As we shoot our way through Saren’s base, we stumble on another beacon. We get another vision. After that’s over, we bump into Sovereign for the first time.
Sovereign and the Reapers
The H.P. Lovecraft influences are very clear here. We’ve got old gods, sleeping. Lots of tentacles. Getting near them drives you mad. And if they wake from their sleeping they will end the world. They’re served by cults (indoctrinated) and opposing them means looking for dangerous Old Knowledge.
It creates a very compelling question in the minds of the audience: Why would something this intelligent do something this horrific and destructive? Now we have this burning question in the backs of our minds. We can assume the Reapers are acting on knowledge or understanding that we don’t have, and it’s natural to want to unravel that mystery as we look for a way to survive. And there’s always the hope that if we could learn why they reaped, we would also learn how to stop the reaping.
Yes, ideas like this are decades old for people who read novels. I’m sure Mass Effect cribbed from a lot of classic books to build this story. Titles like Fire upon the DeepI mention this not because I think it’s a great example, but because it’s one of the few I’ve read. A well-read sci-fi fan could no doubt construct a large list of likely influences. are lurking inside the Mass Effect 1 DNA. Stories that try to convey the terrifying scale of a galaxy, and just how vastly outclassed homo sapiens would be if we tried to deal with creatures that operate on those sorts of physical and temporal scales.
But while this sort of stuff is old-hat to the folks with a dusty bookcase covered with dog-eared paperbacks with pictures of spaceships and planets on the cover, it might as well be a completely original idea to the vast majority of the people who played Mass Effect. Videogames don’t do a lot of sci-fi, and when they do, it’s usually a straightforward “shoot the bug-faced guys” type deal. And when it isn’t, it’s usually a strategy game. This kind of thing hasn’t been done in the context of shootin’ dudes and dialog wheels, despite the fact that I think it’s a really natural fit. No, you can’t get a Vernor Vinge sized universe into something as action-oriented as Mass Effect, but you can skim the best ideas and package them around shooting sections and character beats, and glue it together with a solid set of codex entries.
But this blending of genres creates a certain tension in our story. We’re mixing Lovecraft horror with Trekky sci-fi, and they have different ways of resolving mysteries. In Lovecraft, the Old Ones need to remain mysterious or they fall apart. If Cthulhu had some sort of discernible motivation – like, if he just personally disliked humans – he would stop being so terrifying. He would just be a great big sleepy jerk. If it was personal, then it would make Cthulhu seem more like a person, and that wouldn’t just ruin him, it would ruin the entire world built around him.
On the other hand, we usually explore sci-fi to answer questions. Just like we expect our murder mysteries to conclude with an explanation of whodunnit, we expect our details-first sci-fi to explain what all the fuss was about. Consider the origin of V’ger in Star Trek the motion picture. It would have been a pretty big disappointment Kirk and company just blew up V’Ger and flew away without telling us what it was all aboutNot that the mystery behind V’Ger was particularly satisfying, in the end. But note that in this case, a DUMB answer was still better than just blowing up the question.. Same goes for understanding the purpose of the probe in the TNG episode Inner LightOne of the best sci-fi stories ever made for television.. Yes, Picard was in danger. But the push of the narrative wasn’t just to save him, it was to understand why he was in danger and what was happening to him. That’s what made the payoff at the end so potent.
So Mass Effect needed to choose which of its parents it was going to follow. It could follow Lovecraft and leave the Reapers an unknowable mystery, ending with the hopeless feeling that we’ve only delayed our inevitable doom to a later generation, and that we’ll never be able to understand the nature of the Reapers. Or it could have followed AsimovAnd Asimov, and Bradburry, and Vinge, and Dick… and presented us with a thought experiment and a puzzle, and then offered a final answer to unwind the mystery. Note that this latter option is a lot like a murder mystery: It needs to “click” into place as a satisfying explanation of what came before, a eureka moment that falls neatly into the narrative and answers the questions posed by the story itself.
It’s obviously way too early to talk about the ending, but I want to point out that the question of “Should the motivations of the Reapers be revealed to the audience?” wasn’t at all clear in the beginning. It could easily have gone either way.
The conversation with Sovereign makes it sound like this story ought to go for a Lovecraft conclusion, but the presence and nature of our loyal, curious, intelligent, courageous companions suggests the story would be more suited to a space-mystery. The adversaries are Lovecraft, but the characters and sub-plots are are Roddenberry et al.
Here is something that game developers are still struggling with. In your traditional three-act story, somewhere in act two you need the hero to fight the villain. They need to fight the bad guy, and they need to lose. This establishes the power of our antagonist and raises the stakes for the final confrontation in act three. It gives our villain a chance to trade dialog with our hero so their conflict can be more personal, and it’s a chance for the writers to help us get to know our villain.
This is a problem in videogames, because gameplay doesn’t usually allow for you to lose a fight. A “lose state” is usually synonymous with “game over”, which is synonymous with “the player character died or failed in some way that makes their eventual victory impossible”. As the writer, you need a very particular outcome, which is for the player to lose, but not die. How can you make this happen in a game built around fights to the death?
- Do it in a cutscene. Players hate when you take control away from them and make them lose. It’s bad enough when you take control away from them and make them watch a cutscene, but it’s even worse when you make them watch a cutscene where their avatar gets his or her ass kicked. And it’s even more frustrating when you make them watch a cutscene of a fight that they feel they could win if you weren’t “cheating”.
