation of some Cosmic Circle of Logic: Since the destruction of biological life by synthetics is inevitable, I reckon I’ll just build me some big ol’ synthetics and destroy most biologicals before that happens. And instead of calling it Unimaginable Genocide, I will give it a cool name like “harvesting”. To me, that strongly suggests that they had no idea how they were going to end the story until ME3 production was well underway.

I am looking forward to part 3. The only thing I am worried about is if Phil’s analysis is good, then he might come up with a pretty good way to ramp up into ME4 (or the next iteration). And if that happens, there is no way BioWare will (or can) use it.


On January 22, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Fascinating. It makes sense, in an odd way.

Time to leave, Dr, Doak

On January 22, 2014 at 8:10 pm

Just finished the series last night, and I have to say this is a quality analysis. I myself chose the destruction ending, reasoning that the peace between the geth and quarians was prima facie proof of synthetic-organic cooperation, which instantly obsoleted the reapers from a necessity point of view. This isn’t to say the peace would last, but it’s at least proof of concept. It was fitting that the cooperation between the two would contribute to the physical destruction of the reapers via Shepard’s efforts; form follows function, and the reapers no longer had a legitimate purpose.

I recall the starchild suggesting that Shepard’s presence in the finished Crucible was an indication that the reaper “solution” was not ideal, but I had never considered the possibility that in their imperfection they still served as a stepping stone to the real solution, the evolution of galactic tolerance. Like a potent antibiotic, the reapers would only exist uncontested by the things they were created to destroy until those things evolved, and the success of Shepard (the manifestation of this evolution) is proof of this social paradigm shift. Assuming the Catalyst knew a fair amount about evolution and probability giving its advanced nature, it’s almost tough to make the case that it -didn’t- see this coming.

Kudos Phil, it was an excellent read – keep up the great work.

Hadid Amshah

On January 23, 2014 at 10:35 am

Right on the money with this, even if its not the ending planned earlier (dark matter), its still provides a satisfactory conclusion to the trilogy..It is said time and time again, conventional warfare against the Reapers is a loss cause, they just keep on coming, so it didn’t bother me much about the whole starchild being the actual solution (aha) to the conflict and they manage to explain it in such a way that it makes sense, even if they did take more than a year after the game is released to do so.


On January 23, 2014 at 6:01 pm

Remember in ME1 when Shepard finally confronts Sovreign, and demands an explanation for why everything is happening? Sovreign doesn’t even bother justifying it, he simply tells Shepard that what is going on is far beyond his possible comprehension, that he’s but a little pawn in a game he doesn’t even realize he is playing. Sometimes it is best to not give a foe a complicated backstory. Let the story be told by the protaganist, since in the end, all great stories are not about the foe, but the battle within the hero or the thing the hero represents.

That being said, the idea of a being of pure logic and probability being the enemy of humanity (who by that time frequently defied most odds in their rise) was an intriguing foe. A shame Bioware botched it.


On January 27, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Uh question, if as you assert in your article “Thus the Catalyst would establish the benchmark I mentioned earlier, as a way of testing civilizations and driving them to improve. The benchmark is a standard of cooperation, in a sense. To reach that benchmark, a civilization would have to be able to build the Crucible and then use it with the Citadel,” Why is it Vigil stated they flood through the Citadel at the start of every harvest and then shut down the relay network so only they can use it?

Vigil also states it was the Prothean scientists who stopped the signal from reaching the Keepers which in reality broke the cycle. So your idea that “The standard we met required cooperation without subjugation (which is why the Protheans couldn’t do it,” is not really true as Shepard and her team only prevented Saren from restarting the cycle. The Protheans gave this cycle a chance. So without the Protheans this cycle would not have had the chance and would have been overrun just like the Protheans.

Can you explain these holes in your theory? This is key moment in ME1 that you don’t really explain.


On March 31, 2014 at 11:42 am

“The created will always rebel against their creators.”

”Organics create synthetics to improve their own existence, but those improvements have limits. To exceed those limits, synthetics must be allowed to evolve. They must, by definition, surpass their creators. The result is conflict, destruction, chaos. It is inevitable.”

