Does Shepard Dream of Electric Sheep? Thoughts on the Indoctrination Theory in Mass Effect 3
IMAGE: Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)
Although I am not a subscriber to the theory, and was not a contributor to their discussions, I was rather disturbed this past week to see that Bioware, publishers of the Mass Effect series, have decided to clamp down hard on a subset of their fans: those who believe in the ‘Indoctrination Theory’ (a theory that argues the muddled, obscure ending of Mass Effect 3 was in fact a dream-state from which the protagonist, Shepard, was struggling to wake). Without warning, and with little explanation, Bioware’s Community Coordinator Chris Priestly began culling anything remotely to do with the discussion of IT, halting the primary thread (which had been running in some form or another for the past ten months), banning people who kept trying to discuss it elsewhere, dismissing anything written on the subject as ‘Spam’, and even completely deleting some threads (including an open letter pleading with him to allow fans to speak on a topic they care about). Instead, fans who wanted to continue talking about IT were instructed that they could only do so in a closed off, invitation-only Group section of the site – that they were no longer permitted to discuss their interpretation in the public forums.
Again, I am not ultimately one of the fans effected by this blanket censorship, and so did not follow their discussions closely, but as far as I could see the (single) IT discussion thread was not a flame war, nor was it awash with triviality. It appeared to be a group of people who passionately loved the game (in a way that I no longer can, given the disgusting implications of the text’s underlying thematic message), players who were in many cases praising the work of the developers for being genius enough to sculpt a mystery of Hitchcockian depth and wonder. Not exactly the barbarians storming the gates.
Frankly, it seems a rather shameful and prejudicial way to treat the fans that remain, arguably, the company’s most loyal and fervent supporters – particularly as it is a move that directly imposes a censorship upon what subject matter can and cannot be discussed in a forum that purports to offer a voice for the Bioware community. I’ve not seen the topic of Synthesis, or Control, or Destroy (the other three primary conclusions to the ending (each of which concerns eugenics, totalitarianism or genocide as their central tenets) being forced to dismiss themselves to invitational groups away from the public discourse.
To me there seems to be a very unsettling precedent being set in this censorship, one that appears to be escalating a pattern of silencing the subject matter that fans are allowed to discuss on that forum (a prominent thread pointing out the many contradictions between the pre-release promises made by Bioware representatives and what was delivered in game was also shut down, with complaints disappeared).
In any case, in light of this unnerving development, I thought that I would (if you will permit me) return to some thoughts that I originally wrote on the BSN forum concerning this subject and its broader implications for gaming, back before even the mention of this concept was taboo. As will be immediately evident, these comments all concern the potential implications of the Indoctrination Theory, should it have been revealed to be true…
. . . . .
As much of the criticism I have levelled at the conclusion of Mass Effect 3 is predicated upon the notion that the narrative arc with which we have been presented by Bioware is the entirety of the game, I did want to speak briefly (and I know my version of the word ‘briefly’ differs from most) to what it would mean if this is not, in fact, the end of Shepard’s tale. …And yes, I am about to utter the words ‘Indoctrination Theory’, which I know for many players will no doubt inspire images of me sitting in a basement with a tin-foil hat.
Even before the Extended Cut was released I was always reluctant to weigh in on whether I thought the Indoctrination Theory was valid (although I will admit that I dearly, passionately hoped that it would have been so); but now that both the Extended Cut has rolled out and seemingly discrediting the reading, and Bioware itself has declared definitively there will be no more content after the ending, it seems that what I will go on to describe is more an account of what might have been, rather than what will. So in that light, I would like to speak to what it could have meant for this game, this franchise, and the entire medium of video gaming, if it had have been the plan.
People need not have me repeat yet again the components of the Indoctrination Theory – suffice to say that it involves the jarring ending being but a psychological morality play within Shepard’s wounded psyche; Ghosty-McSpace-Scamp represents the voice of three options, two of which led to surrender, and the third, Destroy, playing out as a catalyst through which to break the stranglehold of Harbinger’s influence (hence the breath amongst the rubble: Shepard is reawakening to the real world).
If this is what is actually occurring, if a later supplemental free DLC patch to the game were to reveal these events to be the imaginings of Shepard moments before the true conclusions of the game (whatever they might actually be) play out, this narrative will be one of the greatest acts of literary manipulation and storytelling ever conceived. (Again, I want to point out: I am not saying that this is what is happening – merely what it would mean if it is.)
The symmetry between audience and experience would be sublime: all the rancour and disbelief on the internet, all the fighting for Shepard’s identity and ideology would perfectly parallel the character’s own fight for survival, breaking the hold of an omnipotent, omniscient force that seems to compel him/her to act against his/her actions. All of the angst, all of the sorrow, even my own pretentious blather, would therefore feed directly into the psychological rallying cry that that our focal character, Shepard, requires to wake him/herself up from this delirious stupor, and return to the fight.
