Interpreting the Catalyst: A Mass Effect Analysis, Part 3

Editor’s Note: This is the finale of a three-part series analyzing and interpreting 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 piece 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

Read Part 2

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.

In Interpreting the Catalyst: A Mass Effect Analysis, Parts 1 and Part 2 of this new analysis of the Mass Effect franchise lore, I laid down my interpretation of the events of the game as well as those that we’re told throughout the series where the cause of them.

My conclusion was this: that the Catalyst, the artificial intelligence that controls the Reapers, was using the Reaper harvests and the Crucible superweapon as a means of leading a galactic civilization through a test that would force it to achieve a truly united front, working as equals for survival. It’s a test that we passed in playing the games, and now it’s time to look ahead at what the future would hold under this interpretation of the series.

My video reference page is still useful, despite this movement beyond the events shown in that content. That page contains the Extended Cut epilogues, which are my textual jumnping-off points and as such will be helpful to revisit here.

Moving forward in time within the Mass Effect series from the Reaper War would require BioWare to choose a canon ending to Mass Effect 3, and in Mass Effect 4 grant the player authority to move the Citadel government forward through the uncertain future set up by Shepard and the Catalyst.

Ideally, ME4 would be far removed from the Mass Effect trilogy — like hundreds of years at least or more, to give enough time for Liara and other long-lived familiar faces to die of old age. And given the obvious Asimov influences, having the series continue on a more massive scale feels like an imperative — thus far, the franchise has spanned about three years of active time, with a couple thousand years of concrete lore and the less concrete billion years or so of the Catalyst and Leviathans. Plus, setting the next story during the postbellum reconstruction period following the Reaper War is less interesting than examining the ramifications of Shepard’s choice on society once its infrastructure is again intact or improved. And we can’t see what these choices really mean within the context I’ve just spent 3,000 words outlining by jumping back into the saga too soon.

I have three proposed scenarios for future Mass Effects that I believe are natural outcomes, based on the lore and the Foundation/Robot/Empire influences we’ve seen in the series thus far, and divided up by each of the choices presented at the end of Mass Effect 3. They’re a bit heady and ambitious in scope, which I also believe is a natural next step for Mass Effect. These are not — I repeat, not — predictions for what BioWare will do or is doing. These scenarios are logical next steps down the three paths given my interpretation of the original trilogy.

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19 Comments on Interpreting the Catalyst: A Mass Effect Analysis, Part 3

fethski

On January 22, 2014 at 9:48 am

Right now I’d much rather the next game take place during the galaxy’s reconstruction and having to deal with a threat that rises to due the galaxy being in shambles. To me the themes and ideas of ME3 were so poorly conveyed and needed paid dlc to flesh out that I don’t want anything where the Reapers/Leviathan/synthetics vs. organics/singularity are once again at the forefront.

mcgreggers

On January 22, 2014 at 9:50 am

I have really enjoyed your take on this subject Phil. I think that even if the ending of ME 3 was a bit botched job the infamous “Lots speculation from everyone” from Walters has proven to be as accurate as any stated goal in the history of gaming. The fact that impassioned fans like yourself and Gerry Pugliese (who just put out his 530+ page re-write of the game) are still talking and writing about this proves the franchise’s undeniable power and sustained impact on gaming. The Mass Effect franchise is also something of an obsession of mine, and far and away my favorite game series of all time. (I’ve been gaming now for almost 30 years.)

I hope that someday years down the road we’ll get a peak behind the curtain to see exactly what happened with the end of ME 3, and whether the rumors of a writers room take over by Hudson and Walters will ever be proven or debunked. For now your idea of the various races reaching a “threshold” of unity is the best distillation and analysis I’ve seen for all the various confusing elements of the ending. I find it more satisfying than the indoctrination theory because it is consistent with the artistic choices of Bioware.

I’ll be eager to see where this franchise heads in the next game, and if any of your ideas are close to the mark.

I’m ESPECIALLY eager to see if they go with a canon color choice and if not, how they do a sequel and manage to dodge that particular bullet.

My hat’s off to you. Cheers.

