For the literal interpretation where I take what happen on the screen at face value and not try to read anything more to that.
My main problem with the ending
1. Shepard behaves out of character
Mac Walters – The Lead Writer of the game
“Originally, with the Catalyst, the star child at the end of the game, I had written that much more in the guise of a investigative style conversation, where there is something he tells you, but then you get to ask a bunch of questions and you get your questions answered. But then me and Casey talked and decided, let’s keep the conversation ‘high level’. Give you the details that you need to know, but don’t get into the stuff that you don’t need to know. Like ‘How long have they been reaping?’ You don’t need to know the answers to the Mass Effect universe. So we intentionally left those out.”
The problem with this comment is this go completely goes against Shepard’s character as Shepard potentially (assuming you are the type of person who choose investigative dialogue all the time) is a pretty inquisitive character. It's one thing to want the catalyst to remain a mystery, it's another thing in changing Shepard's character to achieve that.
Let’s remember that Shepard is potentially a pretty opinionated and nosy character that could potentially get into a passionate argument and debates and involves themselves with personal affairs with every major character of the game (including our own allies) but when he/she finally face the villain who was responsible for Shepard fighting against the reapers, he/she could only offer limp criticism of the catalyst and was mostly compliant to the catalyst demands.
When Shepard meets up with the catalyst from the citadel it is revealed that the catalyst was the force that controlled the reapers and the cycle of destruction. Essentially the catalyst was the force that Shepard has been fighting against throughout the entire Mass Effect series and is the primary villain of the entire series.
So how did Shepard react when meeting the real reaper who was responsible for all his/her troubles and responsible for mass genocide?
Well Shepard didn’t show any real outrage with the reaper, took whatever the catalyst says at face value, did not challenge the underlying premise of the mass genocide
Instead of proactively creating a solution out of the situation, Shepard passively “chose” the solution created by the main villain of the entire game and never argued against the catalyst on their basic premise that it is inevitable that synthetics and organic lifeform will fight toward extinction and barely argued with the catalyst on the method to prevent the extinction.
The catalyst reveals itself to Shepard as the innocent boy who died at the beginning of the game as the way to reduce the hostility and pacify Shepard and put an innocent face over the mass genocide. The ending showed that this ruse work completely as Shepard is reduced to this compliant person who refused to even get in an argument with the catalyst.
This incredibly weakens the character of Shepard who regardless of their Paragon/Renegade status is portrayed as a proactive, intelligent, opinionated and strong willed individual. It’s almost as if an outside force is controlling Shepard :).
It got pretty ridiculous when the catalyst revealed that using the crucible would destroy the mass relays which Shepard knows from his/her experience in The Arrival (as well as a codex entry that revealed that most nations refuse to consider that an option in fighting the reapers) that this would wiped out solar systems around the surrounding mass relay. Shepard wasn’t alarm by this and just accepted the catalyst at their word that the crucible would destroy the mass relay without causing any problems.
2. Restriction of choice
The game normally allows both sides of the argument a fair chance to argue their point of view and therefore allow Shepard to reflect the players personal stance on the issue but in this one occasion did not give the player the choice to argue with the catalyst and therefore suppress a legitimate point of view. It makes perfect sense for Shepard to challenge the idea that organics and synthetic lifeform would eventually fight each other to extinction especially if he/she just brokered the quarian and geth alliance. After all the biggest synthetic/organic conflict was between the quarian and geth but that was a smaller and more contained conflict compared to the rachni war or the krogan rebellion.
This would have given the players to reflect their personalities and their own belief on the issue as well as forced the catalyst to reveal more about their motivations and background story where the catalyst would explain more about their backstory on the creation of the reaper trying to defend its action and by revealing evidence on why they think the conflict is inevitable due to their experience in the lengthy history of the galaxy (therefore more than just Shepard’s lifespan) instead of just having Shepard take their word for it.
We ended up having three endings where none of them challenge the catalyst perspective that organic and synthetic lifeform can’t co-exist. The “destroy” ending wipes out all current synthetic lifeform and hence demonstrates the incompatibility of synthetic and organic beings.
The synthesis ending removes the difference between organic and synthetic lifeform and therefore demonstrate that the synthetic and organic can’t co-exist due to them respecting and tolerating differences between the two type of life-form but can only co-existing by making them be the same (and also achieving the reaper goal of creating organic/synthetic hybrid). This is kind of “solving” racial conflict by having people suddenly with a wave of a hand suddenly becoming one race instead of people learning to tolerate things that are different (in the end people would just find new “differences” to nitpick on). The idea that conflict is due to genetic differences instead of just difference in ideology, outlook and free will seems pretty racist.
The control ending seems to be the most likely ending to challenge the catalyst points of view (although it still involves Shepard enslaving the reapers and removing their free will even if it can be argued morally that the reapers don’t deserve free will due to their mass genocide) but it is still problematic because it involves trusting the Catalyst that Shepard can control the reapers whilst previously establishing that you can’t control the reapers without the reapers controlling you. The control ending just looks like a trap, if the reapers were happy for Shepard to control it and then to do whatever Shepard wants with it such as ordering the reapers ship to stop destroying organic life and probably sending all the ships to the sun to blow themselves up and the catalyst was happy with the conclusion. Why can't the catalyst do it themselves? Why do they need Shepard to sacrifice his/her life to do it?
