Mass Effect 3 'Indoctrination' Ending

I've been perusing around peoples reaction and thoughts on the Mass Effect ending, and came across an interesting theory. It seems there's a small outspoken contingent of fans who posit that the final moments of the game are a vivid indoctrination induced fantasy. I tend to dislike theories that delve too deeply into an existential angst calling into question the nature of the reality. It's difficult to disprove an argument predicated on the pretense of false perception.

I think the ending to Mass Effect 3 is ambiguous by most of anyone's definition, and certainly open to many interpretations. I don't think most people like to entertain the idea that the last moments are a false reality, mostly because of how absurd the idea is, and by it's nature, how little it has to interface with reality. However, I think the theory does have some credulity, and there's some interesting things that support it being true. I think the few people I have seen arguing this interpretation of the ending have done a poor job articulating their ideas, and have also made some spurious claims that don't support the theory in any meaningful way.

I'll start with the supporting examples of the theory, beginning with where the indoctrination induced section likely begins, after Shepard falls during the rush to reach the citadel. The screen fades to black, and an indeterminate amount of time later, Shepard 'regains consciousness' to a radio transmission ordering a retreat, declaring there to be no survivors of the initial assault. Shepard is not wearing armor any more and only carries a pistol. He fights his way to the transit beam thing and makes his way on board the 'Crucible',

Before I go any further, I think it's important to lay out the religious symbolism and metaphors that are present up to this point in the Mass Effect Universe. I don't especially think religious metaphor is an inspired or particularly meaningful way to engage a conversation on the topic of existential themes related to agency, but I'm an atheist, so take that however you will. The name Shepherd is a pretty obvious example and reference to Jesus' parable of the good shepherd who laid down his life to save his flock. Crucible is latin for 'Cross'. The previous Mass Effect game (2) allowed Shepard 12 Companions, much like the familiar 12 Disciples to Jesus. Shepard dies and is ressurected. None of these 'metaphors' by themselves support the indoctrination theory, of course. But where things go from here is interesting.

Once aboard the Crucible, Shepard regains contact with Anderson, though by all rights he shouldn't be there. Things are a bit off, bleak and surreal, though what isn't in the Mass Effect universe. Shepard and Anderson meet up but are interrupted by the Illusive Man. The Illusive Man exercises some amount of control over both Anderson and Shepherd, utilizing his research into the indoctrination borrowed from the reapers. This gets resolved, Anderson and Illusive Man both die, though it is possible to convince the Illusive Man to end his own life a'la Judas.

Shepard very nearly passes out but is summoned to a final area to converse with 'the Catalyst'. This part is especially relevant to the 'indoctrination' interpretation of the ending, because it further explores the religious metaphor and symbolism that has been repeatedly introduced through out the series. This part mirrors Jesus' temptation in the desert when Satan brought him up to a high place where he could see all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus is told that if he bows and worships Satan, Satan will give him everything. The "control" option represents slavery and the "synthesis" option represents a disruption of things. Only the "destruction" option represents resisting, or rather, retaining autonomy in the face of indoctrination. This was Shepherds goal all along of course, never controlling or assimilating with the reapers. This is why the destruction ending is the only one which reveals the possibility of Shepard being alive. All other options are ceding autonomy and control to the reapers.

Repeatedly throughout the fiction, Indoctrination has been described and addressed. It's the focus of the Illusive Man's research and interest through most of Mass Effect 3, and his goals are ultimately to control the reapers (so that he may control others it is assumed). To the subject of 'indoctrination', reality is very much the absurd yet absolute, deterministic nightmare extolled by the Catalyst.