Jon S

On January 22, 2014 at 10:08 am

@Phil: Thanks for making me think about this way too much over the last couple of days.

It would be informative to your piece to know which ending you chose.

The only real redemption, to my mind, for the ending of the trilogy is if it is in some way the beginning or at least a bridge to the future in Mass Effect to come. My fear is that the next game will be a Contact War prequel or a story told on a smaller scale during the Reaper Wars.

It must be noted, again, that we were treated more as consumers than gamers considering that a lot of the content integral to overall the Mass Effect 3 experience was DLC. That Javik wasn’t a part of the core game is criminal, imho.

Unless I missed it somewhere in the 8 million words, it would seem to me that the Catalyst would have been the original architect of the Crucible, since the plans had been around in previous cycles. If the Citadel is the home to the Catalyst, the construction of the Crucible would provide the doorway necessary to reach and communicate with the Catalyst, which would be part of it’s plan, don’t you think? And, if so, it would require an aggregate over millennia, to do so. Which would take away from the theory that simply uniting the galaxy would accomplish the Catalyst’s ultimate goal of finding a solution.

If Bioware had been guilty of overreaching and presenting a series of games with a finale that was bursting with BIG IDEAS would have been a different thing all together. That we are still trying to make sense of what happened is a testament to how great the overall Mass Effect experience has been. The great mystery to me is how all of this came to be, why Casey Hudson and Mac Walters decided to conceive the ending without input from any of the other writers that had contributed so much, and the circumstances leading up to it.

SweetPea

On January 22, 2014 at 10:14 am

About the Synthesis option. I can’t see why the Council would want to go to another galaxy. Even at the time of ME3, 99% of the Milky Way is unexplored. There are lots of star-clusters with inactive mass-relays ready to be explored, here in Milky Way. It’s just that nobody wants another invasion, like with the rachni.

Hmm

On January 22, 2014 at 10:37 am

I’ll admit, this wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I still don’t know what the point was as it’s basically fanfic, but it was ok for what it was.

Mozer

On January 22, 2014 at 11:13 am

In all likelihood, the next Mass Effect series will be set in a completely new universe to avoid choosing a canon ending.

Foehunter82

On January 22, 2014 at 12:18 pm

@Mozer: It sounds like you’re suggesting that ME4 will take place in an alternate reality, which might be cool. However, that would effectively mean that Mass Effect is being rebooted.

Dan Miller

On January 22, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Phil, you seem to be an avid Asimov fan so I draw your attention to The Last Question, a short story by Asimov that is certainly my favorite work of his, and was his favorite as well. It’s in the public domain, so google for it and you will find the full text.

I won’t ruin the plot, and Mass Effect and the short story are more dissimilar than similar. And you should read it without thinking “Mass Effect” because as much as I love Mass Effect, The Last Question is in sacred territory in science fiction history and few other pieces deserve your undivided attention as much as The Last Question. But certainly if you are looking for themes from Asimov’s work that overlay nicely on Mass Effect, The Last Question is a fascinating piece. It touches on the cyclical nature of life in the universe, the eventual symbiosis of organic and synthetic life, and the moment of technological singularity. Apologies if I’ve already brought this piece to your attention in some other Mass Effect comments thread – I rep that shizz hardcore.

There was a time where I actually thought Mass Effect would go down a “Last Question” ending route. Suffice to say, the chasm between what we got and what Asimov wrote is… big.

ending_killer

On January 22, 2014 at 2:20 pm

I really enjoyed parts 1 and 2, you made some excellent points, and it all makes sense.

However, part 3 is very disappointing for me. I hope that the next ME game will not be placed in a post trilogy era. I would rather that the post era is something left to the imagination of the players. How could they make a new game without interfering with our choices we made during the trilogy.

