Tag Archives: debunkery

Indoctrination and its discontents (part six)

Standard spoiler disclaimer

[This is the conclusion to my much unanticipated essay on Indoctrination Theory.]

VI Game Over

No matter the choice, the endings of the game vary only slightly. Youtube user Crosscade has compiled a video that juxtaposes six sequences containing what appears to be all the major variations.[1] Most of these, as the video shows, are relatively slight. What’s more troubling about the endings, though, is that they seem to be fiction-breaking oversights on the part of the developer. As Sparky Clarkson writes on Kotaku.com,

No matter what the player chooses, the mass relays detonate spectacularly, releasing massive shockwaves. In the world of the game these relays are the lynchpin of galactic travel and commerce, and their removal separates  the various worlds by voyages that take years, rather than moments. Demolishing the paths of commercial and cultural exchange that defined the galaxy, however, is a minor problem compared to what the game itself states will be the result of the exploding relays.

He goes on to cite the game’s own codex, wherein it states that

Although it has recently been demonstrated that mass relays can be destroyed, a ruptured relay liberates enough energy to ruin any terrestrial world in the relay’s solar system. [2]

IT sees a loophole in all of this, by explaining that (depending upon the choice), the final animation that Shepard sees is a kind of dream, that plays out in her mind either as part of a reaper attempt to comfort her during her last few moments of sentience, or as some kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy.

It is this part of IT that the more mainstream media seems to have latched on to. In various publications as diverse as gamefront, Kotaku and Forbes.com, writers have commented on the particular “genius” of this ending, all of them convinced that it in some way allows not Shepard, but the player him or herself to experience indoctrination. That is to say, the player’s judgment has been so clouded by the events of the endgame that it is somewhat impossible to tell whether you are making the “correct” choice, and that to do so would involve resisting the game’s attempts to trick you into choosing the wrong side. Most opinions in the mainstream press, too, tend to err ultimately in the direction of skepticism, many of them noting that just weeks after the game’s release, Bioware promised an updated ending that would explain more fully what that final sequence means.

Neither camp, however, can explain in a satisfactory way the meaning of the “destroy” ending, which at this point seems to be the only ending where Shepard may live beyond the final choice. IT implies that in the final moment, that Shepard is awaking on the ground, in London—pointing explicitly to certain objects visible in the rubble that look something like rebar and shattered stone and concrete. Where, precisely, does this leave us? Not in a very good position. Shepard is buried under rubble and gravely wounded. What’s worse, is apparently she never reached the beam, which appears to mean that the battle for earth continues, and that it’s a battle even the united fleets and armies of the galaxy are unlikely to win.

A801506 disagrees with IT’s reading of those final two seconds, and convincingly so. He has taken the video of Shepard’s body lying in the rubble, first brightening the footage and pausing in key locations, then by amplifying the background noise.[3] The brightened footage shows the objects that IT proponents point to as “rebar.” Cutting to scenes from the destruction in London, he shows a number of places where actual rebar is exposed, and it doesn’t look much like the object seen at the end of the game. A801506 then cuts to a number of sequences on the Citadel that demonstrate these objects look considerably more like cables seen during Shepard’s final visit to the Citadel. They appear, in fact, to resemble similar cables seen on the derelict reaper in Mass Effect 2.[4]

Fig. 10. Shepard’s body, as seen in the final seconds of the game. The circle (my addition, for emphasis) indicates the object described as rebar, or as reaper cable. (Source: Bioware Social Network)

Fig 11. Image from the reaper ship in Mass Effect 2. Circle added for emphasis by original poster. (Source: Bioware Social Network)

A801506 points out, too, that the game does not specifically say what materials were used in constructing the Citadel. The in-game codex for Mass Effect is surprisingly silent on the matter, and there is no real way to tell whether stone, concrete, or some other kind of conglomerate might be a key component of the Citadel.

More telling, perhaps, is the amplified audio that A801506 provides. At normal levels it sounds very much like explosions, or collapsing buildings very far away. The louder version demonstrates that there is a distinct, hollow-sounding groan that he claims (and I tend to agree) is usually the kind of sound reserved for surface or space ships, when their hulls begin to collapse and break apart. The use of these particular auditory cues, and the fact that they are somewhat muted, actually fits with the careful attention given to the sound design in the game. Kirk Hamilton at Kotaku.com, for example, was the first to hear a piece of music titled “Vigil” from the original Mass Effect soundtrack emerge from the background noise heard in the war room on the Normandy in Mass Effect 3.[5]

This interpretation leaves Shepard in perhaps an even worse position than the one proposed by IT. The Crucible has possibly fired, the reapers have potentially been destroyed, but Shepard (whom we last saw being enveloped by the blast from the power conduit) is now wounded, trapped underneath a layer of debris, on a space station that is breaking apart, and wearing nothing but a badly damaged hardsuit that can’t be counted on to protect her from the vacuum of space.

Neither of these potential readings necessarily undo the possibility that IT has something important to say about the end of Mass Effect 3. All the same we will need to find a way of understanding IT that includes many of A801506 and his cohort’s observations. There isn’t enough evidence to definitively prove one theory over the other, though what we can say is that there is too much going on within the game, in particular at the end, to dismiss entirely the possibility that something meaningful is happening, even if no one can seem to agree on what that meaningful thing actually is.

In the end, all three Mass Effect games have been about indoctrination in one way or another. On the Feros colony, we even saw something of the battle between organic and mechanical mind control, played out in the conflict between the indoctrinated geth, and the settlers of Zhu’s Hope, who had become thralls of the Thorian. Fai Dan, forgotten in all of this discussion, takes his own life much in the same manner as Saren and the Illusive Man later might. And so if Shepard rejects indoctrination, her decision to do so is an echo of those that have gone before her. Though if you took one of the other two options, well—now what? It’s hard to actually say where the two other endings might lead if IT actually ends up being true, though I doubt that even if those other two endings actually mean that Shepard does succumb to indoctrination, that the “Extended Cut” ending will simply flash the “Critical Mission Failure” screen and ask you whether you want to reload from your last save.

As confusing and upsetting as Mass Effect 3’s ending might have been to the gaming community, the simple fact that it has stimulated debate, and even more importantly close observation of aspects of the game that players generally don’t think about except to complain, is a powerful testament to how much thought the developers have put into what most outsiders consider a generally mindless activity. It’s easy to forget, while in the throes of gameplay that the environments you’re in were built for the player to explore, and even study. And that whatever this new ending may hold in store for us, it’s unlikely that it will fix all the supposed “problems” or answer everyone’s questions. I gather that players will remain disappointed, angry, or confused. Yet some will end up searching for new ways to understand this new ending that are neither entirely what the developers planned, and yet which are not necessarily excluded as potential interpretations of the game. But what’s important to recognize is that IT isn’t a coping strategy for disappointed fans. It’s an earnest attempt to read layered meanings in a game that means much to its players. This in itself has to be some kind of triumph.


[1] See Crosscade, “Mass Effect 3 ­– Ending Movie Comparison – All the Colors,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPelM2hwhJA.

[2] Mass Effect 3 Secondary Codex, “The Reaper War – Desperate Measures.”

[3] See A801506, “ME 3–Indoctrination Theory Debunked (Further Explanation),” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfFBvUDKKtc. 4/17/2012.

[4] Similar cables can also be found in several of the multiplayer maps, some of which appear as side-missions in single player stories.

[5] Cf. Kirk Hamilton, “Mass Effect 3’s Musical Secret,” Kotaku.com, http://kotaku.com/5895616/mass-effect-3s-musical-secret, 4/19/2012.

Indoctrination and its discontents (part five)

Spoilers for ME 3, obvs.

[In the last installment we examined the Star Child (the Catalyst), and what he might signify within the game.]

V Shepard’s Choice

Returning to the endgame, Shepard must make her final choice. The boy’s new function (as embodiment of the Catalyst) is to explain the relative moral value of the three possible endings.[1] As noted above, these options are to either destroy the reapers, control them, or to synthesize organic and synthetic life. IT holds that the only correct option is to destroy the reapers, as this represents Shepard’s final rejection of their control. The other two endings, if one agrees with IT, actually benefit the reapers’ designs, as they involve Shepard’s destruction.

