Mass Effect 3 Alternate Endings Show What Could Have Been

Could Mass Effect 3's controversial ending have been rescued by one of these alternate conclusions?

Mass Effect 3
Photo: EA

There’s a degree to which the release of Mass Effect Legendary Edition lives under the shadow of Mass Effect 3‘s controversial ending. If you somehow didn’t know, Mass Effect 3’s ending is a big part of the reason why some consider it to be one of the most disappointing games of all-time. Even the “Extended Cut” version of the ending BioWare eventually released as DLC has done little to change its reputation as one of the most disappointing finales in any medium.

While it’s going to be interesting to see whether or not time has healed those wounds enough to allow fans to reappraise Mass Effect 3 and its ending, it’s also worth noting that Mass Effect 3‘s Extended Cut isn’t the only “alternate ending” that exists. In the nine years since Mass Effect 3‘s release, we’ve heard stories about other endings to Mass Effect 3 that just never became the canonical conclusion for one reason or another.

From fascinating ideas pitched by former Mass Effect writers to a DLC story that some consider to be a more than satisfying finale, these are four of the most notable Mass Effect 3 alternate endings that show us what could have been.

Dark Energy Mass Effect 2

Drew Karpyshyn’s Dark Energy Ending

Before we dive into this one, it’s important to explain who Drew Karpyshyn is and what his role was in the Mass Effect franchise.

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While Karpyshyn worked on Baldur’s Gate 2 and Neverwinter Nights, he really made a name for himself as a scenario and dialog writer for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. His contributions to that legendary game led to him becoming the head writer on the first Mass Effect. As head writer for that game, Karpyshyn was responsible for (among other things) ensuring that the contributions of the game’s various other writers felt consistent. He worked on Mass Effect 2 in a similar capacity (based on what we’ve heard about that game’s development).

However, Karpyshyn eventually left the Mass Effect team to work on The Old Republic. He’s not credited as a Mass Effect 3 writer, but Karpshyn has indicated that he participated in early discussions regarding that game’s plot and ending. He has also made it very clear over the years that plans regarding ME 3‘s ending were “vague” in the early days of the franchise and that there were a lot of ideas being tossed around at that time. It’s not like there was this clear-cut ending the original writers created early on that was just abandoned along the way.

Having said all of that, Karpyshyn has talked about a possible ME3 ending that he worked on at one point, and it is fascinating.

Karpyshyn’s ending (although we hesitate to call it that) would have followed up on the “Dark Energy” subplot briefly mentioned in Mass Effect 2. You should really hear him talk about the specifics, but the basic idea was that dark energy has been spreading throughout the galaxy and that the use of Mass Relay technology was accelerating that spread. Considering that dark energy is capable of destroying stars and other life-giving resources…well, that’s bad news.

The idea was that the Reapers are actually meant to purge the galaxy every 50,000 years or so and “save it” from being completely destroyed by dark energy. Their hope is that someone in the next 50,000-year cycle will find a way to stop the dark energy spread altogether. A draft of this ending even suggested the Reapers believed that humans might have the best shot at stopping the spread of dark energy.

In one version of this ending, players would have had to decide whether or not to help the Reapers essentially destroy humanity in order to create a human/reaper hybrid or to bet on humanity being able to find an alternate solution to the dark energy spread.

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Now, there are a lot of plot holes to address when talking about that ending (as well as some thematic concerns regarding the idea that humanity is the galaxy’s savior), but it’s again important to remind everyone that this was never really a fully formed idea. It was just a vague concept in the writers’ minds that they hoped would have touched on some of Mass Effect‘s main themes and plot points.

Still, it’s a fascinating concept made all the more interesting by the implication that the writers may have been softly setting the key components of this ending up in Mass Effect 2. More than a few fans over the years have supported some version of this ending over the ones we got.

So why was it “cut?” Well, you have to remember that it doesn’t sound like this ending was ever really set in stone at any point, so it’s not possible to talk about it being cut in such a simple way. I’ve heard that Karpyshyn’s departure from the team and a possible leak of an early version of the Mass Effect 3 script may have also contributed to this idea being scrapped, but it sounds like the bigger culprit here is the complicated process of writing an ending to a story this big and how things get lost along the way.

