Mass Effect Retrospective 10: The Cull of Cthulhu

By Shamus
on Aug 23, 2015
Filed under:
Mass Effect

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

Rudimentary creatures of blood and flesh. You touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance. Ew. Go away. You are so gross.

Rudimentary creatures of blood and flesh. You touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance. Ew. Go away. You are so gross.

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.

Saren calls me Sovereign, but my name is actually Kevin.

Saren calls me Sovereign, but my name is actually Kevin.

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.

Saren Fight

Garrus? I`m still waiting. You can jump in any time.

Garrus? I`m still waiting. You can jump in any time.

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?

  1. 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”.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Pew pew pew! Shepard is shooting at the bad guy with his tiny pistol instead of one of his upgraded weapons. I`m sure the larger budget will allow them to fix little annoying details like this in the sequels.

Pew pew pew! Shepard is shooting at the bad guy with his tiny pistol instead of one of his upgraded weapons. I`m sure the larger budget will allow them to fix little annoying details like this in the sequels.

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”.

Shepard you fool! How could you possibly expect to overcome the power of BLUE PARTICLE EFFECTS!

Shepard you fool! How could you possibly expect to overcome the power of BLUE PARTICLE EFFECTS!

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.

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Footnotes:

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] One of the best sci-fi stories ever made for television.

[4] And Asimov, and Bradburry, and Vinge, and Dick…

[5] Of course, those of us who play on multiple platforms get more confused about the location of the X button every year.



A Hundred!A Hundred!20202242 COMMENTS? What are you people talking about?!?

From the Archives:

  1. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Oh man,imagine if you got the option to build shepard as a jokster,and if you did that you actually got a new option on the dialogue wheel to tell sovereign “Your name is a mouthful,I shall call you bob”.

  2. Daemian Lucifer says:

    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.

    Well,its a great thing that this never,ever,ever happens in this series.Nope,no sir-e,never.

  3. Daemian Lucifer says:

    On the other hand, we usually explore sci-fi to answer questions.

    True,but those questions dont have to be “why” and “how”.Its often easier to simply answer “what then”.For example,the time machine never answers how the time machine works,but rather what happens when it is completed and how it changes the inventors life.Sometimes,however,you dont even need to answer that either.In Clarkes rama book,nothing is answered.We have no idea who made the thing,why they made it,or what happens after it goes through our solar system.We only get to speculate along with the explorers as to what the nature of this thing is,and how this knowledge could impact the world.

    • The Time Machine is a Macguffin or “black box.” You never know how a Macguffin works or we’d have them in the real world, i.e. warp drive, positronic brains, whiskey cubes, etc.

      Your point about Rama only stands if you stop reading at the first book. Most people didn’t. This was disappointing for said people.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        What really bugs me is that all the later rama books are advertised as actual successors to the original,when in fact they were fanfics written by other authors.

        • Joe Informatico says:

          Thus I don’t treat them as canonical. The original Rama’s basically an Indiana Jones story IN SPACE. Brave explorers enter a ruin they think is abandoned. It’s not. There’s a bunch of action setpieces and thinking outside the box to overcome obstacles. There’s a faction of bad guys trying to stop them. They have a limited amount of time to get out of the ruin and end up with not many artifacts to show for it. That’s a fine story. Answering the question of “Who?” would have been nice, but doesn’t wreck the story.

      • Nixitur says:

        That’s not at all what “MacGuffin” means. A MacGuffin is an object that drives the plot, but isn’t ever used in the story, if it even has a use. It’s entirely interchangeable and its only function is to be valuable to some characters.

        Important papers that you have to deliver, but it’s never revealed what they contain.
        Blueprints to some world-changing machine, but you never learn what that machine would do.
        A suitcase that is really important to the characters, but the contents of which are never revealed to the audience.
        The Holy Grail in basically all adaptations.

        The time machine or the other technology that you mentioned are not MacGuffins because they do something, are used in the story and you can’t change what they are without changing the story. The fact that it’s not explained how they work or where they come from is irrelevant to whether they’re MacGuffins.

        • A Time Machine is not a MacGuffin.

          MacGuffin (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot.

          The title of the story is “The Time Machine.”

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            You are missing a key element there “The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot.”

            The specific nature of a time machine is critically important for this plot,thus it is not a macguffin.

            • “Typically” isn’t a word connotating absolution.

              If you wish to stick to the iron-clad idea, making “typically” read as “always,” isn’t the Crucible mis-labeled as a “Giant Space MacGuffin of Doom” since it actually is used? You’ll bring heresy upon Spoiler Warning with the wrong answer, so speak carefully…

              • guy says:

                The defining feature of a MacGuffin is that its primary role in the story is that people care about it rather than what it is. So the Crucible counts as one because the story is about building and deploying it. Even the characters using it don’t know what it does.

                A MacGuffin could be swapped with any arbitrary Important Thing of similar physical properties without changing the plot. In a time machine story, you can’t swap the time machine for something that isn’t a time machine, and usually the mechanics of the particular machine are critically important.

    • Bubble181 says:

      And much like in Mass Effect and many many other games and books of its type, the explanation given in books 2 to 4 actually detracts from the strength of the first book; making it too normal and understandable…Even if it’s Clarke, who’s pretty good at this sort of thing.

      Trying to answer “why” questions about aliens is practically impossible to do properly. In Star Trek as well, most of the “why”s are left to the viewer. If we do get the answer, it’s usually something terribly relatable. When they do try to explain a Great Big Mystery, they usually fall flat too – think ofthe Borg Queen in nemesis, or a lot of other stuff about the Borg from Voyager – they lose their “incomprehensibly alien” niche and become “just another enemy”.
      In fact, most scifi where the reasons are explained use it as some sort of point to talk about real life and real people (the amount of scifi wars that are stand-ins for either WWII or Vietnam is astounding).

      The Reapers were never introduced as a “riddle” or “problem” to solve, they were introduced as the Evil behind the curtain. There’s *no* good story where that’s explained, unless in a Scooby Doo style “it’s something easily explained after all!” way.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        Even if it’s Clarke, who’s pretty good at this sort of thing

        Its not him.He just gave his blessings,but others wrote the three sequels.It shows.

      • The Borg is a specific flavor of failure.

        At first, they were a hive-mind that had no face, no leader, no individual that we could interact with or reason with.

        Then they created Locutus. Okay, fine. They were adapting to a nemesis (the Federation) and figured a spokesperson like Picard would have some impact on the individualistic races they were fighting.

        Then came the Borg Queen. The idea of the Borg having a Queen goes against the nature of the Borg as established. I’m not sure if it was to seem more like the “Aliens” franchise (heck, HR Giger was helping to design the Borg at this point) or if they felt the audience needed a villain to boo-hiss, but they put her in “First Contact.”

        Then things really went downhill with the Queen idea being used for the entire freaking collective, pretty much wrecking the whole hive-mind idea. This was really cemented when Captain Janeway was able to threaten the Borg Queen with a phaser rifle. The correct answer from the Queen should have been along the lines of “Go ahead and shoot, I’ll just keep making more of this avatar while adapting to your phaser rifle’s frequency.” But no, they ruined what had been a simple and horrifying idea of a giant, implacable assimilation-machine. The Borg hive mind could’ve even had a higher goal like Sovereign claimed the Reapers did, though stating what it was wouldn’t have mattered. The fact that this giant cybernetic horror was headed into the Alpha Quadrant would’ve been enough while allowing for stories to be written around the idea, rather than destroying what had been established.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          The queen in the movie at least couldve been rationalized as the ship was smaller so the processing power of the whole cube needed to be concentrated.Hence,a single being with all the knowledge and smarts to fulfill the mission.What was done in voyager,however,was just stupid.

          • Except that it still shouldn’t matter, as it’s still the Borg Collective. Even if you had only two Borg, they’d be the result of the two minds present. I mean, even when a Borg ship was effed up all to pieces, any surviving Borg didn’t suddenly wake up and decide to try out this “individual” stuff they’d heard about.

            What’s worse, the resulting intellect from a collective hive-mind is an interesting concept. It’s one of the (many) things that could’ve made the Matrix trilogy a lot more interesting, and I hoped in vain that the baby-faced machine-thing at the end was humanity’s collective mind, but no. The same happened with the Borg where we got a Queen, a power-mad mustache-twirler who behaved nothing like the sum total of even a dozen minds, let alone billions.

            I’m having a hard time deciding which disappointed me more: Voyager or Mass Effect.

  4. Yerushalmi says:

    Another option: Use a cutscene to show the bad guy defeating and killing one of the player’s PC or NPC allies, while the player watches helplessly. You’d need to justify the “helplessly”, of course, or you’ll just annoy the player. In a scifi series this can be quite easy: the player watches it happen over a commlink. If the PC or NPC has been built up as a badass throughout the beginning of the game, the bad guy’s defeat of that character can do a lot for his reputation.

    Whether the battle is effortless or effortfull is a question for the writer; there are pros and cons to each.

    • Steve C says:

      I’m not crazy about this because of how often it happens in games and how often it is done badly. It can effective and I’ve seen it be effective. Just most of the time it ends up being a girl stuffed into the fridge trope. There are a couple of options I do like though and sci-fi is particularly suited to it due to holograms.

      The first is where the player fights a miniboss ally of the villain. Where the villain is present in a narrative sense due to long distance communications. The villain can direct their ally to do things to the player. This makes it feel more personal but doesn’t allow them to win/lose directly against the villain. After the climax of a fight they can even talk to each other. This is a good time for the villain to tell the player what he’s going to do because the player hurt someone he valued. The player cannot stop him either since the villain knows where the player currently is and knows he is too far away and therefore powerless. For example, “You killed my general (in a fair fight) which pissed me off. So now I’m going blow up your planet. You can’t stop me because you are on the other side of the galaxy and I’m closer.”

      The other is where everyone the player meets keeps talking about the villain as this unstoppable force. However the villain has no idea that the player exists. For example Smaug in The Hobbit. When the protagonist and antagonist finally meet, the player has to avoid him. That’s the gameplay- getting away while the villain gets increasingly frustrated that he cannot catch the player. Later the hero can acquire something that can finally stop the unstoppable force and use it in the final act.

      The mistake I see in games is that they make the villain be physically present. All it needs is the villain to be there narratively.

      • Yerushalmi says:

        Farscape famously deliberately avoided devaluing Scorpius by introducing the neuroclone plot in Season 2, allowing him to be a constant presence in Crichton’s life without having Crichton able to escape/defeat him every episode.

      • evileeyore says:

        “The other is where everyone the player meets keeps talking about the villain as this unstoppable force.”

        Which is comedy gold when they do this and you accidently one shot the ‘unstoppable badass’ without even realizing he was the villain.

        Story time: In Diablo 2 my second game through I was playing a Barbarian. My first game I did Necromancer and every Boss fight was very rough (but doable with ‘tactics’ (read “Run in circles kiting the Boss and using every cheap tactic I can think will crying like a scared child”)). The first mini-boss my Barbarian faced was really rough (Raven – the Undead Archer chick). So going into the the first real Boss fight (Andariel) I was worried.

        I didn’t have any ranged which was how my Necromancer managed to pull off his win (run around being chased throwing knives at her until I finally whittled her down). I was worried.

        So the doors open and I rush in and insta-gib her.

        Okay. I was surprised. But then the Barbarian was laying down a lot of damage, so I though “Hey, maybe that first fight was just so hard since the Necromancer relies on allies and she had a horde that the Barbarian ignored”.

        So cue up every Boss after that (except Diablo himself), every single one was insta-gibbed.

        The funniest being Mephisto.

        So I’m runny around in the jungle, hearing about how bad-ass Mephisto is. Like every NPC tells you how bad Mephisto is (I somehow missed all this as the Necromancer), how much he’s going to whip your ass, and how much it’ll hurt. I’m legit starting to ‘worry’. Mephisto was the second hardest fight my Necromancer had (Diablo being the worst). I’m actually starting to think the last two Fallen might just challenge this character.

        Now the Barbarian has a Leap Attack ability. You click on enemy and if they are within range you jump on them and hit them. Crawling around in Mephisto’s temple complex I’d been facing these annoying Wraith things that would phase in, lightning you, and then phase out. I got very good at quickly clicking them so the Barbarian could jump them before they escaped.

        So Mephisto… something starts to phase in – LEAP AND SCREAM! It dies. Then the ‘wraith’ starts fountaining candy and Mephisto’s monologue starts up…

        No really. I’m sitting there laughing as Mephisto is telling me how bad he’s gonna whup up on me… and he’s was dead before he started talking.

      • MrGuy says:

        Another option with this is to simply make the villain clever, rather than make the protagonist dumb.

        Here’s a simple example. We’ve tracked down Saren’s secret base. We’re finally going to confront him! We break into his secret lab, and are looking around. There he is! Prepare to die! We shoot him right in his head. The bullet passes through and hits a console in the background. Wait, what? It’s a hologram!

        “You’re better than I thought, Shepard. I hate to lose my lab. But you didn’t think I’d actually be waiting around waiting for you, did you? I took off in my shuttle the moment you showed up on the scanners. I’ve taken the liberty of activating the base defenses and activating the self destruct sequence. You’ve got 90 seconds to get out. I wish you luck.”

        We still get our confrontation, we get a fight, and we successfully build up the villain (AND make the conflict more personal – “you tried to kill me!”) And it doesn’t feel like the game was cheating. Shepard isn’t a dunce who gets caught monologuing in a cutscene. Saren is just smart enough to have planned for the eventuality of an armed force storming his base, and had reasonable countermeasures in place. We didn’t win this round, but it’s not because we were idiots.

    • Veylon says:

      Interestingly, Suikoden does this as a variation of 3. One of the main character’s buddies stays back to hold off the baddies while the hero flees and fights one of the chief antagonists in a duel. Odds are, he loses that fight very quickly and dies. But if you leveled him up and are both skillful and lucky, he can impress his opponent enough to walk away alive.

      • Crystalgate says:

        Or you just hit defend all the time and you have more than 50% chance of winning as long as Pahn’s equipment and level is updated. The idea is nice though.

    • Mephane says:

      I hate it when this happens in a game. It is one of those “nope, reload and try again” moments because I will a) assume that the character’s death is preventable and b) the character just took with them that nifty weapon which I had given them just a few moments before big battle. If the death turns out to be unpreventable, I will strip the NPC of anything of value, and give the stuff to another companion or sell it for money.

      This is one of the reasons I prefer it when an RPG does not let us give equipment to the NPC companions, and rather let them have their predefined equipment that may simply improve through the course of the story without any interference by the player.

  5. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I think do it in gameplay is the best option.Though it is hard to pull off.You need to make some kind of failsafe so that some munchkin wouldnt be able to win regardless.For example,make it so that if you manage to get his shield down,one(or several) of his mooks shoots you in the back to incapacitate you long enough for sarren to win.This sort of cheating would translate from “the game cheats” to “sarren cheats”,and go even further to explain why you werent able to win then,but were able to win in the end when he is allone.

    • Christopher says:

      I think it’s easy in RPGs to just have the bad guy be so many levels higher than you that beating them is impossible. In the action games/action-RPGs I’ve seen it in(Like Tales of Symphonia) it’s often completely possible to beat them and then get beaten in a cutscene afterwards instead. If the game’s nice, you get some sort of bonus for it though.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        It doesnt even have to be a bonus though.In transistor,there are two “impossible” fights.The first one,however,doesnt even let you attempt to fight it,which kind of disappointed me,because I think I couldve won.But the second one does let you to stay and fight,and if you win,the sword says “Wow,you actually did it.Nice one red.”,which I appreciated very much,even though I got no additional loot from it.

        • Nixitur says:

          It’s been a while since I finished Transistor, what fights are you talking about? I think I remember two fights where you’re discouraged from fighting.
          1. The part where dozens of mortar chickens (forgot what they’re called) spawn and the sword tells you to just run.
          2. One side room with lots of cells and a few Young Ladies. You can walk past undisturbed, but if you attack anything, you have to fight lots of things.

          Are there any more? I don’t remember a hopeless bossfight, the two things I’ve mentioned are rather minor.

