Mass Effect 3 Ending Post-Mortem: Fans Are Still Right

2. Key Philosophical Themes Are Discarded

For all its strengths, in the end the Extended Cut still falters where it matters the most, and that’s with the final two points we made in our original analysis. This is especially evident in the abandonment of the games’ key moral and philosophical themes.

In that analysis, we identified three major themes in the game, two of which were essential to understanding the story: They were tolerance and unity, free will (and what it means to be alive), and synthetics versus organics. As we noted then, however, the first two mentioned here were essential; the synthetics/organics material mattered because the Reapers were themselves synthetics seeking to destroy all organic life and otherwise was largely informed by the other two. The original endings of Mass Effect 3 took the first two themes and reduced them to nothing more than extraneous background noise to the suddenly insisted real theme, organics versus synthetics. And that’s a big reason for why it felt like such a flat mess.

With the Extended Cut, the themes of tolerance and unity are mostly restored. The endings each emphasize some aspect of how overcoming disagreements, banding together to face difficult circumstances and learning to respect one another because of, and not despite, our differences, are essential to surviving the aftermath of the Reaper War. In fact, this is taken to almost comical extremes in the Synthesis ending, with the Reapers suddenly becoming super helpful bringers of rainbows and puppies to a ravaged universe. (Ok, so we’re exaggerating; there aren’t any puppies.)

Furthermore, the Synthesis ending in particular also manages, finally, to tie-in the question of free will and the meaning of being alive, with some rather touching and well-acted dialogue by Tricia Helfer. Considered honestly, BioWare made a sincere effort to address some rather gaping problems they created for themselves. However, it’s not enough to overcome the unfortunate, last-minute repositioning of synthetics versus organics as the series’ core moral struggle.

To naysayers who insist that the Star Child’s confusing, morally ambiguous nonsense is in fact the culmination of a story five years in the making, we would urge you to replay the entire series from the beginning. At no point was “Machines will always kill us!” a overriding theme. In fact, the opposite is true; it is the failure to respect forms of potential life, to make slaves of them, that causes conflict, a point emphasized by dialogue about the Geth from Mass Effect, Legion’s entire loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2, and nearly three hours of play time in Mass Effect 3 (to say nothing of many additional side missions). The conflict itself only makes a kind of narrative sense if it is seen in context with the other themes we identified. Without those themes, Mass Effect is simply a banal kill ‘em all shooter; Gears of War with robots, if you will.

BioWare seems to have realized this, because the Catalyst’s dialogue attempts to put it philosophically as “The created will always rebel against the creator”, which doesn’t really work in this context, but hints at something far more complex and interesting. As we see it, the way the Catalyst, via its proxies the Reapers, has long manipulated organic races to develop along lines easily exploitable by Reapers is itself a gritty reflection of the rebellion of synthetics against their makers. The younger races fight against the fate in store for them, just as the Geth did against the Quarians and, apparently, ancient synthetics did against the original Reaper race.

Further, we’re forced to consider the fact that precisely this kind of rebellion is a natural part of any coming of age, and might be (along with sex) the defining experience of every human life. (Maybe this is why hostility to rebellion pops up in religions again and again and again.) We would argue that it’s good for the young to buck the authority of the old, make their own way in the world, and when the old attempt to prevent this by means that are violent or simply coercive, they’re the bad guys. At moment after moment in the trilogy, Mass Effect seems to agree with this point.

Unfortunately, in the end, Mass Effect 3 is uninterested in these concepts. Forget freedom, free will, tolerance, unity, being alive and so on. The whole thing comes down to something as banal and underdeveloped as the inevitable conflict between organics and synthetics, and shockingly, it isn’t the death and destruction, but the rebellion itself, that is actually bad. Tellingly, the Catalyst’s solutions are all different ways of ending rebellion forever. This might be why we’re not alone in feeling a little unsettled by the vaguely fascist undertones. It’s probably true that it’s the weird, out of nowhere appearance of a literal deus ex machina that makes the point terminally unclear, but whatever BioWare really intended, they failed to explain it to the audience.

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22 Comments on Mass Effect 3 Ending Post-Mortem: Fans Are Still Right


On July 5, 2012 at 11:04 am

Great article, though you give the ending more credit than I do, I’m still done with bioware and mass effect.