Much has been made of the color scheme related to the three choices as well. Destroy is red; red, too, within the framework of the game also means “renegade,” for when Shepard says or does things that are more blunt, selfish, or even violent. Yet, as the Catalyst explains the situation to Shepard, we see Anderson—presumably Shepard is imagining this—shooting the power coupling. Wasn’t Anderson supposed to represent Shepard’s good side? IT holds that yes, he is. Similarly, we see the illusive man taking the blue (control the reapers) choice. Again, blue seems to correlate with the “paragron” option, which the Illusive Man clearly does not represent.

Why, then, IT wants to know, are the paragon and renegade options reversed? Their answer is that the Catalyst is trying to trick Shepard into picking the wrong option; the debunkers point out that this isn’t the case: red simply represents destruction in a more obvious fashion, while blue represents the restoration of order. All the same, both the blue and the green endings appear to benefit the reapers, given that in both cases Shepard is killed.

One of the first people to advance a version of IT, the author of the blog Uninhibited and Unrepentant, points out an interesting change in the musical cues. “Listen to the musical change” they write, “The ‘control’ option is sinister with a quiet humming dissidence [sic.]. And the ‘destroy’ option rings brightly, a pleasant sound of uplifting hope and then fades away. It’s barely noticeable, broken by the jarring drumming sound, and it’s only at the beginning. But it’s there.”[2] [Edit 6/22/2012: CleverNoob has actually shown that this isn't true; the music is simply on a loop, and it appears to be coincidence that the positive and negative connotations are linked to directional choices.] There are other odd auditory cues embedded in this sequence. ACAVYOS points out that the Star Child’s voice is actually a composite of three different voices: the boy’s, as well as the voices of the male and female Shepard, Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale. Meer’s voice is panned all the way to the right, and is barely audible; Hale’s panned to the left, and is somewhat easier to hear. The composite nature of the Catalyst’s voice is odd. It seems to support IT’s idea that this is an hallucination, given that according to Freud’s theory of dreams, everyone we meet while asleep is a reflection of ourselves.

Whatever else is true, the entire area where Shepard is standing is still on the bottom of the Citadel, which in a sense means that it was always there, waiting to be used, as though whatever race constructed the space station anticipated that it might be used for this purpose. In composing this essay, I’ve come across an interesting hypothesis about this situation on the Galactic Mattress. His point is too long to address here, but certain parts of his argument seem to make sense, and are certainly worth discussing at length; I shall attempt to do this in further work. On the other hand, this seems to be the one instance where Occam’s razor cuts in favor of IT.

One other interesting observation that appeared on Bioware’s Social Network, is that there are some interesting visual similarities between the area on the ground in London, seen just before Shepard reaches the Conduit, and this final area where she encounters the Catalyst.[3] For instance, as Shepard descends toward the Conduit, just to her left is a wrecked Mako. In the area where Shepard meets the Catalyst, there are a series of round objects, roughly the same size as the Mako’s wheels. Similarly the assembly where Shepard makes her final choice looks a good deal like the Conduit itself. Byne has posted a series of images that make this relationship clear.

Fig. 9. Byne’s composite image. (Source: Bioware Social Network)

What’s interesting is that in psychological theory, there’s some precedent for this. Freud called this part of the dream the “day residue”—images recorded in memory over the course of the day that are then repurposed by the unconscious mind during sleep.[4] The repetition of similar visual images (and the repetition of images from Shepard’s earlier experiences as well—i.e. the passageway leading up to the control panel) appears to be linked. Though it’s not likely that the developer was thinking of the day residue specifically in constructing this sequence, this doesn’t mean that the visual echoes in design don’t reflect something similar, and signal to the player that something odd is happening, whether that means Shepard is indoctrinated or not.

Read Part VI


[1] Depending on certain choices made in game, and depending on the index of Shepard’s Effective Military Strength (EMS), not all of these options may be available. In fact, the game may “select” an ending for a player with an especially low EMS; the game bases its choice on whether Shepard chose to destroy or keep the Collector base at the end of Mass Effect 2.

[2] See Uninhibited and Unrepentant, “Mind=…Holy Fuck…”, http://uninhibitedandunrepentant.tumblr.com/post/19344938387/mind-holy-fuck, 5/8/2012.

[3] See user Byne’s post that compiles a good bit of the various observations, http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/9727423/1, 5/8/2012. The thread, of which Byne’s post is the first, is now over two thousand pages long.

[4] V. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Ed. Trans. A. A. Brill, New York: Modern Library, 1994.

Indoctrination and its discontents (part four)

(Source: Gameinformer)

Spoilers for ME 3

[In part three, we looked at Shepard's arrival at the Citadel, and her final confrontation with the Illusive Man, as well as her second physical collapse, and finally her being spirited away to meet the Catalyst.]

IV The Star Child

As she gets up onto her hands and knees, Shepard sees the ghostly image of a boy walking toward her. We’ve seen the boy before, of course. He featured prominently in the opening sequence of the game, and again in Shepard’s dream sequences that divide the game into roughly three acts. Why this boy in particular? A801506 and the Galactic Mattress both suggest that using the boy for the final sequence was done mostly out of convenience, and that the developers chose to recycle the character’s “mesh” in order to save time and effort. Certainly reusing an asset already created is economical, however, why this boy (who speaks all of two lines of dialogue over the course of what ends up being more than thirty hours of gameplay), instead of some of the members of Shepard’s crew, some of whom have been her friend, ally, or even her lover for the better part of three games? It would have been more economical to not spend any time making a mesh for him at all. Clearly the boy is meant to mean something.

In fact, Bioware has provided something of an answer, both in promotional materials, as well as in the book The Art of Mass Effect 3, that the boy is intended to represent “all of the people that Shepard can’t save,” or as gamerd83 more succinctly puts it, “Shepard’s guilt.”[1] While this may be true, and though The Art of Mass Effect 3 contains minor spoilers for the game, it is hardly outside the realm of possibility for the developer to be somewhat coy with regard to their exact motivations behind adding certain elements to the game.

Let’s return to that opening moment, where the boy first appears. We hear and see what we believe to be an Alliance fighter flying over the towers of an unknown city; after a moment we realize that the fighter is actually toy the child is holding in his hand as he runs in circles on a rooftop garden near one of the Alliance headquarters buildings. The camera pulls back to Shepard’s perspective, and we see her turn away from the window, smiling to herself. Before she can turn back, she’s called away to an important meeting; the reapers arrive; Shepard flees with Anderson, and after a bit of tutorial gameplay, she discovers the boy again, this time hiding in an ventilation duct, inside the room she has just entered. By this point the player has gone through so many twists and turns that it is difficult to say whether it’s still plausible that such a meeting could occur. [EDIT 5/16/2012: On a second playthrough, I made a point to look down toward the balcony where Shepard enters the room where she meets the boy. In fact, if you're lucky, you will actually see the boy run up to the door, open it, and run into the room. Read more about this: here.] This footage featured heavily in early demonstrations of the game shown at conventions, as well as in some promotional trailers, as well as in the gameplay available in the demo of the game released on 14 February 2012. Given that the boy is featured as part of the opening cinematic, and that he is linked to Shepard, first through the Commander’s subjective gaze and then through a face to face meeting, it’s clear that the boy is intended to signify something important within the game.

Shepard is unable to coax the boy out of the duct. “You can’t help me,” he tells her. In the next moment, Anderson returns, refocusing Shepard’s attention. Looking back, she sees that the child has vanished without a sound, deeper into the shaft. IT supporters point out that it’s odd that Anderson doesn’t seem to hear Shepard talking to the boy. Perhaps it’s not so strange: the city is under attack, and there’s a lot going on outside of the short conversation between the Commander and the child. Anderson, too, has already left the room—Shepard even opened the door for him. The room that he enters to scout ahead is partially on fire. We can, perhaps, forgive his not noticing.