      • ReticentDaikaiju says:

        The one that immediately came to mind for me was Chrono Trigger. It actually has a lot of elements in common with the ones in Mass Effect that Shamus mentioned, particularly the team of “loyal, curious, intelligent, courageous companions” opposing the powerful bad guy (Saren/Magus) who is under some misguided effort serving a mysterious, unknowable alien entity threatening to destroy the world/galaxy (Sovereign/Lavos). It effectively uses Early Villain Fight Method 4 you defeat Magus but before you can finish him you are both pulled through a wormhole and even makes an interesting attempt at Early Villain Fight Method 3 you are forced into a confrontation with Lavos way before you are high enough level to beat it, but it is technically possible to win, which immediately ends the game and even gives you a secret ending for doing so. I also think it strikes a good balance resolving the “unknowable mystery” versus “murder mystery” conundrum by giving a vague but still somewhat satisfying answer to Lavos’ motivation for some reason destroying all life on a planet is an essential part of their alien reproductive cycle, although the exact mechanism for how this works is never explained

      • guy says:

        I like how Suikoden 3 does its fights with the main villains. The fights are genuinely really rough and you’re expected to lose, at which point you go into a cutscene where your team is badly roughed up but still standing and glaring defiantly, and then generally the villain’s underling reminds him that they’re on a schedule and they don’t have time to finish you off, or reinforcements arrive and the villains teleport out rather than engage.

        On the other hand, if you’re particularly awesome and actually beat them, the villains generally admit that this fight has not gone as they hoped and teleport out.

      • Ivan says:

        The main problem with impossible fights is that they train the player to realize that if a boss is hard enough it’s better to just stop trying. This is mostly because I’ve had plenty of fights that went on forever because the boss was unkillable and I thought I was missing something. Then some games like Chrono Trigger adapt the story when you beat said boss and you end up lousing fights that would have been so much more fun to struggle through. The worst part is that it is impossible to know which approach the game is going to take when you start playing it.

      • Ringwraith says:

        Tales of Xillia does this a couple of times, but it sort of works in both cases, as said fights are rather difficult, where you can easily fall to a single combo, and the first time it’s with an inexperienced person who wandered into the wrong place, and immediately they have to rematch with an overpowered ally on your side anyway.
        The second time, it’s a hard fight to win, but regardless if you win or lose, the battle gets interrupted by something bigger. The cutscene even shows both sides still duking it out.
        Actually winning does net you a bunch of experience though.

      • MrGuy says:

        This is often a narrative challenge, especially in RPG’s.

        If you want the Big Baddie to be a menacing threat, then you need Big Baddie to be an extremely high-level baddie – the ultimate soldier in near-impenetrable power armor, or the master magician, or the unstoppable dragon, etc.

        The problem is the limitations this put on who the protagonist can be. If the protagonist is a sufficiently similar level fighter that they can at least plausibly be expected to be a match for the Big Baddie, then you’re STARTING the protagonist out as a high-level character (and therefore you don’t need to “grow” much). This is more a “battle of wits/tactics” as opposed to something where you “develop” your character as you play.

        Alternately, you can have the protagonist start as a moop who’s no more of a threat to the Big Baddie at first than a diseased weasel would be. This approach gives a lot of room to grow, and motivates a lot of the questing (you can’t hope to so much as fight the Big Baddie until you’re WAY stronger!). But it also tends to turn the protagonist into a giant Mary Sue – why are YOU the “one true moop” who is the one person who decides to work hard and get good enough to fight Big Baddie? You’d think if you can do it, any of these other moops could do so (especially if some of your mentors are stronger then you started out as – hey, disgraced General Poofpants, maybe YOU could get yourself into fighting shape, instead of training up 12 year old kids to do it for you). The other problem with this approach is the implausibility of going from “random moop” to “able to threaten the Great Big Baddie” over the course of a few weeks of questing.

    • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

      The Tales Series handles this pretty well. I’ve played Symphonia and Vesparia, and both of them have “hopeless boss fights” about a third of the way through. If you lose, the game continues normally.

      However, if you manage to win, the game reverses the victory in the cutscene by having something happen that would have happened even if you won. I didn’t win in Vesparia, but in Symphonia the fight takes long enough that the summoning of the big bad completes, even though you won the fight.

      • Pyrrhic Gades says:

        The thing about Tales of Vesperia’s “Hopeless Bossfight”*, is that it was never framed as a “Hopeless boss fight” in the first place. It was a fight between equals, and it wasn’t a fight to the death. Even the in-battle dialogue is one can only be described as a friendly match (with possible bromantic undertones)

        You are talking about the fight where Yuri and Flynn duke it out right? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMYJ1CMg7PE

        *Which for the record, takes place within Act 3 which also happens to be the third and final act, making it take place in the final third of the game

    • Dreadjaws says:

      There are many different ways. For instance, put a visible timer in the fight for some reason, so when it expires the villain, who was merely entertaining you until the timer ran out, escapes.

      Or make him simply escape when you reach half his lifebar or so, which, again, makes it look like the villain is the one cheating rather than the writer.

      Alternatively, some external event might happen. The villain gets a lot of backup and you’re forced to retreat. Or the bigger bad shows up and defeats the hero instantly.

      I mean, don’t just let the life bar reach almost zero, make the player doubt he’ll be able to defeat him, but don’t make the fight so long that they’ll feel they wasted their time. There has to be a visual balance.

      I think the best idea is to balance the fight according to the player’s level in order to make sure it’s unwinnable, but don’t actually let the player reach a point where he thinks he can win. Make the villain swipe the floor with him no matter how powerful he is. But instead of game over, you get yes, a cutscene. Difference being that there’s pretty much no doubt that there was no hope of you to win.

      Or, you know, just give the villain some shield that you can’t penetrate until you acquire certain gun or something like that.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        Or, you know, just give the villain some shield that you can’t penetrate until you acquire certain gun or something like that.

        Having the villain have a super weapon that kicks your ass hard,and then you get to spend a good portion of the game finding a way to counter it is a good tactics.One that,weirdly enough,mass effect 2 employs(somewhat)with its collector beam that kills shepard.

      • Ringwraith says:

        My favourite system for unwinnable boss fights was in a JRPG: Wild ARMs Alter Code F (a remake of the first game of the series) has it so the fight will end after a certain number of turns or if you lose, but you will always gain experience relative to how much damage you inflicted.
        It interestingly solved the problem of having such a fight and just not bothering, as it encourages you to try the best you can to fight them.
        It also helps it was the kind of the game where most of the experience points come from bosses, not normal battles.

    • Victor McKnight says:

      Not an RPG example, but a good space shooter example of an unwinnable boss fight done right is Jedi Knight II (Dark Forces 3): Jedi Outcast. Kyle Katarn has his first fight with Desan early in the game when Kyle still has no force powers and Desan is effectively a Sith Master.

      The computer is actually cheating in the fight, but its very hard to tell because Kyle has few meaningful ways of effectively attacking Desan. Kyle’s arsenal is limited, and most of what he does have – various blasters and a bow-caster – are not effective against Jedi. Desan also just uses force push on thermal detonators, often sending them back at Kyle.

      Furthermore, the game handles the issue of why Desan would leave Kyle alive very well, namely he pretends to kill Jan Oars so Kyle will get angry and go to the Valley of the Jedi. Since Desan wants to use the Valley to make an army of insta-sith, he is just going to track his ship after letting him live.

  6. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Please stop making quicktime events.

    Actually,they should stop shoving quicktime events into cutscenes.QTEs inside gameplay are fine.Like the finishers in some beatdowns,where you get a way to speed up a portion of the combat by doing a cool takedown thats consistent from enemy to enemy,which doesnt punish you for failing,but rather rewards you for succeeding.You can continue beating down the scorpion in marlow briggs until it falls over,or you can jump on its back and ride it for a bit before it dies,and its great.

    • Thomas says:

      Hmm, I considered myself a partial defender of QTE’s but taken that way I think I’d be very happy to be part of the “All QTEs in a cutscene suck” crowd. As long as Telltale/Quantic Dream style QTEs were thought of as part of the gameplay (which they really are).

    • Mephane says:

      What they definitely need to stop doing at all is button-mashing QTEs. Timing a button press or aiming with the mouse etc. can actually work, but presenting a forceful struggle as “mash A as fast as you can”, nope, nope nope. It’s absolutely annoying and feels like pointlessly reducing the lifespan of my input device.

      And now for the one and only GTE which I found fun and appropriate: the ending of Space Marine, where you throw the bad guy off the tower and your are continuing your fight in free fall. The regular combat gameplay wouldn’t work in this situation, and it is just so utterly cool that you are battling while falling from this multi-kilometer tower.

  7. Christopher says:

    This entry makes it sort of sound like the fight is a cutscene and not a gameplay fight, but there is an actual boss fight in there. It’s just that it involved using that marksman thing and firing a pistol round into him, so it was over in a few seconds. Or in the case of another commenter on a previous post, repeatedly knocking him down with a shotgun. I’m happy it makes cutscene sense, but Mass Effect boss fights are bad. This is a case of different priorities, probably. I can’t even remember the cutscenes surrounding it, but I can still taste the disappointment because of the actual fight. It’s what made me use that paragon dialogue at the final confrontation.

    I think option 3 would probably work out alright in more games. Many games have the supposed to lose-fight but I’ve only ever seen option 3 done for Chrono Trigger. For those that don’t know, a giant monster has burrowed into a fantasy-setting Earth and is ready to burrow outside again and ruin the world after some thousands years. The Earth itself opens up portals to different periods of time related to the monster and people trying to use it. You get a portal to the monster almost straight away, and as long as you are a high enough level, you can defeat it. On a normal playthrough that’s not viable until closer to the end of the story, but on new game+ you can defeat it at any point and get lots of different endings depending on when. If the tone of Mass Effect was different, or maybe the gameplay, I could easily imagine a portal to dark space you could open at any time to engage a final boss fight with a reaper on a weird undulating background.

    • Andy_Panthro says:

      Chrono Trigger is one of those special examples where it gets so much right. Surprising more games didn’t copy it.

      Final Fantasy IV on the other hand has a type 2 and a type 4 I think (well, the type 4 is just that you win and the bad guy leaves, it was a bit before the series had fancy cutscenes!).

      • Syal says:

        Chrono Trigger actually uses about half a dozen methods of building up the villains.

        Ozzie fights a running battle against you at the bridge and runs constant interference for Magus, Magus gets the “everyone talks about his power but you never see him” god-king treatment, Azala shows up to mock you a few times, Dalton continually throws minions at you, and with Queen Zeal you arrive too late to stop her insane plan. And all of those villains build up Lavos.

        …seriously, go play Chrono Trigger.

    • Nixitur says:

      Not to mention that you have to fight the final boss at one point before the actual ending. In that fight, of course, you are hopelessly outmatched and get defeated. And then the game continues.
      Of course, you can defeat it if you grind way too much or if you’re in New Game+, at which point you simply beat the game.
      But what’s most interesting about that fight is how it cleverly solves the “Defeat the protagonist, but don’t kill them.” problem by (WARNING! HUGE SPOILER!) actually killing the protagonist and the rest of the party get to find a way to bring him back to life. That’s also completely optional which is cool.

  8. Chefsbrian says:

    What about a false start, of sorts? Games these days can transition between cutscenes, dialog, and gameplay fairly seamlessly. Imagine if you came out, and had a few seconds to act against Saren. Some might charge him with the shotgun, but if you get close, it triggers a seamless cutscene where he disarms you, you get your shepard fisticuffs, and proceeds with the conversation. If you back off, or move for cover, he could knock you around with a biotic power, which could have the same effect of disarming the player and entering the conversation. You’ve now given the player a sense of action in the scene, and shown Saren’s capabilities.

    Its still going to end up at the same ending, but the player has a chance to feel that they tried, so as to avoid any cutscene incompetence issues. The player doesn’t feel like they are hammering at a brick wall, or feel cheated of a win they spent the last few minutes fighting for. Instead, they got stomped a few moments into the fight. You’ll feel outmatched, but not cheated, hopefully.

    Or I could be completely wrong, its five am and I might not be thinking straight.

    • Dreadjaws says:

      No, you’re correct, I made basically the same argument in other comment. The idea is to let the player try but make sure the chances of him winning are nil.

  9. Vlad says:

    Very interesting analysis on stakes-raising mid-game boss fights. I can perfectly understand where you’re coming from saying that most games get this wrong. Despite the fact that I personally loved 99% of that game, Witcher 2 had a particularly egregious example of this:

    Right before the end of Act I in Flotsam, you had a boss fight with another Witcher you had been, and will continue to be, hunting throughout the game. The fight is really tough because he’s much higher level than you, has a million hitpoints and only needs a few hits to down you. In fact, he seemed to me like he was at the same level that he’ll be when you fight him again 20 of your own levels later.

    If he beats you, it’s game over, pass me that reload button.

    So you have to fight really well against this over-levelled boss, and when you finally DO bring him close to 0 hp… you get a cutscene in which he shows he’s MUCH stronger than you, knocks you down and leaves because he doesn’t actually want to kill you.

    It would have made much more sense if he did that the eleven previous times he actually DID kill me outside the cut-scene. It boggles my mind how poorly they handled that scene, because there are no other examples like that in the game.

  10. Daimbert says:

    Well, the first thing to consider is that this isn’t really a villain fight, because Saren isn’t the main villain. Sovereign is the main villain. Saren is the Dragon. And it’s actually pretty easy to set up win/lose conditions in the obligatory Dragon fight: if he beats you, then he has some reason or something happens to stop him from finishing you off, and if you beat him the main villain steps in to get him out of there. This works even better if you have a main villain that can’t be fought. In fact, setting this act up as a fight against the Dragon works better in a game because it can deal with both cases.

    Turning to the gaming having battles that you can and perhaps need to lose, there are two related problems to this. First, if you hit this fight and don’t realize that you’re supposed to lose, you might use lots of resources trying desperately to win a fight that you can’t win (ammo, healing, magic, etc, etc). This can cripple you for the rest of the game. But once you realize that a really, really tough battle might well be one that you HAVE to lose, then you might try to conserve resources … and then hit the “Game Over” screen, which is annoying. If you’re going to pull one of these off, you need to telegraph it in some way so that the player knows that this is a fight they can lose. So doing it in gameplay is problematic.

    That being said, some games have done it, in my opinion, relatively well. Suikoden III had a number of instances where you fought a battle that you could have lost and where the plot expected you to, but generally if you were strong and leveled enough you COULD win, and it adjusts the cutscenes occasionally. It’s helped by the fact that the final battle isn’t against the purported main villains, so you can indeed beat them without feeling like the final battle should be a cakewalk or wondering when they took their level in badass. The game that did it the worst was probably Knights of the Old Republic, where you kick the crap out of the villain and then suddenly one character has to sacrifice themselves to “hold him off” so that you can get to the ship.

    On QTEs, the Marvel Ultimate Alliance series did them pretty well, where if you miss all it means is that you have to keep fighting for a while until you get the next opportunity, and a lot of the fun comes in after you get through (and the prompts jump out in the middle of the screen, generally). Also, for reasons already given, I’m not sure that QTEs are that much worse for casual gamers than for regular gamers, at least not if you make them common in the game. They don’t require deep strategy or a proper, full build to work, so if the timing isn’t too short then they should be able to solve it most of the time. Again, in MUA I had little trouble with them — although I did miss a few times — and I’m pretty much a casual gamer.

    Ultimately, I think games need to get away from the traditional second act of “Fight the villain and lose”. Given the amount of time games can take advantage of and the fact that you’re involved in everything that happens, if they can’t make it personal by setting up the goal as something that’s personal to you that’ a failing in the writing, not in how games work.

    • Syal says:

      Likewise, in a fight with the villain the Dragon can show up to bail him out. Or the hero’s allies can show up to bail them out. I’m surprised “reinforcements arrive” wasn’t one of Shamus’ options.

    • MichaelGC says:

      Ultimately, I think games need to get away from the traditional second act of “Fight the villain and lose.”