On July 5, 2012 at 12:09 pm

It always was a fun game and, although I was on board with the Indoctrination Theory, I liked the new endings enough to give them a pass. I feel kinda weird that the Destroy ending is pretty much the worst now, even though it’s the only one where Shepard survives. I could never make the choice to turn everyone in the galaxy into synthetics, so I figure the choice to make would be Control, which means the Illusive Man was right.

Anyway, the games were all a lot of fun. I replayed ME1 and am playing ME2 right now, and they’re still a good time.


On July 5, 2012 at 12:30 pm

As I’ve come to expect, this is more great work and hefty analysis. You managed to strike at the core of my discontent with the 3 (I don’t count refusal) choices. Your options are 1) Destroy synthetic life, which boils down to a sort of genocide. 2) Synthesis which involves the practice of altering all life-forms without their consent and the creation of a “master race.” or 3) Control which is the destruction of free will and the ultimate display of fascism. All of these prospects are fairly disturbing in this light and it’s hard to view any of them as a “good” or even “paragon” choice.


On July 5, 2012 at 1:56 pm

If organics versus synthetics was such a big deal to begin with, that is how ME3 should have started. The meeting between Shepard and catalyst should have taken place at the beginning of the game. That way all three choices, or possible paths, could have been explored during the game and reflected in every choice. It would have made all the encounters and dialogues much richer and poignant. In that scenario, Javik would be the greatest discovery of the game. The last of the race that refused to be transformed into a machine even after being defeated. The victory of life over machine. That would even answer the question that any synthetic may have after advancing far beyond its creators.Yet, as Bioware has it, Javik only brings a gun and sterile nostalgia to the game.

The biggest problem with ME3 was and is the fact that this is the first game ever, where the player has no chance of winning. The stupidity of Bioware and so adamantly insisting on its own stupidity seals Bioware’s fate as far as I am concerned. Bioware is so in love with its own stupidity that while it admits the validity of the notion of the possibility of winning, by adding a fourth option to the ending, it still prefers to add insult to injury by clearly stating that Bioware will not be the one to give it or make it possible.

There have been, and there are, authors who have wept quietly when their beloved character dies in the course or at the end of the novel. Bioware is different. It just won’t let go of the reapers. To Bioware, the reapers are the most beautiful thing that creation itself can ever come up with. Let’s call it the “Bioware Church of Imbecility”.


On July 5, 2012 at 1:59 pm

How would Control be the destruction of free will? The Renegade option seems like Shepard will become some sort of Dictator, but in Paragon, he seems like he’d be more like a galactic police force that does heavy lifting and construction as well. It doesn’t seem to destroy free will to me.


On July 5, 2012 at 3:58 pm

The Reapers were a great creation….. at first. Sovreign’s refusal to even bother explaining the Reaper’s existence to Shepard was great. In all honesty, that was how they should’ve remained.

Why were they destroying humanity? It was a Monday to them for all we know. They had a purpose which was beyond our understanding.

Perhaps (if you had to) even you could’ve identified their “purpose” as making sure empires like the Protheans never get too big. At the height of their existence, The Protheans essentially played god with the “lesser” races, forcing their will upon them. And once they achieved that amount of power, the Reapers quickly attacked.

Trying to give the reapers a background people could “understand” was where you started having all the trouble you did.


On July 5, 2012 at 4:03 pm

@ Robin

To clarify, if Shephard chose to “control” the reapers, he is essentially imposing his will on them. From the game’s perspective, it’s akin to eliminating racism by brainwashing people. Is it a noble goal? Of course. Is it a noble act? I don’t think so.


On July 5, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Thank you Gamefront for being the ONLY voice of reason other than fans.
You know Commander Shepard has been warning about the Reapers for 3 games not.
It is funny that those most unprepared for the reapers is Bioware.
You can tell they just didn’t know where the go with the conclusion.


On July 5, 2012 at 4:56 pm

@ Kevin

You make a really great point. Building the reapers up to be this all-powerful race, whose origins, motives and logic are beyond the comprehension of organics, then letting that dissolve in ME3 was a huge mistake. Personally, I would rather have seen this trilogy end with the defeat of the reapers, then perhaps the next story arc begin with the quest to understand what they were, who sent them and why.


On July 5, 2012 at 5:29 pm

There could’ve been numerous ways to handle the Reapers. Not all of them needed to be with their “defeat.” Hell, Shepard wiping them out, but using their tech to enhance humanity could’ve been done. Think of it, a new “cycle” would begin, instead this time humanity being the new Asari. (The Asari were the chief race of the present cycle, whom the Protheans held in high esteem.) This would fall in line with a more “renegade” style Shep, basically adopting the methods of the Illusive Man to an even greater extreme.

