One Last Crazy Theory About Mass Effect 3’s Ending

One Last Crazy Theory About Mass Effect 3’s Ending
To sign up for our daily newsletter covering the latest news, features and reviews, head HERE. For a running feed of all our stories, follow us on Twitter HERE. Or you can bookmark the Kotaku Australia homepage to visit whenever you need a news fix.

I have a theory about the end of Mass Effect 3. Not a serious theory, mind you. A crazy theory, the kind even I don’t take seriously but find it fun to think about. Essentially, it’s that everything in the Citadel DLC is not preceding the final events of the campaign but that it follows them. Spoilers ahead!

This is the last time that you’ll ever lose someone
after this it’s you and your friends
it’s you and your friends.

— Stars, “The Last Song Ever Written”

Spoilers follow for Mass Effect 3 and the Citadel DLC.

Mostly, Shepard dies at the end of Mass Effect 3 (with one exception), which isn’t problematic for my theory — it’s actually essential to it. My theory is that Shepard does die in the final moments of ME3’s campaign, and the events of Citadel are a kind of afterlife.

The lyric at the top of this article is from a song by Stars called “The Last Song Ever Written“. It’s a poetic, beautiful take on death. It’s also a comforting take on death, that sees it as a final separation before an eternal joining.

It’s purely conjecture on my part, but it was sparked by something in the DLC. On the Silversun Strip, the area of the Citadel in which the DLC occurs, you can speak with a virtual intelligence assistant who points out local features. Strangely, you can ask about an area that is not on the Silversun Strip, and has nothing to do with the DLC events at all. It’s a nightclub on the Citadel called Purgatory. You can visit the Purgatory club just like you could before, but none of the DLC content changes anything there. For some odd reason, Shepard can just ask Avina (the virtual intelligence) about Purgatory.

Avina responds strangely. She starts to define what purgatory is – the religious concept, not the nightclub. Shepard interrupts her, and clarifies the inquiry was about the nightclub. Avina responds, even more peculiarly, that there is no record of Purgatory.

This is likely just oversight, or some attempt to allude to Purgatory being a shady establishment. But logically, it is impossible. You can still visit Purgatory even after updating the game with the Citadel DLC. It certainly hasn’t shrunk in size; it’s still has three stories and hundreds of patrons. There’s a still a transit system hub right in front of it, in an area where there are no other establishments or features around. The Citadel authorities can’t, in all seriousness, not have any record of it.

I asked myself immediately why a reference to the afterlife would be included, and that’s when it dawned on me that a way to read Citadel is that Shepard is dead, and this is a kind of anti-purgatory limbo he’s stuck in — it just happens to have an awesome apartment, all his friends, a casino and an arcade.

Basically, it’s an awesome way to be dead.

But I couldn’t think of many other connections. Silver is often used as a metaphor for a link between the spiritual plane and physical plane. Tying that to the setting of the DLC, the Silversun Strip, feels like a stretch. In the DLC you face a clone of Commander Shepard. Witnessing a doppelganger is a typical omen of death, but in my theory Shepard is already dead, so I’m not sure that fits either.

I think I like the idea because it has a finality to it regarding all the things fans said they wanted – Shepard with your squadmates, happy and celebrating. For some that’s ruined by knowing it all ends badly, but for me this theory spins that take, and makes it so the time spent on the Citadel with friends is the last image.

This is About Death

The original ending of ME3 unintentionally offended people’s perceptions about death. It offended them so much that in addition to outright denying that the original ending even happened, fans clamored for a rewrite. And, to some extent, they got it.

The Extended Cut DLC from Bioware was a seldom seen response to a fervent disapproval of a game’s conclusion, and while the reasons for people’s displeasure are diverse and intricate, I think a major (and mostly undiscussed) factor is death and how we perceive it.

Without the EC content, all of the endings were vaguely similar, and generally just vague. For all of the things the EC fails to do, it address the vagueness of Shepard’s death so that it becomes easier for people to accept. There are still massive storytelling shortcomings even with the EC, but it deals with this one serious failing of the original ending.