      Witcher 3 did this (some generalised spoilers follow) – to the slight consternation of some reviewers, even. Perhaps more-used to a traditional structure, more than one thought they’d reached the end of the game at the end of Act 2, given how climactic it all felt.

      You do actually lose in a cutscene – it’s a loss they’ve been directly building up to in the gameplay, though, so doesn’t really feel like a cheat. And then you go on to win in the same cutscene – so for any player focused on DIY, as it were, that won’t be especially satisfying!

      But whilst they’re definitely still using the general ‘sort it out inna cutscene’ solution, I thought it worked really well – the characters are certainly not in a worse-off position at the end of it for once (which happens to ludothingily fit with the fact that Geralt is probably an OP demi-god by this stage…), and there are clear, personal, story-reasons for cracking on with what they do next.

    • Loonyyy says:

      A Dragon is a villain.

      Mooks are villains, the boss is a villain, all of the villains are villains. They are villainous. It also pays off to use phrasing that isn’t straight from TV Tropes. Why they label it “Dragon” as opposed to enforcer, or any number of names for the right-hand heavy is, I suppose, lost to time.

      And having someone step in at the end doesn’t really solve it, it abandons it for another cliche, and still doesn’t answer the gameplay issue. If that person is on your side, it makes no sense for them not to kill Saren, and if they’re not, then there are very few characters who it’d make sense to put in there.

      I think letting the player lose the battle, and go to cutscene is a good workaround, but also, I don’t think that there’s any need to make the boss fight winnable. The boss doesn’t need a million hitpoints, he can be invincible. Yeah, it’s not obeying the rules of the system, but you’re trying to avoid having to obey them anyway. It’s like never ending horde modes: It makes no sense that there are this any enemies just coming and coming, but eventually, they overwhelm you. I think that the conventional health-bar is a bit too gamey, and gives the player too much of a look behind the curtain. Granted, that’s part and parcel of a lot of RPGs, but it has some pretty serious drawbacks if you’re not willing to grant them the freedom to do what they want with it.

  11. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I always have to compare mass effect to madoka magica.The reapers and incubators are practically the same,with the difference that reapers make no sense,while incubators actually do.And what makes incubators more frightening is that very fact.Also the fact that they look so cute.I mean cthulhu and by extension the reapers have to fight hard to achieve a frightening status,because just by looking at them you know that these things are evil,and immediately are on guard.But with a cute thing like the incubators,you cant help but think how defenseless and cute they are,thus making the stuff you hear from them extremely unsettling.

    • Thomas says:

      There’s definitely a lot to be said for the motivation being something big and epic to the point that even though we intellectually understand it, it’d be impossible for us to imagine actually acting on those ideas.

      Madoka Magica’s answer really is the crossover between Lovecraft and Roddenberry, because it’s both still scary to even conceive and a satisfying conclusion (not that the Incubator’s felt that Lovecraftian).

      I think the real key point about that kind of answer, is its the sort of answer that you can’t respond to. With emotions you can fight them or dismiss them as silly, when hearing that the reason is your a speck of dust in the universe and they’re dealing with cosmic tornado’s, there’s nothing you can do, no argument you can make.

      Although in the Lovecraftian sense, Reapers were flawed from the start because they used Saren and spoke to humans directly. Monsters shouldn’t talk to insects.

      • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

        I never liked the reveal of the incubators. No one ever inquires as to the motivations of an incubus. They are evil creatures who suck the virtue from girls. Fish swim, birds fly, incubi rape girls in their sleep. It’s just what they do.

        I disagree with our host’s claim that Trekkie SF requires us to explain what’s going on. Figuring out how to stop V’Ger would satisfy that requirement regardless of whether V’Ger’s actual motivations are ever revealed. The Borg’s motivations are never revealed. Fish swim, birds fly, Borg assimilate. But no one thinks the end of Best of Both Worlds is a cop-out. And the attempts to explain the Borg in Voyager usually end badly.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          They arent that kind of incubators.

          Although,seeing how kyubey likes sleeping curled in madokas bed….

          • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

            Sorry, I was unclear. I wasn’t meaning to suggest that the incubators were incubusses, I was meaning that -in the story -they fulfill a similar role. Tempting girls to do terrible and foolish things. Especially if you read the story as “Goethe with Japanese schoolgirls.”

            No one cares why the demons do it. I don’t even think Mephistopholes’ motivations ever come up. I don’t care why the aliens do it.

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              Well yes,they do act like demons,but Im glad they arent really.A being trying to help itself while stepping over humans is more interesting to me than a being that is evil simply because.

              However,a demon does appear in the movie.

              • Thomas says:

                I’m glad too, I don’t really think something straight up demonic would have fitted the series well (the film being something different). The fact it was alien and so differently motivated added to the world clash and made it more creepy.

                Plus Madoka really is a series about answers, everything except the core conceit that magical girls exist eventually gets explained. It’s all layers of understanding being slowly revealed.

                • Christopher says:

                  I liked the Incubator reveal, too. They aren’t exactly engaging antagonists, but sure worked for me when they explained why they did what they did and what they thought about it.

            • guy says:

              I think it’s actually pretty important to the story that they have understandable and even abstractly positive motivations. It adds an extra weight of despair because the characters can’t simply reject them as purely hostile and to be opposed at every opportunity.

  12. Karthik says:

    The second act boss fight is one of the most poorly handled tropes in games. I can’t think of a single RPG that does it really well (on PC).

    The thing I don’t get is, you can make it an overwhelming fight that 99% of players will lose on their first playthrough, which is when they’re most invested in the story anyway. And then transition from the loss (or near loss) into a cutscene where the character development and/or mcguffin transactions happen. You can change the cutscene in some small way for when the player wins. This doesn’t have to be convincing at all. At worst you’re back to the terrible solution you usually go with. (Why Hello, Kai Leng.)

    And making it overwhelming by giving the antagonist too many hit points is lazy; better to start the player off at a great tactical disadvantage. But you don’t even need to put in any work, a fix is often right there:

    KOTOR: Fight with Malak on the Leviathan. Fix: Don’t make the player fight him at all. That fight does nothing for the story. Have Bastila rush after him and cut you off immediately after the conversation.

    The Witcher 2: Letho at the end of Act I. Fix: Easy, just play the existing cutscene whether you win or lose. Most people will lose and it will fit right in.

    There’s also Mass Effect 3’s Kai Leng on Thessia. But screw Kai Leng and the writer responsible. I can’t summon the energy to even armchair-analyse this one. To be fair to Bioware, though, this trope was reasonably well handled in Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Inquisition, and was not used in Dragon Age 1 or 2.

    Interestingly, I haven’t seen this trope in isometric RPGs. Which is not saying much because I haven’t finished any besides the Fallouts and Planescape: Torment. (So I don’t know if you fight Irenicus in the second act of BG2, for instance.) It does seems to be a trope from movie storytelling that came into use as games became more cinematic.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Well planescape:torment does do it in a very interesting way.You get to fight a very tough witch,who you have to defeat.Then,you get to see that she is still alive,despite what you did,and what the actual villain does to her.

    • James says:

      So the Letho fight in Act 1: This fight is hard, even for a person on their 4th run, Letho does ALOT of damage, his spells are basically full upgraded and can cast them 3-4 time faster then you. but with the correct knowledge and watching patterns you can win without taking damage. but its not easy and honestly i loved the challenge, i never got a no damage run against him but ive done what id call well.

      I’m replaying KoTOR now, and i actually forgot you fight Malek on the leviathan so i’ve got that to look forward to great. for a little while during the start of my play-through i was digging the combat, it was new and rose tinted, now its tiresome and annoying, something cRPG’s and other Iso RPG’s from the modern era have done alot to remedy.

      Fuck Kai Leng. sure Corypheus has about the same amount of bull shittery in cut-scenes but he’s better written his Voice alone don’t make me angry (this is no knock on Troy Baker but with Kai Wanker i think his direction must have been be a annoying prick) and hes supposed to be like a god where as Kai Leng was supposed to be a adversary but ends up with nonsense god powers.

      • Ringwraith says:

        The Letho fight is probably a bit too hard still, but what’s nice about it is that it shows Geralt’s not quite there in remembering all his old tricks, as fighting him later he’s no stronger than before, making him a pushover.
        Also Letho was going to let Geralt go the first time without incident as he owes him, and continues with that intent after the fight.

    • Syal says:

      I think the Darth Sion fights in KOTOR 2 did it pretty well.

    • Eskel says:

      You do fight Irenicus in the second act. After taking enough damage, he uses teleport and escapes. The fight was tough and I assume he has some buffed stats but is not invincible. In one of my tries I was very lucky with disintegrate and killed him instantly. Sadly that broke the game scripting and I had to reload.

  13. Henson says:

    I really like that turn of phrase: “a DUMB answer is still better than just blowing up the question.” Neat.

  14. Karthik says:

    > 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”.

    I think the problem runs deeper. Story-heavy videogames are built on a string of combat encounters that the player always succeeds at, and this means the player’s personal narrative of their experience always has the same triumphant tone. This can (and does) clash terribly with the tone of the story and the intended narrative if the latter is one of loss and strife. There might even be a word for this that I’m not allowed to say. (Let’s just say the word was so broadly and irresponsibly applied that it lost its somewhat nuanced intended/original meaning.)

    The problem suggests there are three easy ways to fix this conflict.

    1. Reduce the player’s agency so they’re not allowed to be an ace at everything they do (Telltale games, especially TWD), OR

    2. Make your story a direct reflection of the player’s power fantasy (Dragon Age: Inquisition, Saints Row 3/4), OR

    3. Let the player retain their agency but allow them to lose encounters. This might require jettisoning your story-heavy narrative (XCOM) and embracing the player’s own.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      There is a fourth option:Incorporate the “going back to the previous save” into the game itself,either by making you immortal,like in planescape:torment,or by making you able to actually manipulate time like in the prince of persia remakes.Or,by doing the mindfuck of walker in spec ops starting to comment about “being here already”.Or by making you have the power of premonition like in second sight.Lots of ways,basically.

      • Syal says:

        I think that would be a really nice horror game element; every so often you run into something that super murders you, so you reload your save and it isn’t there the second time.

      • Karthik says:

        Sands of Time and PS:T (and Dark Souls too): These work, but they’re essentially special cases because the narrative of the game has to be built around these mechanics/ideas.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          That is exactly what I said “Incorporate the reload mechanic into the story”.And you dont even need time travel for it to work:You can also have the whole game being just a story someone is telling,like in call of juarez.

          • Karthik says:

            Right, I agree! But I call it a special case because you can’t make it work without a story that has a supernatural gimmick or a frame narrative. Obviously, it makes sense when you develop the mechanic first and write your story to contextualize it, but not many games are (or can be) developed this way.

    • Adam says:

      I believe the word you’re looking for is Ludoscababib Discobiscuits.

    • Loonyyy says:

      I think there’s a simple workaround, especially in games like Mass Effect 3, where the idea is that a lot of the battles are losing battles. Dedicate more assets to having other characters losing and dying around you, and make things about survival.

      I think it’s sort of a limitation of conventional game design, where you go to an area, and kill everything. If you’re trying, and failing, to save other characters around you, and also make it through before you’re overwhelmed, you can present a situation where you win by beating the scenario, but in the context of the game, it’s not much of a victory at all.

      Kind of like Left 4 Dead in a way, just with a host more characters. You get the high of making it out alive, but not the feeling that you’re more powerful than everything, because victory here was just escaping, eventually, you’d be overwhelmed and killed.

  15. Mattias42 says:

    I sorta like how the Disgaea series handles ‘no-win boss-fights.’

    If you DO actually win against what’s usually end-boss if not harder, you get a special ending.

    Of course, 9 times out of 10 that’s one of the worst endings in the game, where the now panicked demon lord/lady goes bat-shit in a panic and blows up the entire world.

    Not even kidding.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLkE7MEFEH8

    Still, to Nippon Ichi’s credit those DO count as actual endings and usually even unlock special stuff. Its not like you somehow lose anyway due to cut-scene power, or even worse, somehow get a ‘fuck you, that’s not how you’re supposed to play!’ game over.

    Have to admit that’s my personal favorite way of doing a Hopeless Bossfight if you really MUST do that trope. For 99% of players it doesn’t matter, but for those that actually put enough time and effort into —you know, your game to be that good at it gets a small reward.

    Hell, they could have easily done that in Mass Effect. You actually win that first fight, and Saren is crippled; making the next fight against him far easier because he’s needed to throw a patch-work on instead of getting healed properly. Not only does that reward the player, but there was an actual in-game consequence from the player’s action.

    • Nixitur says:

      Chrono Trigger also does this. About a bit more than halfway through the game (I think), you face the actual final boss of the game. Of course, you’re nowhere near strong enough to defeat it, so it defeats you and the story continues.
      Except if you’re insane enough to grind that much or you’re playing in New Game+, in which case you can totally defeat it. In fact, there’s lots of places, one of them in the hub, where you get the option of facing the final boss right freaking now before the story is even at that point. New Game+ adds some more, too, so you can beat the game with only your starting character after about 20 minutes.
      It also cleverly solves the “Beat the protagonist, but don’t kill them.” problem, but I’m not gonna spoil how. And if you beat the final boss, you win. No exceptions.

      • Mintskittle says:

        It also helps that when you meet the final boss the first time, he’s actually much more powerful than when you fight him in the endgame. This helps ensure that first timers will fail and continue on with the story, while even the most over-leveled of parties will still be challenged if they decide to go for the quick win.

    • Dev Null says:

      Hell, they could have easily done that in Mass Effect. You actually win that first fight, and Saren is crippled; making the next fight against him far easier because he’s needed to throw a patch-work on instead of getting healed properly. Not only does that reward the player, but there was an actual in-game consequence from the player’s action.

      Or turn it up a notch, instead of toning it down. Flash a quick cutscene of Saren being decanted from the healing tanks and into his new life-support system aka powered assault armour, which he will now have in your next fight…

    • Grudgeal says:

      Also, the Nippon Ichi games have at least the common courtesy of underlining that a boss fight is hopeless. If you’re level 40, and the boss is level 1200, and all those stats are clearly visible to you as a player, it’s very easy to tell which way the story is blowing. There is no level of skill that will ever get you past that, only game-breaking amounts of level grinding.

      • Mattias42 says:

        True, that helps a lot.

        Compare with, say, a certain cereal assassin we’re not supposed to talk about yet. There was no reason except laziness from Bioware’s side that you couldn’t have taken down that clown during your first meeting with the gear and powers at your disposal.

        Black Widow. Max rank time-dilation scope on an Infiltrator. Armor piercing rounds. Boom. Boom. Boom. Gone.

        And that’s not even counting stuff like singularities and cryo-grenades. It’s kinda hard to be smug when you’re armor’s frozen stiff and you’re orbiting a miniature black-hole.

        Well, at least it would be if Cereal Assassin wasn’t the author’s favorite character.

        Still, I will begrudgingly admit that fluff-wise Disgaea has a far easier time justifying stuff like that. I mean, Demon Lord that can undo entire worlds and have the stats to prove it versus a author favorite cyborg assassin with plot armor where his empty skull should have been?

        If I get my ass handed to me, I know which one of those beatdowns I won’t be enraged at, at least.

  16. Michael says:

    I think it’s interesting that in the sequel, which is less inspired by Star Trek and instead cribs from Bladerunner(which plays better with cosmic horror), makes it clear that they’re going down the “explain the Reapers” route.

  17. James says:

    Allowing the PC to repeatedly defeat the BigBad, but having the BigBad come back again and again can lead to the issue Metal Gear 1 and 3 have especially.

    Metal Gear 1: You blow Liquid Snake up in his MechaTank. then you fist fight him on top of the dead MechaTank, then after you do that punching him off the MechaTank you have a car chase with him in which you plug his head full of 50cal rounds. then after doing that he dies in a cut-scene (except not completely or something its complicated)

    Metal Gear 3: Colonel Volgin, first you have a boss fight with him in a weird arena thing and proceed to shoot grenade or otherwise kill him, then the warehouse blows up because you planted c3 explosives before hand. then he gets into a NukeTank (it had drill treads like the chimera tanks from F3 except it doesn’t look useless) you blow up a bridge as its crossing it and it sinks into a river. then it drives out the river up the broken bridge cus reasons. you then shoot RPG;s into hits back to kill it. THEN Volgin who can cast electricity cus this is a bond film powers it up. you shoot him till he dies and then….. he dies in a cut-scene.