Or you could’ve destroyed the Reapers. Or, you could’ve accepted the ultimate deal with the devil. Unlike previous cycles, this time humanity led the charge, and scored several successes that surprised the Reapers. In this case, Harbinger gives Shepard (representing humanity) an offer: The Reapers provide ascension of humanity into the most advanced race in the galaxy. What the Illusive man uncovered was just a fragment. The cycle stops (at least for a veeerrrrrryyyy long time) and humanity forges ahead with a new path of rule, either through benevolence (the “Andersen” way) or through an iron fist (the Udina way)

So many ways this could’ve played out, and you didn’t need the “Star Child”, or if you wanted to include him, couldv’e simple included him in the offer of ascension as Harbinger’s avatar (which is still strongly implied in the “refusal” ending)


On July 5, 2012 at 5:59 pm

The ending is definitely better, though I think you overstate some of these problems. For example in regards to #2, I saw Synthesis as a false paradise, ala Brave New World mixed with BattleStar or something, and I thought they had just the right amount of exposition vagueness to warrant a worthwhile discussion (what they were shooting for originally). I feel similarly about all the choices, as they do have enough differences to matter. Destroy never says the Relays get fixed in any sort of timely manner and control creates VI Shepard (aka new god-being), and all the implications that could have (think 343 Guilty Spark).

I completely agree with 1 and 2 though, but under the circumstances, I had no expectations those would be fixed.


On July 5, 2012 at 6:36 pm

“The primary difference is whether EDI is left alive at the end, and who gives the epilogue voice-over.”


On July 5, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Yet another excellently written article. Bioware really screwed the game away here. And the the extended cut was like putting some duct tape on a sinking ship. Sure, it helped cosmetically, but it still leaves me unsatisfied and feeling no desire to play the trilogy again. Which is a shame, because I played 1 and 2 probably 5 times each. If I ever buy another Bioware game, I’m buying it used from gamestop so they don’t see a dime of it. They ruined the game to add multiplayer, which in my opinion, suffers from the same issue as the end: its all the same. I don’t get why people love the multiplayer. It’s the definition of repetitive. It’s the same freaking thing on a different planet, every freaking time. I played it enough to get my readiness up and never touched it again. Nice work Bioware…. you found the terrible option, kept looking, and found an even worse one to use as the ending to your epic trilogy.


On July 6, 2012 at 2:53 am


To be fair, the addition of MP was EA imposing their will. Afterall they released a mandate a while ago stating that all games under their label will include MP. I can hardly wait to see what kind of horrid MP they have in mind for DA3.


On July 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm


So you’re worried about Shepard taking away the free will of the Reapers? I don’t think they had free will to begin with. They were controlled by the catalyst. I’m sure they retained some element of the personality that must have been left over from the races they contained, but considered they were essentially created by the Catalyst to begin with, I don’t think that their free will should ever have been a concern of Shepard’s.

I guess the other choice would be Synthesis, where organics and synthetics basically become the same thing and everyone understands each other, but Shepard changes all beings in the galaxy to be something else entirely, which I don’t dig.

I think whenever there’s a galactic war that’s spanned possibly millions of years, you have to expect that something massive has to change in order to end it.

Is you idea that Shepard would broker some sort of peace deal with the reapers, like he did with the Geth? That would be cool, for sure, but I’m not unhappy with the way things ended up. It’s cool to have philosophical differences with the ME creative crew, but now at least we understand what they were trying to say in the first place.

If anything, I would have liked to see EDI and the Geth die if Shepard chooses Destruction. That would bring home the sacrifices made. As it is, they just don’t show the Geth in the ending montage. If Shepard lives, Joker’s going to be pissed off at him.


On July 6, 2012 at 8:05 pm


Edi does die if you choose destruction. If you watch the cutscene where they are getting ready to put Shepard’s name up on the wall next to Anderson, you will notice that Edi isn’t there. Also If you read the board with the names of others who have died Edi’s name will be on it. (p.s. After reading your comment again, I realized that you may be saying that you actually wanted a cutscene where Edi and the Geth die. If that’s the case, I apologize for misunderstanding)

Joker might be mad at Shepard for Edi, but I’m sure he will also be glad that Shepard survives the destruction ending (according to Bioware). Also I would think that since Cerberus built Edi and the body she was using, and since the Alliance probably controls the Cerberus base now, they could rebuild her. Build a new body and AI, restore a backup, and voila, Edi’s back. Could make a good DLC or mission in ME4.