With the EC, in the Control ending Shepard essentially becomes deified, overseeing the galaxy, controlling former enemies and aiding allies. In the Synthesis ending, Shepard’s essence is joined with everyone in the galaxy synthetic or organic, and serving as a catalyst for their merger. These are common ideas for death and afterlife (becoming supernatural or your consciousness being absorbed back into nature of the universe).

In the Destroy ending Shepard just dies. No allusion to an afterlife, just a legacy of victory and someone who didn’t compromise. It’s a harder take on death, but still one that many are able to accept. It seems we’re willing to accept death as long as we know that, valiantly, we died ‘for something’.

These clarifications in the EC hardly change the sour taste of a undeniably botched ending, but they were enough for a large portion of fans to at least accept Shepard’s end even if they still didn’t like it much.

Indoctrination and Aeris

But even despite the EC, some people still don’t accept it. Personally I’ve come to accept the Destroy ending. But even so, I’m still coming up with alternate theories like the one above. Why is that? Why so many mental back flips just to avoid what’s clearly in the content?

The Indoctrination Theory is the earliest and most successful of these alternate theories. The Indoctrination Theory (IT) is that the trilogy’s antagonists, the Reapers, used their mind control abilities (Indoctrination) to trick Commander Shepard, and the players, into a false choice where every available choice actually leads to defeat, or in the case of the Destroy ending, apparent defeat.

IT supporters claim the only correct option to take is the Destroy ending, because the other two endgame choices spare the Reapers. The theory is essentially proposing the entire end sequence is a hallucination, that it doesn’t really happen. And the whole point of it is to trick you into not destroying the Reapers, your stated goal throughout the trilogy. The only way to win is to destroy the Reapers and end the hallucination, even though the actual content in the game doesn’t at all show that destroying the Reapers ends any kind of hallucination.

What happens in the case of the Destroy ending is exactly what the player is told will happen. The Reapers are destroyed, along with some collateral damage and arguably some innocent folks. But the amount of reasoning and logic that have gone into IT is staggering. It would need its own post to deconstruct.

This much fervency, this much thought going into a theory aimed at entirely undoing the events clearly shown in a game is a powerful phenomenon among a fandom, but it’s not unprecedented.

The death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII also sparked countless theories and speculation that the character wasn’t really dead. Theories included that she shouldn’t have died based on her wounds, and that players could somehow unlock a different outcome where the character lived.

This much fervency, this much thought going into a theory aimed at entirely undoing the events clearly shown in a game is a powerful phenomenon among a fandom, but it’s not unprecedented.

Huge convoluted theories emerged and people vehemently defended them. Certain combinations of in-game items, specific events triggered, and the level of your party members could somehow save Aeris. In issue three of Kill Screen magazine, Brian Taylor covers the save Aeris phenomenon in great detail (it’s some of the best games writing I’ve ever read) and it’s not surprisingly similar to Indoctrination Theory.

The same hopeful desperation has developed around IT because of all the things we’re forced to reckon with through fiction, death is the one we’re most sensitive about. For everything the Extended Cut brought to the table it still didn’t let us a chance to join our crew one last time. Your crew is what the series was always about. That last chance is worth some mental rewrites.

Citadel is a snapshot, and the pinnacle, of camaraderie and companionship in the Mass Effect series. And in game, the iconic moment of the DLC is when your crew actually snaps a photo of their party, so the memory can last forever. And in my take, that moment does last forever.

It’s the last thing Bioware gave us that’s related to the story and characters of this trilogy. It’s the last thing I’ll play, the last time I ever play Mass Effect 3. The endings from the Extended Cut were needed because of how botched the original endings were. Bioware said along there wouldn’t be a major overhaul to the ending through DLC, but I think in some ways they reversed on that in the end.

Citadel is the ending Mass Effect deserved, even if it’s not the one it needed when everyone was watching. This is a quieter end for a trilogy that spokes volumes about what could be achieved in storytelling, world building, and characterization through games. It’s quiet, and profound, and true. In so many ways, a fitting end.

