This post is going to have lots of spoilers. If you haven’t played any of the games or haven’t finished the third one yet and you plan to then you should stop reading now.
I want to start at the end first. The final 15 minutes of the game aren’t perfect. What did happen was not what I wanted to have happen, was not what I hoped would happen, but I’m content with it. I got the closure I needed. It’s been a little over a week since I finished the game and I’m still thinking about it. I think that says more than anything else about how good of a job BioWare did with the series. I can’t think of another game that’s meant as much to me on such a personal level. It made me laugh. It nearly made me cry (and I’m not talking about the ending) twice. It wasn’t a perfect ending, but it was mine.
Personally, I don’t count the last 15 minutes of the game as “the ending”. I think the entire game is the ending. The first two games introduced all of the major characters: Garrus, Liara, Tali, Mordin, Legion, etc. In ME3 you get EDI, James and Javik (if you got the DLC). Of those only EDI was interesting to me and important to the overall story arc, and technically she was already introduced in ME2.
It’s not just characters either, all of the major plot conflicts are there from the beginning of the series: the Genophage, the Quarian/Geth war, and the Reaper threat. In Mass Effect 1 you’re introduced to each of these conflicts. In Mass Effect 2 you find out a bit more about each one, although the development of the Geth via Legion was the most interesting to me. In Mass Effect 3 you resolve each one in turn. To me this makes the entire third game “the ending.”
I saved Wrex in the first game, saved Maelon’s research in the second, and I stayed true to my previous decisions by turning down the Dalatrass’ offer to sabotage the cure and accepted Mordin’s sacrifice to release it. Which by the way was an absolutely amazing scene in the game. Even now, writing about it days later, I’m tearing up just a bit thinking about Mordin’s last moments. That kind of emotional attachment is something I’ve gotten from books and movies before, but never before from a video game.
The same thing happened for me in the second act of the game. I got a chance to see how the Quarian/Geth war actually started while on a mission with Legion inside the Geth consensus. After defeating the Reaper on Rannoch, I was deathly afraid of screwing up any decision when it came down to the final moments. In ME2 I romanced Tali and did everything possible to help her people, yet when I discovered Legion and found that the Geth were more than I’d realized, I tried to do what I could to balance both sides. The ending for that conflict where I managed to keep each side from destroying the other was perfect. Not only did I keep Tali, but the Quarians and Geth were going to share Rannoch and work together to rebuild.
It was on Rannoch in the second act of the game that I first got an idea of what the final moments of the game were going to be about. Shepard has a few moments of conversation with the Reaper on Rannoch, and it talks about the concept of Order versus Chaos where biological life is the chaotic factor. There were also a lot of smaller moments sprinkled through out the game, especially any conversations with EDI, about the relationship between synthetic and organic life, and the idea that the outcome doesn’t have to always be the created turning on their creators.
The third act of the game was a huge roller coaster for me, and it is largely a blur. The tempo of the game picks up and the stakes keep rising. I was also really worried about spoilers from the Internet so I was trying to push through and finish. Despite all that, learning about the Asari’s early history and their involvement with the Protheans was fascinating. The assault on Cerberus’ base was more interesting to me for the video logs I found than anything else. The fight with Kai Leng was so frenetic, that I didn’t even realize I’d killed him until the game switched to a cut scene. From there leading the assault to retake Earth was absolutely cinematic. Watching the gigantic fleet arrive in Sol was incredible and going from that to the ground assault dealing with waves of Reaper forces kept me on the edge of my seat. Not for the combat itself, but because I was waiting for something awful to happen. Everytime I had to pick my mission squad, I was worried about getting them killed. In the end, I used Liara and Garrus for both of the London missions. Partly it was because I didn’t want to take any chances with Tali, but it also felt right to me since both characters had been with me from the beginning and had each lost their worlds to the Reapers.
The blur of the third act continued right up to the end where the gameplay shifts after Harbinger’s attack. At first I was completely confused about what I was supposed to do. I was interested in what was said by Anderson and the Illusive Man, bit I was also relieved that there wasn’t going to be a big frustrating boss battle. I especially loved the quiet scene with Anderson afterwards.
I thought early on in Mass Effect 3 that Shepard himself would turn out to be the Catalyst, so I was surprised when it turned out that the Catalyst was the Citadel. It made sense though since it was the center of the mass relay system which made it the center of galactic civilization. When it turned out that the Catalyst was an AI that lived in the Citadel, it was a much smaller change to me than what I’d been expecting. The first time through, I didn’t follow everything the Catalyst was saying. It was late night/early morning and I’d just been through the ringer of the Cerberus and London missions, but I still immediately went for the synthesis choice. After all of the choices I’d made to save both the Geth and Quarians, as well as the relationship I’d fostered between Joker and EDI, neither the control nor the destroy options seemed like something my Shepard would do. It meant that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending for Shepard himself, but after the sacrifices he’d seen Mordin and others make, I couldn’t imagine him not doing it.
The first time I watched the final minutes, I did not wonder for a second how the Normandy escaped, I was completely in the moment and was just rooting for Joker to outrun the blast. I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat. When the scene after the crash plays out and I saw Joker, EDI, and Tali standing outside, I was so relieved that I wasn’t thinking about anything else. It wasn’t until the next day, when I had some distance, that I started thinking about things and had questions.
