It took three games, but at last now I have a more complete understanding of how the Reapers go about conquering organic life every 50,000 years. A warning though: if you have not completed the Mass Effect trilogy, you may want to skip this article for now. There are spoilers for each game in the franchise.
From Commander Shepard’s first trip to Noveria and her confrontation with Matriarch Benezia, Mass Effect players have learned of indoctrination, the process by which Reapers convince organics that following the machines is the best course of action all the while presenting the appearance of free will. Our indoctrination education continues on Virmire during Shepard and Saren’s first battle. Our hero realizes that the machines conditioned the former Spectre to think a Reaper takeover is inevitable. Saren claims that aiding the Reaper Sovereign is the best way to help the species of our galaxy. This theme returns in Mass Effect 3 when Shepard and Anderson realize that the Reapers controlled the Illusive Man. It is also quite possible that Shepard herself might be indoctrinated toward the end of ME3, though I do not agree with that argument.
Yet this condition is only one possible method of Reaper control. Obviously this works on the individual level when the machines need key individuals to influence other organics. However indoctrination is a slow process which ultimately burns out the thrall, though not before influencing governments at the highest level and causing all sorts of chaos.
In contrast the second method, assimilation, actually allows entire civilizations to “survive.” The Reapers, though their agents, capture and then convert thousands of individuals for the specific purpose of creating new reapers. In order to facilitate this process, the Reapers repurpose one species for the task of capturing and converting. After the last cycle, the machines turned the Protheans into the Collectors, who were charged with assimilating humankind for the next Reaper. Assimilation normally is the process whereby the dominant social group absorbs a subordinate one to the point where only a few (desirable) traits of the lesser remain. In the case of Mass Effect, one species is literally collected, processed, absorbed, repurposed and used as material for a new Reaper. And yet some of that species remains, “alive” if you will inside the new creation. Had the Collectors succeeded in Mass Effect 2, a successful Reaper invasion would have left humankind alive in the body of the youngest machine.
Mass Effect investigated indoctrination and Mass Effect 2 covered assimilation. The final act, ME3, told the story of elimination. Up until Shepard’s final confrontation with the Illusive Man Mass Effect 3 chronicles the organics struggle to avoid extinction. However the final few minutes bring all three aspects of the Reapers methodology into one scene. With the defeat of the Collectors in Mass Effect 2, the Reapers needed to process more humans for the construction of another machine. Earth of course, provided the greatest source of human beings for assimilation. After Shepard and company make a final assault on the Citadel in order to stave off elimination, she and Anderson find the indoctrinated Illusive Man who believes he can control the Reapers, not realizing he was fully converted into a pawn. From Shepard’s conversation with the Catalyst it is not clear (and the subject of much debate) if she is indeed indoctrinated or not. Of the three choices presented to her by the Catalyst, two (synthesis and controlling the machines) not only keep the machines intact, but bring about a union of flesh and metal. The hardest choice is for Shepard to destroy the Reapers as she sacrifices herself.
However this choice also presents a possibility that the cycle will finally end. Shepard had already prevented the assimilation and elimination of her species. If she chose to also reject indoctrination, she would also remove the first and most insidious aspect of Reaper control.
I have no doubt that my analysis of Reaper methodology is incomplete. As I work my way through another play through of the entire franchise, my views may change or evolve.
- Indoctrination, Assimilation, and Elimination: The Reaper Methodology in Mass Effect
- Return to Mass Effect: The Compassionate Shepard
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- Mass Effect 3, Marketing, and a Magic Bullet: Emily Wong Reporting
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