What is more strange, and harder to explain, is Shepard’s silence about the boy: she neither attempts to alert Anderson to his presence in order to engage his help, nor does she seem to feel the need to mention what she saw. Shepard, in fact, says nothing—to anyone—about the boy throughout the entire course of the game. [Edit: Actually, Shepard does refer to the boy in a conversation with Garrus, shortly after meeting him on Palaven's moon.]

It’s worth pointing out one other thing that takes place during this sequence. Shepard and the boy make direct eye contact twice, first in the ventilation duct, then a few minutes later, across a much greater distance. Both times this direct eye contact is broken on hearing the characteristic reaper growl. IT suggests that this “growl” is heard each time someone being subjected to indoctrination actively rejects reaper control. Their principal evidence for this is the novel Mass Effect: Retribution, wherein Paul Grayson is subjected to various forms of indoctrination, including implantation and having “self-replicating nanites” introduced into his body.[2] Despite these methods, Grayson is able to fight full reaper control for some time, hearing this distinctive “growl” each time he does.[3]

Shepard and Anderson continue on through the newly made ruins of Vancouver, eventually reaching the Normandy. As Shepard says goodbye to Anderson, she spots two Alliance shuttles dropping in, disgorging a group of marines, and picking up a group of wounded civilians. The boy enters from the far right side of the frame, first as a blur, then as the framed subject of the cinematic. Again, there’s been too much action for us to say whether it’s plausible that the boy could have reached the landing pad. From Shepard’s perspective, we watch as he scrambles across landing platform, unnoticed and unaided by anyone. Instead of running straight toward the shuttle, though, he instead looks up, directly at Shepard. It isn’t clear how far apart the two are at this moment, though moments before we saw the Normandy begin to pull away from the rubble in the harbor where Shepard climbed aboard. Despite what must be a distance of several hundred meters, and likely much more than that, Shepard and the boy lock eyes, then the boy hears the roar of a massive reaper as it draws closer to the landing pad. He scrambles into the shuttle, hauling himself up over the step, ignored by both the Alliance marines guarding the landing zone and civilians helping each other aboard.[4] The door of the shuttle closes, it takes off, and the reaper, now quite close, takes aim and promptly shoots the craft down.

IT supporters point to this sequence in particular as proof that the boy is not real. Though it’s true that under dire circumstances people often behave in incredibly selfish and uncharacteristic ways, it seems unlikely that no one would even reach out to help pull the boy on board the shuttle. And so it seems that perhaps the boy is, at the very least, more a metaphorical character than a physical being.

Read Part V


[1] Cf. gamerd83, “ME3 Indoctrination Theory Loopholes (1 of 3),” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U37rP_E78UA&feature=related.

[2] Mass Effect storyline, via Mass Effect Wiki, http://masseffect.wikia.com/wiki/Storyline_III#Mass_Effect:_Retribution, 4/16/2012.

[3] See ACAVYOS.

[4] Cf. guidemesilly, “Mass Effect 3 Ending Explained (1/3): The Beginning Analysis for Indoctrination Theory”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8vra2WF2oY. From the video it is actually clear that the boy must have crossed directly in front of at least one of the Marines dismounting from the shuttle. This Marine takes no notice of the boy, which again seems somewhat odd.

Indoctrination and its discontents (part three)

Spoiler warnings for ME 3.

[In parts one and two of this multipart article, we looked at the basic claims of IT, as well as examining some of the ideas advanced by the debunkers. For a refresher, you can find part one, and part two by clicking through the links.]

III The Straight and Narrow

On reaching the Citadel, Shepard’s vision is no longer blurred. She finds herself in an area that is choked with dead human bodies, much the same as the ground leading up to the Conduit in London. The remains found here are more distinct, something that Shepard points out, with individual limbs and even a few faces visible. There is a single keeper in this area that both ignores Shepard and that also can’t be killed if fired upon.[1] Contacting Anderson, Shepard learns that he came up shortly after she did, but ended up in a different place.

IT states that this is impossible, as the game offers only one path for Shepard to reach the control panel that is her ultimate goal. They also note that the Illusive Man (the former Jack Harper) later appears from behind Shepard, meaning that he also came from this area. IT proponents point to this as proof that this is all a hallucination. This may be true, but none of it actually counts as proof. And, in any case, the Illusive Man’s mysterious appearance behind Shepard is same kind of surprise move often seen in action movies. It’s not so much an oversight as it is a commonplace.

Much more interesting is what Shepard sees along the way. As numerous observers have pointed out, this version of the Citadel contains design elements seen elsewhere in the Mass Effect series, though none are elements we’ve seen on the Citadel before. The first room is reminiscent of the Collector ship from Mass Effect 2, though the lighting and the structure of the room suggest various locations on Omega, most notably Afterlife. The next space Shepard enters is a large open area that curves away from her both to the left and to the right. Sparks of electricity shoot through the air. The only path is forward, down a ramp, and across a bridge, which is bordered on either side by a series of panels that slide against one another. Many of these elements—the bridge, the lightning, the sliding panels—are borrowed from a downloadable episode for Mass Effect 2, “Lair of the Shadow Broker,” and all seem to be clearly meant to reference the Shadow Broker’s ship. Reaching the other side of the ramp, there are two structures that look like antennae or railings that again reference both the lightning rods found on the Shadow Broker’s ship, as well as the defense turrets found on the exterior of the Citadel during the final battle of the first Mass Effect. Each of these “railings” is stamped with a logo. On the left hand side this reads “1M1”, while on the right, these characters are reversed (which is only somewhat noticeable; the reversed “1M1″ appears in the area where Shepard meets the Catalyst, too). Ascending the other side of the ramp, and looking up, Shepard appears to be entering a space not unlike that from the original Mass Effect, when she storms the Council Chambers to fight Saren her climactic battle against Saren. In fact, it at first appears she is looking up into a circle of trees, though these soon resolve into a series of shadows cast by the vanes built into the ceiling of the next area.

It’s hard to say what all these design choices mean specifically. They don’t necessarily prove or disprove either IT, or those who would debunk the theory. For instance, the final area that Shepard enters is circular. A long catwalk joins the entrance to a round platform. Perhaps instead of assuming there is only one entrance, one could argue that it is just as likely the room could have rotated a few degrees to the right or left to allow Anderson in before Shepard reached it. Anderson even says, “Whoa, one of the walls just moved. This whole place is shifting. Changing.” A few moments later Shepard finds him standing over the control panel.[2] All the same, when taken as a whole these elements do seem to be pointing somewhere, though making a more specific statement may prove difficult. The following figures illustrate some of the references to earlier Mass Effect games, and other locations that Shepard has visited.

Fig. 5. Shepard, seen here in the area where she first enters the Citadel. Visual references point most specifically to the Collector Ship, as well as Afterlife on Omega. Notes and other additions added by original poster. (Source: Imgur.com)[3]

Fig. 6. An image from the next area Shepard enters, which seems to reference the Shadow Broker’s ship. (Source: Imgur.com)

Fig. 7. The ramp leading to the final area. Note the lettering “1M1” on the railing. The railing itself resembles the lightning masts on the Shadow Broker’s ship as well as—as the original poster points out—the forward part of the Normandy. (Source: Imgur.com)

Fig. 8. The area where the final confrontation with the Illusive Man takes place. The background is taken from the final sequence of the original Mass Effect. The original poster also points to a certain similarity to Cronos station. (Source: Imgur.com)

One thing that bears mentioning is these are some of the final moments where Shepard is actually a controllable character. Once Shepard emerges onto the platform behind Anderson, the action—aside from the brief moment where she is able to choose the red, blue or green options, is essentially one long cinematic sequence, where Shepard’s and the player’s gaze have been predetermined. We’re used to this kind of thing, of course. Players see it in games all the time, and multiple sources, among them, the writer who operates the site The Galactic Pillow, note that as recently as last November, Bioware was working on a mechanic that would have left Shepard more controllable by the player, before ultimately deciding to abandon it in favor of the ending we have now.