Crucible Mass Effect 3

Chris Hepler’s Superweapon Ending Still Sees Shepard Die

As previously mentioned, a lot of people worked on Mass Effect over the years, and a lot of people are responsible for your favorite (and least favorite) parts of the franchise. That said, one of the names you hear most often whenever anyone talks about the series’ strongest creative voices is “Chris Hepler.”

Hepler’s role on the Mass Effect team changed quite a bit over the years, but some on the team eventually referred to him as the franchise’s “loremaster” due partially to his work on Mass Effect 2‘s codexes and a lot of the other in-game storytelling devices meant to flesh out the universe and tie a lot of complex concepts together.

So far as that goes, Hepler has previously said that elements of the original Mass Effect 3 ending are indeed lore-friendly and may be more complicated than they sometimes get credit for, but he also acknowledges that people clearly weren’t happy with it and maybe shouldn’t have been. While BioWare worked to address some of the more obvious problems with the Extended Cut ending, Hepler again seems to understand why some fans still weren’t entirely satisfied with that outcome and the plot holes it did address.

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So what would Hepler have done differently? Well, he says that one idea he had early on would have cut the “space magic” concepts from the actual ending pretty much entirely in favor of a story involving the Crucible being turned into a Reaper killing superweapon that would have saved humanity. While the weapon would have primarily targeted Reapers, Shepard (who was rebuilt with numerous cybernetic parts) would have also been destroyed by the blast. Hepler says the idea was inspired by the plot of a sci-fi book he was reading at the time called “Probability Moon.”

There are a lot of unanswered questions about that ending (including the implication that it would have offered a universal finale rather than multiple choices), but since Hepler never even got to pitch his idea for Mass Effect 3‘s conclusion, you probably won’t ever get answers to many of them. According to Hepler, the game’s designers decided on a rough version of the actual Mass Effect 3 ending while he was still working on his “alternate” ending, so it never really made it that far into the creative process.

Interestingly, Hepler has also mentioned that he feared BioWare could be sued for using a variation of that ending as it was clearly inspired by another work. Again, though, he never really got the chance to have someone look over the full legal ramifications of its implementation since the whole idea was never even formally pitched.

Reapers Mass Effect 3 Ending

The Indoctrination Theory’s “Dream” Interpretation Divides the Mass Effect Fanbase

While it’s certainly a little strange to talk about a fan theory when discussing alternate endings (pretty much every piece of fiction ever has an alternate ending thanks to fan theories), the Indoctrination Theory has always been special. It’s not just an interesting idea; it’s an alternate interpretation that’s been embraced by many Mass Effect fans and even discussed by some of the game’s developers.

First off, it’s hard to summarize the Indoctrination Theory without hosting a TED Talk. There are 100+ minute YouTube videos that try to explain what it’s all about, and even they leave many viewers more confused than they were when they started them.

The long and short of it, though, is that the Indoctrination Theory is a fan theory created to explain what some considered to be the unexplainable events of Mass Effect 3‘s ending. A very basic version of the theory argues that the Reapers managed to gain control of Shepard’s mind at some point in the trilogy. When Shepard is forced to make that infamous choice at the end of Mass Effect 3, he’s essentially experiencing an elaborate fever dream partially triggered by his mind’s attempts to free Shepard from the Reaper’s control.

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If Shepard chooses the “Control” or “Synthesis” options in Mass Effect 3‘s ending, that means that the Reapers have successfully gained control of him and used him to execute their plan. If, however, Shepard chooses the “Destruction” ending, that’s meant to convey that he has broken free of their grasp. The theory also suggests that’s the reason why “Destruction” is the only ending in which Shepard lives (assuming that you met certain pre-ending requirements).

You can look into the specifics of this theory if you want (it’s worth a look if you’re into that), but the bigger talking point has always been how it has divided the Mass Effect community.

See, there was a time when some people didn’t consider the Indoctrination Theory to simply be fan fiction. They argued that it was actually what happened in Mass Effect 3. They considered it to be a legitimate alternate ending that you could embrace as canonical if you chose to view the game’s on-screen events in a certain way.

