Interpreting the Catalyst: A Mass Effect Analysis, Part 2
The purpose of the Catalyst’s solution, the cycles of war and extermination that it deemed to be imperfect, is to allow for the possibility for a civilization to be strong and unified and cooperative enough to deal with the Reaper threat.
That’s a bar set almost impossibly high, given how many iterations of the cycle there have been after the Crucible entered the equation. For the present races of the galaxy to hit the Catalyst’s bar, so many things had to fall into place, including help from the long-dead Protheans and the existence of a figure like Shepard who among every person living was the only one who had the drive and ability to make it happen.
The purpose of the Catalyst’s solution is to allow for the possibility for a civilization to be strong and unified and cooperative enough to deal with the Reaper threat.
The harvesting cycle is referred to as “the solution” or “the experiment,” but it truly has a secret, undeclared purpose outside of archiving civilizations and saving future sentient organic life. Each iteration of the Reaper War is itself a grand metaphoric crucible, a test to see if the space-faring species of the time can work together well enough to reach the finish line. The Protheans couldn’t do it because they subjugated the other species that came of age in their era; their civilization couldn’t cooperate well enough to unify organic and synthetic life.
As Javik reveals in his chats with Shepard, when the Reapers attacked, the Protheans’ subjugated species scattered, essentially adopting “every man for himself”-type policies, and each smaller civilization fell to the Reapers.
Even so, the Protheans managed to build a Crucible of their own, but when it came down to Protheans fighting indoctrinated thralls, the “good guys” couldn’t hold back the surging tide by themselves. Shepard, on the other hand, was able to gather his allies to fight the Reapers because the various species had not been dominating each other in that way.**
So through the many cycles of the Reaper War, the Catalyst has been pushing civilizations toward unification, rather than domination. Only a huge amount of cooperation between species would be enough to get someone like Shepard aboard the Citadel with the Crucible in place. But the choice Shepard makes when that happens is also important.
Activating the Crucible is not the end of the Catalyst’s experiment, but a transition to the next phase, or “new solution.” And to explain that premise in exact detail to Shepard would be to potentially ruin the experiment.
In Isaac Asimov’s novel Foundation, Hari Seldon utilizes a science dubbed psychohistory to influence events on a large scale and timeline. In that book, a galactic empire is on the decline, and in order to mitigate the imminent dark age — he hoped for it to last 1,000 years instead of 30,000 before a new unified galactic government would form — he and his team had subtly moved pieces in the right direction without their subjects — the people involved — knowing how the plans were supposed to come together. Specific foreknowledge would have goofed the entire process and thrown it off its fragile rails.
So Seldon establishes an outpost on the planet Terminus (ha!) that’s responsible for building a comprehensive encyclopedia of the knowledge of the dying empire, ostensibly as part of his dark age mitigation efforts. But after 50 years, a recorded message from Hari greets these encyclopedists and tells them it was all a lie, that Seldon and his compatriots don’t really care about the encyclopedia at all; they simply needed that excuse to put a group of people in the position the encyclopedists were presently in, and thus set on the path the psychologists had constructed for them. Had they known the true purpose of their outpost, their “freedom of action would be expended and the number of additional variables introduced would become greater than our psychology could handle,” Seldon says.
The Catalyst is pulling a similar trick. It’s telling Shepard what he needs to know according its own wisdom. If it tells him, for example, that achieving the experiment’s benchmark means his civilization is adequately prepared to deal with the allegedly inherent conflict between organics and their synthetic creations, then the result could be a self-satisfied society that thinks it is at the apex of enlightenment — and which might then become complacent and fall back into the old pattern.
The Catalyst must minimize the chances of these victors disregarding the lessons of the Reaper War and subsequently abandoning the diamond-like form into which that war forged them. Thus the Catalyst is attempting to mitigate the kind of “freedom of action” Seldon mentions, which, unchecked, could throw off its efforts to prevent of the elimination of life through the organic/synthetic conflict.
So under this interpretation of Mass Effect, the Reapers’ ultimate plan was to push the development of life toward ultimately using the Crucible to reach the next phase of its experimental solution: a situation in which civilization could continue outside of the Reaper cycle without destroying itself. If we go off that basis, it leads to some very compelling directions for the series to go in from here.
**You could call the Krogan genophage a form of subjugation, but it wasn’t in any way complete — the krogan were never slaves or servants to any other race, and the genophage had only been implemented by two of the four Council species.
The finale of this analysis will be published at noon EST Wednesday, and will use what I’ve laid out in parts 1 and 2 as the basis for speculation on possible future games. You’ll at least be baffled what I’ve come up with, I promise.
Follow Phil Owen on Twitter: @philrowen