Let’s assume for a moment that losing control of Shepard means nothing in particular, and that it is merely a manifestation of Bioware’s inability to make a bit of gameplay work the way they wanted it to. Consider that, in a sense, Shepard has been out of our control since well before she left the ground in London. Once she exits the truck to make the rush to the Conduit, her path is essentially linear. After her arrival on the Citadel, the same holds true. There’s only one way to move. This may not be an indication of indoctrination, but the linearity of these final moments is interesting. There is only one path: forward, on toward your destiny.

The sequence that follows Shepard’s arrival at the control panel involves the final confrontation with the Illusive Man. His entry is marked by tendrils of black “smoke” encroaching on all sides of the screen, and these seem to both advance and retreat somewhat in sync with the level of domination he is exerting over Shepard. Both IT proponents and detractors make much of this scene. It does, after all, represent the final struggle between indoctrination and free will, whether or not the entire scene plays out in the physical world or in Shepard’s mind. There’s little here to convince us to accept one particular reading of the scene over the other, though it is worth noting that this scene in particular is where IT proponents place too much meaning, while the detractors tend to see things too literally.

What’s important is that the Illusive Man, whether physically present or a figment of Shepard’s imagination, is capable of taking control of her body, of forcing her to point her weapon at Anderson, and then pull the trigger. After a brief argument with the Illusive Man, one that will no doubt remind most players of the final battle with Saren in Mass Effect, Shepard either convinces the Illusive Man to commit suicide, or kills him herself, thus clearing the final hurdle to firing the Crucible.[4] Shepard steps forward, touches the controls, and the Citadel arms begin opening.

She then takes a moment to rest beside the mortally wounded Anderson, as they talk, and as Anderson slowly dies, Shepard realizes that she, too, is bleeding from a wound located in the lower left part of her abdomen (remember that earlier she was shot in her right shoulder, too). Much discussion surrounds the exact cause and placement of this injury. IT holds that it is in the same location as Anderson’s, and point to the sequence where Shepard is forced to shoot her former commander. A801506 has shown that this observation isn’t correct: the bullet seems to strike Anderson in the lower right side of his body. Thus Anderson isn’t so much a “double” of Shepards conscience, as he is a mirror image of her. And so, if as IT would have us believe, Anderson is merely a “reflection” of a portion of Shepard’s mind, it would follow that they should have wounds on opposite sides of their body. As seen earlier with the “1M1” appearing on the left, and its inverted image appearing on the right, placing Anderson on Shepard’s right remains in keeping with this mirror image theme.

Some suggest that the “1M1” inversion is a result of copying and pasting that particular element, then “flipping” the image to make it fit with the environment. This explanation certainly makes sense, though it doesn’t particularly jibe with the attention that seems to have been lavished on the design of the rest of the game. It also doesn’t take into account that numerous other environmental elements are reused elsewhere in the game, many of them bearing some kind of text or numerals, but these last two areas are the only locations in the game where mirrored characters and numerals are visible. (It also bears mentioning that this area has few other logos or symbols of any kind on the walls, almost as though to draw attention to what little writing there is.) [Edit 5/27/2012: Actually, there are a few other locations where reversed characters are visible; in particular the sequence TM 889, seen on the side of one of the radios in the opening sequence of the game, bears the characters 889 MT on the reverse side. This element is repeated at least once in another location, on a beam overhead as Shepard enters the spaceport. Elsewhere in the game, we can see that the giant structural frames spaced throughout the Citadel are merely scaled-up copies (identically marked, even) of other objects found throughout the game, including things as small as computer stands.]

A brief conversation between Shepard and Anderson ensues, where the dying mentor and his onetime apprentice share a well-deserved moment of peace. But Anderson is fading fast. He dies like the good, brave soldier he is; and Shepard, now alone, hears Admiral Hackett’s voice coming over the radio. Hearing his voice, she begins crawling again toward the control panel only to collapse before reaching it.

How, IT proponents want to know, does Hackett know Shepard made it to the Citadel, and how can she hear him, given that her radio was probably destroyed when she was shot by Harbinger. There are two simple explanations to this, the first being that Hacket must be able to see that the Citadel is opening, and if it is, he can probably assume that Shepard is the one doing the opening. As for how she can hear him, heroes aren’t often thwarted by something as trivial as a broken walkie-talkie. Messages that arrive too late and other such breakdowns belong to the tragic mode, not the epic.[5] As she collapses onto her hands and knees in front of the control panel, that same burst of white light, first seen when she was first hit by Harbinger’s beam, envelops Shepard. A brief animation shows her body being carried “upward.”[6] When she awakes, she is again in a new area that is, apparently on the outer hull of the Citadel. In front of her is some kind of coupling where the Citadel and the Crucible are joined together, though not touching. She is, it appears, no longer bleeding from her wounds.

Read Part IV


[1] Any bullets fired at the keeper trigger no response, and do not appear to actually be “hitting” anything. This in and of itself may not be significant, however, given that often enough this is how games tell the player “you can’t interact with this object.”

[2] Though, again, it’s hard to say what that might mean. He might be referring to the sliding panels seen earlier, or something else entirely.

[4] It’s worth noting that the outcome of the final conversation with the Illusive Man depends a good deal on factors well beyond the scope of this particular scene. In most instances Shepard will be forced to kill the Illusive Man.

[5] Cf. Kate Cox, “Why Mass Effect’s Ending Doesn’t Need Chaniging,” Kotaku.com, http://kotaku.com/5892074/why-mass-effect-3s-ending-doesnt-need-changing-spoilers, 4/19/2012.

[6] There’s been some debate as to which direction the platform carrying Shepard is actually moving. Study of the scene where the Crucible joins to the Citadel seems to point to her being on the reverse side of the circular structure that forms the base of the Presidium tower. (This means that she was moving away from the main part of the Citadel; for ease of description, let’s call that direction “down”.) As for her being on the exterior part of the hull, how is she able to breathe? That isn’t entirely clear. Either it’s a hallucination, or there’s a force field that traps in an atmosphere. There’s not sufficient evidence to prove either explanation.

Indoctrination and its discontents (part two)

(Source: Mass Effect Wiki)

Spoilers, for real.

II The Conduit Run

[Just to recap, in part one, we looked at the general disappointment surrounding the ending of Mass Effect 3, and examined the moments in the game leading up to what indoctrination theory holds is essentially a dream sequence. Let us take a closer look at what happens after this crucial moment.]

Shepard awakes (or seems to), her armor partially melted. The screen indicates through a bloody vignette effect, as it does elsewhere in the game, that she is badly hurt. She rises to her feet, picks up a pistol (not necessarily one of the weapons she was carrying earlier), and slowly continues advancing toward the beam. Her companions are gone, and there isn’t much left of the other marines who were storming toward the Conduit.  Shepard does pass one man who is propped against a bit of debris and appears to be dying. As A801506 points out, if the player were to turn around and look down, there is a large pool of blood on the ground where Shepard was just moments before. The in-game HUD has disappeared except for the aiming reticle, and access to Shepard’s inventory and powers are blocked.[1] The most notable thing here is that the game looks considerably different. We see Shepard from a different angle, and no matter how you try to readjust your view, you cannot tilt the camera low enough to see her feet. If the player doesn’t head immediately toward the beam, but instead turns around and goes the other way, they will find that the landscape is bordered by heaps of what may be corpses, though these are poorly rendered, and lack much definition aside from the fact that the heaps seem to be made up of various parts of “Phoenix armor and a couple of others from first Mass Effect.[2]

IT proponents also point out that the game has added trees and bits of brush to the landscape that were previously not there. These additions to the landscape, they claim, are references to the three dream sequences that feature Commander Shepard chasing after the boy she first observes on earth, just before the reaper invasion, and who is later apparently killed when the shuttle he boards is shot down by a beam from a reaper’s cannon. This contention has largely been disproved. The trees that Shepard sees after being hit by the beam were, in fact, there all along, as A801506 points out, but were difficult to see on the way down the hill because they were backlit.[3] Other observers have established that the bushes were also present prior to the whiteout.[4]