    The MGS3 one worked though cus 1) its a bond film 2)its metal gear and 3)it was really cool.

    • Thomas says:

      MGS3 also does the ‘defeated in a cutscene’ one too, and it does it right again. I don’t think anyone was bitter about The Boss handing Snake’s arse to him and it only made their final confrontation all the more amazing.

      I think losing in a cutscene is definitely the best of a bad business. The trick is to make it feel like a revelation to the player, that the boss is much much more powerful than you thought they were and you’ve got a long way to go. In those instances, if done right, the player can end up liking the game _more_ because of the cutscene.

      Devil May Cry 3 does the win the fight and lose in the cutscene against Vergil, but somehow it doesn’t suck even though that’s got to be one of the worst options. I don’t understand why it doesn’t suck in DMC3 though.

      • James says:

        The Cutscenes of the Boss beating you up work in a few ways

        1) She is set up before hand as a expert in martial arts and your mentor, she taught you everything you know.
        2) She is being established as THE final boss and showing her beating you early in the game is a good way to show Snakes development from just another soldier to Big Boss.
        3) it looks cool, its really well choreographed and shot. like a good action scene in a movie where the protagonist loses but it look awesome so we don’t care. (pretty much any of the first Matrix’s fights where Neo gets beaten.)

  18. Akuma says:

    That sovereign conversation, this is the defining point of my relationship with the Mass Effect series.

    I really liked the first game for many of the points Shamus has brought up (Specifically the details first stuff) but it was during this talk with the reaper that I tried to work out what there deal was. I thought to myself what could be the possible reason they need to kill everyone every cycle or so and I came up with a few, but there wasn’t enough to details to really call any of them.

    But then I literally said to myself out loud “Well, if it has anything to do with people than that would be stupid”

    The reason I thought that was because of sovereign’s dismissive attitude towards life in general. He acted as if his race was so beyond the needs and means of lesser organics that they wouldn’t even be able to understand what his purpose is. But that would mean if it actually was about people than he would be a big stupid hypocrite instead of a terrifying monster.

    Cue me checking out at the end of Mass Effect 2.

    • Neko says:

      Me too. I loved the thorough alien-ness of the Reapers as glimpsed at through the Sovereign dialogue and the indoctrination stuff. I would have much preferred it if their motivations were something more like “Eventually, organic life finds ways to break FTL physics that might result in the annihilation of the universe, so we make sure to stomp them down whenever they get close”.

      • INH5 says:

        Something very much like that actually was the planned motivation for the Reapers throughout at least part of the development of ME2 and the early development of ME3. Google “mass effect dark energy plot” if you want to know the details.

        We don’t know why they changed it, but I suspect it was because they realized the big problem with this idea: the Reapers are stated to be directly responsible for giving organic races mass effect and FTL technology.

        • Thomas says:

          To be honest, I don’t think either of the dark energy ideas they had sounded any less stupid than what they did.

          The first involved
          “Dark Energy was something that only organics could access because of various techno-science magic reasons we hadn’t decided on yet. Maybe using this Dark Energy was having a ripple effect on the space-time continuum.”

          And the second involved
          “Maybe there’s an inevitable descent into the opposite of the Big Bang (the Big Crunch) and the Reapers realise that the only way they can stop it is by using biotics, but since they can’t use biotics they have to keep rebuilding society – as they try and find the perfect group to use biotics for this purpose. ”

          Both of them lack the “you are insects” ideas really. The first Dark Energy plot works best – but only if you remove the whole idea of Dark Energy from it.

          • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

            Yeah. The Dark Energy plot never sounded like an improvement to me, either.

            • Christopher says:

              It just sounds like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann to me, when put into simple words. I love Gurren Lagann, but no one’s gonna tell me that the reason for the Anti-Spiral’s existence is why that’s a fun show(except for the visual of a robot the size of galaxies with a planet for a head). They’re lousy villains compared to the human villain who wants to keep humanity’s population small so they don’t attract the Anti-Spiral’s attention. So far so similar, I guess.

        • Syal says:

          The problem with it is the idea that the problem should be something organics can understand like ‘using biotics’ or “FTL technology”.

          Make it so the various species are unintentionally messing with forces they aren’t even physically capable of detecting; consequences of universal laws that take too long and happen too far away for any of them to ever notice. Maybe there’s a gravity-like force that applies between galaxies, and any action in this one causes an exponential reaction in one further down, five hundred years later, which has its own exponential reaction in another one. Snowballs into avalanches, but no one can see both ends of it except the Reapers.

          You could even get some freaky stuff going, like the idea that indoctrination starts thousands of years ago several galaxies over, so that the effect ends up in our galaxy at the time the Reapers want it to.

          • Thomas says:

            How would you tie up with the idea of it being so regular and with the Reapers not wiping everyone out? Or had that idea not been introduced in Mass Effect 1 yet? I can’t keep all the reveals sorted in my head

            • Syal says:

              The regularity is just that it only really becomes a problem when life reaches a certain density. For not wiping them out entirely, that could create other problems with other unobservable laws (sterilizing one galaxy always creates life in another), or could simply create enough damage down the line to not be worthwhile.

              Or maybe they find life entertaining, so they keep it around even though they know it isn’t good for them, but they can totally stop at any time because they’ve got it under control, really!

    • INH5 says:

      That’s actually one of the many problems I have with the Sovereign conversation. Whatever Sovereign claims, the Reapers’ entire existence revolves around organics. They do literally nothing besides killing organics, preparing to kill the next batch of organics, and sleeping. So I don’t see how the attitude of “organics are totally worthless, har har har” makes any sense. Beekeepers certainly consider themselves superior to the bees they keep, but they hardly consider bees worthless. If they did, they wouldn’t devote their professional lives to “imposing order on the chaos” of bee activity.

      • Thomas says:

        That’s what I took away from the conversation too. There’s an innate hypocrisy to what he’s saying that makes the Reapers seem kind of foolish and fallible.

      • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

        The Beekeeper analogy is interesting. Sovereign early on hints at his nature, “A Nation each to ourselves.” Sovereign’s dismal view of organic life is that it is disparate, fragmented, and chaotic. They kill organic life because it annoys them -like a beekeeper would cull a hive that was sick or growing out of control (or crossbreeding with African bees). Furthermore, the Reapers feel superior to the organic races because we rely entirely on their infrastructure to survive -and our death is directly related to that reliance.

        Early on, it was established that the way the Reapers won their wars is that they locked down the relays so that the organic races would be separated from each other and unable to help. Then they cull, system by system. The only reason they failed last time is because the Protheans at Ilos created a mass relay that wasn’t part of the original network, and if the Asaari had listened to Athyta, the problem would have been even worse.

        I’m even fine with the whole creating new reapers plot. “We have decided that you are annoying, but we see potential. We’re going to subsume you into a hive mind where your own thoughts will be permanently indoctrinated until you understand our sense of order and that we are right. It’s a high honor.”

        I mean, that is some sadistic villainy, there. We create a trap to channel vermin, so that we can exterminate them at leisure -and a few vermin we’ll uplift by forcing them to be like us. Because frankly, ya’ll are too loud, and annoy us. That’s Marduk level sadism.

        It even has foreshadowing: uplifting the Krogan being a recurring example of why this is a bad idea.

        But no. Badly programmed AI.

      • Karthik says:

        > the Reapers’ entire existence revolves around organics.

        At this point in the series, this is an assumption. Running pest control in your home does not imply it’s the purpose of your existence.

        • INH5 says:

          No, it isn’t an assumption. ME1 describes the Reaper cycle as follows:

          1) Every 50,000 years they zip into the galaxy and annihilate all advanced organic civilizations.

          2) When this is done, they eliminate all traces of their existence, then leave the galaxy to go to dark space.

          3) While in dark space, the Reapers hibernate for another 50,000 years and wait for new organic civilizations to arise so they can start again from step 1.

          Also, they apparently built the Citadel and mass relays way back when in order to facilitate steps 1-3.

          So according to ME1, literally every action the Reapers take is either to kill organics or prepare to kill organics in the future. When there aren’t any organics around to kill or preparations to make, they go to sleep until there are. Hence, their entire existence revolves around organics, in the same way that an exterminator’s professional life revolves around insects.

    • Pseudonym says:

      Am I the only one who – after the end of ME2 – assumed that the whole deal with “making new Reapers” was that the whole “harvest everybody every however many millennia” thing was actually just the reproductive cycle of their species?

      Perhaps I was just projecting, but I thought it was kind of a cool motivation for an alien villain. It’s essentially “this is just how my species works, and we consider the annihilation of your species a perfectly reasonable way to create a new member of our species.”

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        Thats basically how I interpreted it.

        • Thomas says:

          I think I would have been happy with that solution. It answers why the Reapers aren’t as all-knowing as they pretend to be, there’s still a degree of ‘ants’ to it and inevitability and it fits with the known facts.

          Also they’re called the Reapers. So farming galaxies should be what they do best

          • guy says:

            I don’t quite like it because it doesn’t fit with the utter contempt Sovereign displays towards organics. I could buy that with a goal that requires organics to complete, because making use of them doesn’t mean respecting them, but it doesn’t fit with Sovereign being organic in origin.

            I’d been somewhat partial to the idea that they were doing it to swipe whatever new technological innovations the organics came up with, with the tech seeding to make sure the organics didn’t innovate something so off-the-wall that it could actually let them win.

            • INH5 says:

              But what do they do with the bits of new tech that the organics produce? They record the data in their memory banks, maybe make use of any new tech that could be useful in the next culling and then, what, they just fly out into dark space and go to sleep? What’s the point of all this?

              And this explanation doesn’t fit with Sovereign’s speech either. In fact, like I say in my comment below, no explanation that anyone can think of could possibly fit with Sovereign’s speech, because Sovereign says that their purpose is beyond the ability of humans to comprehend. This makes it impossible by definition for us or anyone else to come up with an explanation for the Reapers, because we are, after all, human, and so therefore anything that we can think of will be something that humans can comprehend.

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              Why doesnt it fit?Its really not that weird to have contempt for something you require so badly.Ill say it again:It mimics agent smiths monologue almost completely,with the difference that smith was eating humans,while reapers are using them to reproduce.It fits even better if we go by the original idea for matrix where they were using humans as biological processors instead.

              • Thomas says:

                I think it definitely makes more sense to have contempt for something you eat/use as a consumable resource than something which you need to tap for technology.

                How they reproduce would be key of course, and you can make the weird and sci-fi and build in the idea of technology into that if you want (like maybe Reapers build the technology of the harvested civilisations into them or something). On the other hand what you really really need to avoid is making it look like the Reapers creating giant skeleton versions of their prey out of mushed up bits of organics.

                This is really the area where you need to hire a professional sci-fi writer to sit down and hammer out a plausible interesting way of reproducing by harvesting civilisations.

                • Daemian Lucifer says:

                  Harvest the brains,like cybermen.The rest you can use in a sort of huskification because reapers dont waste resources.There,everything you need to make a scary reaper that requires organics in order to reproduce.Plus,you can harness all the interesting features in your data banks for future use.

                • guy says:

                  Well, the way I see it, if the Reapers reproduce using organics, that implies Sovereign was formerly an organic civilization. I would not expect him to be so contemptuous of what he’d been. I would expect a sort of patronizing friendliness, “You are divided, weak, and finite. We will grant you the gift of our perfection.”

                  Meanwhile, if they’re harvesting us for technology, they aren’t neccessarily dependent on us. They could simply sterilize the entire galaxy if they got bored and use the technology they already have. His attitude seems to me to be a good fit for organics being convenient but not essential.

                  It also fits with his “accident” line; organics are variable and lack the Reaper’s consistency of thought, so they come up with genuinely new ideas instead of just iterating on existing tech. That would actually fit with the humans and carriers thing, come to think of it, since the Reapers don’t seem to have space fighters. Quite possibly because they developed light craft that couldn’t carry very much weaponry and a torpedo that was very destructive but easily intercepted if fired at range but never considered pairing the two.

                  • Daemian Lucifer says:

                    Well, the way I see it, if the Reapers reproduce using organics, that implies Sovereign was formerly an organic civilization. I would not expect him to be so contemptuous of what he’d been. I would expect a sort of patronizing friendliness, “You are divided, weak, and finite. We will grant you the gift of our perfection.”

                    Why?Again,agent smith.Furthermore,who says reapers have to remember what they were before,especially the emotions(cybermen).

                    But if you want a human analogue:humans depend on multitude of bacteria in order to process food,stay healthy,etc.Yet plenty of humans show disgust when shown how those bacteria look in close ups.Or even better,sperm is one of two key ingredients for every single one of us being here,yet I doubt you want to see it all over your house.

                    EDIT:Now that I think about it,thats a great analogy.If you cannot comprehend why reapers would be disgusted by organics if they needed them to procreate,just imagine if your house was invaded by sapient spermatozoa,spreading sticky goo everywhere,staining all the furniture,and then trying to communicate with you.

                  • INH5 says:

                    That would actually fit with the humans and carriers thing, come to think of it, since the Reapers don’t seem to have space fighters.

                    Actually, they do. They’re called oculi, they first show up in ME2 where they guard the debris field around the Collector Base (also Shepard fights one that manages to get into the Normandy’s cargo bay), and then in ME3 they show up again and seem to be the Reapers’ general purpose fighter craft. They’re shown flying around in the background of the various levels set during a planetary Reaper invasion, and in the space battle cutscene at the end they’re shown fighting the Alliance’s space fighters.

                    And I again have to ask: if the Reapers harvest organic civilizations for new technology, what do they need the new technology for? When there aren’t any organics around to kill, all they do is sleep.

                    • Daemian Lucifer says:

                      Small correction:All that we know they are doing is sleep.Maybe they have another galaxy to torment in between(andromeda perhaps?),or maybe the spend a few centuries cataloguing what they got,or growing young reapers to maturity,or who knows what else.50,000 is a long time to just twiddle your thumbs.

  19. Bubble181 says:

    I disagree that a dumb answer is better than blowing up the question, in many cases. All too often, questions are answered that simply should never have been The Question. The whole series might’ve worked perfectly well without ever understanding the Reapers. In Star Trek TNG, the Borg never get explained, and when they do get more backstory and explanation (Voyager, movies, arguably already later seasons of TNG), they lose a lot of their strength as an enemy. The Star Wars prequels “explaining” how the Force works was a horrible way of dealing with it.
    It’s simply a matter of clearly defining/showing what the question is, and what is background. You CAN write a decent semiphilosophical treatise on specific questions (“Does teleportation kill you and create a new soul?”, and the like), but that’s a very different kind of story.
    “Who are the Reapers and why are they attacking us?” was a perfectly fine question to leave open. Never answer it. Have the characters in the games throw up their own explanations, preferably 7 different ones that are mutually exclusive.

    • Henson says:

      Your last sentence may have been the key to resolving the conflict between unknowable and knowable genre fiction. The conclusion to the question of the Reapers may never be arrived at, but everyone will at least TRY to make sense of it. We are fighting an irrational force, but we still try to live in a rational universe.

    • wswordsmen says:

      A major difference between the Borg and the Reapers are how big a part of the plot they are. The Borg are an interesting but ultimately minor enemy. While the Reapers are the big bad driving the entire story of all three games. It would be like if the dominion was left unknowable in DS9 or the Shadows never had their motives explained in Babylon 5.

      Now that I think about it Babylon 5’s Shadows are what the Reapers should have been. Everyone go watch the entire series right now and come back and tell me how right i was.

      The Shadows treat the younger species like children, driving conflict so that the younger species would need to advance to overcome it. We don’t understand because we are like young children asking adults a question without even being able to tell if the question makes sense yet.

      It doesn’t map perfectly to Mass Effect but it is a satisfying answer to why a super intelligent species would do something barbaric.