Jordan Rivas was going to be a journalist when he grew up, but figured out professional journalism makes writing less fun. He writes independently at and concocts tweets @sortiv on Twitter. This article was republished with permission.


  • I don’t think Shepard is literally dead, the author has maybe tried to look too much into that part. But I do think the author is correct in identifying Citadel as being a bitter sweet send off to the cast that is beyond the overall plot, and for most players it will be the last thing they experience, even if its chronologically not at the end of the game.

      • Yeah. It’s really incongruous with the general ME3 experience, yet I forgive it for actually managing to capture what I WANTED from the ME3 experience. It’s fan-service, and that’s what’s good about it. Takes the edge off the bitter ending if you just the game down after that point.

    • You seriously should, it’s pure fanservice and I don’t feel it’s too presumptuous of me to say it’ll put a smile on your face. It’s the holiday special that doesn’t take itself too seriously 😛

      • Unfortunately I no longer have my copy of ME3, but I’m thinking of getting that trilogy edition and re-playing all 3 and all the DLC. Just a matter of finding the time lol.

    • I laughed a lot playing it. Good laughing. Its fan service but meh. Kaidan cooked her steak so I can live with that.

  • Dang I didn’t ask Avina about Purgatory, I’m gonna have to load up my save and check this out tonight. Even though your theory pretty much only relies on this weird conversation I do think it’s interesting.

    Just like with IT I personally don’t think it’s actually what’s going on but I’ve actually quite enjoyed seeing the theories that the ME fandom have come up with, although it has been frustrating trying to dodge the whining at the same time 😛

    • Yeah, I’m pretty sure the author’s bang-on about the main unstated reason behind the fan reaction. The whole chorus of, “But you promised!” has the feel of someone railing against their parent who is dying before being able to attend a wedding or graduation or similar… as promised. “You promised you’d always be there for me…”
      “Sorry kid. Promises get broken.”

      Fans were annoyed that they didn’t have choice. But I suspect that even if the tri-colour ending had been given far more variety and length, with more fundamentally different outcomes for the crew and galaxy, if all promises had been kept, the outrage and wailing would’ve been just as fierce and desperate if all the choices still resulted in Shep dying.

      When fans cried that they wanted choice, what they MEANT was that they wanted to choose to live Happily Ever After. They would have argued bitterly that a selection of choices which all result in ShepDeath isn’t a choice at all, and thus, the promise of meaningful choices still broken. Because if someone dies in the end, what’s meaningful about their choices leading up to it? What’s the POINT?

      Indeed. We all die. Every single one of us. No matter what you do – no matter how great, terrible, or mediocre you are, no matter how many or how few lives you touch, you will still die. What’s the point, eh? I guess all life is meaningless? Could be something to that.

      This was never about colours. It was about peoples’ inability (or unwillingness – “I can, I just don’t want to in my fantasy game!”) to come to grips with mortality. Their own, or a loved one’s.

      • So wrong.
        I was willing to accept my Shepard dying.
        The bitter pill I had trouble swallowing was that many of the choices I made in 1-2-3 and the consequences of those choices – mattered very little, not at all or were turned into something irrelevant.
        The Rachni queen and the Rachni race… In the end, despite all the doomsaying from practically everybody else when making the decision to save her (remember the Krogans were uplifted to save the galaxy from the Rachni, now that’s some serious stuff) simply meant that in the end she and her workers added 20 points or so to a obscure Galactic Readiness rating…

        The hard work in getting Tali/Quarians and the Geth to work together, overcoming intense ‘racial’ hatred… When the starchild said that synthetics and organics cannot work together, Shepard didn’t blink an eyelid… Or say “hey look out there dude… see the Quarian and Geth together!”…

        Harbinger was a let down… Sovereign had 1 game and was a fearsome opponent. Harbinger was built up over 2 and 3 and you don’t even get to tackle him. I don’t necessarily mean in a cliched boss battle but in the end he was a non event.