Even though the trees were present prior to the event, something is odd about the scene that follows when Shepard finally gets back to her feet. Her vision is blurred, and she moves unsteadily. Granted, she’s wounded, but the visual effects, in particular the blurring, appear to indicate something important and perhaps even fantastical has taken place.[5] In fact the optical changes seem to be a reference not only to the dream sequences Shepard experiences throughout the game, but to Bioware’s Dragon Age franchise, in particular the passages of the game that take place within a realm known as “the Fade”. In the Dragon Age games, the Fade exists somewhat in parallel to the waking world; it is primarily accessible to mages, though the non-magical enter it when they dream. The Fade, too, is constantly tempting  those who are sensitive to it, and such people are at risk of being trapped there forever.[6]

In-game, a player’s entry into the Fade is marked by a number of visual and auditory cues that suggest an off-kilter world. It may seem unsurprising to see a similar effects used in two games that share both the same developer and publisher, yet the similarity of these cues is more than merely coincidental or convenient. In fact, there appears to be a particular set of visual and auditory commonplaces across a number of games by various developers that help indicate to the player that they have entered a dream or hallucinatory state. Such cues include fog, overcast skies, blurring of the landscape, a desaturated or gray-skewed color palette, blue or purple light, bare trees or dry brush, whispered dialogue, atonal music, shadowy figures, tables and chairs or other furniture placed incongruously in the environment, all appear to be key elements of this sort of language, which can be found in other games as well (including Skyrim and Dishonored).

Many of these elements will be immediately familiar to anyone who has completed the quest found in the Pelagius Wing of the Blue Palace in Skyrim. The “Mind of Madness” quest from Skyrim introduces another important commonplace found in these fantastical sequences: mystical weapons that have strange effects and powers. In the “Mind of Madness” Sheogorath gives the player something called the Wabbajack, which has unpredictable effects in the dream world, and can be used in the waking world, once the quest is completed. Shepard, too, will find a kind of mystical weapon, as we’ll see shortly.

By way of comparison, here are four images from Dragon Age: OriginsMass Effect 3 and Skyrim, each showing similar levels of blurring, clouds, and similar visual effects that, in the case of the latter two games, represent otherworldly experience.

Fig. 1. Shepard, facing away from the Conduit beam and looking back toward the ruins of London. Note the blurring of background elements and the disappearance of the in-game HUD. The vignette effect (accentuated by foreground elements) indicates low health. Note the brush in the lower right hand corner. (Source: Zetaboards)

Fig. 2. A still image from Shepard’s third dream. In the distance a few shadowy figures are visible. Note the park bench, as well as the fog and blurring of more distant objects. (Source: sok4.de)

Fig. 3. Image inside the Fade from Dragon Age: Origins. The blurring is similar to that in Fig. 1. Note also the dry brush, and the bare trees. (Source: Gamepressure.com)

Fig. 4. Sheogorath’s table, from the side quest “The Mind of Madness” in Skyrim. This small section of the game features much of the same visual and auditory language that indicates to the player that something out of the ordinary is taking place. (Source: Elder Scrolls Wiki).

Thus in at least one of Shepard’s dreams, she sees wisps of fog or smoke that form human silhouettes, and that dissolve as she approaches, there are park benches scattered somewhat at random among the trees, fog obscures the background, the trees are losing their leaves. In addition to this, in the third section of the dream, one hears low whispering—her crewmate’s voices (including voices of some crewmembers who may already be dead), in fact—saying “Some souls die in battle. Some souls die in their sleep. Some souls die for no reason at all.”[7] Similarly after being wounded, the bare trees (now much more obvious because they are lit by the beam), the wispy tufts of brush, the blurring, and the discordant soundtrack all seem to indicate that beyond being wounded and in terrible pain that Shepard has passed beyond conscious world.

Continuing on toward the beam, Shepard encounters four final enemies, which she quickly dispatches with the pistol she picked up earlier. IT supporters point out that this pistol—a Carnifex, a weapon known for both its stopping power and its small magazine—seems to have unlimited ammunition.[8] On the Xbox version of the game, tapping the reload button will frequently not trigger the corresponding animation, though on the PC version of the game it might.[9] Before her path is clear, she is shot one last time, her right arm snapping backward as though she’s been hit in the shoulder or upper right part of her torso, before moving on into the beam.

Read Part III


[1] [Edit: Everything in this footnote is incorrect. I'm leaving it as a testament to my own foolishness.] This is where the difficulty of discussing a video game becomes apparent. Where does gameplay factor into the “text” of the game’s narrative? In general, gameplay is about as important to the actual narrative of the game as the quality of the paper is to the narrative of a book; however there are instances where it does reflect a kind of intentionality on the part of the developer. This seems to be one of those moments.

[2] See Indoctrination Theory thread, GenLloyd, http://w11.zetaboards.com/Theorycraftng_HUB/topic/7698722/1/, 4/13/2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See, for example, MothMonk, “Ah yes ‘bushes are part of indoctrination’ we have dismissed that claim…” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8XkrM6pLt4&context=C4ac532eADvjVQa1PpcFMiSb6_qfEvbN-AAKWxTqk6p3DT1aphZB8=, 4/12/2012.

[5] A801506 states that the blurring is the way the game lets the player know Shepard’s health is low. This is not the case. Generally the blood-spattered vignette indicates low health. Any blurring comes from the spattering, not an imposed optical effect.

[6] CF. “The Fade,” http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/The_Fade, 4/12/2012.

[7] Cf. Ceruleancrescent’s post on the Bioware Social Network, http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/9727423/266, 4/13/2012.

[8] A801506 insists that the unlimited ammunition feature is a necessary part of the game’s design, pointing out that later, Shepard will need more shots than the Carnifex can usually hold in order to destroy the power conduit (provided she chooses the “destroy” option). While this is certainly true, giving the power conduit lower initial health would have resolved the issue just as easily, though the dramatic effect of having to shoot the coupling repeatedly would possibly have been diminished. It is also true that A801506 attributes most of the strange phenomena observed within the game to the exigencies of game design, developer oversight, or laziness on the part of the designers. Cf. “Mass Effect Indoctrination Theory Debunked: The End 1 of 4,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujbZN8TARDw, 4/12/2012.

[9] Ibid.


Indoctrination and its discontents (part one, revised)

(Image: Troodon80)

Considerable spoilers for the ending of ME3

I Introduction/ Origins of the theory

The third installment of the Mass Effect franchise is now six weeks old. In that time, the game’s audience has experienced tremendous anticipation, excitement, elation, and finally disappointment. The general disenchantment stems from players’ disappointment with two aspects in particular. The first being that Shepard, the hero whom we, the players, have followed so resolutely for the past hundred or so hours of gameplay, is given three choices as to how the game ends: she[1] may destroy the reapers, thereby killing all artificial life in the galaxy including her loyal companion, EDI, and her newly won synthetic allies, the geth; she may control the reapers, but sacrifice herself; finally she may choose something called “synthesis” whereby Shepard again must make the ultimate sacrifice, but will live on in a sense, by scattering her genetic material throughout all organic and synthetic species across the Milky Way.

None of these options seem all that appealing, and what’s worse, is that in the end, none of them seem to have that much of an affect on the actual outcome of the game. No matter the player’s final decision, the mass relays are destroyed, wiping out not only the reapers, but also (in a sense) the entire fictional universe in which the Mass Effect series takes place.[2] The second, and what seems to most fans, to be the bigger concern is that in this final choice the only discernable difference is that the color of the explosion transmitted across the galaxy is either blue, green, or red, depending on whether Shepard chose the “control,” “merge,” or “kill” options. To make things more confusing, depending on whether conditions are met within the game, the player is treated to a few seconds of dark, grainy “footage” that shows a body in scorched armor, a set of N7 (Shepard’s military designation) dog tags dangling from the collar. An instant before the credits roll, Shepard takes a breath, as though just regaining consciousness, or (perhaps) waking from a terrible dream.