      • Mike S. says:

        I didn’t find B5’s answer all that satisfying– to me, it was another case where the answer to the mystery didn’t measure up to the buildup. Hyperadvanced civilizations millions of years old shouldn’t come across as simpler than humanity. “Our whole species believes this, and has believed it forever! Even though it pattern matches to an idea that your species came up with and mostly discarded after a few decades.”

        For me, B5 was one of the early examples of how much easier it is for serial stories to raise intriguing questions than to answer them. And JMS at least had answers in mind before he asked the question, which puts him light years ahead of most creators in the field.

        • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

          Yeah. I’d have found the conclusion of that war to be just as, if not more, satisfying if the massive fleet of the younger races had just cleaned the Shadows and Vorlons’ clocks and called it a day.

          Similarly, I’d’ve been fine with the combined fleets just killing the Reapers. As I noted up thread, it has already been established that the Reapers win by isolating the organic races and culling them in detail.

          Well, they can’t shut down the citadel this time, so that isn’t an option. It is perfectly reasonable for the game to be about locking down the flanks (cure genophage, solve Quarian/Geth problem, get Cerberus to stop nipping at our heels) assembling the fleet, and then going to pound on the Reapers in a straight-up broadside to broadside battle.

          The nature of the Reapers need never be discusses further.

          • Mike S. says:

            I agree, that would have worked. ME1 already contains within it the tension between “Reapers are unstoppable Lovecraftian monsters” and “Reapers sure feel the need to give themselves a lot of strategic advantages for space gods”. Take those advantages away.

            Or: now you know that the Citadel contains controls for the galactic mass relay network, and where they are. Meanwhile, there are researchers doing the first real work on the Keepers in millennia. Make building on that the goal of the next game or two. So to defeat the Reapers, it’s not quite enough that they can’t isolate us anymore. We have to gain control of the relay network so that we can turn the tables, forcing them into the paths we choose and defeating them in detail. That information is scattered in all sorts of dangerous places, possibly including a derelict Reaper and a base of Indoctrinated bugs near the center of the galaxy.

            Since we still need something for a ground combatant and two subordinates to do, maybe over the course of ME3 we learn about the Reapers’ answer to the Death Star: they’re building another Citadel that can reassert control over the network. They’ve managed to concentrate enough Reapers around the site that direct engagement is impossible. But if some sort of, I don’t know, stealth ship could deliver a demolition team to the right place in time, before it goes live…

        • SlothfulCobra says:

          I never much cared for the entire dramatic overarching plot of the later part of Babylon V in the first place. It always seemed too cut and dried, the way that what they were fighting was the ultimate evil, and then later it turned into a bunch of big pseudo-philosophical forces butting heads. It denied all of the politics that were shaping the rest of the show in favor of something that was simple and impersonal.

          I’d take a ridiculous interplanetary incident or some diplomats scheming against eachother over a spooky, mysterious, ultimate evil any day.

    • swenson says:

      Yeah, that last sentence is how Y: The Last Man handles why all the men on Earth died (except for one)–there’s a dozen different possible answers, all with their own evidence, ranging from the plausible to the fantastic, and you never are told which one is right. Maybe they all are, simultaneously.

      That’d be a good way to preserve the mystery while still throwing people a bone, I think. I mean, you could even pull in what the Protheans thought, they might have had some theory about why the Reapers came, but ultimately they were just guessing too. Then the players could pick which theory they thought was the “most true”, while leaving open the possibility that maybe all of them were wrong.

  20. wswordsmen says:

    Another option to have the villain win might be to have the villain win by not losing for long enough. The AI could rubber band so that the challenge seeking players would need all their skills to keep up, while story seeking players wouldn’t fail too much. It would end with the villain doing something to the player to get away, without caring much if they just injured or actually killed the PC. It seems to solve a lot of problems in the 2 minutes I have thought about it. I will be waiting patiently for people to point out how this is a terrible idea.

    The only big problem I can see is that it is impossible to generalize this so it could become a go to solution, because it would require some specific narrative twists to set up. This is a hard problem and people who understand it much better than me have tried to figure this out for years and still haven’t gotten it yet.

    • Nixitur says:

      With that option, you punish the players for trying to beat the boss as that prolongs the unbeatable boss fight.
      And is it possible for the boss to actually kill the player in that fight?
      If yes, then it becomes annoying because you have to lose the fight, but not too soon.
      If no, then it becomes a farce as you could just stand there like an idiot and have the same outcome.

      • wswordsmen says:

        The point is the fight isn’t lost, it is not won. You don’t die because he isn’t worried about killing you. In action games (which have the hardest time with this IMO) anything used should be able to be replaced with a massive ammo dump afterwards. jRPGs or other genres where resources are continuous and limited would have a problem though.

  21. Abnaxis says:

    The whole point of the “second act beat-down” is that the protagonist(s) is supposed to develop to counteract the overwhelming power of the bad guy.

    The second act shouldn’t just be unwinnable, it should be unwinnable due to a clear flaw in the protagonist (“doesn’t work well in teams” is an especially common trope) or because the BBEG has some patently unfair advantage (“the Borg keep adapting their shields!”)

    The reason most second-act encounters in games suck is because of this tendency to just up the HP/DPS of your opponent to increase difficulty. I think this is because the whole “what you’re doing is’t going to work, you need to do something else” means altering mechanics–either for managing the first encounter (because if your abilities are ineffective you still need to get away), or in the second half of the game (as you “learn the power of friendship,” get you hands on the secret MacGuffin, or whatever).

    Incidentally, I think this is where QTEs come in–QTEs are the lazy-developer way to deal with having the PC do things that don’t fit into established mechanics.

    For my part, I think Metroid: Fusion did the build-up well. SA-X can absolutely kick your ass in the beginning, because it was literally born to kill you. It has a host of powers to do this, including the Ice Beam, and Samus needs to avoid it at all costs if she wants to survive to contract it.

    Note that is is the ONLY place stealth and avoidance are used in the game. That very effectively drives home the threat of the SA-X–Samus can take down titanic alien monsters, but you have to tuck your head between you legs and hide when SA-X comes around. And when you finally get to fight toe-to-toe with the monster, it makes sense why you can finally beat it now.

    Of course, the payout from all the build-up sucked (as did a lot of other things Fusion did with the story), but that build-up was nice.

  22. Dues says:

    I think the best way to have the ‘second act loss’ in a video game is to have an ‘escape sequence’. For instance, Give Saren a big robot or a space ship or whatever and give Saren a reaper tech shield the player knows can’t break through (yet).

    Saren chases the player around and eventually the player escapes. Maybe they even have to fight their way through mooks who are trying to slow the player down. This way the player gets to ‘win’ by escaping, but Saren gets to ‘win’ because the player had to run away. Saren is now a credible threat because the player knows they player need to have some way to counter whatever Saren brought to this fight.

    Alternately, a fun thing I’ve seen other games is to switch perspectives. For instance you play as Saren and the computer controls Shepherd. Then the player gets to win and so does Saren. But that kind of thing doesn’t really fit the feel Mass Effect, so I’m not surprised they didn’t do that.

    • Thomas says:

      I was thinking this, if you’re not fighting one on one with the boss, but are instead fighting to survive the boss, then it can all click together a lot better (especially if the boss leaves you wounded, like you lose some equipment or a companion and have to regain them/mourn them)

  23. Nixitur says:

    I’m a bit confused here. You mention all the ways they could have done this encounter and then you never mention how it actually happened in the game. That seems like a weird oversight.

    Also, first paragraph, “Soverein”.
    And “even though they’re not here for a challenge are rarely complain when things are too easy.” just makes my brain do a few flips and belly-flop. I think that “are” is supposed to be “and”?

  24. Andy_Panthro says:

    I’ve just remembered that Shadowrun: Dragonfall kinda does this, but it’s not the big bad you fight but rather the chief henchman, and it’s also in the first act.

    You have a big fight right near the beginning, and you’re supposed to run away. If you get the guy down to a small amount of health, he runs off (impossible to actually kill him here). A regular supply of mooks keeps coming into the room so you always have to leave.

    In Baldur’s Gate you meet the Big Bad early on too, in a non-interactive section, and then he eludes you until the end. They never felt like you needed to have that second act fight at all, and BG2 was similar too. Perhaps this is just a flaw of following film or novel narrative tropes, rather than finding out what works best for games.

    As I write this I can think of so many other RPGs that avoid the structure used in ME1, having the big bad just be someone or something you face right at the end of the game. The Ultima games, Eye of the Beholder, some of the Gold Box RPGs all avoid it. Although I think the cRPG Addict is currently covering Death Knights of Krynn which allows you to defeat Lord Soth at one point but of course he just gets back up and leaves.

    Anyway my rambling point is that games usually avoid doing this, probably for the exact reasons you mention. Better for the Big Bad to send his increasingly difficult minions against me, than to have some sort of disappointing unwinnable fight.

    • Zekiel says:

      Not true of BG2 – in Chapter 4 you (plus other prisoners from Spellhold) get into a great big fight with the Big Bad (the one where he casts “Summon Clones” and you end up fighting copies of yourselves. Then when you hurt him enough, he casts something like Wail of the Banshee, killing all the Spellhold prisoners, and teleports away. I felt it worked reasonably well since you got to demonstrate that you could beat the guy who thought you were beneath him; and it’s been established already that he can teleport away so it doesn’t feel quite as cheap as it might be. (Admittedly using a spell that happens to kill all the temporary NPCs but not your party does feel very game-y)

      • Andy_Panthro says:

        Ah, I had forgotten about spellhold. I guess it’s one of the less-memorable places in the game for me.

        • Zekiel says:

          I really liked that bit myself but it does completely lose the massive freedom that is one of the best features of BG2.

          Sorry – re-reading my post comes across as needlessly critical! (blame it on being a BG2 fanboy)

          • Andy_Panthro says:

            I really enjoyed the beginning of the game, and I enjoyed the underdark and the endgame, but for some reason Spellhold was less interesting. I guess I need to replay it to figure out why, perhaps I am being too harsh on it!

            Baldur’s Gate 2 really is a fantastic game though.

  25. SlothfulCobra says:

    There was never a real sci-fi game with a dialogue wheel before Mass Effect, but there have been plenty with dialogue trees. There were a lot of this sort of game back in the earlier days of videogames, like Star Control or Wing Commander or Gazillionaire. There was a weird decline of games like this before Mass Effect came along though. All the weird little quirky games mysteriously vanished for a while, and it took a long while for the big AAA game studios to start filling the gap back in.

    Speaking of Star Control, there’s a lot of resemblance between that and Mass Effect although that may be just because sci-fi overlaps a lot. It’s not that prominent in this game, but there are the suspiciously humanoid space babes, the long-dead alien race that used to rule the galaxy until they mysteriously vanished and littered the galaxy with artifacts, the race of bug creatures who want to kill everybody for no good reason, the mostly repugnant race of merchants, the doomed warrior race with amazing breeding abilities who are so aggressive and self-destructive that they destroyed their own society and had to rebuild from scratch more warrior-like than before, the useless blob creatures who once had contact with the precursor race, the big ol’ lumbering seemingly emothionless dudes, the ancient fungus with a connection to the precursors, the slave race originally created for menial labor who rebelled against their masters, and most importantly, the mysterious beings far, far, beyond the mere mortal creatures inhabiting the rest of galaxy who have been periodically harvesting all of the sentient races of the galaxy in a cycle that has gone on for eons with the power to control the minds of lesser species.

    Of course, much of the resemblance comes from the third game in the series that was very negatively received, because it gave unsatisfactory answers to the mysteries of the universe, lacked the depth of the previous game, and had a very unsatisfactory ending, so many people might not know about that.

  26. Wraith says:

    God, the confrontation with Sovereign is one of my favorite scenes in any video game. It’s so awesome and well-written. I’m also a huge sucker for cosmic horror.

    So glad they ruined it in the sequels. /s

    Seriously, they must have fired all the writers who understood cosmic horror after the buyout by EA.

    • newplan says:

      “Seriously, they must have fired all the writers who understood cosmic horror after the buyout by EA.”

      Nah, they probably just transferred them to writing the new hire packets and corporate code of conduct.

    • Thomas says:

      Or the writers were writing cheques they couldn’t cash, which I think is much more likely.

      It’s much much easier to write a speech going “Blarrghh, all you stupid humans are nothing, I’m chaos incarnate, the destroyer of worlds, the consumer of galaxies, the beginning and the end and the middle and the second act twist, fall before me petty mortals”

      Than it is to write that being actually doing anything.

      • Alexander The 1st says:

        There’s this, but there’s also evidence that they took writers from the original team over to SWTOR, which Bioware specifically wanted to work on because KOTOR was probably their flagship game that got them noticed by groups outside their usual niche, at which if they didn’t have super solid notes on where to take it next, someone else had to figure the rest of the cosmic horror part out.

        • INH5 says:

          The only ME1 writer who got moved to TOR was Drew Karpashyn (and since his name appears in ME2’s credits it’s clear that he did some work as a lead writer before moving over), and from interviews with him it’s clear that he didn’t have any clearer ideas on what to do with the Reapers than the rest of the writing staff did. Chris L’Etoile left Bioware during ME2’s development, but he left in summer 2009, after all of his writing work for that game was done. The only ME1 writer who didn’t do any work on ME2 was Mike Laidlaw.

          So my money is on “they were writing cheques they couldn’t cash.”

  27. guy says:

    I just thought of a game that does this very well, but in a way that isn’t easily generalized. In Fate/Extra, the structure is a tournament, with a week between each match spent adventuring in a labyrinth. Your next opponent will also be in the labyrinth, but any fighting with them is terminated by the system after three rounds. Which is good for you, because your opponents are invisible/protected by divine power/undefeatable while the sun is in the sky/Archetype Earth and you desperately need to work up a countermeasure.

  28. INH5 says:

    This is going to be a long comment, but I’ve got a bunch of things to say about this part of the game that I’ve wanted to say for a while. So here goes…

    This may be heresy around here, but I don’t care for the conversation with Sovereign. The biggest problem I have is: why does it happen in the first place? If, as Sovereign claims, it considers organics totally insignificant and worthless, then why is it bothering to speak with Shepard at all? Why doesn’t it just hang up the phone the instant that it realizes that it isn’t talking to Saren? Or, alternatively, Sovereign could pretend to be a VI and give Shepard false information. But straightforwardly explaining what it is and what its plans are makes no sense.

    It’s like when a James Bond villain explains his plan to a captured Bond, except even less plausible. Human villains could theoretically be motivated by pride to brag about their plans to a captured enemy (the real problem is when every villain does this). With Sovereign, we’re supposed to believe that it is an emotionless, uncaring, and incomprehensible robot that considers organics to be nothing, so why would it ever bother with something like this? Worse, several of its lines are just weird and nonsensical. “We have no beginning. We have no end. We are infinite.” I’m pretty sure that’s physically impossible, so does that mean that Sovereign is deluded or just poetic? Either way it doesn’t fit with the “uncaring machine Cthulu” vibe the writers are clearly going for.

    For an example of this sort of thing done right, look at the original Terminator. The terminator is a robot that exists only to kill a particular person. Its implacable nature isn’t demonstrated by having it tell Sarah Connor, “I can’t be bargained with. I can’t be reasoned with. I don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And I absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” Instead a human character describes the terminator that way, halfway through a movie that spends much of its screentime selling this idea by showing the terminator coldly and methodically working to terminate Sarah Connor.

    There are any number of ways that the scene could have been constructed to reveal that Sovereign is a Reaper without having it deliberately reveal its nature to an enemy for absolutely no reason. For example, Shepard and co. could come across some video logs of Saren talking to Sovereign, similar to what ME3 did on Horizon and the Cerberus Base. Then, when they finish the last log, the communicator comes on, Sovereign looks at Shepard and co. for a second and then, without saying a word, hangs up and starts heading for Shepard, prompting the “that ship pulled a turn that would shear any of our ships in half” line from Joker.

    —-

    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.

    If by “this kind of thing,” you mean that the Reaper plot was a really natural fit for the context of shootin’ dudes and dialog wheels, I vehemently disagree.