Although the ending differs in the method used to prevent extinction of organic life, there was no choice challenging the basic premise of the catalyst which really goes against one of the potential theme (depending on whether players pursue this theme) prevailing throughout the game of tolerance and unity.
I’m not saying that everyone has to disagree with the premise of the catalyst, I’m just saying that people who do disagree with the premise of the catalyst felt restricted and frustrated by the ending because they couldn’t get their opinion express.
I think the best way for the game is to allow the players to be more inquisitive which would address the first problem of Shepard behaving out of character and have options for Shepard to refuse to accept the choices laid out by the catalyst. A really good alternative ending is described here where Shepard refused the option by the catalyst and has the fleet fight off against the reapers in conventional warfare. Victory is determined by how much war assets you have. Therefore all the effort you make throughout the game gathering up resources do matter and play a part in the ending.
3. Lack of consequences
The main appeal of the series was that the player makes a choice and then sees their consequences of their choices play out in the universe.
At the end, the game stated that Shepard became a legend for stopping the reapers. Unfortunately that was something that was stated and not showed. The idea of being a legend is that your action left a large impact on the universe beyond your own life. I think majority of fans wanted to find out the legacy that Shepard left on the universe. People wanted to see the consequences of all their choices they made throughout the 3 Mass Effect games.
In the end, we have 3 basically identical looking ending with only the difference between them is the colour of the explosion. All the choices you made throughout the game, all the war assets you build up has such a negligible impact to the ending you get. You don’t get to see the aftermath of the decision you made throughout the game.
At the bare minimum, people would have expected the war assets you gathered throughout the game to play a larger part in the ending. Currently they were almost immaterial to what ending you see and the "refusal" option I mention before would have resolved that solution.
I think a lot of people expected a written epilogue similar to Dragon Age Origins that go through the consequences of the choice would have been great way of knowing the impact Shepard left on the galaxy. Although a few cutscenes showing the impact of Shepard life would have been better appreciation or a narrator summarises the consequences of Shepard’s choice during the credits of the game (ala Alpha Protocol) would have somewhat please the fan.
I believe it would have been great in the scenario where Earth was destroyed but Shepard successfully destroyed the Reapers. We should have a a shot of a future Citadel and a statue of Commander Shepard next to the statue of the Krogan to celebrate their effort in the rachni war and we see the alien community commerating the sacrifice of humanity who are now extinct to save the rest of the galaxy which shows that Shepard actually became a legend
It’s not just the political ramification of the action but the impact of your personal relationship with your fellow crewmembers that were missing as well. The strong point of the series were essentially the relationship and bond that Shepard forms with the crew that makes the player become invested in the character and the story. Most of the ending had Shepard died to save the galaxy. How did your crewmembers respond to losing their friend, leader and some case lovers? Well they walk out of the Normandy smiling (how did they get on the ship anyway?) and that’s about it.
Imagine an ending where Earth was saved we see a memorial on Earth and the surviving members of the Normandy or your love interest speaking out celebrating your life. That would have brought a personal connection to the ending of the story.
Here is an alternate fan ending that added the personal connection to the ending that would have made the ending more emotional.
The current ending felt so disconnected with the choices you make throughout the game and the relationships you develop with the characters.
4. Nonsensical ending
I would like to say that plot holes aren’t just events where there are breaks in logic and there are no possible explanations to justify why the plot went in that direction. People with sufficient imagination can imagine a solution to every plotholes in existence.
My definition with plot holes is where there are missing information or a break in the continuity of a storyline and could only be explained by the viewers writing the script for the writers.
First we ended up with the mass relay being destroyed. It has been established in Arrival and in the codex entry that when this occurs, it is a major catastrophe and wipes out the remaining solar system. Did Shepard just wipe out millions of people at the end? Maybe the crucible could magically destroy the mass relay without wiping out the remaining solar system but that is the thing that should have been explained in the story. Shepard should have immediately been alarmed when the catalyst mention the destruction of Mass relay and Shepard should have scrutinised the catalyst over that plan.
Even if the relay magically didn’t destroy the solar system we ended up having all the fleet stranded in the Sol system and chances are they don’t have the supplies to make it back to survive and Earth is in no position to support the fleet especially when the Turians and Quarians can’t eat food outside their own system.
We also have a situation where the entirety of the main Normandy crew were on Earth fighting the reaper. Some of the crewmembers were part of Shepard’s push to reach the citadel. Suddenly they are magically aboard the Normandy. So what we got was Joker ended up abandoning the battle with the Reaper’s fleet to go and rescue all the crewmembers (did the Mass Effect universe suddenly invented transporters?) and then run away from the battle with the reapers and escaped the solar system and crash land on another planet. Do we expect Joker to be court martial for cowardice and abandoning the battle?