To spare us all a lot of drama, I’ll make it clear right now that the Indoctrination Theory isn’t canonical. Not only do the events of Mass Effect 3‘s extended ending disprove key elements of the Indoctrination Theory, but Mass Effect‘s developers have stated that the details of that theory simply weren’t in their mind when they were writing the games.

However, many Mass Effect team members have praised the creativity of the theory over the years. Chris Hepler has even somewhat embraced the ideas of the theory even if they’re not canonical.

“The Indoctrination Theory is a really interesting theory, but it’s entirely created by the fans,” Hepler said. “While we made some of the ending a little trippy because Shepard is a breath away from dying and it’s entirely possible there’s some subconscious power to the kid’s words, we never had the sort of meetings you’d need to have to properly seed it through the game…We weren’t that smart. By all means, make mods and write fanfic about it, and enjoy whatever floats your boat, because it’s a cool way to interpret the game. But it wasn’t our intention. We didn’t write that.”

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That’s the real value of the Indoctrination Theory as an “alternate ending.” The specifics of it may be inaccurate, but it’s important to once again mention that it sounds like the creative process for Mass Effect 3‘s ending was a bit of a mess. A lot of people had a lot of ideas about how the game should end, and that includes the fans. Maybe some of that wiggle room for interpretation is the result of plot holes and oversights, but maybe it’s also largely harmless for people to suggest or even subscribe to their favorite interpretations of what was indeed a “trippy” ending.

Mass Effect 3 Citadel DLC ending

Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC: An Alternate Ending Hiding in Plain Sight?

This one is also a little weird to talk about for the simple fact that Mass Effect 3‘s Citadel DLC obviously “happened” as it was released in February 2013. It was the last major piece of DLC BioWare released for Mass Effect 3.

Actually, that’s what makes the whole thing so interesting. Some fans not only insist that Citadel was meant to be an apology for Mass Effect 3‘s original ending but that there’s a way to interpret the events of the DLC that makes it easier to view it as the canonical ending to the trilogy.

The final sections of the Citadel DLC story see Shepard and the Normandy crew finally enjoy some shore leave. They throw parties, go to the casino, and spend precious moments catching up with each other and reflecting on their adventures. The DLC’s lighthearted tone and “fan service” nature turn some people off, but many players love the DLC for exactly that reason.

In fact, some people love the DLC so much that they consider it to be the game’s true ending. In case you’re wondering, that’s not strictly true. BioWare has advised playing the DLC before the events of Mass Effect 3‘s ending (either one), and some lines of dialog in the DLC make it clear that the events of the game’s actual ending haven’t occurred quite yet. Some fans have modded the game to remove those lines and frame the Citadel DLC as it takes place in the aftermath of Mass Effect 3‘s finale. However, that was seemingly never its intended timeline.

However, there’s a fascinating theory that suggests the Citadel story was written as an “apology” ending that was perhaps based on one of the alternate endings for Mass Effect 3 that was abandoned along the way.

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Try as I might, I can’t find a quote from any Mass Effect team member that confirms the team specifically designed Citadel as an apology or even as a way to bring one of Mass Effect 3‘s scrapped endings to life. It really feels like it was meant to be this fun side story that allowed the team to do things they couldn’t easily do in the main game. It’s a lot like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon in that respect (which was actually released the same year).

Yet, as the final piece of content released for the Mass Effect trilogy, it’s hard to deny that it isn’t, in some way, meant to be the series’ curtain call (not counting Andromeda and whatever comes next, of course). It feels like a celebration of the entire franchise that ends on the kind of high note that is almost guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Hilariously, some of the DLC’s final moments even see you throw a party that’s based on your decisions and optional character interactions: two of the role-playing elements that many fans felt were missing from both “canonical” Mass Effect 3 endings.

Much like the Indoctrination Theory, the conversation about whether or not the Citadel DLC is Mass Effect 3‘s real ending is less interesting than the idea that many have embraced Citadel as the conclusion that reminds them of the good times they had with the Mass Effect trilogy and the thing that they love to look back on when they picture their final moments with what many still consider to be some of the greatest games ever made.