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:

‘Screw you.

‘…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:

9 Responses to “Does Shepard Dream of Electric Sheep? Thoughts on the Indoctrination Theory in Mass Effect 3”

  1. Awesome essay on the Bioware/EA (grrr EA…grrr) handling of all the Sheps and Femsheps Mass Effect legacy across the digital galaxy.
    And I haven’t even finished ME:2 yet with either my paragon Femshep (Ripley Shepard) or renegade Shep (Riddick Shepard).But I feel a bit more prepared now after reading up on the saga’s finale and “Indoctrination Theory”.Good stuff!

    • Heaven Smile Says:

      Sorry to dissapoint you, but Bioware said that EA DIDN’T tamper their creative control. They fucked up ALL by themselves:
      escapistmagazine com/forums/read/7.405515-EA-Gave-BioWare-Complete-Creative-Control

  2. Heaven Smile Says:

    I am sorry, but i STILL don’t understand why would the hypothetical Indoctrination Theory would be the BEST ending ever for ALL mediums.

    People keep saying that tricking the audience is something that was never done before, but even in this very medium itself it was done to death. For example, there is Metal Gear Solid 2 “VR Theory”

    And apparently even Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past did it too.

    • Hi Heaven Smile,

      You’re absolutely right – were IT to have been legitimate (which, sadly, Bioware has now fairly resoundingly declared that it was not), it would not be the first example of a game performing such a revolutionary, mind-bending, metatextual twist.

      As you rightly point out, gaming is uniquely filled with fourth-wall breaking nods to the artifice of game design, with examples like Psychomantis of Metal Gear reading your memory card and calling you out on your gaming tastes (I think he mentions if you’ve played Castlevania, doesn’t he?), and instances like in Eternal Darkness, when your character goes insane and the game starts screwing with you the player, pretending to lower the volume of your television, pretending that the game itself has crashed and needs to be restarted. Even Mario 2 was revealed to be ‘all just a dream’, which ‘explains’ why it was so dramatically different from its predecessor… I shall have to explore the VR Theory you mention, though, because it likewise sounds intriguing.

      In this article, I guess I was just expressing – in my wholly subjective opinion – that I thought the audacity of Mass Effect’s ending would make it the ‘best’ of those examples – again, only from my personal, limited perspective.

      My take on the whole IT premise (back when I allowed myself to entertain such a notion; when I still hoped ME3 could be salvaged) was utterly dependent upon the game’s creators allowing the player and player-avatar to be completely united in their desolation and despair, to have both Shepard and audience broken down and brought to complete hopelessness by this false ending, forcing the fanbase to momentarily embrace their narrative abandon… only to be rescued by a free DLC that would continue the narrative, to ‘save’ fiction and player from their existential reverie. It would be about exploiting that most unique of videogame delivery systems, downloadable content, to necessarily expand the medium itself (like Sterne playing all of his textual games in Tristam Shandy; or Stravinsky employing atonality in The Rite of Spring). ‘Indoctrination’ would be imposed upon character and player whether they wanted it to be or not, and one would have to effectively bust through the confines of traditional text in order to be free of it.

      As I type it out now, it sounds rather absurd, and clearly a more experimental, bold and creative concept than Bioware had any intention of crafting. They were obviously more intent on stirring up a reductive sniping debate over which war-crime is less vulgar, but for a time it seemed the only way to resolve the arbitrary, thematically incoherent mess I personally perceived in the ending of Mass Effect 3, and (at least as a DLC model) a wholly new way in which to communicate a fiction.

      But again, as for being the ‘best ever’ ending – that’s completely subjective. And perhaps more an indication of how badly I wanted both player and character to be rescued from that narrative carnage.

      Thanks for the comments, and all the best.

      • Heaven Smile Says:

        When the ME3 ending debacle started, i was kinda expecting for someone to make comparisons to Metal Gear Solid 2 or even End of Evangelion (which is by itself a “Extended Cut” to the original endings provided by the last 2 episodes of the series) as examples of “entitlement” and the “reason of why x medium will never be art”.

        I know you have somewhat covered this with the Colin Moriarty articles, but in the other hand the fans have actually done things that makes me question their sanity, and i kinda see why would the “defenders” would be Genre Savvy enough to think this was another case. For example, MGS2 was supposed to be the final game of the series and leave everything unanswered, but the fans became so obsessed with it that they sent death threats to Kojima. And since he feared for its life and was disappointed that no one “gets it”, he stopped caring and made more sequels and HAD to explain what happened in MGS2 ending on MGS4 (while trying to make MGS3 as a prequel to avoid giving answers but failed).

