Podcast Special: Mass Effect 3 and the Art of Video Games

Podcast Special: Mass Effect 3 and the Art of Video Games

Are video games art?  Can they be?  Scott and Loren look at the Mass Effect 3 controversy and discuss why video game movies haven’t made it to the next level yet.

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Show Links

The Mass Effect 3 Controversy

A Glowing Review of the Mass Effect 3 Ending

Roger Ebert Thinks Video Games Are Not Art

Movies You Should Love discusses The Adaptation Process


The Mass Effect Trilogy





Some Amazing Video Game Short Films



About Scott

Writer. Day Dreamer. Narnian.


  1. Christopher v. says:

    I listened to the podcast and I wanted to throw this out there. It’s just a theory that I’ve seen floating around and completely unofficial, but I’d rather think of it this way than taking the endings literally. Sorry for the length!

    The theory is that everything after Harbinger hits Shepard with its laser is a dream.

    Sounds like a really stupid cop-out, but think about it for a bit.

    You get up, groggy and wounded, armor burned to an unrecognizable crisp. Pick up a pistol which hey, needs no reloading, that’s weird. As you stumble towards the beam, you can hear radio chatter, people saying absolutely no one made it to the beam. What, can’t they see you?

    Then make it to the beam, and are transported to a part of the Citadel you’ve never seen before. As you walk forward, down a straight route with no alternate entrances, Anderson checks in, saying he’s ahead of you, though he “followed you” into the beam (which is in itself strange since you never saw him after getting up). Then the Illusive Man appears, out of nowhere! Where’d he come from?! But he’s there, since you knew he’d be there in the end.

    All that plays out, you activate the Citadel, it links up with the Crucible, mission done! Only… it’s not doing anything! So you crawl to the control panel… and fail to hit it. Flop down, conveniently onto an elevator that takes you up to… the Catalyst.

    Which, conveniently, looks like the heartstring-tugging little boy you’ve been having nightmares about. And tells you that it controls the Reapers, and they’re its solution to the inherent chaos of the universe, and without it organics would be completely destroyed.

    It then gives you a choice. You can indeed destroy the Reapers, if you want. Just know that doing so will kill all synthetic life, which includes your new friends the Geth, and EDI, and remember that you’re partly synthetic too, so you’ll probably die! And to top it off, future organics will eventually create synthetic life and make the cycle begin anew. Gosh does that choice sound bad now!

    But wait… you could try controlling the Reapers. Sure, the Illusive Man couldn’t do it, but you might… you’ll die, but the Reapers will obey your command. Oh, by the way, if you do that the mass relays will be destroyed, which will cut off all galactic travel and strand the species from one another.

    And there is a third option: Synthesis. Combine your energy with the Crucible, become one with it, and ascend to merge all organic and synthetic life into a new cyber-organic form of existence. The relays will also be destroyed, but the cycle will end and you will have brought the galaxy to the “final stage” of evolution.

    Those are the options presented. Now look at HOW they’re presented. The Destroy choice is illustrated with Anderson, a true-blue Paragon and admirable man if ever there was one. But the option is presented in red, the traditional color of Renegade choices. By the words of the Catalyst, it is the absolute worst choice, killing yourself and millions of your allies to achieve a peace that won’t last.

    The Control choice is illustrated with the Illusive Man, who is a Renegade of the highest degree, willing to sacrifice anything and everything for his own personal goals. And you’ve probably argued against him already about why controlling the Reapers is impossible, and seen what happened to him when he attempted it. But the option is presented in blue, the Paragon color, and the Catalyst’s words paint the choice as much, much better than simply destroying the Reapers. Notice too that when you ask the Catalyst for confirmation that you will, in fact, control the Reapers, it hesitates before saying yes.

    The Synthesis option is presented as the most noble and desirable by the Catalyst, with the only real negative being that the relays will be destroyed. But then… synthesis is what Saren was hoping to achieve in the first game. Synthesis is how the Reapers are born, turning organic matter into themselves. And the relays’ destruction almost seems like a thrown-in comment by the Catalyst to make it look like there’s some reason it shouldn’t be the obvious correct choice.