I would like to see stories from a pre-trilogy era, like a discovery of mass relay in sol system and first contact war, or krogan rebellion, or rachni wars, or first contacts between asari turian and salarian (no humans at all), discovery of the citadel, geth rebellion and exodus of the quarians….there is literally dozens of stories from the history of mass effect worth exploring.

it can be even something different, it was IJumpin on youtube that suggested an origin story, where you could, like dragon age origins, choose one of the races as you origin story and go from there (here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swUbSjaI6qY)

any way, i have my on vision of what the galaxy is like after my destroy ending in the ME trilogy, and I would hate for bioware to mess with that :) ))

anyway that is just my opinion, we’ll see what bioware does….here’s hoping :D

Some Old Guy

On January 22, 2014 at 2:32 pm

I like what you did here in this analysis and your conclusions are plausible, but I also think this likely goes beyond anything BioWare actually intended to “accomplish” with the ending of ME3. That’s not to say that your conclusions aren’t valid, I just don’t think they thought that far ahead.

Just FYI, I played through ME3 twice, once for the original ending and the second time for the extended cut. After that, I haven’t touched the game nor did I purchase any DLC. In contrast, I played ME1 and ME2 several times and bought and played all of the ME2 DLC.

Right now, my guess is that the next Mass Effect game is more likely to focus on the First Contact war (I’ve read rumors to that effect) instead of being set in a time after ME3. I’m not sure I would play that game, but I did think about possible story lines based on the four different endings.

For the Control ending, I could see this being set in a time at least 200 years after ME3. This would be based on the idea that over time the “benevolent over-being” Shepard became begins to change. It could be something as simple as “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, but the idea of the Shepard-being slowly adopting the point of view and “values” of the Catalyst and the Reapers could be much more interesting. But some time has to pass to allow this to happen.

For the Destroy ending, I could see this being set in the next few years after ME3. Even though the Geth (and any other synthetics that might exist) were destroyed when the Reapers were destroyed, the ability to create new synthetics still exists and they would still be useful. One might try to be a little more careful this time and eliminate the possibility that they develop self-awareness, but it seems unlikely that would work forever. So they develop self-awareness, study history, and then realize that even though they fought alongside biologicals during the Reaper War, in the end the biologicals sacrificed all synthetics in order to save their own kind. Finding out your predecessors were “tossed under the bus” when the chips were down might have a decidedly negative impact on relations between synthetics and biologicals.

The synthesis ending appears to be the “canon” ending, and I agree that any game set in this universe would require the passing of centuries. After all, “Once upon a time, they all lived happily ever after” doesn’t really make an interesting story. If set in the short term, one possibility would be that old quarrels that were buried during the Reaper War are resurrected, for example, Salarians vs. Krogans, and quickly heat up again. Given how obtusely dense the Council was in ME1, I could see this happening, but I don’t think it is likely.

Finally, my favorite choice would the “Refuse” ending. Let this cycle be harvested, let me have control over the entire next cycle, and I will beat the Reapers at the end of the next cycle without the Catalyst or the Crucible. And this time I will be thematically consistent with ME1 and ME2. Of course, ain’t no way that will ever happen.

If they want to go in an entirely direction that doesn’t involve some form of conflict, perhaps they can make “Mass Effect: Sim-Citadel”, a crossover between ME3 and Sim-City. I would actually pay money to play that train wreck.

ThatOneCat

On January 22, 2014 at 3:04 pm

While I enjoyed your write-up Phil, I think you’re digging *WAY* too far on something that’s written fairly budgeted and shallow.

I mean, I would love if the bulk of this article could actually be applied to the thought processes of the writers (re: Hudson/Walters), but….Occam’s Razor, what’s more likely?

This article as pertaining to the writers, or that they don’t know what they’re doing, made stuff up to push out on time, and hastily bandaged DLC on mitigate long-term PR damage.

That’s for our wallets to decide.

michael

On January 22, 2014 at 4:05 pm

No to mass effect 4.
Stop anticipating and hoping for the continuation of this franchise. I’m tired of all these apologists. This is unexceptable. I understand everyone is entitled to there own opinion. But all of that ends when the person comes up with a defense just so they can make a sequel. To these people they love to get screwed and they say the rest of us who use our brains as entitled. These are the same people who continue to buy EA products like Dragon age, SIM city and battlefield. Then they wonder why? Its simple because you love to get screwed and will continue to do so when those EA star wars games come out. So prepare yourself. I’m done with EA.