        The ending Earth sequence could’ve been made more dramatic if you saw Krogans shielding wounded Salarians, Geth covering Quarians, Jack leading her biotic artillery crew and working with Miranda etc etc. Just better involved the characters that you spend so much time with and the scenes you see were influenced by the choices you made.

        Yeah… not at all about death… More about not rewarding the effort made by players over three games…

      • You might be right, I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t count it out, people are wierd. Was definitely the lack of choice and poor writing for me though, hell I would have ended up with the most tragic ending either way, I nearly always do, and prefer it most of the time. My Dragon Age: Origins ending got completely retconned out of future lore, apparently ‘practically no one’ sacraficed their warden despite it seeming to be most logical and morally justifiable choice in my opinion. But regardless of whether the vocal majority would complain anyway, regardless of how immature SOME fans are, that doesn’t have any impact on whether or not something failed to do what it promised to do, promises do get broken yes, and it’s okay to be sad about that. Lest you Tu Quoque 😉

  • Did you just pull a “Because Citadel’s the ending Mass Effect deserves, but not the one it needs right now” in that last paragraph?

    You so totally did.

  • But… I played Citadel before I ended the game?
    So I died before I acted the part where I died? XD
    (I made a new save once I got every DLC)

    Anyway Indoctrination has been my theory since launch… It makes the most sense and fits the story.

    Also… I still want the pic of the crew!
    It’s a perfect wallpaper!

  • Indoctrination Theory is founded on a lot of really tenuous, flimsy links and suppositions, many (if not most) of which don’t hold any water. It’s grasping at straws to avoid confronting an unpleasant truth.

    How did Anderson get there first? If you built a teleporter, would you allow new matter to materialize directly on top of something already there, or would you link further transit to a different terminating point, to avoid mess? Also noted, descriptions of the rooms shifting and changing shape, with some partial evidence of that before your eyes. Also, Anderson? Significantly faster due to not being exploded.

    Why are the trees showing up after the explosion, when previously there were no trees? Actually there were. Go play it again and look for them. They’re there. During the farewell briefings, during the combat in the area, there were trees. Trees are not a sign of indoctrination, they’re a sign of city planning. And they’re probably the same as the ones from the city where Shep watched the kid get toasted because city planners are known for choosing proven, hardy trees for their gardens, looking for low maintenance and predictable/containable root-growth.

    How did Hackett know that Shep was still alive, why did his radio only just come on? Note from the radio transmissions on the ground, everyone was assumed dead, and Shepard was likely non-responsive while passed out. Additionally whilst inside the citadel, it was closed – communications barrier? How did he know Shep was alive? He guessed. You send someone to achieve an objective, such as a giant space station opening up, then when the space station OPENS UP, maybe you take a BLIND SHOT IN THE DARK that your operative succeeded.

    There are more easily dispelled grasps at these straws which have more to do with technical limitations and artistic licence than they do with leaving open loopholes for conspiracy theories. Every single point in the IT video can be argued against with far more realistic and reasonable rebuttal. But people refused to believe what they had in front of them because it was too ugly or painful for them to handle.

    • Watch AngryJoe’s video about The Indoctrination Theory, it sums it up well. Sure there are some parts that can be explained through luck and so on. Then there are core elements that can not, such as Sheperds eyes, visions, god child and so on. It’s pretty clear the indocination theory is dead close to what was planed for the games end and reminds me very much of the reveal of your character’s identity in Kotor. The ending was rushed by EA in a typical attempt to get some much needed revenue. Which caused a complicated story with possibly a few flaws to become a abhorent mess, with major plot holes and poor writing.

      • Luck? No. Logic and reason counters almost every argument, where technical faults or game design decisions don’t. Such as the ludicrous, “Why does Shep’s pistol have infinite ammo?! It must be unreality!” Same reason you can’t shoot civilians. Like the removal of the HUD, it’s an artistic/design decision to avoid letting you inadvertently block an ending for yourself by running out.)