    You’re still on Earth. Unconscious after the blast, and Harbinger is attempting to indoctrinate you. The radio chatter you hear is in fact real, and they have to assume you’re dead. Everything on the Citadel is an imagined scenario, with Harbinger influencing your mind so that you’ll lose the will to fight. This is further supported by how the EMS affects which endings are available for choosing. If you have really low military strength, the Reapers are winning so hard that they don’t even need an indoctrinated Shepard to win, and Harbinger is straight-up mocking you with a fever dream of a change at destroying them. At higher military strength, your forces are doing well enough that indoctrinating you would give them enough of an advantage to likely win, so Harbinger offers choices that, through the image of the boy, look sympathetic and preferable.

    And what actually happens? Well, in the Control and Synthesis endings, Shepard dies. But in the Destroy ending, and only in the Destroy ending, where you resist the indoctrination to give in to the Reapers and decide to keep fighting… if you’ve gotten your military strength high enough (meaning your forces can hold the Reapers off long enough)… Shepard takes a gasping breath and awakes, trapped in rubble. Concrete-and-rebar London rubble, not twisted metal Citadel rubble.

    I think this makes far more sense than any of the three options actually being true since this ending (the Destory – or in this theory, resist indoctrination option – with high military strength) is the only one where Shepard lives.

    Let me know what you guys all think!

    1. Scott says:

      I actually really like this scenario and due to the absolute strange vagueness the ending presents us, I think there’s room for this interpretation.

      Having had more time to replay the ending in my mind and consider the options and the conclusions of the story, I’ve more-or-less concluded that Bioware’s heart was in the right place, but their execution failed. I like the synthesis ending (the one I chose), but we’re given so little information in the closing movie that the choice only presents more questions:

      Why was Joker flying away from earth? Where was he? Judging by where he landed, he wasn’t in our solar system — which also raises the question how long was Shepherd out and how long was (s)he in the Citadel? Joker clearly had time to pick up members of the Normandy crew and leave the Sol System. And, despite the synthesis choice being the “nobody dies today” decision, clearly people died after the choice was made, if the Green Blast of Hope and Choice knocked a spaceship out of space and forced a crash landing.

      What happens to the stranded fleets in the Sol System? Without the Mass Effect relays, everyone’s stuck there and judging by the home worlds we’ve visited and the sheer amount of people in the fleets, we can’t provide homes for everyone!

      What happened to my team? Were EDI and Joker the only survivors?

      Also all the the questions you brought up.

      I don’t think we were given enough. I think any of these choices Shepherd was forced to make could make for reasonable conclusions, but Bioware didn’t give us enough to really sell these as conclusions to the story. And if the AI child is a dream, then Bioware really needed a fourth option to choose from, where Shepherd fights his or her way out of it and wakes up.

      That being said, it’s still a phenomenal game. It’s just those last fifteen minutes.

      I hope they don’t back pedal with a fan-requested ending for DLC. I hope the DLC instead fleshes out the ending and explains where the universe is now, post-Shepherd. Or lets the player explore those final moments from my squad’s perspective.

  2. Loren says:

    While I do feel that more explanation is needed, I’m still pretty happy with the endings. Well, at least my ending. When Scott told me his, with synthesis, I was quite sure that was a horrible ending. And the control the reaper ending, that is also a horrible ending. At least for my Shepherd.

    My Shepherd knew the only way to get out was to destroy the AI that was controlling the cycle, and so made the tough choice to destroy all AI, so that future synthetics would have the choice to live peacefully. It came down to the greater good, and I’m pretty sure EDI and Legion would have been there with my Shepherd cheering him on.