- Do it in gameplay. Just make the fight un-winnable. This is harder than it sounds. If you give the bad guy a million hit points, then some enterprising player will practice until they can cheese their way through the entire fight. So you need to make the bad guy actually invincible, at which point the player is even more pissed off than in the previous scenario, because you’re still cheating, but now you’re making them “work” for their failure by obliging them to participate in a sham rigged fight. Also, now you need to explain why the bad guy is no longer invincible at the end of the story. Also you need to contrive an excuse for why the bad guy lets them live at the end of the fight. Sure, you can come up with the excuse like, “He’s just toying with you.” But that excuse doesn’t work for every bad guy. So then after cheating to make the player lose, you have to cheat some more to prevent the bad guy from killing them. The player realizes they have no agency here and you’re basically back to making a cutscene, except this one doesn’t have cool cinematography and music cues.
- Make a story that can adapt to the player defeating the bad guy early. I’m not going to say that’s impossible, but I will say it doesn’t sound like a solution that can be generalized for story-driven games. You can do this, but you’re no longer talking about making a BioWare or Obsidian style game.
- Have a boss fight the player can win, then have the bad guy leave in a cutscene. This sucks, but it seems to be the least bad of all our options. It still feels pretty cheap to the player. They can see they’re going to empty the villain’s HP bar before their own HP bar runs out. The fight demonstrates that they’re strong enough to beat the bad guy, which means this doesn’t quite achieve the goal of raising the stakes. And in the end, you’ve still got them losing in a cutscene.
- Make a cutscene and make the player pass quicktime events to get through it. This is actually the worst of all the possibilities. This has all the problems of doing it in a cutscene, except the player can’t see what’s going on or follow the action because they’re staring at a fixed point on the screen, playing the most unsatisfying minigame ever invented. And if they bungle a quicktime, they have to watch the cutscene again, thus turning the story into a means of punishment. Worse, cutscenes lose their emotional impact with repeated viewings, meaning this solution destroys both the story and the gameplay. Worst of all, quicktime events punish the wrong people. The “story first” casuals are the ones most likely to fail at these again and again, even though they’re not here for a challenge are rarely complain when things are too easy.
Meanwhile, the hardcore crowd are the ones who have the colors and shapes of the inputs all memorized, and can reflexively reach up the moment they see a triangle and right when they see a circleOf course, those of us who play on multiple platforms get more confused about the location of the X button every year.. They’re here for a challenge, and for them this is nothing like a challenge.
You’re challenging the people here for the story and boring the people here for a challenge. The outcome is binary, there are no interesting decisions to make, and the mechanics are completely divorced from all the other systems in the game. Please stop making quicktime events. You’ve had over a decade to study this. You should know better by now.
The best way to smooth this over is to put some good dialog in there. Players are less likely to get angry at having control taken away if the result is that our two leads can trade some banter. This Saren chat gives us a really interesting look into his character and motivations.
Note all the things that don’t happen in this encounter. Saren doesn’t steal something from you. Or kill a squad mate. Or destroy something you’re trying to protect. The point of this encounter is to build Saren up in a narrative sense. Saren gets the better of Shepard in a fight to demonstrate his power, but Shepard breaks free with some old-fashioned fisticuffs, thus showing that Shepard isn’t passive in this scene. The fight concludes without a clear winner and the story goes on. The fight was also built up properly. We’re in Saren’s base, and it’s reasonable to expect we might bump into him here.
Imagine how frustrating it would be if Saren had popped out of a random side room on the Citadel and swiped a plot item directly from Shepard before escaping by simply running out of the frame. How did he get onto the Citadel when he’s a fugitive? How did he know we’d be in this exact location? How did he know we had this item? Why didn’t he use this surprise attack to kill Shepard and then take the item from his corpse? Why can’t I chase him down? You could hand-wave away any and all of these objections. Saren is a super-spy, and is probably capable of infiltrating the Citadel if he needs to. But in a movie it’s generally accepted that if a bad guy does something really implausible, you at least have to depict how they pulled it off and not leave the audience to fill in the event with fan-fiction. If the author reveals the bad guy’s careful planning, it makes the bad guy seem clever and resourceful, which makes opposing him more exciting. If the author doesn’t, then the bad guy comes off as unremarkable and their actions come off as authorial “cheating”.
What I’m saying is that cutscene fights are a fragile point where the movie-story is crudely attached to the game-story, and the designer needs to be scrupulously careful about what happens during these encounters. The bigger the villain’s victory, the more carefully their actions need to be portrayed, because the player is going to resent when control is stolen from them. Their player character needs to take actions that are acceptable to them, the villain needs to do things that obey the established rules, and the whole thing should have some sort of emotional payoff to justify (to the player) the loss of their input.
It’s WAY too soon to talk about Kai Leng yet, but I do want folks to remember this encounter when we get to Mass Effect 3.
 I mention this not because I think it’s a great example, but because it’s one of the few I’ve read. A well-read sci-fi fan could no doubt construct a large list of likely influences.
 Not that the mystery behind V’Ger was particularly satisfying, in the end. But note that in this case, a DUMB answer was still better than just blowing up the question.
 One of the best sci-fi stories ever made for television.
 And Asimov, and Bradburry, and Vinge, and Dick…
 Of course, those of us who play on multiple platforms get more confused about the location of the X button every year.
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