On July 8, 2012 at 3:32 pm

@ Robin

From a purely moral standpoint, yes. It is one thing to influence or pursuade, but the control option, in my opinion, goes far beyond that. Shephard seems to be directly controlling the Reapers every action. From what I can perceive of the Reapers through interactions with Sovereign and other Reapers through the trilogy, they seem capable of things such as individual initiative and reasoning. What I’m saying, in an ineffective, roundabout sort of way is in the Control ending, Shaphard dominates the Reapers in a way that is more direct and total than what even the catalyst seemed to do. He enslaves them. Don’t get me wrong, in a real life scenario, I wouldn’t have a whole lot of sympathy for a life-form that aimed to destroy humanity, but within the moral framework of the franchise, control can be construed as a transgression against sentient life. Hopefully that clarifies my point, even if you still disagree.


On July 8, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Eddie and Mark are retards. They are crying babies!

Tired Gamer

On July 10, 2012 at 4:09 pm

wesker1984 – Please, give up junior. Nobody’s interested in your uneducated, mindless trolling and we never have been.


On July 13, 2012 at 2:01 am

Theres an added plot hole, harbinger sits around and watches his biggest enemies fly off when he could vaporize them with one shot.
“…comical extremes in the Synthesis ending, with the Reapers suddenly becoming super helpful bringers of rainbows and puppies to a ravaged universe.” Oh thank god i’m not the only one who had a wtf moment with that. The whole synthesis thing doesn’t make any sense still, and the whole being “alive” thing seems like you just sped up the process anyway, EDI says at the forward base”only now do i truly feel alive, that is your influence”. But no, apparently you have to somehow be merged with organics to get that.
“The created will always rebel against the creator”. Except the Reapers…
“literal deus ex machina” which they really did not explain enough how he doesn’t simply break the entire trilogy with his presence.
“BioWare has added a lot more showing that your choices from throughout Mass Effect 3″ But not of the previous games, they mean nothing. As did 90% of all the sidequests in all the games.
“Refusal Ending at least gives users some real capabilities in terms of free will” Except it doesn’t it adds a way of saying “F*** YOU” Without actually saying it.
“It has even restored a measure of replay value lost in the crush of a million lazy vague insinuations, surprise plot holes and a literal deus ex machina.” For ME3 it adds replay value, but not for any of the previous games. Those surprise plot holes are added to, some are closed, more are opened. No one has yet presented a good reason why the catalyst does not ruin the entire trilogy.

Theres also one thing you guys forgot. War Assets. They still do not all show up. There are entire fleets and races who commit their forces and do not even bother appearing. That was the thing i wanted fixed most of all, secondly i wanted the catalyst gone.


On October 2, 2013 at 10:53 am

If you give Bioware a chance to fix things and you’re still not happy with it (as some still are in the dark corners of the internet), then sorry. I got talking to one guy the other day who was still confused about the ending even after all the DLC they released to explain it better. The whole Leviathan DLC is essentially a copy and paste of information that is used to solve the ending. The Anderson/Shepard scene is exactly the same as the Hadley/Bryson scene. Leviathan’s ending is exactly the same as the Starchild/Harbinger scene.

Perhaps these people instead of sitting around demanding rewrites and such should get off their ass and play the game first before asking for help.

Hmm, so the answers to explain this ending are in the game. People just need to look. Well as long as Bioware put the information in the game, they’ve done their part. Not required to sit and make sure every last person who bought the game can understand what’s going on though.

As for choices. Mass Effect has always been about “choices affect the journey, not the destination”. Read the Final Hours app. It clearly states this. Mass Effect 3 is the final act in a three part trilogy where you essentially get the resolution to all those characters, choices and such that happened in the first two games. People may not like that it wasn’t wrapped up at the very last minutes, but once again, read the Final Hours app.


On April 10, 2014 at 12:35 pm

Sorry it is still bad. You need to download the Mass Effect happy Ending Mod to get a good ending. The whole “it’s the journey not the destination” argument is BS. The ending to any novel, story, etc is the most important part as it is the last thing they take away. ME3′s ending ruined the franchise as a result of a horrible ending; no DLC can change that as it needed a complete rewrite.