“You are now the Avatar of this cycle. The examplar of victory. Not just for Humans or Turians or Protheans, but for all life. Every soul that has ever lived is watching this moment. But I know you will see this through to the end for all of us, no matter the cost.”
Ah, yes. Today is the day I finally open up this can of worms on my little corner of the internet.
Like it or hate it (usually most people hate it, and I myself am not much of a fan) the way that the Mass Effect trilogy concluded in Mass Effect 3 did pose an interesting moral dilemma between the four possible choices that you had: Destroy, Control, Synthesis, and the secret Refusal ending.
The debate of “Which ending was the best?” is one that still rages on between members of the franchise’s fanbase to this day, from Reddit threads to Twitter feeds to YouTube videos.
So, in the wake of the absolute mess created by Mass Effect: Andromeda (which edged out Destiny 2 as the most disappointing game of 2017 for me) and its numerous failures, I thought I would return to this famed point of contention and throw my hat in the ring. In this article, I will rank the endings from best to worst, logically making a case for each choice.
Also, it’s important to note that while I do love the indoctrination theory, I’m suspending my belief in it for this article and assuming that what we see on screen is what actually what happens in the story. In addition, I’m referring to Shepard as a male in this piece because that’s always the sex I chose for Shepard.
Destroy is ultimately my favorite ending of the four available for two reasons: it’s what I feel best suits Shepard’s character, and is also the least risky option.
Destroying the Reapers was Shepard’s intent all along, as evidenced by this iconic line:
“We destroy them, or they destroy us.”
— Commander Shepard
It’s a simplistic approach to the threat of the Reaper invasion to be sure, but it’s also the best way to completely prevent the Reapers from ever being a threat again while simultaneously laving the least potentially devastating drawbacks. The other choices all bring way too many risks.
Yes, I can hear you furiously typing right about now. What about the Geth? EDI? Any other artificial intelligence? Are their deaths not significant?
Believe me, having to sacrifice these beings, especially the Geth, is heart-wrenching. However, the entirety of the Mass Effect story up to this point has been filled with sacrifice. Unfathomable amounts of soldiers have been sacrificed fighting the Collectors and the Reapers. Ashley Williams or Kaidan Alenko valiantly sacrificed themselves on Virmire in order to complete the mission. Shepard was forced to sacrifice 300,000 Batarians (the entire Bahak system) in Mass Effect 2’s Arrival DLC just to delay the Reapers.
My point is this: this entire saga is full of instances in which sacrifices are 100% necessary in order to make progress against the Reapers. It isn’t an even fight, as Mass Effect 3’s opening sequence makes hauntingly clear. In order to even have a chance, sacrifice is inevitable. So, yes. I believe that the extinction of the Geth and all other AI is an acceptable casualty if it means that the Reapers will be permanently destroyed.
The fact that Shepard has made countless decisions to sacrifice others for the betterment of the galaxy before makes him the most likely person to choose Destroy ever, too. While it’s never been easy for Shepard to do this, he’s never been one to shy away from what needs to be done, either. The best example of this is the suicide mission in Mass Effect 2, in which he and his crew fly straight into the belly of the beast in order to prevent the Collectors from continuing their activities. They know their chances of survival are slim, and (depending on how you prepared beforehand) some of your crew can, in fact, end up giving their lives here. But to Shepard, the mission comes first. The Collectors needed to be stopped — just as the Reapers do.
It’s also worth noting that, of all the drawbacks from the four choices, I think the death of the Geth, EDI, etc. is the one that can be alleviated the most moving forward. Synthetics may be killed by the Crucible when choosing Destroy, but that doesn’t mean that more can’t be made. The inhabitants of the galaxy didn’t just suddenly forget how to make artificial intelligence, albeit it has been banned for generations in-universe. But still, you get my point. Unlike an organic species, synthetic ones can “cheat” extinction if their creators, well, create them once again.
Control is, in my opinion, the next best ending after Destroy. While the benefit of Shepard controlling the Reapers is obvious, it doesn’t take much thinking to realize how this could all go terribly wrong.
Control certainly sounds amazing on paper: prevent the Reapers from killing everyone in the galaxy, while also preventing the deaths of those who would otherwise bite the dust if you had chosen Destroy. As an added bonus, Shepard now acts as the police force for the galaxy, using his ability to command the Reapers in a peacekeeping role.
Aside from Shepard losing his human form, it’s a perfect solution. Except, there’s just one problem. Power corrupts.
Of course, you can make the argument that Shepard wouldn’t use the power of the Reapers in an evil way, and I would agree with you. But is that a chance that should be taken? The power to force the galaxy into submission is something nobody as ever had before, and while we all like to think Shepard is an infallible hero, the truth is that he’s a human being, just like us — for better or for worse. For that reason, I consider Control less viable than Destroy. It puts the entire future of the galaxy at risk on the chance that Shepard will resist that devilish voice in the back of his head.
“No. I’m going to end this war on my terms. I fight for freedom. Mine, and everyone’s. I fight for the right to choose our own fate. And if I die, I’ll die knowing that I did everything I could to stop you. And I’ll die free.”