    I also noticed the color confusion at the end, and I think that this is at least an attempt to bring out one of the big themes of the games that everybody missed. That theme is that of pre-destination, or of the illusion of choice . . . renegade or paragon, your Shepherd still ends up at the same place. The only differences are the minor circumstances that get you to that place . . . at least minor in a philosophical cosmic sort of sense. I think Bioware purposefully blurred the lines between Renegade and Paragon at the end. And I think they really wanted people to bring their journey to the end, rather than spell it all out. The final decision (which, truly, is very similar to the other final decisions in the other games . . . council lives or dies, collector base is kept or destroyed) is about you, the player, and your experience and understanding with Shepherd. It is open to interpretation on purpose, because there is no way they could program the ending movie to have my personal feelings in it.

    I love all of this, and that the ending attempted something larger than a game normally would. I think it half succeeded, and would benefit greatly from a DLC that experiences the final moments from the eyes of my team. I would also have loved to see the war assets I gathered at work; that seemed like a missed opportunity, and could also be great as a portion of a DLC.

    I also don’t have huge issue with why the team is crash landing somewhere. It seems like a setup for the next adventure, and I’m ok with that unknown. As long as it gets explained sometime, I don’t feel like it is a failure of the ending. DLC or Mass Effect 4 would both be quite wonderful places for that story to be told.

    I personally don’t buy into indoctrination theory . . . and I sincerely hope it isn’t the true ending. That will make me sad. But I love that the theory can exist, and that we are having this conversation. When was the last time a video game made you think this much, to have so much self introspection, and to form your own opinions? That seems like a true success to me.

  3. Christopher v. says:

    I can understand that Scott thinks there are many plot holes in the endings, and Loren that you think the ending is fine as is, for your Shepard at least.

    I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that BioWare, the people who I have proudly looked at as some of the finest story-tellers ever, would write an ending that causes this much backlash unless it was brilliant, which the indoctrination theory, at least to me, is.

    So, what if we take a step back and look at the game, and to a certain extent, the series as a whole? For instance, what are the effects of indoctrination according to the codex that has been established since the very beginning? Listen to it and tell me that Shepard does not have these symptoms occurring the ENTIRE 3rd game starting right after the Arrival DLC.

    Additionally, it is subtly implied throughout the games that choosing Synthesis or Control leads to indoctrination – both Saren and Illusive Man choose these and both were indoctrinated.

    Watch these two videos to understand fully why more and more people are thinking that this is the only theory that makes sense. And after watching them, my own belief about it was only cemented further with imagery that would not make sense otherwise – I refuse to believe that BioWare has crappy writers when we have already seen what they can produce.

    I know together they are rather long, but it is entirely worth it. The first one holds more relevant arguments in my opinion, but the second one brings in additional points AND sums up all the plot hole questions any other alternative to this theory would need to cover for it to make sense. Watching both has made me believe that for Shepard to truly hold the line, he had to fight of indoctrination. This is Commander Shepard and this is my favorite explanation on the internet.

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZOyeFvnhiI&w=560&h=315%5D

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ythY_GkEBck&w=560&h=315%5D

  4. Scott says:

    I haven’t watched the second video yet, but I think that first video is really grasping at straws. His “evidence” concerning the child is especially flimsy (and at one point, flat-out wrong).

    I actually think Bioware set out to make an ending that was open to interpretation. I think they wanted us talking about the ending just like we are right now. Whether we like it or not is almost not the point of it.

    I’ll watch the second video tomorrow, but the first video didn’t persuade me to believe in the indoctrination theory. If you accept that Shepherd was indoctrinated in those last fifteen minutes, I think that opens up even more questions and even more frustration than taking the ending at face value does. Because honestly, if (s)he was indoctrinated, then we didn’t get an ending AT ALL. There’s no ending to be made about because the story didn’t end. It just stopped.

    I like things like this that can have theories, but I think Bioware would rather have us looking at the future of the Mass Effect universe than picking apart moments in ME2 and ME3. Just look at the epilogue with the old man and the child. They’re looking to the stars and the future, they’re not looking back on the past and wondering why they are where they are.