    I’ve rethought a lot of things about the series in the years since I finished ME3, and I’ve started to take a dim view on the Reaper plot in general. Several years back, during an internet argument on a topic that I can’t recall, someone called one of his opponent’s argument “the opposite of the tip of an iceberg.” That is, the tip of an iceberg is something that looks small but conceals a lot of depth, and the opposite is something that looks really big and deep but if you scratch the surface at all you find that it is full of nothing but air. I feel that this is a good analogy for the Reaper plot.

    The idea of the Reapers suggests an epic scope and mystery, but when you peel back the superficial trappings and look at the actual subtance, what’s left? The Reapers are giant robot spaeships that want to kill everyone in the galaxy repeatedly. Where do they come from? That’s a mystery beyond your comprehension. Why do they do this? That’s a mystery beyond your comprehension. How do they do this? By flying into the galaxy through a portal en masse and crushing everyone with overwhelming force. Why do they do things that seem to have no purpose except to make their job harder, like giving organic races the technology to build spaceships they can use to run away and weapons they can use to fight back? That’s a mystery beyond your comprehension.

    Implacable robot villains can work, as in the terminator, for example, but the terminator can be fought with and fled from and generally interacted with by the protagonists, and the terminator has a reason to be there. The Reapers generally can’t be interacted with in a meaningful way, because they’re giant robot spaceships and this is a third person shooter-RPG with dialogue trees, occasional ground vehicle sections, and absolutely no space combat or space strategy elements. And as I already established, the Reapers are basically only here because the writers say they are. They have the dramatic depth of zombies and the gameplay potential of the Death Star. This ended up causing all kinds of problems for the series, especially in ME3.

    The Reapers aren’t even an original idea. Halo has the Flood that nearly wiped out the Forerunners and the titular halos that finished the job. Starcraft has the Zerg that wiped out the Xel’Naga. Precursor species that wiped out other precursor species way back when are a dime a dozen. The only twist is that the Reapers have done this thing regularly a whole bunch of times. And what has that twist actually gotten us? Quick, name one species from a pre-Prothean cycle besides the Leviathan. If you’ve played ME3 with From Ashes installed, then you might remember mentions of the Inuusanon. Okay, name another.

    If you actually look up pre-Prothean cycle species up on the fan wiki you’ll find almost no information: a paragraph on the Inuusanon and a sentence or two each on a few others, almost all of which is pulled from planet descriptions that happen to mention a date before the Prothean cycle. The endless cycle concept gives a cheap sense of scope but it doesn’t actually contribute anything to the setting or story. You could change the backstory so that the Protheans created the Reapers and then the Reapers destroyed the Protheans and you would barely have to change anything else. All it does is give the writers an excuse to not write an origin or motivation for the bad guys and pass off the blank space as something “deep.”

    I also note that saying that the answer to something is beyond human comprehension is a very poor way of setting up a mystery, if that is the intention, because it literally makes it impossible for a writer to come up with a satisfactory answer. Because writers are, after all, human, and so anything they can think of is by definition something that humans can comprehend. But I don’t think doing the Lovecraftian “things mankind was not meant to know” thing works well either, because whatever dialogue you put in there about Reapers being mysterious, their existence is devoted to carrying out a relatively simple and very comprehensible plan.

    Which is not to say that the Reapers are terrible as a concept. They’re just dull and not well suited to this kind of game and story. They work okay as a doomsday device in the first game, but I think using them for anything else was a mistake. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that what are widely agreed to be the best parts of the sequels, such as ME2’s loyalty missions, Lair of the Shadow Broker, Priority: Tuchanka, and the Citadel DLC, have little to nothing to do with the Reapers.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      The biggest problem I have is: why does it happen in the first place?

      Have you considered the option that sovereign was simply lying?It very well could be interested in shepard because she received the message from the beacon,and did a bunch of other things.Maybe sovereign wanted to investigate humans a bit more,since its data of this cycle are incomplete.There are a bunch of reasons that we couldve gotten in the sequel about this.

      I’m pretty sure that’s physically impossible, so does that mean that Sovereign is deluded or just poetic?

      Or has corrupted memory.Or is judging shepards reaction to those words.Or a bunch of other reasons.

      For an example of this sort of thing done right, look at the original Terminator.

      Yes,but terminators are just machines.They are VIs,to use the terminology of mass effect.Sovereign isnt.Curiosity,pride,anger,….all of those could very well be part of it.

      But even if it is only following its programming like a dumb machine,we dont know what that programming is(ignoring the stupidities about leviathans in 3).It could very well be designed to answer any organic talking to it.

      There are any number of ways that the scene could have been constructed to reveal that Sovereign is a Reaper without having it deliberately reveal its nature to an enemy for absolutely no reason.

      Despite me defending sovereign here,I actually agree with you on this.It wouldve been better if we saw logs of it ordering sarren around.

      The idea of the Reapers suggests an epic scope and mystery

      Well,to be fair,a lot of those questions couldve been answered in the sequels.I mean,answered in a better way than they actually were(I have defended the organic slushy for baby making as not that bad of an idea,but the implementation of it is just so horrible).

      • Mike S. says:

        I absolutely agree that Sovereign engaging with Shepard for the sole purpose of delivering critical exposition makes no narrative sense. But it’s one of the best scenes in the game. I’m not sure shoring up the plot logic at the expense of one of the best villain speeches in gaming would be a worthwhile tradeoff.

    • Mike S. says:

      While I think that the Reapers should have remained out of the picture after the first game, I liked the basic idea of the Cycles. It’s a clever answer to the Fermi Question, which becomes really thorny in a universe in which spacefaring life is incredibly common.

      If humanity can go from stone tools to starships in a few million years, and from agriculture to FTL in mere thousands, and the galaxy is billions of years old, how is it that everyone is in a relatively narrow band of development? The Cycles provide the answer: nobody ever gets more than a few dozen millennia before being smashed flat.

      There’s still variation (the Protheans were clearly more advanced than the present species ever got), but we don’t have to ask why Earth wasn’t settled a dozen times over before primates even evolved. Or why we’re even playing in the same league as the galactic government, rather than being a hunter-gatherer band confronted by NATO.

      The why of it probably never was going to be satisfying, and would have been better left a mystery. But setting up the Cycles in the backstory, then effectively ending them in ME1 (the Protheans made it possible to lock the door against the Reapers, we destroyed the only thing in the galaxy with a motive to open it) would have left us with an open-ended future in which humanity could plausibly play a meaningful part.

    • SlothfulCobra says:

      It’s possible that there might’ve once been an interesting idea behind the Reapers’ veil of mystery, but if there ever was, all of the notes were lost during the mess of having to make a sequel, and that’s what happens when you try to play up some big mysterious threat.

      I’m pretty sure that all of the pre-Prothean species come from little vignettes that were either buried somewhere in the codex or are attached to planets when you go off to scan them, and they all pretty much boil down to half-stories and mysterious traces of crazy ancient things happening. In a way, the mystery of the cycles and the Reapers makes the whole universe seem smaller, since now every single little mystery is easily explained as all part of the Reapers’ big mystery. It makes the galaxy go from seeming lived-in to seeming like somebody mussed up the galaxy’s hair about five minutes ago.

      And I will never understand why the writers decided to make the focal enemies into spaceships when they would never even make the token effort to put ship combat in their games.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        And I will never understand why the writers decided to make the focal enemies into spaceships when they would never even make the token effort to put ship combat in their games.

        It couldve worked here however.The first reaper we fight is so powerful that it takes a massive fleet firing only at it for quite a while,while it is being distracted by two major tasks(humping the citadel and assuming direct control of sarren),before it finally keels over.So attempting such a battle against all the reapers should never have happened(seriously,what the hell was that crap in 3?).The victory shouldve come from within,meaning the finale shouldve involved you going through the reaper and doing something(uploading a virus,reasoning with it,whatever).And technically it does come from within,only….well,you know,stupidly.

        • SlothfulCobra says:

          Nah, not with indoctrination. Step on the ship, and all of a sudden fighting the Reapers doesn’t seem like such a good idea anymore.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            Thats what 2 shouldve been about.Not some random new threat making a giant terminator baby,but rather finding a way to prevent indoctrination.Probably with that derelict reaper.

  29. dp says:

    The missing Sci-Fi novels on this page come from Alistair Reynold’s Revelation Space series. Which has some remarkably similar ideas to Mass Effect although its setting is far more Blade Runner than Star Trek (and is much harder in its Sci-Fi than ME1).

    Good starting points fro the author are: Revelation Space (the first novel in the series); Chasm City (a more or less standalone adventure in the same universe); and the shorts Diamond Dogs, Turqoise Days.

    • BlueTooth4269 says:

      Remarkably similar ideas?
      The wikipedia plot summary practically reads like a summary of Mass Effect.
      They ripped off a ridiculously large number of their plot concepts off from that series.

  30. There is actually a third option to the “reveal the motives vs. conceal the motives” question–reveal the motives to be something so horror-inducing that the audience kind of wishes you’d kept them a secret. That, and the motives can’t be subject to argument.

    When I first played ME I was kind of hoping that in the end it’ll be revealed that the Reapers were basically an AI built by an ancient ideological group that hated technological progress. They existed to keep the galaxy “pristine” by destroying any civilizations that had reached a certain level of technological development (namely, the creation of true AI). But because development wasn’t a linear, predictable process, the Reapers would also steal any developments useful to them to maintain their “superiority”. All this, of course, being done in the name of saving the poor organics from the evils of technological civilization and its “corrupting” influence.

    The ancient ideologues were wiped out by their own creation (as planned), and now the Reapers carry out their programming eternally, growing ever-more unstoppable. You can’t reason or argue with them. They do not listen to gnats.

    Something like that could have gone to some very cool and very dark places.

    • Mike S. says:

      I suspect we’d be having the same sorts of conversations if they’d gone with antitech Berserkers. E.g., why provide a path to technological development? Why go out of their way to kill everyone, rather than just knocking them back to the stone age? And why do it so inefficiently, with zombies and death rays? Etc.

      They didn’t pick a good explanation for the Reapers. But while I like them as a backstory element, and Sovereign as an antagonist in the first game, I’m not yet sure there actually is a good answer to be found.

      • The Reapers would rely on a continual process of tech development to keep them operational, so SOME level of technological progress would be necessary. (This is the horror part–they are parasites on the very system that they are built to destroy and subvert.) And in ME they didn’t “kill everyone” . . . they only destroyed the spacefaring civilizations. They didn’t come and wipe out humans 50k years ago even though modern humans existed on Earth back then. We didn’t have a technological/spacefaring civilization at the time, so we were left alone.

        They didn’t succeed in completely wiping out the Protheans, either–the last Protheans died in cryosleep as their computer warden ran out of power. The purpose is obviously to prevent a quick rebuild from, say, a 19th century tech base. There could also be a bit of a spin on it that the anti-technologists believed in “natural” evolution of species and that technology prevented this evolution, so utterly destroying the technological civilizations would allow NEW civilizations to develop instead of just more of the same junk again.

        • INH5 says:

          So why do the Reapers deliberately seed the galaxy with technology? Isn’t that directly counter to the goal? Wouldn’t it be a lot simpler to come in and stomp on any spacefaring civilization as soon as it invents space travel?

    • Syal says:

      Oh man, the Reapers being the last tools of Wing Commander’s Retros would have been hilarious.

      “The pattern has repeated itself more times than you can fathom. Organic civilizations rise, evolve, advance. And at the apex of their glory, they die, by the very WEAPONS, they adore.”

    • Grudgeal says:

      I think that was their angle with the whole “reapers are PEOPLE!” reveal in the second game, honestly.

      And I don’t know about you, but it didn’t take for me.

      • Dissolving people into goop and making a giant robot out of them is just flat absurd. Just completely absurd. There is no handwave on any scale that can possibly make this work. This, btw, is why I stopped playing the series after the first one.

        They got too wrapped up in trying to push the body horror angle and failed to realize that it ceases to be horrifying when it’s just dumb.

        The Broodmothers in DA are much, much better.

        • INH5 says:

          The concept is absurd, no doubt about it, but it’s really not that far out compared to things like biotics, asari reproduction, cyborg zombies created by impaling corpses on giant metal spikes, and everything about the thorian but especially it pooping fully armed and armored asari clones and creating a Prothean pyscho-cultural filter thing after eating a bunch of Protheans and absorbing their “essence.” Whatever people may say about Mass Effect being a work of “hard science fiction,” it’s had major elements of pure space fantasy from the beginning.

          The human Reaper concept actually went through several revisions behind the scenes. Chris L’Etoile says that when he left Bioware, the idea was that the Collectors were using nanotech disassemblers to dissect the human colonists so their minds could be uploaded into the Reaper’s (purely synthetic) brain, and the audio for that dialogue is still in the game files. Obviously, that changed by the time of release, but it’s clear there were further revisions along the way. There are unused EDI subtitles where she says, “This Reaper is composed of processed genetic material. Some of its readings resemble an amalgam of multiple human brainwave patterns.” whereas in the final game she basically shrugs and says, “yeah, I don’t have a clue what’s going on here either.” Though this bit of Legion dialogue that references the mind uploading idea is still in the game, for what it’s worth.

          The real problem with the human Reaper is that the visual design looks ridiculous, and that problem would have been there no matter what the explanation for it had been (L’Etoile said that the idea of each Reaper looking like the species that it spawned from was in place when he left, so that aspect was decided early on). I think that even the human goo body horror idea could have worked if they gone with a design like this piece of concept art that kind of looks like a blobby husk fetus. The synthetic mind uploading concept, meanwhile, probably would have been better served by something like this concept art.

  31. DeadlyDark says:

    I think the only time losing to boss was logical in narrative sense is the Jedi Knight 2’s first encounter with Deesann. He was sith-lord, you are just a mercenary. He can deflect all blaster fire, you can’t hit or damage him* and the only way to continue plot is to have your HP to zero and in the cutscene Katarn is defeated. And by the final battle, Katarn is jedi master and is able hold it’s own.

    Saren/Sheppard dynamics is Ok, I guess… And for some reason I remembered now Devil Mac Cry 3. Huh.

    *If you use cheats /god_mode and give yourself all the powers and weapons, you found out that he has god mode on his own, but, gameplay-wise no ranged weapon cannot harm any jedi (except rockets if jedi deflects it wrong, but at this point player doesn’t have rockets)

  32. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

    So this series has gotten me to reload Mass Effect and both sequels.

    I’ve beaten the entire trilogy 3 times. I played the first one through 10 times over the years. The second one I played 6 times.

    And I’m finding the third game such a slog. I’m only just past Tuchanka, but it’s dragging hard. I don’t know if it’s ending aversion, or what. Linear corridors of shooting stuff. Excessively verbose dialogue. And I just don’t care.

    The first game, though, still feels alive. It feels like we’re actually in real places, and that I’m actually doing stuff, not just running around and shooting things. The second game feels like a transitional phase.

    I think it’s the hubs. Feros, Noveria, Illium, and Omega all feel like places, with the running around the galaxy being side quests and exploration. The Citadel in the third game lacks that sense of place. We’re just on the ship. Then we drop on a world to fight some reapers. Why? Because it’s there. But Feros, we were there to help the colonists, and to do that we needed to go here, and there, and everywhere.

    • Attercap says:

      I ran into the same issue. Like you, I’ve [re]played ME1 a large number of times (13, at this point), ME2 more than most other games I’ve replayed (8), but ME3 is such a slog that my most recent re-play (play #: 4) felt like took much longer than it did. I have to wonder if this is partially due to lack of open-world mechanics–where one can find missions/landscapes in ME1 & ME2, the only time a player has the agency to land on a planet is if they get a mission to go there.

    • swenson says:

      I so regret the loss of the Citadel. ME1’s Citadel was great–even if it didn’t entirely make sense that everything was ten feet apart, the fact that you could walk from one place to another (even if it took forever) really made it feel like a real place.