Even if there is a solution to these problems from people with sufficient imagination, it should have been showed on the screen instead of the viewers doing the job of the writers and making up an explanation for them.
We also have an ending where the adult admit to the kid that the details of the ending was missing and basically admitted that the ending doesn’t make sense. That there are plenty more story about Commander Shepard to be told to explain the gaps in the story as long as you buy the DLC.
5. Indoctrination theory
Fans have created a theory where the ending was all in Shepard’s mind and was a representation of Shepard resisting indoctrination by the reapers.
Essentially the reapers projected themselves in the image of the boy representing Shepard’s guilt of not saving everyone and trying to convince Shepard that working with the reapers is the only hope of saving humanity.
So when Shepard chose control, shepard becomes indoctrinated by the reapers in the same way as the illusive man. The illusive Man wanted to control the reapers but couldn’t because the reapers controlled him, what makes Shepard so different that he/she was able to control the reapers but the illusive man can’t?
If Shepard chose synthesis, well isn’t that the plan of the reapers is to preserve organic race by harvesting them and converting them into reaper form which is a hybrid of organic and synthetic material. Essentially that would mean that Shepard would be harvest and become a reaper or a husk.
Only with destroy was Shepard able to resist the reaper indoctrination. The catalyst immediately dismissed that option and claim that they would be wiping out the geth and EDI and other synthetic life. Is that just a lie to try to persuade Shepard in not destroying them?
If you have a large enough war assets and chose the destroy ending you see the ending where Shepard actually lives whilst buried in the rubble. This represents that Shepard is still lying in the streets of London and broke the reaper’s attempt of indoctrination over Shepard.
The scary thing about this theory is that it actually fits rather well with the story and explained away most of the problems I have with the ending especially the idea of Shepard being compliant with the catalyst and the plot holes is explained that it was all in Shepard imagination.
It’s actually quite clever if Bioware intended this indoctrination theory to be true. So does this exonerate Bioware for the ending?
The answer is no because that just mean that they release a game that is incomplete and doesn’t have an ending. Shepard is lying in the streets of London dying whilst the reapers are destroying Earth and we don’t have a resolution to the story.
It would have been awesome if this was an indoctrination test as a precursor to the final showdown with the reapers and not the ending itself. So when Shepard chose the control, we see the rest of the squad mate entering the crucible (the whole force being wiped out was just a hallucination) and Shepard plays the role of the illusive man trying to convince the squad mate that control was necessary in preserving the human race and then ended up killing their squad mates. If Shepard chose synthesis then Shepard becomes a reaper or a husk and ended up attacking his/her allies. Only when Shepard chose destroy and pass the indoctrinated test, the game moves forward and we actually get a proper ending.
If Bioware did that, I would have admitted that they were genious but unfortunately what happen was that they release a game that is unfinished that would be resolve only by a DLC which I believe is sending greed in video game development to a next level by having the game real ending release after the game is already been shipped. It's like buying a book without the final chapter.
Separating the ending has no artistic purpose. It would have been a major plot twist and everyone would have thought, wow I got fooled, well played Bioware for tricking us, they are genious or wow, I worked out beforehand I was indoctrinated and chose destroy. Aren't I clever
Well, now the surprise and shock is gone and all sense of drama from that scene is gone because everyone knows the answer if the indoctrination theory becomes canon in future DLC. The dramatic tension that would have been present in the original game will be gone and fixing it now wouldn't take away the disapointment and the bad taste left in your mouth after finishing the oriignal game.
I would probably still purchase any future DLC regarding a finished ending but I won't be calling Bioware genius for it.
Casey Hudson – Developer of Mass Effect series
““I didn’t want the game to be forgettable,” he said, to which we say, mission accomplished. “[E]ven right down to the sort of polarizing reaction that the ends have had with people -– debating what the endings mean and what’s going to happen next, and what situation are the characters left in. That to me is part of what’s exciting about this story. There has always been a little bit of mystery there and a little bit of interpretation, and it’s a story that people can talk about after the fact.”
Hudson wanted to create an interpretive ending where people can debate what happen in the end. However that would only work if all the key interpretation makes sense. If the literal ending makes as equally sense as the indoctrination theory (similar to the Deckard is a replicant or a human debate) and if there was still closure in the story. In the end we have to choose between an illogical literal interpretation ending and a incomplete indoctrination ending.
This ending seems to me as someone saying it’s so cliché to have a traditional ending where the heroes sacrifice their lives to saves the day and we see everyone celebrating the legacy on the world. After all, this has already done in Dragon Age Origin and I understand the temptations of wanting to do something different because no artist wants to repeat themselves. However, I just felt they did something different without thinking carefully whether the traditional ending would have suited the material of the game and the character of Shepard.
I believed that Bioware tried to do something creative, different, cerebral and original and had it backfiring in their face. Forgetting that traditional conventional ending exist because it is a tried and true method in getting a satisfying ending. That if you are going to break the convention you better be able to find alternatives and clever ways to provide closure and a personal connection to the ending whilst making the ending open ended and “interpretive” and I feel like Bioware failed at that task.