Fortunately there’s an automatic save made just after Harbinger’s attack, so I was able to replay the last 15 minutes multiple times. I’ve gone through the ending four times now including my initial play through. I’ve seen all three endings and I have answered most of the issues that were bothering me.
What happened to Garrus and Liara? They were with me in the final sprint to the beam, yet I couldn’t find them in the wreckage afterwards as Shepard struggled forwards. I’m assuming they were killed, possibly vaporized, but Anderson survived so who knows. This doesn’t bother me as much as I thought it would since I aready said my goodbyes before the final mission. Plus, I feel both had accomplished what they needed. Garrus had earned the respect of his father. Liara had met a Prothean and had her life’s work turned on its head. Both had seen their world’s effectively destroyed. I like to think of the three of them meeting in a bar in whatever afterlife there is and relaxing at last.
The Catalyst and Reapers wipe out organic life in order to save it? What? There’s some plot gymnastics here, but no more than I’m used to seeing in any other game or some sci-fi books and movies. I would have liked to have had more options in the Catalyst conversation to get details, but I can see where pacing issues would pop up rather quickly. Having watched the conversation multiple times though, this is what I’ve decided my version is.
The Catalyst is an AI like EDI. It is part of the station as EDI is part of the Normandy. Like EDI was in ME2, the Catalyst is limited by whomever created it. It also has no interactions with biologicals like EDI does in order to observe and experience life in the same way. It has simply been following the program given to it for untold centuries, which is when galactic civilization reaches a certain point and begins creating artificial intelligences then it’s time to reset. Wipe out all species advanced beyond a primitive level and allow the cycle to begin again.
Just as Cerberus took a rogue AI and harnessed it to create EDI, some ancient race did the same thing with the Catalyst/Citadel and then they constructed the mass relay system to influence how galactic civilization would advance. At that point I think these Creators sacrificed themselves in the first harvest by the Reapers to set the system in motion.
To keep synthetics from wiping out organic life completely when organic life consistently tries to create synthetic life, means that organic life has to be reset once it reaches a certain level of advancement.
Adding the Crucible to the Citadel altered the Catalyst AI and opened up options to break the Reaper cycle.
That’s not perfect but, it works for me and fits with the content of the game. I like to think that whoever or whatever originally built the Catalyst and Reapers also seeded the plans for the Crucible with the idea that at some point if the sentients of the Galaxy learned enough to complete it then they would be ready to solve the organic/synthetic conflict via synthesis.
What were Joker and company doing on the Normandy? To me this question all comes down to time. From the point where Shepard, Garrus, and Liara leave on the final mission to the point where they make an eleventh hour dash to the beam, I have no idea what’s going on with the rest of my crew or the ship, except that EDI and Joker are somewhere in orbit as they assist with getting the rockets targeted. From when Harbinger attacks to Shepard regains consciousness, is just a few moments. Or that’s my guess based on the radio traffic being overhead. I have less of an idea how long Shepard is passed out once he makes it onto the Citadel, but again I think it’s only a few moments because his hands are still wet with blood. It’s not until Shepard wakes up for the third time, in the presence of the Catalyst, that his blood is dried. It’s a small detail and I could be reading too much into it, but to me this means that some significant time has passed. My guess is that the Alliance and other forces are falling back at this point. After all, the Crucible has been completed and done nothing and Shepard is not responding to comms. The fleet’s choices are withdrawal or die. So that is why the crew is aboard the Normandy, or at least Joker, EDI, and Tali are.
If the relays blow up, then that wipes out Earth and all the other systems with relays. This wasn’t a question I had, but one I read. It’s based on the Arrival DLC where an asteroid is smashed into a relay destroying it and wiping out all life in that system including a Batarian colony (events that are also referenced in ME3). While I agree the relay system is completely destroyed when the Crucible is activated, something the Catalyst says will happen no matter which choice Shepard makes, I don’t think that the results are necessarily the same. Crashing into a relay and destroying it doesn’t have to have the same result that self-destructing a relay does. I think that the Arrival relay was more like a stick of dynamite going off, whereas the Crucible cascade was more like a shaped charge. The Sol relay released most if not all of it’s energy into the relay system which then caused the next one to destruct, which caused the next and so on. So yes, the relay system is gone but the explosions didn’t have the same catastrophic effects on the system’s they were in as the one from Arrival.
What happens to all of the aliens on Earth without the relays? That’s a tougher question. Because I chose synthesis,it’s hard to say. Does that mean that Turians and Humans wouldn’t find each other’s food poisonous any longer? Would sentients even need to eat? Honestly, it doesn’t bother me much but I’d love to see questions like this addressed down the line. How would they all get home? The Quarians are in the worst spot here since their homeworld is on the other side of the galaxy, but FTL speeds aren’t horribly slow. From what I remember reading in the game’s codex, it would take something on the order of thirty years for them to reach home. Of all of the races, I think the Quarians are the best suited to such a trek.
So that’s my ending. I have no idea how accurate my ending is compared to what BioWare intended, and I think that’s at least partially the point. I’m very curious to see how BioWare deals with all of the upset fans. If they’ll release video, free DLC, paid DLC, or what. From the statements released so far, it doesn’t look like the ending will be changed, just expanded upon. That could always change of course. Personally, I’m not sure how I’ll feel about that. I’ve already gotten the closure I needed, so if they do make substantive changes it’s going to be like starting over again. Time will tell though.