While reviews for the game were by and large positive, few critics directly addressed the ending sequence, aside from Kate Cox, at Kotaku.com, who came out in defense of the ending,[3] and Adam Robert Thomas, who on the other hand writes that

[t]he gestalt of Mass Effect 3 is an end unjustified by its means, unworthy of defense. During its final moments it commits storytelling suicide, and the taste of decay it leaves in the mouth cripples the otherwise impeccable quality of what came before, poisoning even nostalgia against it. At best and being fair to the game’s other traits, the quality comes out a wash – simply mediocre.[4]

In the last month or so, reaction to the endgame sequence has understandably overwhelmed most discussion of the game’s other qualities. Bioware has announced that it will release an extended ending sequence,[5] and more recently the Better Business Bureau has agreed with a fan who filed an official complaint claiming that the game was falsely advertised with respect to the developer’s assertion that “the decisions you make completely shape your experience”.[6]

More recently, there has been considerable talk on various online boards and in the more mainstream video game press advancing a theory that states that Shepard was indoctrinated—a method in the game whereby the reapers, Shepard’s principal enemy—take hold of and manipulate control of an organic host’s central nervous system. The proponents of “indoctrination theory”[7] (hereafter IT) suggest that, after a certain point during the endgame sequence, that the onscreen action is, in fact, not real, but a kind of hallucination; the struggle represented therein takes place only in Shepard’s mind.

Just as quickly, a smaller, but by no means less vocal, number of fans have turned up to debunk the theory; one such, a youtube user known as A801506, has posted a number of videos that show several of IT’s principal claims are demonstrably false. While the proponents of IT seem willing to ignore certain key pieces of evidence if they don’t mesh smoothly with their theory, A801506 and his cadre of debunkers ignore the larger picture, advancing the notion that the concerns and limitations of game design have more to do with the ending’s inconsistencies, rather than artistic considerations.[8]

Both sides of the argument present interesting and useful observations, yet none of them address the larger issue, which is that neither one nor the other theory can satisfactorily explain how we are supposed to interpret the final sequence of scenes. This essay is intended not so much to synthesize these two readings of the endgame, but, in a sense, to take the hard work done by these committed fans seriously, and to explore what they have done well, and show where their hypotheses may require further explanation.

First a bit of exposition to explain how IT fits in with Mass Effect 3’s ending. The reaper invasion finally arrives during the opening minutes of Mass Effect 3. Commander Shepard spends the bulk of the game shuttling across the galaxy, searching for resources and allies to help build a superweapon that may or may not end the war. In order to work, this superweapon, known as the Crucible, must be attached to the Citadel, the massive space station that until the final movement of Mass Effect 3 served as the hub of galactic civilization and the seat of this civilization’s government. Players who are familiar with the original Mass Effect already know that the Citadel was built by the reapers  as a kind of trap for advanced civilizations, and is itself a mass relay in disguise, so it’s perhaps not so implausible that it could be used as the final component for a giant bomb. But  in order to make the Crucible work, Shepard must gain access to the Citadel—now moved  to geostationary orbit above London—via an energy beam that seems to work much the same way as the Conduit did in the first Mass Effect game.

Getting to the Conduit won’t be easy. Commander Shepard, along with two squadmates, must fight through the ruined streets of London, before linking up with Admiral David Anderson, and a number of unnamed allied soldiers. From here on out, they must scramble across an open expanse of ground, trying to reach the beam. In front of the player is a vast open area, a killing ground, that she and her allies must charge across. As she runs down the hill, Harbinger (the leader of the reapers) will land nearby and begin picking off the soldiers that run ahead of you. A801506 shows through video evidence that there is a trigger located about halfway down the hillside. Anything that crosses it is immediately targeted and killed. Once Shepard crosses this threshold, the beam will hit her, too, after which the screen fades to white.[9]

Simply put, IT states that everything after this moment is a kind of dream, or hallucination, wherein the central conflict is whether the reapers who (they contend) have been steadily indoctrinating Shepard over the course of all three games make one final attempt to take control of their most stalwart enemy. IT rightly points out that Shepard has been exposed to considerable amounts of reaper technology, including the device known as “Object Rho,” which featured in the downloadable episode “Arrival.” It is not specifically stated that Object Rho is an indoctrination device, but it clearly had that effect on Dr. Amanda Kenson and her team. Object Rho also physically resembles the artifact found on Shanxi by Jack Harper’s team of mercenaries, and brothers Saren and Desolas Arterius.[10] And when Shepard comes into contact with Rho, she experiences a hallucination, and briefly passes out.

Over the course of the three games, Shepard encounters many other kinds of reaper artifacts, and even spends a brief period of time inside a derelict reaper.[11] Given that most other beings suffering from such exposure succumb to indoctrination, it would seem that Shepard too must be a kind of time bomb waiting to go off.

IT further holds that Shepard never reaches the beam that will carry her to the Citadel, and, in fact, never leaves the ground in London. Whether we believe the theory wholesale or not, it does hold a particular appeal. Certainly it gives the more strange aspects of the game’s ending a (potentially) more hopeful reading.

Read Part II


[1] Given that I most often play Shepard as a woman, I shall be using female pronouns.

[2] See Sparky Clarkson, “Mass Effect 3’s Ending Disrespects its Most Invested Players,” kotaku.com, http://kotaku.com/5898743/mass-effect-3s-ending-disrespects-its-most-invested-players, 4/14/2012.

[3] Cf. Kate Cox, “Why Mass Effect 3’s Ending Doesn’t Need Changing,” kotaku.com, http://kotaku.com/5892074/why-mass-effect-3s-ending-doesnt-need-changing-spoilers, 4/12/2012.

[4] Adam Robert Thomas, “Video Game Review: Mass Effect 3,” in California Literary Review (online edition), http://calitreview.com/24673, 4/12/2012.

[5] Cf. Mass Effect Wikia, “Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut,” masseffectwikia.com, http://masseffect.wikia.com/wiki/Mass_Effect_3:_Extended_Cut, 4/14/2012.

[6] Cf. Mike Fahey, “The Better Business Bureau Says, Yes Mass Effect 3 Was Falsely Advertised,” kotaku.com, http://kotaku.com/5900991/the-better-business-bureau-says-yes-mass-effect-3-was-falsely-advertised, 4/14/2012.

[7] See, for example, “Mass Effect 3 Ending: Analyzing the Indoctrination Theory,” gamefront.com, http://www.gamefront.com/mass-effect-3-ending-analyzing-the-indoctrination-theory/, gamefront.com, 4/12/2012.

[8] To be fair, a large portion of the gaming community seems to be of the same mind, believing that the ending was bungled or rushed, rather than being—to put it somewhat generously—inscrutably meaningful.

[9] See A801506, “Mass Effect Indoctrination Theory Debunked: The End 1 of 4,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujbZN8TARDw, 4/12/2012.

[10] In the comic series, Mass Effect: Evolution, Jack Harper (the future Illusive Man) and Saren Arterius, the principal villain of Mass Effect, both share a common experience. Harper and Saren, we now know, are suffering from a long-term form of indoctrination, even though neither of them came into direct contact with the artifact unearthed on Shanxi. Instead they are exposed to the object indirectly—by trying to pull someone else away from it. Thus Ben Hislop, who touches the object is converted into a husk over the course of the next few days (Issue #1); not much later Saren’s brother suffers a similar fate (issue #4). The initial effects of indoctrination are, for Harper in particular, largely positive. Aside from headaches and occasional moments of weakness, he is gifted with superior intelligence that allows him to learn the asari language instantly and to operate complex machinery without instruction. Cf. Mass Effect: Evolution, 1-4, Dark Horse Comics, 2011.

[11] See ACAVYOS, “Mass Effect 3—Shepard’s Indoctrination (New),” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ythY_GkEBck, 4/12/2012.

Indoctrination and its discontents (part two)

Spoilers, for real.

[Just to recap, in part one, we looked at the general disappointment surrounding the ending of Mass Effect 3, and examined the moments in the game leading up to what indoctrination theory holds is essentially a dream sequence. Let us take a closer look at what happens after this crucial moment.]