        Ditto for Evangelion, as described by The Foldable Man from the show “Folding Ideas”:

        Then again, there are so many hacks pretending that the audience its too dumb to “get it”, or that “spoiling it will destroy its significance as art” (kinda like The Joker’s: “If you explain the joke, there is no joke”) that it should be no surprise that the audience feels cheated for this kind of stuff.

        Why the authors needs to leave everything so nebulous? its not like experiencing the work of art without being spoiled from its meaning will cure you from Cancer or something, so there is no real reason to dig themselves deeper like this JUST to make the audience figure it themselves. It seems a really stupid move to ignore the current situation of the real world (the audience negative reaction to the silence of authors) just because one got this idea in the head that has been already done before but in less talented hands. Thus, the audience has already a bad impression for this kind of moves and will inevitably distrust the current author as well when he/she/it finally releases its work.

        And you know what? after reading some news about the developer of ME3 saying that the people who didn’t like the ending were just a minority, or that the critical reception of Metacritic is proof that the game is doing just fine (even Drew Karpyshyn), i am inclined to think that authors live in a bubble away from reality.

        Probably in the dimension where The King In Yellow is popular and know as “What is it?” By Crispin Glover (AKA George McFly)

        Anyway, back to the real topic.

        I agree that having both the protagonist avatar and the audience suffer the same experience is a nice demonstration of what Interactive Medium can do. I am after all a firm believer that games should work under a mix of Daoism and Bodhidharma, where there are things that you can only learn by yourself with experience, rather than be told about it, because the truth is ultimately subjective and up to the individual (even this very post is subjective!)

        However, i dont remember seeing Shepard actually SHOWING the mental breakdown that the audience is having at that moment in the original endings. Instead of having Shepard break down into tears while slowly walking towards its horrible fate of fucking up the galaxy in 3 colorful shades of despair because there is no other choice (because the Catalyst logic made perfect sense to him/her/it), in the ending came across as:
        Casper: “Sup”
        Casper: “Synthetics are evil and we are trying to save you. Trust me, i am a synthetic”
        Shep: “Cool Story Bro”
        Casper: “The ending cutscenes are at your left”
        Shep: “K THX BYE”

        I mean, i am all into your idea, but Shepard performance and execution is less of a hero being broken to pieces with each step (just like its psyche is the closer to indoctrination), and more like an apathetic person that just goes thought the motions at this point.

      • Great point, Heaven Smile – and fantastic post.

        Exactly as you say: when I think back on it now, for all of my clinging to the hope that those recurring laughably saccharine dreams and the general hazy weirdness of the ending might somehow be evidence of the encroaching bewilderment of Shepard’s mind (turns out they were just hack writing and hurried, muddled exposition), in those final moments he/she really doesn’t seem that cut up about inflicting this nightmare, at his/her enemy’s request, upon the universe.

        Rather – much like the happy-happy-joy-joy of the epilogue slides – all of the moral horror that the game evokes is simply brushed aside. Indeed, in the original cut of the game we’re not even afforded the opportunity to question the vile, intolerant drivel the Catalyst is offering as ‘wisdom’ – Shepard just nods along, forgets about that whole armada of disparate-races-working-together-as-one floating outside the window, and happily resolves that imposing one person’s will upon all autonomous beings in the universe really is the only ‘answer’ to racial conflict.


        You’re right. Even if IT was the plan (which it now clearly never was), it’s hard to justify such a grotesque thematic advocation of such joyful moral relativity.

  3. Heaven Smile Says:

    Now that i remember, did the Indoc.T ever mentioned the existence and meaning behind the original 4th ending? you know, the “Crucible destroyed ending”?

    Apparently this happens not because you run out of time and the Reapers destroy the Crucible; which probably make even the EC even more stupid since Casper The Genocidal Ghost said that the Crucible provides the ideal solution to its problem but still destroy it; but because the player shoot a thingy on the ceiling that that somehow prevents the Crucible from being used.

    So a puny pistol is capable of destroying a Super-weapon that was supposed to resist as much as possible the beams of Reapers, but also destroying this specific tube or whatever prevents the machine from being used…. even when Destroy ending consist of shooting a tube that we don’t know what it does but, somehow, by doing doing so you end up making the machine work as intended.

    I believe…..let me check….why, yes! i can feel my neurons eating each other in my head. It tickles 😀

  4. […] about games and pop culture that led to the Themenastics blog.  And yes, I may have spoken about Mass Effect 3 since […]

  5. […] To explain my issues properly I would have to go off on yet another tedious, pedantic rant about Mass Effect 3 – specifically the way that it was already heading in a disheartening direction even before its reprehensible end – and no one (including me) wants that.  Besides, I’ve banged that particular drum plenty of times in the past.  Seriously. […]

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