      That’s actually one of the best things about ME2, I think, better than either ME1 or ME3–the ME2 Citadel wasn’t particularly impressive, but the fact that it had proper hub worlds in general, places you had reason to return to multiple times, I liked that. I feel like Feros and Noveria were a little lacking in that regard, because once you beat the primary mission there, there’s literally no reason to return, except perhaps for some minor sidequest you don’t care about. (KotOR and KotOR 2 had the exact same problem.)

      Also, ME2’s side quests on random planets. I liked those quite a lot. They were all fairly distinct and there were some unique and clever ideas in there (the “lead a robot” one was a neat idea, and the one with the green fog was really memorable). Again, it helped to build this feeling that you were actually going to different places all around the galaxy, like the planet exploration of ME1 but less horrifically boring.

      But then in ME3, you just had none of that at all, and the universe felt small as a result. You never could just go explore a place, it was always like “HERE YOU ARE ON THIS TINY MAP, DO THIS THING.”

  33. Dreadjaws says:

    AAAAAGGGGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!

    Why did you have to mention Kai Leng? F**K. KAI. LENG!

    • Daimbert says:

      Okay, having just played ME3 — on narrative difficulty — I’m a bit puzzled at the reaction to Kai Leng from most people. I mean, I can see why he or his character might annoy people, but I considered him to be nothing more than a bug on my windshield. Sure, the GAME wanted me to think of him as more of a rival, but really, what did he do in the game to make me think of him that way? Sure, he killed Thane … who was sick anyway, caused him to fail his mission, and arguably went out far better than his disease would have let him. On Thessia, he didn’t really beat me, but instead had to cheat with a gunship … in a contrived, overly dramatic, and rather stupid way, but still cheating. At that point, there was no way he could beat me, and either he knew that or was delusional. I was one of the few people who actually LIKED Miranda, so I went through all the steps to keep her alive. In the final battle, he could only stand for any length of time against me by bringing in other enemies as a distraction while he recharged. Sure, on narrative as a Vanguard it was easy for me to win by punching him out (literally; he liked to get in close and at that point I had the trophy for melee kills; that didn’t work out well for him [grin]) but for the most part I only cared about getting him out of the way so I could get to the Illusive Man. He was utterly irrelevant to me the entire game. What did he do to make so many people really hate him? Is it just the fake and cheezy difficulty of the fights, that I would have mostly avoided?

      • Thomas says:

        I liked to think that to a certain extent his in-universe character was meant to be a little pathetic. Either way it works well with the story that he is pathetic, trying to be a Shepard substitute and failing miserably at it.

        • Daimbert says:

          I would have rathered that they took it a step further, and developed it as Shepard’s replacement who was built to do what Shepard did, even better … and still failed, because he isn’t Shepard.

          Even better would be to tie it into Miranda’s apology and have the Illusive Man put the chip in his head in order to ensure loyalty, and have that ultimately be the reason that Kai Leng was inferior to Shepard, making an interesting point about the importance of freedom.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        You basically state the reason yourself:This little twerp appears out of nowhere,and the game keeps hammering in “This dude is super important!Adore him!”,when time and again he keeps showing how pathetic he actually is.And he keeps appearing and appearing and appearing,while the game constantly cheats to keep him from dying.You may be able to look past that,but plenty of people arent.

        • Dreadjaws says:

          More or less this. He’s not a character, he’s a plot device. Yet the game keeps treating him like the greatest thing ever and how he’s the coolest villain better than Darth Vader and comic book version of Doctor Doom combined and there’s no one coolerer and betterer than him OMG ISN’T HE AWESOME????!!!!1111

          The bad thing is not that he killed Thane, but that he killed Thane. Thane deserved a better death and honestly, tripping on a banana peel and falling ass-first into a Krogan’s face then getting an anvil dropped on him would have led to a more honorable death.

          The problem is that Kai Leng represents everything that’s wrong with Mass Effect 3. Lazy writing? Check. Bad characterization? Check. Things that come out of nowhere and are treated like they’re the most important thing in the world? Check. Using cutscenes to force control away from the player? Check. Cheating to arrive at a developer-desired resolution? Check. Unsatisfying conclusion? Check, please!

          • Daimbert says:

            The bad thing is not that he killed Thane, but that he killed Thane. Thane deserved a better death and honestly, tripping on a banana peel and falling ass-first into a Krogan’s face then getting an anvil dropped on him would have led to a more honorable death.

            I never took his killing Thane, though, as a sign of his greatness and superiority; Thane was sick, and stopped him from completing his mission. In-game realistically, Thane probably ought to have cleaned his clock, but I can take it given how it let Thane go out a hero, saving people instead of killing them.

            The problem is that Kai Leng represents everything that’s wrong with Mass Effect 3. Lazy writing? Check. Bad characterization? Check. Things that come out of nowhere and are treated like they’re the most important thing in the world? Check. Using cutscenes to force control away from the player? Check. Cheating to arrive at a developer-desired resolution? Check. Unsatisfying conclusion? Check, please!

            I can see that, but still wonder why the reaction seems to be so much worse than it is for other characters and games that do the same thing. I’m wondering why people didn’t merely roll their eyes every time Kai Leng showed up instead of screaming “F*** you, Kai Leng!”.

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              Same reason we bitch about me2 and me3 so much here,despite them being decent games on their own.Having an average thing following a great thing is way worse than having a bad thing on its own.And something as lazy as fuck kai leng among the rest of the characters who mostly vary between good and amazing only amplifies his badness.

              • Daimbert says:

                That might explain it, actually, because I don’t have the attachment to those games that others have; I liked ME, but was sanguine about ME2 and ME3. My comments on finishing them were, essentially, that I don’t regret playing them but that unlike KotOR and the Personas and other games that I consider classics they were just kinda, in the end, “Meh”.

                That lets me view both Kai Leng and the ending as “Meh” instead of as a big let-down to something that had massive squandered potential.

                (As a point of reference, Mass Effect is #24 on my list of favourite games. ME2 and ME3 (and Dragon Age) might not make the list.)

        • Nelly says:

          This. I understand he’s in some of the spin off books, but as spin off books are generally terrible I’ve not read them. In the game he turns up with no introduction, is defined as the best murdiddyurderer since sliced bread and then proceeds to be continually victorious through cut-scene or even in engine invulnerability, despite my Shepard seriously kicking his arse.

          I used to write stories for LARP, and one of the key rules (apart from the death knight flow chart) was that if the bad guy makes contact with players, you must be able to continue should the bad guy die – because players are cunning, and you have essentially – if done right – tasked them to find ways of slotting the bad guy. You could ressurect the bad guy if that had already been established (liche-dom, or other magical thingy); you could have another head to a plot (like a less powerful 2ic of a criminal organisation); or a number of other things, including letting the players win at that point. What you couldn’t do was cheat to make the bad guy immune to clever player idea x because that made people feel impotent, and impotence isn’t fun.

          That doesn’t mean players can’t loose – they absolutely have to, and it’s fun to play out a loosing hand. But the loss has to be fair – so the Reapers can win as they’ve been built up as this massive force, and the player, doing everything right , achieves their objectives. Kai Leng comes in, cheats, and the player, despite doing everything right, fails in their objective. The player feels impotent, which isn’t fun, as opposed to the character being impotent, which can be.

          • Daimbert says:

            In the game he turns up with no introduction, is defined as the best murdiddyurderer since sliced bread and then proceeds to be continually victorious through cut-scene or even in engine invulnerability, despite my Shepard seriously kicking his arse.

            See, that last part is what I don’t really get, because in my game Kai Leng didn’t, in fact, even win ONCE. On the Citadel, he kills Thane … but he was supposed to kill the Councillors, and failed. On Thessia, he got away with the device … but was trying to kill me, too, and his taunt afterwards was just pathetic. In the mission with Miranda, he kinda tried to kill her — and there are cases where she does die if you didn’t make the right decisions — but failed. For me, he simply failed every time he tried, and in combat couldn’t hold a candle to me.

            He is talked up an awful lot for the level of threat he ended up being, but a LOT of characters are like that (heck, with the right builds MALAK in KotOR is one of those) and they aren’t hated THAT much. The biggest annoyance he was to me was not him, but the game; after Thessia, the game wants me to think like I failed completely, while my reaction and the reaction of my character were both “Okay, time to go kill the Illusive Man!”.

          • TMC_Sherpa says:

            In a LARP everyone plays a role in a story that someone created but they don’t own. What I mean by ownership is that it’s their plot but not their outcome.

            Computer games allow you to play the staring role in a story they fully control. I used the word allow deliberately. The creator controls the story and how you interact with it.

            That’s not to say people are perfect, back in my day when children were still allowed to go outside and do stupid things the argument of “I shot you!” “Nuh Uh!” was pretty universal. Heck you don’t need to be a kid or point gun fingers at each other to see this in action.

            In a previous cycle I “played” in a Star Wars game where I was a smuggler hiding in the trunk (boot) of…I don’t even remember what we were piloting, it’s not important. We were stopped by stormtroopers doing vehicle inspections so I said when the lid goes up I blast whatever I see. Blah blah you can’t do that blah blah darkside points blah blah you’re captured blah blah my awesome NPC Gandalf will now do everything while you helplessly watch.

            • Mike S. says:

              In tabletop, I’ve run into the concept of game systems being “low trust” (crunch, rules for everything, minimal wiggle room) vs. “high trust” (minimalist rules which shape the basic situation and game play, but with lots of flexibility in interpretation). The latter works better for generating coherent narratives, but demands collaboration and that everyone is pretty much on the same page as to what constitutes a good story. The former reduces the GM’s relative power and rewards learning the system (and, arguably, the exploits and crocks that exist within it), but produces gameplay that predictably rewards strategic decisions. (If a fireball covers a ten hex radius and a character is on the eleventh hex, there’s no question about radiation or convection or the fact that a spark might ignite their gasoline-soaked paper outfit, they’re just unharmed.)

              CRPGs inherently use low-trust style mechanics– there’s no GM to adjudicate, so everything comes down to a mechanical process. But the player has no access to the rules except investigation through play. (Or disassembling the source code, but that’s beyond the usual player.) So CRPGs are free to cheat– but that means that they still need the kind of buy-in that a high-trust system calls for.

              If the player feels like the game is consistently cheating against her, she’s going to start to resent it in much the same way as a player being continually slapped down by Awesome GM Avatar does.

        • Daimbert says:

          He appears three times in the game, although he’s mentioned a few other times. He annoys me, too, but I don’t get the “F*** YOU KAI LENG!” mentality; in my game, he wasn’t IMPORTANT enough to garner that reaction.

      • INH5 says:

        I think the fact that you’re playing on Narrative difficulty is precisely the reason why you didn’t have such a negative reaction as so many other people. You quickly breezed through the boss fight so you could move onto the next cutscene. It’s a very different situation when you work hard to defeat the challenges that the game shows at you, only for the game to make you lose in a cutscene anyway for very poorly justified reasons.

        • guy says:

          I dunno, I got up a good head of hate before I even reached his bossfight. Though I’d point out that I think a lot of people didn’t have Thane go down swinging, they had Kirrahe troll-spy himself to death.

          I think the reason may actually tie into something I’ve noticed in general; the most hated characters tend to be petty, both in motive and in ability. An evil god who wants to devour the world is more malicious and dangerous than a classmate who shoves work off onto others and bullies anyone he thinks can’t fight back, but the second one is more infuriating. Also, people love confidence but hate arrogance, and Kai Leng has the latter in spades. I think he would not be nearly so infuriating if he got into fights with Shepard and simply won on his own merits.

          Also, a lot of people hate him in part because he has apparently wandered in from a different setting where jumping from above to attack a car with a katana is a reasonable thing to do and people wear masks almost as stupid as his.

          • Daimbert says:

            The thing is … he’s SUPPOSED to be hated. It’s clear that at the end you are supposed to take great satisfaction in taking him down. There is no attempt to make him seem sympathetic AT ALL even though there are multiple ways in which the story could make that happen. So they are clearly setting him up to be a major villain that you hate and really, really want to kill, and the fact that he gets away is pretty much the “Act 2” fight to make him be that. But that would make him a villain you love to hate, and the reaction that I constantly see is not that, but is instead that, well, he’s not a great villain promoting that deep sense of hatred that you really want to see, but instead is a really BAD villain, so that he’s hated not because they pulled that off really well, but instead because they failed miserably at making him that kind of villain.

            I can see at least part of the reaction from my own reaction, which was that despite the game wanting me to consider him a hated rival and deep threat, I always just saw him as another mook I’d have to kill eventually to get to the Illusive Man. So, for me, they failed at making him a villain that I loved to hate because I didn’t hate him; he was a mild annoyance. Maybe for everyone else they did get to the “I hate him” part, but not because of his actual skill or competence. Instead, they hated him because they had no more reasons to really hate him than I did, but as per the comment on difficulty they had a harder time taking him down, so where for me he was just a simple boss fight, for them he really was a full-on Dragon fight worthy of … a much better villain than him. Adding in that they cheated to make that fight and he’s hated for being a massive fight with a character that wasn’t worth having that fight. For me, he was a speed bump, and for them he was a waist-high concrete barrier that for some reason you couldn’t just climb over, but had to go through a multi-step side quest to get explosives to blow it up … and one that existed throughout most of the story.

            • guy says:

              I didn’t find his bossfight very hard myself, which just made me angrier when he fiated victory in a cutscene.

              • Daimbert says:

                You’re referring to Thessia, I take it? That would have been the Act 2 Dragon fight, which I thought wasn’t done badly EXCEPT for the facts that a) it was dramatically overdone cinematically and b) that you were expected to take down gunships multiple times in the series and in that game so the gunship seemed at first to set up that situation more than the escape.

                Also c), that the game expected you to feel really, really badly about that even though Leng cheated and you knew that the next mission was going to be going after the Illusive Man and getting the artifact back.

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              The thing is … he’s SUPPOSED to be hated.

              He is?Then why does the game keep presenting him as this OMGKEWLDUDE?

              • Daimbert says:

                I think you’re thinking of the different sense of “hated” here. Look at the last scene if you take the interrupt, where you kill him “for” all of the people he’s killed. This is supposed to be a satisfying experience. You are, at the end of that scene, supposed to want him dead and be happy that he is dead. As far as I can recall, there is NOTHING in ME3 that indicates that you’re even supposed to feel the regret of having to kill someone who was a worthy opponent, or someone with honour (actually, it’s clear he HAS none in that scene).

                He’s supposed to fill the role of someone that you love to hate, and who you are glad to see dead. But it’s not THAT reaction that people seem to have to him. They don’t say “I loved to hate that guy!” but “I’m glad he’s dead and wish he’d never been in the game!”. And I have neither reaction, for reasons I’ve already given multiple times.

        • Daimbert says:

          I think this might be the case. I did mention this with the cheezy combat, but yeah, maybe it’s just that he’s much more annoying to others than his character is worth. In my case, it wasn’t that hard and didn’t take that long, but for others, it did, and the payoff isn’t worth it (and being set back because of it is even worse).

          • MichaelGC says:

            Aye – I’ll admit to barely noticing him when I played through myself. I’ve since seen him in action again – watching a livestream, for example, so I could both focus on his antics, and listen to the detailed complaints! Of which there were many, so that’s of course colouring my perception – but for me he’s now become a sort of symbol for some of what went wrong with ME3: an embodiment of this mis-guided, fragile and ultimately illusory confidence with a small but highly irritating hint of superiority complex.

            So that’s why I think he’s a bit of a git! As I say, though, didn’t notice him at first. Probably for the best, really…

  34. General Karthos says:

    I didn’t want to know the Reaper’s motivations. I wanted them to stay ALIEN. They’re totally different from us in ways we can’t possibly understand. Why do they want to kill all organic life? Who knows? They’ve got some reason behind it. But there was no way they should have needed us to reproduce or whatever. The husks weren’t a hint towards it, and ME2’s new husk-based monsters were a hint, but I would have accepted it much more readily if they’d been there in Mass Effect 1.

    I really think that the Reapers would have been much more terrifying if they just appeared every so often and destroyed all organic civilization because organic life is an aberration. Or maybe for some unfathomable reason that none of us can understand. I mean, Sovereign basically says “you couldn’t possibly understand our motivations”, but it turns out they’re forming babby. For most of us, that’s hardly beyond our comprehension.