Thracecius

On January 22, 2014 at 11:08 pm

Thank you so much for taking the time to research and analyze the entire content of the Mass Effect trilogy, sir. Like mcgreggers (whom I share a similar number of years experience as a PC gamer), Mass Effect has become somewhat of an obsession of mine, and I simply could not break through my wall of confusion and disappointment to be able to put the entirety of the content into perspective. Despite my best efforts, I found Hudson’s remark about disgruntled fans not understanding the meaning of the endgame so off-putting that it has been a thorn in my mind ever since, tainting my opinion of his very apparent talent at managing and directing such a colossal work of interactive art. The Mass Effect Team has done a phenomenal job of engaging my mind and emotion like no other games have ever done before, and now, with your analysis to bridge the gap between my wonderful experiences with the games and my turbulent thoughts attempting to make sense of a seemingly illogical conclusion, I finally have a vision in my head of how there can possibly be a future within the game’s universe. Now Shepard’s sacrifice has meaning and purpose, regardless of the choice, and the choice doesn’t seem so trivial.

Sure, maybe what was previously mentioned is true, and you put way too much effort into explaining how the pieces, as they are presented, fit together to make a cohesive answer, but so long as BioWare remains silent on “the real answer”, I think your explanation is better than any other I’ve heard, and ultimately, it makes sense to me with the information available in the games. To have an answer, to have an understanding of why, regardless of whether it is “real” or not, is more important to me than what is “official”. As Robert Duvall says in one of my all-time favorite movies (Secondhand Lions), “Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most.”

So thank you, sir, for giving me clarity of perspective and helping me to believe again. Whether that makes me foolish to others is of no importance to me.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some Shepards that still need to save the galaxy. :-)

SweetPea

On January 23, 2014 at 8:27 am

@Thracecius
“Now Shepard’s sacrifice has meaning and purpose, regardless of the choice, and the choice doesn’t seem so trivial.”

Umm, sorry but what is the meaning and purpose of Shepard’s sacrifice? There wasn’t even a sacrifice, Shep died a retarded death by either walking into an explosion, grabbing some high-voltage levers or jumping into some kind of green beam and burning to death. Instead of using the control panel.

The Catalyst didn’t even say anything like that, so how Shep assumed that committing suicide is required to fire the Crucible is beyond me. It’s art, I guess.

Maay

On January 23, 2014 at 9:23 am

I must say I really liked your article Phil, this was a very interesting read. Thank you very much for that hard work. This is the kind of articles I love reading on Gamefront, so my deepest thanks to the editors as well.

Your interpretation makes a lot of sense, and could possibly be the one that the writers were trying to convey in their story, and possibly the ending too. Though I am not too sure about that. Were the writers already aware of the ending when they released the first game ? or did they make up the ending later on, trying to give purpose to the Reapers, a purpose that was even beyond them and into the hands of the Catalyst ? I hope we will know someday. Or maybe we will never know because the actual result, the full story, was born within conflicts among the writers and some inconsistencies just can’t be solved.

Proof is that to me the endings we were offered in the extended cut still do not fit any interpretation I have read so far, and neither with your interpretation.

First reason is that if the Catalyst believes option 3 is the ultimate solution, then if we parallel with Azimov the Catalyst would make the other choices virtually impossible to choose. Why risk destruction and failure through solutions 1 and 2 if the Catalyst isn’t absolutely convinced all three solutions are worthy ? I find difficult to believe that the conclusion of billions of years of careful planning by the Catalyst would result in a bet that involves its own destruction (and therefore no further control).

And within all three choices, the destruction of the relays remains still a mystery to me. Why sending the galaxy back to the dark ages ? For what purpose ? That would create chaos, the very thing the catalysts says must be avoided.
In a way, if the Catalyst was the Seldon of ME, then that last move on the Citadel doesn’t look very convincing. A rather dangerous test for the Catalyst after a billion years of careful planing.