Indeed, if Indoctrination Theory is accurate – if the concluding moments of the game as we have them now are but the shadows cast upon Shepard’s mind by Harbinger in an attempt to bend him/her to the Reaper’s will – then Mass Effect 3 would not be Game of the Year: it would be Game of the Century. No hyperbole. It would do for the communicative form of gaming what Citizen Kane did for film, what Joyce’s Ulysses did for modern fiction: it would turn the medium itself into a fundamental, inseparable element of the means through which the narrative was communicated. It would elevate the audience’s engagement with this text to a profoundly intimate level (arguably impossible in any other artistic form), would fold dissenters and believers and self-righteous critics on both sides all into the miasma of speculation and emotion required for Shepard to act. It would be the perfect culmination of player agency in the story-telling medium that Bioware has promised (and for the great majority of these narratives, delivered) for the past several years.
This ‘ending’ would be an intentionally, necessarily disturbing waypoint in the journey towards this tale’s epic dénouement. And in such an instance, I will be at the front of the pack, howling myself hoarse with praise for the audacity and brilliance of this writing team and its talented crafts-people.
There would be no more question as to whether games were art. People would simply harrumph and murmur the name Mass Effect as they do Mona Lisa, and then swan away to drink lattes and wear berets and talk about Kierkegaard.
Having Shepard (and by extension the Player) awake from the most audacious (and in fact necessarily cruel) act of player trolling in the history of gaming, only to then fight on with a greater comprehension of the alluring pull of this mind-altering persuasive power that has rippled through the entire Mass Effect canon…
Well that would be… Would be… Well there aren’t even words to put into context what that would be, because it would necessitate a whole new descriptive language of player and text interaction. (‘Cluster-Mind-frakafication’ leaps to the tongue.)
Mean? Yes. Deceptive? Yes. Misleading? Oh, my wordy, yes. But a rousing way in which to further bind the player to this character with whom they have journeyed, fought and loved? Sign me up.
So in this light, I would have loved to have seen Indoctrination Theory play out. It would have been an extraordinarily audacious play on the meta-fictional structure of the game. Movies and fiction can’t do that: hold off on the release of the final scene of a film until the audience is good and invested in one reading, only to kick it up a notch with a later addition to the tale. It is one of the great benefits of the delivery system of the games medium, one that I would love to see people utilise in more experimental, expressive ways than simply: ‘Hey guys, here’s Sonic 4: part 1… Maybe you’ll wanna try part 2, ‘kay? ‘
I remember Stephen King experimented with that old-fashioned episodic form with the original publication of The Green Mile, and while I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, it seemed to work quite well for him in ensuring that the true narrative wasn’t spoiled. His rationale – drawing on the experience of his mother, who he said had a tendency to always flip to the back of a book and spoil the ending – was to ensure than no-one could leak the information before he was ready to reveal it, and that by doing this he was participating in a very focussed, specific engagement with his reading audience.
My dream – and with the passing of the Extended Cut release it has now been revealed a completely insubstantial fantasy – is that with time constraints pressing in, Bioware decided to give the audience the cold, hard-sci-fi conclusion that this franchise has always flirted with, intending always (with the freedom of extra time to work on the DLC) to release the soaring, but-heroism-and-unity-can-still-fight-back conclusion that has always (until the ending) triumphed over the rigidity of the Lovecraftian nightmare.
Again, in such a case, the ending would have to be free (they would be rightly pilloried for trying to ‘sell’ the hopeful ending), and it would have to be handled delicately so as to not undermine the fans that have, quite rightly, invested in the conclusion as it stands. Bioware would have to avoid posing this as a: ‘Ha! Ha! Gotcha!’, but rather as a bold expression of the whole experience of indoctrination, binding the players experience to Shepard, to manifest the battle within.
I should clarify, however: personally, I have no interest in Indoctrination Theory if it does ultimately turn out (as it appears it now has) to operate as no more than an ‘alternate’ reading on the current canon ending. Indeed, in such an ending it seems merely a vicious malformation of the player’s engagement with the plot, failing to even provide a satisfactory conclusion. If the end of the game really is just Shepard lying bleeding to death in rubble, then I completely check out.
Ultimately, one of the major problems with the Indoctrination Theory – aside from the fact that Bioware has almost certainly denied it’s very existence – is that it is an ending that backs the player into the corner of having to commit a heinous act in order to fight through the dream-state: obliteration, domination, or eugenic purging. You have to select one on order to even hope to end the deception – and you have to do so without actually knowing whether your dreaming or not. It’s a horrifying, and grotesquely pricey gamble.