Shepard awakes or seems to awake, badly wounded, her armor partially melted. The screen indicates through a bloody vignette effect, as it does elsewhere in the game, that she is badly hurt. Shepard rises to her feet, picks up a pistol, and slowly continues advancing toward the beam. There isn’t much left of the marines who were storming toward the Conduit, though Shepard does pass one man who is propped against a bit of debris and appears to be dying. As A801506 points out, if the player were to turn around and look down, there is a large pool of blood on the ground where Shepard was just moments before. The in-game HUD has disappeared except for the aiming reticle, and access to Shepard’s inventory and powers are blocked.[1] The most notable thing here is that the game looks considerably different. We see Shepard from a higher angle, and no matter how you try to readjust your view, you cannot tilt the camera low enough to see her feet. If the player doesn’t head immediately toward the beam, but instead turns around and goes the other way, they will find that the landscape is bordered by heaps of what may be corpses, though these are poorly rendered, and lack much definition aside from the fact that the heaps seem to be made up of various parts of “Phoenix armor and a couple of others from first Mass Effect.[2] IT proponents also point out that the game has added trees and bits of brush to the landscape that were previously not there. These additions to the landscape, they claim, are references to the three dream sequences that feature Commander Shepard chasing after the boy she first observes on earth, just before the reaper invasion, and who is later apparently killed when the shuttle he boards is shot down by a beam from a reaper’s cannon. This contention has largely been disproved. The trees that Shepard sees after being hit by the beam were, in fact, there all along, as A801506 points out, but were difficult to see on the way down the hill because they were backlit.[3] Other observers have established that the bushes were also present prior to the whiteout.[4]

Even though the trees were present prior to the event, something is odd about the scene that follows when Shepard finally gets back to her feet. Her vision is blurred, and she moves unsteadily. Granted, she’s wounded, but the visual effects, in particular the blurring, appear to indicate something important and perhaps even fantastical has taken place.[5] In fact the optical changes seem to be a reference not only to the dream sequences Shepard experiences throughout the game, but to Bioware’s Dragon Age franchise, in particular the passages of the game that take place within a realm known as “the Fade”. In the Dragon Age games, the Fade is a realm that exists somewhat in parallel to the waking world; it is primarily accessible to mages, though the non-magical enter it when they dream. The Fade, too, is constantly tempting to those who are sensitive to it, and such people are at risk of being trapped there forever.[6]

It is perhaps unsurprising to see a similar visual effect used in two games that share both the same developer and publisher, yet the visual similarity seems more than merely coincidental or convenient. In fact, there seems to be a particular set of visual and auditory commonplaces that help indicate to the player that they have entered a dream or hallucinatory state. Fog, overcast skies, blurring of the landscape, a desaturated or gray-skewed color palette, bare trees or dry brush, whispered dialogue, atonal music, shadowy figures, tables and chairs or other furniture placed incongruously in the environment, are all key features of this sort of language, which can be found in other games as well. Many of these elements will be familiar to anyone who has completed the quest found in the Pelagius Wing of the Blue Palace in Skyrim.

By way of comparison, here are four images from the respective games, each showing similar levels of blurring, clouds, and similar visual effects that, in the case of the latter two games, represent otherworldly experience.

Fig. 1. Shepard, facing away from the Conduit beam and looking back toward the ruins of London. Note the blurring of background elements and the disappearance of the in-game HUD. The vignette effect (accentuated by foreground elements) indicates low health. Note the brush in the lower right hand corner. (Source: Zetaboards)

Fig. 2. A still image from Shepard’s first dream. As of yet there are no “shadowy figures” or voices. Note the fog and blurring of more distant objects. (Source: ign.com)

 

Fig. 3. Image inside the Fade from Dragon Age: Origins. The blurring is similar to that in Fig. 1. Note also the dry brush, and the bare trees. (Source: Gamepressure.com)

 

 

 

Fig. 4. Sheogorath’s table, from the side quest “The Mind of Madness” in Skyrim. This small section of the game features much of the same visual and auditory language that indicates to the player that something out of the ordinary is taking place. (Source: Elder Scrolls Wiki).

Thus in at least one of Shepard’s dreams, she sees wisps of fog or smoke that form human silhouettes, and that dissolve as she approaches, there are park benches scattered somewhat at random among the trees, fog obscures the background, the trees are losing their leaves. In addition to this, in the third section of the dream, one hears low whispering—her crewmate’s voices, in fact—saying “Some die in battle. Some die in their sleep. Some die for no reason at all.”[7] Similarly after being wounded, the bare trees (now much more obvious because they are lit by the beam), the wispy tufts of brush, the blurring, and the discordant soundtrack all seem to indicate that beyond being wounded and in terrible pain that she has passed beyond conscious world.

Continuing on toward the beam, Shepard encounters four final enemies, which she quickly dispatches with the pistol she picked up earlier. IT supporters point out that this pistol—a Carnifex, a weapon known for both its stopping power and its small magazine—seems to have unlimited ammunition.[8] On the Xbox version of the game, tapping the reload button will frequently not trigger the corresponding animation, though on the PC version of the game it might.[9] Before her path is clear, she is shot one last time, her right arm snapping backward as though she’s been hit in the shoulder or upper right part of her torso, before moving on into the beam.


[1] This is where the difficulty of discussing a video game becomes apparent. Where does gameplay factor into the “text” of the game’s narrative? In general, gameplay is about as important to the actual narrative of the game as the quality of the paper is to the narrative of a book; however there are instances where it does reflect a kind of intentionality on the part of the developer. This seems to be one of those moments.

[2] See Indoctrination Theory thread, GenLloyd, http://w11.zetaboards.com/Theorycraftng_HUB/topic/7698722/1/, 4/13/2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See, for example, MothMonk, “Ah yes ‘bushes are part of indoctrination’ we have dismissed that claim…” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8XkrM6pLt4&context=C4ac532eADvjVQa1PpcFMiSb6_qfEvbN-AAKWxTqk6p3DT1aphZB8=, 4/12/2012.

[5] A801506 states that the blurring is the way the game lets the player know Shepard’s health is low. This is not the case. Generally the blood-spattered vignette indicates low health. Any blurring comes from the spattering, not an imposed optical effect.

[6] CF. “The Fade,” http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/The_Fade, 4/12/2012.

[7] Cf. Ceruleancrescent’s post on the Bioware Social Network, http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/9727423/266, 4/13/2012.

[8] A801506 insists that the unlimited ammunition feature is a necessary part of the game’s design, pointing out that later, Shepard will need more shots than the Carnifex can usually hold in order to destroy the power conduit (provided she chooses the “destroy” option). While this is certainly true, giving the power conduit lower initial health would have resolved the issue just as easily. It is also true that A801506 attributes most of the strange phenomena observed within the game to the exigencies of game design, developer oversight, or laziness on the part of the designers. Cf. “Mass Effect Indoctrination Theory Debunked: The End 1 of 4,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujbZN8TARDw, 4/12/2012.

[9] Ibid.


Indoctrination and its discontents (part one)

Considerable spoilers for the ending of ME3

The third installment of the Mass Effect franchise is now six weeks old. In that time, the game’s audience has experienced tremendous anticipation, excitement, elation, and finally disappointment. The general disenchantment stems from players’ disappointment with two aspects in particular. The first being that Shepard, the hero whom we, the players, have followed so resolutely for the past hundred or so hours of gameplay and narrative, is given three choices as to how the game ends: she[1] may destroy the reapers, thereby killing all artificial life in the galaxy including her loyal companion, EDI, and her newly won synthetic allies, the geth; she may control the reapers, but sacrifice herself; finally she may choose something called “synthesis” whereby Shepard again must make the ultimate sacrifice, but will live on in a sense, by scattering her genetic material throughout all organic and synthetic species across the Milky Way.

None of these options seem all that appealing, and what’s worse, is that in the end, none of them seem to have that much of an affect on the actual outcome of the game. No matter the player’s final decision, the mass relays are destroyed, wiping out not only the reapers, but also (in a sense) the entire fictional universe in which the Mass Effect series takes place.[2] The second, and what seems to most fans, to be the bigger concern is that in this final choice the only discernable difference is that the color of the explosion transmitted across the galaxy is either blue, green, or red, depending on whether Shepard chose the “control,” “merge,” or “kill” options. To make things more confusing, depending on whether conditions are met within the game, the player is treated to a few seconds of dark, grainy “footage” that shows a body in scorched armor, a set of N7 (Shepard’s military designation) dog tags dangling from the collar. An instant before the credits roll, Shepard takes a breath, as though just regaining consciousness, or (perhaps) waking from a terrible dream.