— Commander Shepard
These are the infamous last words of Shepard during the Refusal ending, in which Shepard decides to allow the Reapers to complete their cycle and put stock in the future cycle in the hope they will find a way to defeat the Reapers on their own terms.
The writing here is incredibly mediocre, in my opinion. As I’ve already mentioned, Shepard is a man who knows that sacrifice in this war is inevitable. I don’t believe that he would refuse to sacrifice our right to fight this war on our terms. Conventional war is something that has only proven to delay the Reapers, not achieve victory over them. Shepard knows that, somehow, they need to be stopped. And yet here he stands, presented with three different options that will allow him to do so, and he rejects them all because of the fact that there’s not another way? Especially when the lives of billions are in his hands?
No. If Shepard is given a viable avenue in which he can save the galaxy from the Reapers, he’s going to take it, goddammit. To refuse to make a choice would be logically stupid, and morally wrong.
Easily, the worst ending is Synthesis.
Mass Effect 3 certainly does a good job of selling it as the best one, though — ending the eternal conflict between synthetics and organics, while also merging the two and achieving peak evolution.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot wrong here with Synthesis. So much so, that I think it’s objectively a bad ending. Here’s why.
First off, the ending itself being unashamedly nonsensical. Mass Effect is and always has been a grounded science-fiction universe, designed with realism (or at the very least, psuedo-realism) in mind. One only has to take a look at the codex in any of the original trilogy’s games to see this. Almost everything in this universe has some sort of detailed explanation, including Reaper indoctrination.
With Synthesis, though…not even close. The Starchild tells you that the Crucible’s energy, when “released in this way”, literally rewrites everyone’s DNA and merges organics with synthetics. I’m willing to accept this, given the way that the Crucible’s energy can send out a destructive wave, or transfer Shepard’s conscience to the Reapers in some (admittedly out there) type of digital brain transplant. But both of those concepts are significantly less complicated than this space magic, and therein lies the problem — it isn’t even clear what Synthesis does.
Do we become half metal, half flesh? Do our minds all become connected in some form of network, like the Geth? What about nutrition? Do all of the species of the galaxy now share a requirement for the same foodstuffs? The Starchild says “there will be peace” — is that just an educated guess, or does that mean there’s actually going to be some form of program uploaded to our brains that prevents conflict entirely?
As you can imagine, the questions go on and on, and the answers to them are incredibly important. Say an outside threat comes into the Milky Way, and discovers that everyone in the galaxy shares some form of synthetic DNA structure. What if they target that specifically? All of the sudden, the entire galaxy shares a weakness.
This is something we’ve seen happen in Mass Effect before, to both the Geth and also to the Protheans (in a different way).
In Mass Effect 3, the Quarians develop a countermeasure to the Geth’s intelligence network. By using it, they are able to weaken the entire race, nearly taking Rannoch back before the Geth are forced to utilize a Reaper upgrade. In addition to this, Javik says in a conversation with Shepard that the reason his species lost the war with the Reapers was because they were too homogenized. An enemy that has the ability to adapt quickly and effectively will always defeat foes that share a common weakness. The lack of clarity with Synthesis, and the fact that every species shares the distinctive green eyes during the Extended Cut, tells me that the result of Synthesis is indeed this dangerous homogeneity.
The next issue I have is in regards to the flaw in the Starchild’s logic. According to him, and according to the Reapers, synthetic and organic life cannot coexist as they are. War will always be inevitable, and if nothing is done, synthetics could eventually wipe out organics.
There are two problems with this.
Firstly, if you manage to get the Geth and the Quarians to achieve peace on Rannoch, then you’ve completely proven the Reapers wrong. And yet, there’s no option to bring this up to the Starchild during your conversation with him. I hate that.
Second, it’s important to remember that organics always go to war with organics. From the real-world history of humanity to the in-universe conflicts between the Krogan and Turians, organic life goes to war on itself. The issue isn’t mutually exclusive to synthetics, and for this reason I question if Synthesis solves this problem at all. Unless there’s some sort of program in our minds that won’t let us get violent, what’s stopping the synthesized species from fighting each other over what they’ve always fought over?
Finally, there’s the moral implications with Synthesis. Is it right that one man should force the entire galaxy into homogeneity? What if this isn’t what people want? As much as the Synthesis Extended Cut scene paints it as some glorious solution to everything, I highly doubt it would be perceived as such by the inhabitants of this universe.
It’s on an equal level of immoral with the Refusal ending, and while Control is arguably immoral as well (what with Shepard basically becoming God) there’s a much better chance that things will work out in that ending.
It is for all of these reasons that I ultimately find Synthesis to be, without question, the worst ending to Mass Effect 3.
This one was fun to write I’ve had thoughts about these endings for a long time, and I’m happy I made the decision to put them on my blog. Even when talking about one of the worst moments in the series, I still love talking about the Mass Effect trilogy.
As always, big thank you to Ardent Prayer for his generous pledge per article I write. Love you, dude. Speaking of Ardent, the article he requested from me this month is coming up next week! Here’s a teaser:
By the way, there’s more to come from me regarding Mass Effect on the eighth anniversary of Mass Effect 2’s release, so keep an eye out for that come January 26th! I also wrote an in-depth character analysis of Tali way back when, so feel free to check that out too.
Thanks so much for reading. Until next time, friends.