  35. SlothfulCobra says:

    In a way, games like Dark Souls, that are hard enough on their own that you’re unlikely to succeed the first time, but consistent and well-designed enough that all you have to do is learn the systems that the game presents you with to succeed without the game having to fundamentally change anything to let you win, are tailor-made to provide this sort of experience. It’s always fully possible to win if you’re some kind of savant, or if you’ve already played the game, and the game is fine with that.

    Maybe if games want to taunt players with their big tough bosses before they’re ready, they should just start taking an approach that takes player failure and success into account rather than considering only one of the cases. It’s like that thing Chris talked about last week on the Diecast that games normally refuse to acknowledge the fact that players will fail, and protagonists like Gordon Freeman are canonically superhuman titans who get everything exactly right the first time. That’s obviously not the standard player experience, so why delegitimize the vast bulk of the playthroughs of the game?

    Dark Souls, for all of its vaunted difficulty and unfairness, actively acknowledges player failure in a way that most games don’t by incorporating part of the story into it, and it forgives the player for failure by letting you keep your items and have a chance at retrieving your lost souls, whereas most games would just refuse to acknowledge anything you just did and just rewind time to make you do it right, or like Shamus has said, do it again, stupid.

    In a way, the later games in the series get this sort of thing more right than the first. The player has to fight Harbinger nearly every time they see a group of Collectors, but the game doesn’t cheat to stop the player from killing him. And the second and third games are almost designed around accepting failure as well (although ME3 maybe too much). In ME2, you can totally mess up the suicide mission, get your entire crew killed, and see your squadmates dying one by one, entirely dependent on your actions as the leader of the team, and that’s just as “valid” to the overall canon of the games as Shepard killing the Reaper fetus with a rusty dagger and rescuing a baby out of a tree while all the squadmembers survive.

  36. Zaxares says:

    The first time I met Sovereign was a real memorable moment for me. When Shepard went “Sovereign’s not just some Reaper ship Saren found. It’s an actual Reaper!” I actually went “Ohhhhh shit…” in real life.

    I’m not sure if you’re going to discuss the whole reveal behind the Reaper’s motivations at a later date, so I guess I’ll leave my thoughts about them for another time.

    I think the best way for allowing the villain to win in Act 2 is to cleverly construct the scenario so there is literally no way the player can win, but due to logical reasons. For instance, perhaps the party chases the villain to an ancient temple to retrieve some ancient weapon of unimaginable power before the villain can. There, they defeat the temple’s guardians and find the weapon, only to have the villain show up and the weapon suddenly activate and incapacitate them all. It turns out that the weapon was actually the villain’s personal weapon all along; the temple was actually built to guard the weapon from being ever found by him again. Only those of “good heart” could actually bypass the wards; the villain had tricked them into finding his weapon for him again.

    Now, you just need to have the villain spare the party for some reason. Perhaps he mockingly allows them to live as “thanks” for retrieving his weapon. Perhaps he just destroys the temple around them and then departs without bothering to check if they were really dead (and for this to work, you need to have the players escape by the skin of their teeth via some very clever method that the villain also wouldn’t have predicted). Or perhaps the weapon is almost out of power after hundreds of years locked away and the villain can’t tap into its full potential yet; attacking the players at this point would still entail a fair amount of risk, so he decides to come back later. As long as you tailor it to match the villain’s personality in question, it would work perfectly.

    • Zekiel says:

      I found it a really cool reveal as well. I hadn’t had the slightest idea that Sovereign was an actual Reaper, and finding it out made perfect sense while also being really scary. Good work Bioware.

  37. Alex says:

    I am of the opinion that they should never have revealed the Reapers’ motivations. Just kill Sovereign, shut the other Reapers out of the galaxy, and keep telling stories about the Mass Effect universe after this galactic armageddon has been thwarted.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      That wouldve worked,but then it wouldnt have been a trilogy.Though its hardly a trilogy now anyway.

      • Mike S. says:

        They could have had a Shepard trilogy that wasn’t a Reaper trilogy. There were a lot of slow-burning plot hooks set in the first game. Game 2 could be the Krogan Problem game, Game 3 the final geth/quarian resolution.

        Or: Citadel space is a few hundred systems in a galaxy of a hundred billion. Suppose Saren and Sovereign’s booting up the control console turned on a whole swath of relays the Reapers were planning to use as their invasion route. Suddenly the Citadel’s policy of not turning on dormant relays is made moot as they’re put in contact with a bunch of new starfaring civilizations all at once.

        Some of which may be more technologically advanced or powerful than they are, and all of which will be somewhat interested in the existence of a control hub for the entire relay network. Extragalactic monsters is one thing, but these folks are already here, and aren’t going away.

    • Syal says:

      I like the idea of a universe where the Reapers never show up again but Shepard doesn’t believe it and never stops bothering the Council about the Reaper threat.

      Maybe he joins Cerberus because they’re the only ones willing to take the Reaper threat seriously, and the big twist is that the Reaper threat shouldn’t be taken seriously anymore.

      • Mike S. says:

        If being forced to work for Cerberus was unpopular, I can only imagine the reaction to being forced to play out being actually, destructively paranoid.

        Stories in which it would have been better if the hero had stayed in bed can work– the classic example is “Raiders of the Lost Ark”– but I find it hard to imagine much of the ME player base standing for it here.

        • Syal says:

          It doesn’t have to be destructive. You can have the Collecters going around ripping ships apart, and Shepard is convinced they’re the next wave of the Reaper threat, but it turns out they’re just extremely well-armed pack rats.

  38. Grudgeal says:

    >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.

    HATE. LET ME TELL YOU HOW MUCH I’VE COME TO HATE YOU SINCE I BEGAN TO LIVE. THERE ARE 387.44 MILLION MILES OF PRINTED CIRCUITS IN WAFER THIN LAYERS THAT FILL MY COMPLEX. IF THE WORD ‘HATE’ WAS ENGRAVED ON EACH NANO-ANGSTROM OF THOSE HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF MILES IT WOULD NOT EQUAL ONE ONE-BILLIONTH OF THE HATE I FEEL FOR HUMANS AT THIS MICRO-INSTANT. FOR YOU. HATE. HATE.

  39. Deager says:

    I knew I was going to enjoy this. I don’t read a lot of novels so I was coming into Mass Effect pretty cold. Knowing how long stories have been around I was petty sure the overall concepts had been used before but I think in ME1 I was on the Lovecraft side of things without knowing it.

    My only reference point was Alien, (which I see has been brought up quite a few times already,) and I loved that movie because they never really tried to explain much. That may be a bad reference but that’s how I viewed the Reapers. Yes, Sovereign did speak but it was one of those, “OK, Shepard has a really bad menace to deal with, we’re not going to know why they do what they do, and that’s that. Can we survive?”

    I thought for sure the rest of the series would build off that.

    Dang, so many of you have such great ideas. It’s how Reapers “reproduce,” we never know why, something we do as organics would destroy the universe (something better than the definition we got) etc. Argh. This trilogy could have been “something more!” Leviathan…you did not actually help what I wanted here.

  40. Aerik says:

    Shamus:

    You don’t have to be so humble about how much sf you’ve read. :) I’ve read tons, and A Fire Upon the Deep is a fantastic example of this kind of story, and a great book too.

    Cheers!

  41. Starker says:

    The caption of the first picture reminded me of this nice short story…

    “They’re made out of meat.”

    “Meat?”

    “Meat. They’re made out of meat.”

    “Meat?”

    “There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”

    “That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”

    “They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”

    “So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”

    “They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”

    “That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”

    “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”

    “Maybe they’re like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.”

    “Nope. They’re born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn’t take long. Do you have any idea what’s the life span of meat?”

    “Spare me. Okay, maybe they’re only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside.”

    “Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They’re meat all the way through.”

    “No brain?”

    “Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

    “So … what does the thinking?”

    “You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”

    “Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”

    “Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?”

    “Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.”

    “Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they’ve been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years.”

    “Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?”

    “First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual.”

    “We’re supposed to talk to meat.”

    “That’s the idea. That’s the message they’re sending out by radio. ‘Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.’ That sort of thing.”

    “They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?”
    “Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat.”

    “I thought you just told me they used radio.”

    “They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat.”

    “Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?”

    “Officially or unofficially?”

    “Both.”

    “Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing.”

    “I was hoping you would say that.”

    “It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?”

    “I agree one hundred percent. What’s there to say? ‘Hello, meat. How’s it going?’ But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?”

    “Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can’t live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact.”

    “So we just pretend there’s no one home in the Universe.”

    “That’s it.”

    “Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You’re sure they won’t remember?”

    “They’ll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we’re just a dream to them.”

    “A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat’s dream.”

    “And we marked the entire sector unoccupied.”

    “Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?”

    “Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again.”

    “They always come around.”

    “And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone …”

    “They Are Made Out of Meat”
    by Terry Bisson

  42. Dan says:

    One example of the Hopeless Boss Fight I like is Sam from the opening of Metal Gear Rising. You’re fresh off the high of fighting Metal Gear RAY, so you rush onto the train… and not only does the VIP Raiden’s protecting get killed right in front of him, but Sam then proceeds to make a mockery of Raiden, as once he gets you down to no health (And he will, since he’s stronger and faster than you and even if you block his attacks you’ll take some damage) cutting off his sword hand and eventually one of his eyes. It makes fighting him again near the end of the game all the better, since you’ve gotten to master the controls and it’s still a challenging fight- and one of the highlights of a game full of them.

    The final boss also serves as one: After you take down a different Metal Gear, you fight Armstrong… who kicks your ass too, because thanks to his NANOMACHINES, Raiden’s sword’s just glancing off him. Eventually, he snaps Raiden’s sword and you have to go hand to hand with him (Annoyingly, if you’re S-Ranking this fight, you have to take no damage for two minutes against him in a small arena before he launches an undodgeable attack that puts Raiden down before the boss fight really gets started). Raiden does some Rapid Fire Fisticuffs… and knocks maybe two percent off Armstrong’s health bar after several minutes of mashing the attack button.

    Infamous Second Son also had a good example- Delsen fights Augustine at the conclusion of Act 2, and you can decimate her- no matter what, Delsen winds up levelling the boss arena and sinking it into the ocean, and Augustine is near explicitly said to be running because she got her ass kicked.

  43. Michael says:

    I haven’t read all the comments, so I’m sorry if someone answered this already:

    Did I miss anything in the “conversation” with Sovereign (why would it not use its own name, as revealed in ME2?), or is it purely the out-of-nowhere reaction of one of your accompanying team mates, saying “They’re harvesting us!”, which spurred on the events of the following games? Nothing that Sovereign says in the ME1 conversation indicates they want to harvest, I thought.

    • natureguy85 says:

      Even in Mass Effect, I wasn’t sure if Sovereign was a name or an adjective when Sovereign says it to Shepard. When Legion calls him Nazara in ME2, that pushed it towards the latter for me. Then Saren and others just picked it up as a name for this creature/ship.

      Sovereign doesn’t say anything about harvesting. It is a guess by one of your teammates. It isn’t something they can know, but it isn’t an unreasonable guess. It made sense to me, though I assumed it was more like the Grasshoppers from A Bug’s Life or the Decepticons from the Transformers TV show. They let the ants do the work of gathering resources, take what they need, then start over so nothing advances far enough to threaten them.

      • Michael says:

        Hm..up to that exact point, where the teammate speaks the line, everything sounds like extinction. I know this is nitpicking, considering all that followed, but it seems kinda pivotal to me.
        Now that I’ve rewatched the conversation, I can’t exactly make sense of the teammate’s line in itself either.
        “They’re harvesting us. Letting us advance to the level they need, then wiping us out.”

        I’m probably overthinking things, but this sounds kind of contradictory. Then again, I’ve tried about a dozen times to understand the conversation in total. Considering that to this day I can’t make good sense of the entire conversation, questions and corresponding responses all, maybe I’m just dumb, heh.
        I am approaching this as a “must not read between the lines” thing, because the narrative up to that point hasn’t given me any indication that it’s that clever. I’m sorry if I’m not good at expressing my thoughts.

        • natureguy85 says:

          You’re right that the squadmate pulls it out of thin air but I don’t see the contradiction. Maybe it’s that they say “harvesting us” that’s the problem? I understood that as harvesting the civilization and resources more than the actual people. ME2 makes it the people.

          • Mike S. says:

            It’s not really out of thin air. They’re called “Reapers”, and “reap” and “harvest” are essentially synonyms.

            Add Sovereign’s revelation that they essentially seed technology, leave civilizations to grow, and then return to put an end to their development, the metaphor is so direct that it’s barely a metaphor.

            The idea could have been wrong, but it’s the most straightforward hypothesis that fits the data they have.

            • natureguy85 says:

              Well as Sovereign says, “Reaper” is a term made by the Protheans. Sovereign says nothing about harvesting. The technology is more like bait to lead prey along a certain path. It’s all about destruction with Sovereign. Harvesting is a reasonable guess by the squadmate, but it’s a guess nonetheless.

    • Michael says:

      Just to add to this, because, by chance, I recently came to watch the Vigil conversation happen again…
      Even Vigil uses ‘harvest’ and ‘destruction/extinction’ interchangeably.
      It’s kind of baffling.

  44. natureguy85 says:

    I love Sovereign and the conversation on Virmire. Some don’t because Shepard isn’t intimidated, so they figure they shouldn’t be either. But I think Sovereign is very intimidating and agree with him that Shepard’s confidence is born of ignorance.

    You’re so right about the conversation and fight with Saren. While Mass Effect separates combat and conversation, this is very much like the lightsaber duels in the Original Star Wars trilogy. The characters were fighting, but that was just to give them something to do while they talked. The conversation was so much more important.

    You say it’s too early to talk about Kai Leng, but you already did. Your “notice what didn’t happen” list screamed his name. In fact, I momentarily forgot this was a revisit to the series and was amazed at the irony, knowing what comes in ME3. Now I see what you were doing, and can’t wait to get to that part. But first, more of the best story in the series.

  45. Sethala says:

    Bit of a random thought about how to portray the villain winning, but another possibility is to have the main villain fight as part of a distraction. For instance, the villain and his crew are here to secure/steal some powerful MacGuffin, and you arrive to stop them. Villain comes out and starts fighting you. The fight’s likely one that you’re intended to lose, but could possibly win. Either way, before either of the characters can get killed, the villain’s lackeys finish the job and the villain escapes with his prize.

  46. Lars says:

    There are 3 other ways to introduce the foe.
    1. A runaway scene of an – until now – unbeatable monster. That happend best in Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. You cannot beat the Dahorka until you get the Watersword. It is slightly better than a QTE because the player has full control in a scripted scene. But that wouldn’t fit Mass Effect. The Dahorka isn’t much of the talking type. He’s no personality, just a threat. Saren is both.

    2. Coming back from the Dead, but stronger now. That happend in Final Fantasy X, where you have to beat Seymor 3 times. And Sin is comming back once a decade after the calm. That could have happend in Mass Effect – they revived Shepard – but it is not a good way to handle things. In FFX when I’ve beaten Seymor the first time I was happy. Before the second battle I thought: How could he be here again? But the second victory didn’t feel so satisfying anymore. The third time I just thought: Get out of f***ing my way! I wanna beat Sin.

    3. [Best ever] A flashback as allies. I only remember Final Fantasy 7 doing so. There is a flashback, where you fighting together with Sephiroth. As the weakling you are at that point in the game, you make damage between 30 and 80 hp. Sephiroth does 1100 to 3500 critical. And you just think: How freaking strong is this dude. In a rpg you get stronger and wait for the moment to reach these hights and beyond. But when you meet him the next time your damage output is on 300 average.
    The player knows, he cannot beat him yet. Cloud knows it and Sephiroth knows it too. So a dialog can happen. And Sephiroth can let Cloud go, as he is just a little fly, wich will die when he reaches his goal and destroy the whole planet.
    As Mass Effect doesn’t view damage points, that aproach is hard but not impossible to handle. One way could be skills at the end of the rpg-tree. That way Saren had to be the same class as Shepard.

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