Let me begin by saying that this article will be will be with spoilers for the Mass Effect series. PLEASE, proceed no further if you have not played the WHOLE SERIES (Because honestly, you are NOT getting the full experience of the trilogy if you do not.) You have been warned.
I stood amazed at the hate before Mass Effect 3 was released. People reading leaked scripts proclaiming, “your decisions don’t matter.” People complaining about the presence of Jessica Chobot. Then the whole Helper mess. I am never quick to judge something, especially before the damn thing even came out, so I put such complaints in the back of my mind. Then I played Mass Effect 3.
It is this problem with the game’s end that I find the most compelling. Ultimately, this is really a partially true criticism. The come out of nowhere, synthetics vs. organics cycle must stop ending basically does make EVERY THING MOOT. Everyone either dies or end up on some random ass planet with no way to get off of it. It made no sense and, at least at 3 AM when I finally beat the game, left this gamer at a loss.
But then I did something a lot of people who troll forums and what not do not do, I thought about it. The ending may not be what we wanted, but in so many ways the entire series has been leading up to this. We learn throughout the games that things are never quite as they seem. The geth are first presented as this evil force of dangerous AI determined to take control of organics…only it turns out that this is only a small subset of the geth…then (if you made the right decisions) we find that the geth not only have souls, but aren’t necessarily the evil awful creatures, but rather another life form trying to find their place in the galaxy.
The krogan are another great example of this. At first they are presented as a force to be feared, that needed to be put in check by powerful political forces to ensure the safety of the galaxy. Then you see what it has done to their home world, you see that the Krogran, while warlike, are turned into the vicious animals by forced evolution and then a existence without hope. By the end, you see the man who engineered their sickness sacrifice himself in an attempt to right his wrong.
Then there is the Asari, the enlightened keepers of galactic peace. They are a beautiful unisexual species that live for thousands of years. They seem unflappable and infallible throughout the series, then you arrive on Thessia. If you did not bring Javik with you on this mission, you really missed out on big parts of the Asari story (I assume). Raised to intelligence by the protheans, the Asari hoard knowledge to maintain their place at the top of the galaxy, only to be the first species to truly lose their home world to the Reapers (that we fully witness), due in large part to their own hubris.
Then there is the Illusive Man and Cerberus. Cerberus begins as this ancillary organization in the first game, people that do bad things and need to be stopped. Happenstance brings you into their fold and you learn that the Illusive Man at least appears to have humanity’s best interests at heart, though perhaps ruthless in his practices. Then, hubris once again wins today as he puts too much faith in human power, only to find he was under the influence of dark forces he was trying to control.
Why do I go though all this? Because the true underlying narrative of Mass Effect, the true theme, is the notion of the cycle of life. The conversations with the Prothean reveal this. Each time you speak with him you learn that they made all the mistakes your own people are making or are have made. Using lower life forms to fight their own wars (Krogan). A subset that believed they could take control of the reapers (Cerbrus). Belief that their technological hegemony could and should rule the galaxy (Asari…though a stretch perhaps). The difference in our galaxy? Diversity. He explicitly states that Proethan hegemony was their downfall. If everyone is the same, then once you find the weak point you can take them out easily.
It was diversity of life that allows Shepard to reach the Crucible and meet the catalyst. The Crucible is the full representation of untold numbers of harvest organic life. The catalyst is the true mystery here, one I have not formulated a full answer too, mainly because it comes out of nowhere in many ways. But I have a theory; the catalyst is evolution. It stops the cycle of organics vs. synthetic because the victory of synthetic life is the defeat of evolution. But the ability to encounter the catalyst represents a technological singularity. Shepard is not fully human. She has some Prothean, some synthetic, some human. She is a hybrid, but unlike the Illusive Man’s creations, she is still human. Unlike pure vitriolic AIs like the Reapers, EDI and the Geth clearly have souls and, most importantly, have a sense of a norm of reciprocity, the key to civil order.
And thus, your arrival at the Crucible and encounter with the catalyst means that you and your galaxy have found a way to bring together a diversity of life in such a way as to encounter and understand evolution itself. And thus the final decision is more about what direction this final evolution of life will take than it is about green, red, or blue explosions. You have encountered the same problems that have brought down so many galactic civilizations, and managed to overcome it. This cycle reached an apex of evolution, and the old solution to keep organics ahead of synthetic is no longer plausible or necessary.
This is just a theory, of course. How I made sense of the puzzling ending that I was presented with. Now the plot problems with what happens to the Normandy aside, I like to think this theory makes some degree of sense. Perhaps I am overthinking this, but I think a narrative of this caliber needs to be over thought, because it is not simple. People who complain about the ending are not thinking enough about the narrative as a whole, and that narrative’s direction. Is it a shame that we don’t get to see how life worked out for our characters post War, yes. There are things I’d like to know; but the encounter with the catalyst makes those things moot. Life has fundamentally changed in the Mass Effect galaxy, and how Garrus and Tali’s relationship works out is really not important anymore in the grand scheme of things. What is important is that the evolution won. The cycle of destruction is broken. Life will continue on.