        Eyes: Augmentation, explained in ME2.
        Visions (I think you meant dreams, there are no ‘visions’): PTSD. Disturbingly common enough in real life, let alone a work of fiction.
        God child: Caretaker AI/VI choosing to manifest as a figure pressing heavily in Shepard’s psyche? Kind of a no-brainer if you’re looking for a human form to take, even if it’s a cheap shot (see the movie: Contact. Sorry for spoilers). The Illusive man showed already that he could exert control over humans through a brute-force approach to reapertech. It’s no stretch at all to consider lifting pressing thoughts as much easier than implanting them.

        Every. Argument. There are no smoking guns or ‘interesting coincidences’ here. Just people seeing a man in the moon in every shadow.

        • You’re wrong about the eyes. When I say visions I mean seeing things that are not real. This happens several times throughout the game. So your explanation for seeing things that are not real in the Mass Effect Universe is a condition from the real world that may not exist in game while ignoring a known condition indoctrination (Caused by contact with reapers which Shepard has a lot of). There is also Shepard being shown after the endings which is impossible.

          God Child lies, missleads and tries to trick Shepard several times. It is also inconsistent with established elements of the universe and full of plot holes (unless he isn’t real, then it works)
          Depends what you mean by smoking gun, there isn’t one element of the theory that makes it certain but combined it comes pretty close.

          If the indoctination theory is wrong that means in game about an enemy that can exhibit mental control and dominance over humans and other species, the writers never explore this affecting the main character. Instead of this interesting logical conclusion the writers simultaneously go bat shit insane and write the conclusion to this great franchise (Known for it’s solid writing/story) into an abhorent plot hole ridden waste of space. As a writer myself I find it hard to imagine talented and successfully men and women for no reason, writing with quality on the level of bad fanfiction. Keeping in mind anybody could write a bad ending, this is true endings are hard. However this was a very poor ending for a game with heavy story/character focus. To so smuging write an inconsistent mess such as this without being rushed and forced to cut entire themes like indoctination seems impossible to me. Perhaps I’m underestimating human stupidity and arrogance, I just feel the theory fits both what is presented in game and fits with typical EA fashion of rushing games to get revenue.

          • I’m not sure where the God child lies. I reviewed a couple times and it all seemed legit. Everything it says is consistent (if you go with the extended version, which lays things out much more slowly and simply for folks who weren’t making the logic jumps required). It’s simply different, and filling in the blanks for an organic mind with a long-established reasoning behind its sequence of cycle which it is starting to doubt the validity of due to this one, new variable. Caveat: The ‘visions’ (dreams) of the God Child prior to the final events on the citadel aren’t the God Child. They’re PTSD. Which, it is noted, does actually exist in the ME universe and is referrred to. I had felt that it was obvious that the God Child simply chose its form by skimming something potent off the top of Shep’s memories, plus a slight bit of authorial catch-all that avoids using a traumatic death in Shep’s past due to that not being consistent across all possible Sheps.

            Indoctrination Theory is a great idea. But I hate when people support great ideas for the wrong reasons. The ‘evidence’ cobbled together is weak. If the ME3 writers had waited a month or so after release then pushed out free DLC/patch update with the ‘real’ ending for those who managed to defy the God Child and beat their indoctrination, with a very meta ‘haha!’ I could not have been more pleased. – yesplease. (See also: Author’s Saving Throw.)

            But they didn’t. So the things in-game are as they are, and the overwhelming majority of evidence people point to as ‘proof’ are easily explained within the game universe, the rest by bad/lazy writing. Circumstantial is circumstantial. It’s the same kind of thing we saw with people proving a vast government conspiracy in 9/11. If your evidence can be easily, logically, reasonably explained away, it doesn’t get to be included in some bullet-point list of ‘interesting coincidences’ as if it adds weight. It does not.

          • I use a sound reasoning and in game evidence for the bases of my argument. You’re also using a strawman when comparing the reasoning behind the indoctrination theory and the lunacy that is the 9/11 conspiracy.

          • It’s not a straw man, it’s damn near a mirror situation.