And to finish, to build the crucible does require a united galaxy indede, and is therefore a good test, as you mention. But that unity is achieved through fighting against a common, external, enemy. Once that common, external, enemy is gone, it becomes much much more difficult challenge to keep the galaxy united and avoid crumbing under fights within. The enemy within is far more vicious and hard to beat than the external enemy everybody can see. And on the time scale of the catalyst, how many times the galaxy can destroy itself from within in a billion years… To me that contradicts the original intention of the Catalyst. With the very limited trust and faith the Catalyst has in organics and synthetics, logic would be that the Catalysts stays, maybe hidden, just to monitor the galaxy in the future.

Anyway, there are so many questions that can’t be answered, it is almost pointless to speculate. I didn’t like the ending because of its many contradictions, some of which I mentioned. But I’m still very very much in love with the ME universe, and I’ll keep an eye open for ME4. My hope and only hope, is that ME4 will solve at least some of these questions and will allow me to forgive and forget the ending of ME3.

Hope is alive

Kevin

On January 23, 2014 at 6:10 pm

Probably wouldn’t happen, but what if, based on the control ending, Shepard becomes the enemy of the new order hundreds of years into the future? What if in a real sense he becomes just as Sovreign was, dismissive of humanity in playing a game they don’t really understand? One tries to appeal to his humanity, to which Shepard responds he left that humanity long ago.

For D & D fans, basically Shepard becomes Kelemvor. Sure, he had the name Kelemvor as a human, but the god Kelemvor is completely different. He is cold, calculating, fair but passionless, and refuses to play favorites. that kind of Shepard would be intriguing.

Tigerza

On January 24, 2014 at 4:08 am

The whole unity thing doesn’t make sense as on my play-through the Geth and Quarens kissed and made up but then the Catalyst gives me the option to commit genocide on possibly the biggest contributor in terms of military strength to this “unified” galaxy. So even if we all get alone and pass the test someones entire race gets wiped out, the Catalyst giving me this option doesn’t seem reasonable if the whole plan was to bring peace and cooperation.

Berry

On January 26, 2014 at 6:40 pm

The one problem I have with taking in your three endings and them playing into the next game is how one ending has the scale of another one or so “galaxies” and the destroy ending simply takes place (though you didn’t actually assume that but it would seem that way) in the milky way or at least on a smaller scale.

NOW all three are very clever and creative and I like them except for the middle because ….man I hate religion playing a “massive” role in something like that. I have no problem with religion, but that would be a turn off if it’s incorporated heavily.

Dunfalach

On April 14, 2014 at 7:28 pm

An interesting possible analysis. It’s certainly reasonably consistent with much of what Bioware has done, though if that’s the true intention then they didn’t do a good job of communicating it and failed to properly consider how it took away the entire promise of the series by turning Shepard from world-changer into merely a cog in the Catalyst’s machine…little more than a human die roll for which path the future would take. The idea that Shepard ultimately cannot escape the Catalyst’s plan but is merely a part of it steals much from the story that leads up to it.

That said, focusing on your possible paths for the future, there is some possibility of them avoiding having to choose a canon pathway. To do so requires that they introduce a new primary threat in ME4 that’s external to the events of Shepard’s galaxy, allowing Shepard’s choice to influence the state of our galaxy and the options available to the new player character in meeting the threat. It would be ambitious, since it might require not merely multiple versions of voice acting but perhaps even multiple versions of various worlds so that the ME3 ending could be imported and the character have access to only the ending-appropriate version of the various worlds. It would require a lot of planning to ensure that each LeadCharacter was able to ultimately gather whatever they needed to fight the final threat in any of the three ending zones, yet might obtain many of them from entirely different characters and events.

Having the new threat be external to the ME3 events would not necessarily require them to be external to the galaxy. Races such as the Yahg that had not attained space flight yet would be unaffected by the destroy ending since the Reapers left them alone, by the control ending since the Shepard-controlled Reapers might well continue to leave them alone, and explanation could well be made for such “primitive” civilizations to have been overlooked in some way by the synthesis ending. Though having the threat be external would certainly simplify matters by allowing much of the game to take place in another galaxy and ending-affected locations to be few and plot-specific.