The only way that this action could function is if Bioware’s plan was always to push us into an extreme act, an act for which we could never forgive ourselves, in order to (clumsily) force a kind of empathetic bond with the major villains of the work. In such a case the question would become how much could you/would you, Shepard, be willing to sacrifice to save the Universe – as a prelude to the real conclusion, waking the character from whatever choice was made in DLC and stomping some Reaper ass. Still awkward, still vile, still an utterly unjust violation of the player’s agency, but one that intentionally muddies the stark moral delineation between the potential for action between the heroes and ‘villains’, forcing a hypothetical moral conundrum upon the player that will reverberate even after the uplifting conclusion… Of course, this presupposes that the Reapers are little more than the rocks upon which our characters dash themselves, and Shepard is compelled to see the choice that confronted all those who pursued these creatures before him/her, hoping to control or thwart them.
Again, I frankly don’t think that this is in any way what Bioware had or has planned – it seems to me that this revelation should have already been made by now if they had any actual intention of running with it… But I guess for me, the Indoctrination Theory is like a scratch on the roof my mouth that I cannot help but keep touching with my tongue. It lingers because although I can ultimately dismiss almost everything else that supports Indoctrination under the shortcomings of apathy, rushed design, or happenstance, one doubt remains. Sure, no one looks at the creepy kid as he scrambles onto the ship; fine, because who’s looking anywhere but at the giant mutant insect blowing civilisation into powder? Sure, there is absolutely no way that Anderson could have gotten in front of me with pristine clothes and no visible wounds; but he said the walls were moving around and maybe the developers (somehow) didn’t catch that logistical speed bump. And yes, even those goddamn dreams – intrusions into my Shepard’s semi-cipher identity that really stick in my craw (it’s a thing; a craw can be a thing!); if I squint a little in my mind’s eye I can finally dismiss them as purely clumsy, woefully mistimed swings at emotional engagement.
But that breath scene. Someone has to explain that Shepard breath scene after the Destroy ending. I have to have it explained. Need it explained: justified, contextualised, even deleted as a fault – anything. But something needs to be done, because at the moment, from whatever angle I read it, it seems to be saying to the audience: ‘Oh, and by the way, gentle player:
‘…No really. You, drayfish. You. Screw you.’
Because that scene has no merit whatsoever besides intentionally, openly trolling the audience.
They know that we’re not infants – simply shaking a set of keys in front of our eyes will not delight us to forget everything else we’ve seen. They may not have known that a healthy portion of the fans would react as vehemently to the principles of the endings. They may not have foreseen that everyone would (I think entirely justifiably) interpret the Relays exploding as the ruination of all life (although when you pull out to a universe-sized wide-shot that reveals tsunamis of devastation rippling into countless stratospheres, I’m not sure what else they were expecting). But that breath scene is an addition (needless at best) to this salad of gormless iconography. And because it goes nowhere, asking its viewer to believe that Shepard not only survived the Reaper destruct code that was meant to kill him/her, but lived through the structurally devastating Crucible explosion; and then lived through re-entry into Earth’s now blighted atmosphere, the premise goes so far beyond the realm of the fantastical that it would be like the creators sat down with a game of Mad-Libs to devise the ending plot:
‘I was walking through LONDON when I found a GIANT LAZER that sent me to SPACE . It was here that I met CREEPY GHOST who made me feel EXISTENTIAL NIHILISTIC ANGST until I BLEW UP the UNIVERSE and went home for more DLC .’
If the creators of this franchise really have that little respect for their audience then there is little left to say at all. If the breath scene (as it currently does) continues to have no relevance except to tantalise with utterly fruitless speculation, then I fear that my investment in this franchise will be truly eroded through – and I desperately do not want that to be so – because it really will mean that a prank was more important to the creators of this universe than thematic cohesion and narrative sense.
…Even as I type this, however, I can acknowledge with sorrow that I am in the bargaining stages of having my hopes dashed. It’s Christmas Eve, I’m standing in my pyjamas, a teddy bear tucked under one arm on the staircase as I watch my parents stuffing the stockings with gifts from a trash bag, both hushing each other in case they wake me. ‘But – But there is still a Santa, right?’ I’m murmuring into the dark.
Come on, Bioware. Let there be some kind of impossibly fortuitous path through the murky narrative haze. Give me back Santa. You have no idea how much I still want to believe.*
IMAGE: Mass Effect 3 (Bioware; additional snarkiness: me)
* But as we were all made aware: on 26th June Santa lay beaten to a pulp in a back alley. A note, left by the attacker read: ‘For the Lulz’.
(Originally published, in parts, on the ‘All Were Thematically Revolting…’ thread: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/11435886/)
This entry was posted on January 11, 2013 at 4:32 am and is filed under criticism, literature, Uncategorized, video games with tags censorship, Indoctrination Theory, IT, literature, Mass Effect 3, Metatextuality, themenastics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.