While reviews for the game were by and large positive, few critics directly addressed the ending sequence, aside from Kate Cox, at Kotaku.com, who came out in defense of the ending,[3] and Adam Robert Thomas, who on the other hand writes that

[t]he gestalt of Mass Effect 3 is an end unjustified by its means, unworthy of defense. During its final moments it commits storytelling suicide, and the taste of decay it leaves in the mouth cripples the otherwise impeccable quality of what came before, poisoning even nostalgia against it. At best and being fair to the game’s other traits, the quality comes out a wash – simply mediocre.[4]

In the last month or so, reaction to the endgame sequence has understandably overwhelmed most discussion of the game’s other qualities. Bioware has announced that it will release an extended ending sequence,[5] and more recently the Better Business Bureau has agreed with a fan who filed an official complaint claiming that the game was falsely advertised with respect to the developer’s assertion that “the decisions you make completely shape your experience”.[6]

More recently, there has been considerable talk on various online boards and in the more mainstream video game press advancing a theory that states that Shepard was indoctrinated—a method in the game whereby the reapers, Shepard’s principal enemy—take hold of and manipulate control of an organic host’s central nervous system. The proponents of “indoctrination theory”[7] (hereafter IT) suggest that, after a certain point during the endgame sequence, that the onscreen action is, in fact, not real, but a kind of hallucination; the struggle represented therein takes place only in Shepard’s mind. Just as quickly, a smaller, but by no means less vocal, number of fans have turned up to debunk the theory; one such, a youtube user known as A801506, has posted a number of videos that show several IT’s principal claims are demonstrably false. While the proponents of IT seem willing to ignore certain key pieces of evidence if they don’t mesh smoothly with their theory, A801506 and his cadre of debunkers ignore the larger picture, advancing the notion that the concerns and limitations of game design have more to do with the ending’s inconsistencies, rather than artistic considerations.[8] Both sides of the argument present interesting and useful observations, yet none of them address the larger issue, which is that neither one nor the other theory can satisfactorily explain how we are supposed to interpret the final sequence of scenes. This essay is intended not so much to synthesize these two readings of the endgame, but, in a sense, to take the hard work done by these committed fans seriously, and to explore what they have done well, and show where their hypotheses may require further explanation.

First a bit of exposition to explain how IT fits in with Mass Effect 3’s ending. The reaper invasion finally arrives during the opening minutes of Mass Effect 3. While Shepard spends the bulk of the game shuttling across the galaxy, searching for resources and allies to help build a superweapon that may or may not end the war. This superweapon, known as the Crucible, must be attached to the Citadel, the massive space station that until recently served as the seat of the galactic government. Players who are familiar with the original Mass Effect already know that the Citadel was built by the  as a kind of trap for advanced civilizations, and is itself a mass relay in disguise, so it’s perhaps not so implausible that it could be used as the final component for a giant bomb. In order to make this all work, Shepard must enter the Citadel—now in geostationary orbit above London—via an energy beam that seems to work much the same was as the Conduit did in the first Mass Effect game.

Getting to the Conduit won’t be easy. Commander Shepard, along with two squadmates, must fight through the ruined streets of London, before linking up with Admiral David Anderson, and a number of unnamed allied soldiers. From here on out, they must scramble across an open expanse of ground, trying to reach the beam. In front of the player is a vast open area, a killing ground, that she and her allies must charge across. As she runs down the hill, Harbinger (the leader of the reapers) will land nearby and begin picking off the soldiers that run ahead of you. A801506 shows through video evidence that there is a trigger located about halfway down the hillside. Anything that crosses it is immediately targeted and killed. Once Shepard crosses this threshold, the beam will hit her, too, after which the screen fades to white.[9]

Simply put, IT states that everything after this moment is a kind of dream, or hallucination, wherein the central conflict is whether the reapers who (they contend) have been steadily indoctrinating Shepard over the course of all three games make one final attempt to take control of their most stalwart enemy. IT rightly points out that Shepard has been exposed to considerable amounts of reaper technology, including the device known as “Object Rho,” which featured in the downloadable episode “Arrival.” It is not specifically stated that Object Rho is an indoctrination device, but it clearly has had an effect on Dr. Amanda Kenson and her team. Object Rho also physically resembles the artifact found on Shanxi by Jack Harper’s team of mercenaries, and Saren and Desolas Arterius.[10] And when Shepard comes into contact with the device, she experiences a hallucination, and briefly passes out.

Over the course of the three games, Shepard encounters many other kinds of reaper artifacts, and even spends a brief period of time inside a derelict reaper.[11] Given that most other beings suffering from such exposure succumb to indoctrination, it would seem that Shepard is a kind of time bomb waiting to go off.

IT further holds that Shepard never reaches the beam that will carry her to the Citadel, and, in fact, never leaves the ground in London. Whether we believe the theory wholesale or not, it does hold a particular appeal. Certainly it gives the more strange aspects of the game’s ending a (potentially) more hopeful reading.


[1] Given that I most often play Shepard as a woman, I shall be using female pronouns.

[2] See Sparky Clarkson, “Mass Effect 3’s Ending Disrespects its Most Invested Players,” kotaku.com, http://kotaku.com/5898743/mass-effect-3s-ending-disrespects-its-most-invested-players, 4/14/2012.

[3] Cf. Kate Cox, “Why Mass Effect 3’s Ending Doesn’t Need Changing,” kotaku.com, http://kotaku.com/5892074/why-mass-effect-3s-ending-doesnt-need-changing-spoilers, 4/12/2012.

[4] Adam Robert Thomas, “Video Game Review: Mass Effect 3,” in California Literary Review (online edition), http://calitreview.com/24673, 4/12/2012.

[5] Cf. Mass Effect Wikia, “Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut,” masseffectwikia.com, http://masseffect.wikia.com/wiki/Mass_Effect_3:_Extended_Cut, 4/14/2012.

[6] Cf. Mike Fahey, “The Better Business Bureau Says, Yes Mass Effect 3 Was Falsely Advertised,” kotaku.com, http://kotaku.com/5900991/the-better-business-bureau-says-yes-mass-effect-3-was-falsely-advertised, 4/14/2012.

[7] See, for example, “Mass Effect 3 Ending: Analyzing the Indoctrination Theory,” gamefront.com, http://www.gamefront.com/mass-effect-3-ending-analyzing-the-indoctrination-theory/, gamefront.com, 4/12/2012.

[8] To be fair, a large portion of the gaming community seems to be of the same mind, believing that the ending was bungled or rushed, rather than being—to put it somewhat generously—inscrutably meaningful.

[9] See A801506, “Mass Effect Indoctrination Theory Debunked: The End 1 of 4,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujbZN8TARDw, 4/12/2012.

[10] In the comic series, Mass Effect: Evolution, Jack Harper (the future Illusive Man) and Saren Arterius, the principal villain of Mass Effect, both share a common experience. Harper and Saren, we now know, are suffering from a long-term form of indoctrination, even though neither of them came into direct contact with the artifact unearthed on Shanxi. Instead they are exposed to the object indirectly—by trying to pull someone else away from the artifact. Thus Ben Hislop, who touches the object is converted into a husk over the course of the next few days (Issue #1); not much later Saren’s brother suffers a similar fate (issue #4). The initial effects of indoctrination are, for Harper in particular, largely positive. Aside from headaches and occasional moments of weakness, he is gifted with superior intelligence that allows him to learn the asari language instantly and to operate complex machinery without instruction. Cf. Mass Effect: Evolution, 1-4, Dark Horse Comics, 2011.

[11] See ACAVYOS, “Mass Effect 3—Shepard’s Indoctrination (New),” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ythY_GkEBck, 4/12/2012.