  5. Richard says:

    Part of me wants the Indoctrination Theory to be true, but mostly because parts of the ending didn’t make much sense. Honestly, if there was ever a person with the potential to be indoctrinated, it’s Commander Shepard. (S)he has come into contact with so many things reaper-related — artifacts, indoctrinated people, and reapers themselves.

    I agree that parts of the video’s evidence were pretty flimsy, but listening to the codex entries on indoctrination, it seems like it can fit Shepard’s case.

    At the same time, I agree with Scott that the only way for it to truly work is if there were a fourth option to “wake up.” As it stands, there’s nothing that would truly break Shepard out of indoctrination. With any of the endings, (s)he would think the battle was over. From the moment Shepard became indoctrinated, the battle would have been lost.

    I admire Loren for being able to make the decision to destroy AI, although I know you said it was a tough choice. I, myself, couldn’t justify destroying all synthetics, having finally settled the dispute between the quarians and the geth. But you’re right in that destroying the reapers is what this whole series has been building up to.

    But anyway, I think the backlash with the endings has gotten out of hand. The other games didn’t have many differences in how they could end — mostly in who survived. But I guess it’s just that there wasn’t much sense of closure. Honestly, the only thing I want is to know how my choice affects the future of the galaxy. That’s what I’ve spent these games trying to do. I’m okay with Shepard being dead, but I want to know what (s)he died for. Did it matter? Did (s)he actually stop the reapers? Was everyone able to rebuild?

    While I want DLC that expands on the ending, I think it’s setting a dangerous precedent. If the “Indoctrination Theory” is true, and they give us the “real” ending later, I feel like more people would be angry. Assuming that we’ll have to pay for that extra content, that’s like selling you the last book in a series without the last one or two chapters, and asking you to pay extra for it. If it’s free, then why couldn’t they have waited to release the game until they could put it in? I don’t fully understand game release schedules, but I would rather wait and get the full story than only get part and have to wait for the rest.

    I think Bioware knew what they were doing, but like Scott said, the execution was poor. I hope they can recover from this, because they do truly great work. I’m more okay with the endings now that I’ve had time to think about things, and I really hope that Bioware doesn’t undo everything they’ve already done in order to please the masses. That would be to poor effect. And I’m done with my poor puns…

  6. Loren says:

    Sorry it took a while for me to get to a response . . . been a busy few days here (had to get the new podcast up, doncha know . . .).

    @Christopher, having watched through the videos and read the info you provided, I’ll admit there is some minor evidence that could be construed as indoctrination. There is certainly enough that if Bioware went that way, it wouldn’t be a complete shock to players.

    But overall I agree with Scott on this one. I think the evidence IS a stretch at best, and I don’t think is what Bioware intended. To me, if that IS the answer, that is the worst ending option of all, because as Scott said, it gives us no ending at all to the game.

    @Richard, thanks for the support of my decisions! It wasn’t easy, which is truly what I loved about the ending. This was the hardest, most weighty decision of all, and to me truly took the game and my decisions as a player to a place that very few games have ever aspired to.

    I too want more closure. I want to know what happens next, what happens to my crew, and the universe, and everything. I’d love to see it in this game, as DLC. But the more I think about it, the more I don’t think that is a flaw in the original. ME3 DOES wrap up the story. It just leaves loose ends around the edges. I think some of this controversy goes to the concept of having patience to find out what happens next. This game ends on a cliff hanger, while at the same time closing out one story. I want to know, but I could also wait (with baited breath) until the next game in the series to find out. Heck, thats what I’ve had to do to find out what happened to Shepherd in the last two games, I’m not entirely sure why it is so different in this one.

    Based on what Bioware has been saying, I think we will have some closure sooner rather than later. I don’t believe they will change the ending. I’m thinking we’ll get some sort of epilogue, or a DLC that explores the other characters. I don’t think any new choices will be introduced.

    So, that is an update on where my head is with all of this. That is all subject to change of course, but I absolutely love that Bioware has created a product that can have this much debate, and that makes me care enough to write this much about it.