This is the logic the Catalyst has been created with. Part of some peoples’ problem with the explanation behind the Reapers is that it somehow ‘doesn’t make sense’ for the Catalyst to do this. The Catalyst was given this statement as a fact – the Leviathans had observed enough of their subject races being driven extinct by their creations to come to this conclusion. Whether we agree with them or not is irrelevant.

The Catalyst has this statement as fact. It is also given an imperative to solve the problem…essentially ‘go and solve a problem we believe is unsolvable and inevitable’. It is this logic that makes it begin to see that:

‘When they asked that I solve the problem of conflict, they failed to understand they were part of the problem themselves’.

So it strikes, harvests the Leviathans and creates the first Reaper. Over time, it devises the cycles as a means to experiment and hold advanced life (organic and synthetic) in archived form while it searches for a permanent solution. It’s stated MANY times, that the Reapers believe they are actually saving the organics and synthetics from themselves – from mutual destruction. The ultimate expression of this being:

”We are your salvation through destruction”. Now I wonder what Harbinger meant by that? Could it be that it believes we are wrong to oppose what it sees as vital work?

Fast-forward to the last two cycles. Javik mentions the Metacon War, an organic-synthetic war. There is the Morning War, the Quarian-Geth conflict. Even aeons later, the pattern is still holding. Synthetics are still rebelling and attempting to destroy their creators.

The Catalyst has utterly no reason to think that its original logic has deviated. Some people who hate ME3 say one of the reasons the ending doesn’t work is that Shepard can broker Geth-Quarian peace. Shepard can, but think about what happened to the Quarians.

They created synthetics, which evolved and began to surpass the limits placed on them. The Quarians tried to exterminate them, so they rebelled. They slaughtered BILLIONS of Quarians. Anyone who disputes this forgets that the Quarians were once a Citadel race, had colonies and an embassy. They were full-fledged members of interstellar society. Their plight was generally ignored by the Council because they had laws against AI. An interstellar society of many billions – like every other Citadel race – reduced to less than a couple of dozen million. Virtually genocide.

Even in our cycle, the mandate held true and a machine race overthrew its creators. The Leviathans’ assessment is still correct. It is inevitable.

The Catalyst however (whether intentionally as in the analysis or late-on as it claims to Shepard), sees the Crucible as an opportunity. It didn’t expect anyone to survive in order to use it. It has plenty more cycles to wait and see. But when Shepard arrives, it sees a part-synthetic human who can make the choice it is unwilling (or unable) to make.

One crucial thing is that the Reapers only seem evil to us, because we are the victims. They think about the big picture: civilisations. The Reapers’ strategy is:

1) Eliminate resistance. Destroy the enemies’ ships, fuel supplies, government. Anything that promotes resistance is destroyed.
2) Create ground forces and troops. No interstellar race can be pacified or harvested without troops on the ground, including indoctrinated units.
3) Indoctrinate officials. Anderson mentions in a convo that the Reapers have indoctrinated the leaders of many states, who are now telling the population to stop resistance (even passing edicts making resistance illegal).
4) Complete the harvest. Biologically, this means a suitable number and cross-section of the population to preserve both the species and their knowledge/culture. This probably also involves data uploads from any archives and sources available.
5) Erase all traces. Harvested races become Reapers, all cities, stations, craft and habitation are destroyed, sometimes from space. Some of these would be taken out early on in the invasion, others left until the final years. The Protheans for example were still fighting in planetside engagements despite their armada having been obliterated relatively early on.

They do all of this in a manner that is not evil per se. They are very much like the Borg (from Star Trek) – they have a goal and are capable of astounding atrocities in order to achieve it. One wildcard is Harbinger’s ‘annoyance’ with Shepard – most likely a result of Shepard’s continued interference with the Reaper objectives. Harbinger even goes as far as having the Collectors assassinate Shepard, as it has identified him/her as a siginificant threat, while also making the Reapers see Humanity as one of the primary enemies it will face. This is one of the reasons they strike Earth and Palaven very early – having shattered the Baterian Hegemony and used them to create troops, they then strike at their two main threats, the Systems Alliance and the Turian Hierarchy.