            People were unhappy, and in their inability to accept the horror of it all at face-value, they went looking for something they could accept. Something that would make more =sense= than, “Bad things happen, and a very small number of people can have a horrifically large impact.”

            All the nonsense and lunacy around that ‘evidence’ and ‘proof’ of conspiracy behind 9/11 was arguably even more convincing than the ‘evidence’ behind the Indoctrination theory, and relied almost entirely on the fact that because people were able to draw ridiculous links to so-called inconsistencies to some over-arching grand plan, and the fact that because their creativity/desperation was able to find so many of these, this is somehow supposed to lend greater weight to each of those tiny non-evidences.

  • I’m pretty sure Avina was confused about Purgatory even in the main game. It’s an unofficial bar, she has no record of it actually existing.

    This theory massively overthinks everything, besides.

  • For Christ’s sake give it a damned rest. The current trilogy is now over and finished. As much as I love the games and even the ending the time has come to say goodbye to Shep and I am loking forward to what comes next.

    Abd that is the point really, WHAT COMES NEXT. ME3’s ending is not a scab that gets better the more you pick at it! The time to let this go was last year and putting up a story about this now is one hell of a cheap shot and just as tired as the subject it covers.

    • Abd that is the point really, WHAT COMES NEXT. ME3’s ending is not a scab that gets better the more you pick at it! The time to let this go was last year and putting up a story about this now is one hell of a cheap shot and just as tired as the subject it covers.

      Nothing comes next, for me. See, ME3’s ending is like a scab to me. A burn scab. What I plan to do is ignore the scab until it goes away. Then I’m going to stay away from the fire that caused the burn. Bioware and EA are dead to me and (in EA’s case) good riddance.

  • I thought this was going to be an interesting read but as soon as you mentioned the “It was all a dream retcon” Indoctrination Theory I stopped right there.

    • Enh, relax. He didn’t actually tie it in to the wishful Indoctrination Theory nonsense, it’s more a think-piece. Sort of, ‘Hey this theory is implausible, but it’s the only thing which explains what is probably an oversight. But wouldn’t it be interesting if…?’ A waste of time sure, but an inoffensive one.

  • The only reason why the Indoctrination Theory is the most popular theory is because its also the most hostile theory, in which fans attack other fans who disagree with them as “Being indoctrinated” which is no different from a crazy Alex Jones conspiracy theory where he claims that anyone who disagree’s with him is “Brainwashed”

  • Mass Effect 3 was the first ME game I didn’t play more than once. In fact, after completing ME3, I’ve never played any of the three main ME games ever again, nor downloaded any of the DLC for ME3… all because of that ending sequence.

    I don’t think it was a bad ending as such, I found the ideas presented to be interesting, and spent some time deciding what I would do. Nor was I upset that shep had to die, I’d known that was going to happen long before ME3 came out.. the developers had set that up from the outset.

    What I didn’t like about the ending was.. it didn’t “fit” with the rest of the series at all. By the time I got to the ending, I’d played through ME1 about 4 or 5 times, ME2 a couple of times and then played through ME3.. the setting was “I’ve united the galaxy. Turian, Krogan, Salarians have mostly forgiven the past events. Geth and Quarians have made peace and started working together again. We’re on the path to ending the reaper threat, or at least diverting it”..

    Then the ending hits and it’s “Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m god (child). Choose from: change the whole universe into some mutant form without giving them a choice about it, destroy all synthetic life including the geth you just spent 3 games sorting out and anyone with a pacemaker, or take control of the reapers.. oh, and whichever way you go, everyone is screwed because I’m gonna take out all space travel as well”.

    It was just such a massive change of direction, given the expectations set by the narrative up to that point. It really felt like nothing I’d done mattered in the slightest. And so, here I am, with no motivation to do it again.

  • I actually had ME3 on Xbox but it died on me half way through. Never bought a new one, sold all my games. Waiting for a cheap price on PS3 and it comes for free on PSN+ last week.

    In all that time, I never knew the ending. So I finally finished it today (the original, not the DLC ending). I can see why people were upset. It’s a damn great game though.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!