Mass Effect Retrospective 11: Ilos

By Shamus
on Aug 27, 2015
Filed under:
Mass Effect


Now we have a big block of cutscenes to try and wrangle this open, player-directed adventure into a conventional three-act story structure. Shepard has the fight with Saren, Kashley snuffs it, and the Normandy flies away from Saren’s base as the whole thing goes nuclear.

Assuming you’ve visited all the planets now, you do one final mind-meld with Liara, and the vision reveals that the conduit is on the planet Ilos.

Race Against Time



Annoyingly, you’re locked into the endgame here. When you interact with the starmap the game simply triggers a cutscene taking you back to the Citadel. On one hand, we’ve just gone through a big emotional turning point and it would make no sense at all to suck the tension out of the story by wandering around the galaxy. On the other hand… BUT WHAT ABOUT MY SIIIIIIIIIDE QUESTS?

Here we have the inescapable tension between the needs of a story and the needs of an open(ish) RPG. Some people are put off by the fact that the main quest in this game is titled “Race Against Time” when you’re actually free – encouraged, even – to screw around doing odd jobs for random peasants. Other people are put off anytime the game pushes the main story forward before they’re ready.

There’s no way around this, really. If the game doesn’t push hard enough some people feel indifferent and directionless. If it pushes too hard they resent it, or end up skipping side content out of fear that something “bad” will happen in the story. That actually happens in Mass Effect 2, where doing too many sidequests after the big turning point will result in a bunch of people getting killed. This annoyed the other group of people, who felt that there was an unspoken agreement between the game and the player that time shouldn’t matter outside of missions.

I think either way is fine, as long as the player understands the rules. The problem is that it’s really hard to convey these rules because they come completely from outside the gameworld.

The Normandy is Grounded

I`m here to make more ridiculous claims with no proof and call you racists if you disagree. Didja miss me?

I`m here to make more ridiculous claims with no proof and call you racists if you disagree. Didja miss me?

Shepard flies back to the Citadel to meet with the council. It turns out they still don’t believe him about the Reapers.

We know where Saren is, we know he’s looking for something called “the conduit”, and that it’s on Ilos. Up until now we’ve been assuming it’s a weaponI guess nobody on the team thought to look up the word “conduit” in the dictionary? and that Saren is going to get it to use against the Citadel. The council doesn’t want to send ships into the Terminus systems to look for Saren and end up provoking a war. The old problem of “an enemy agent is hiding in the region controlled by a rival nation” should sound pretty familiar to anyone who’s followed geopolitics recently. (Or ever.)

Shepard doesn’t like this, so he throws a tantrum in front of the three most powerful politicians in the galaxy and the Normandy is grounded.

Looking at it from the council’s point of view: I have to say they have a point. They don’t know what conduit is. None of the good guys do. As far as anyone knows, Saren would have to assault the Citadel directly, and their fleets are camping the mass relays. Given what they know, this isn’t an unreasonable course of action.

On the other hand, their steadfast refusal to even entertain the Reapers as a possibility is starting to wear a little thin. It’s not like there’s a shortage of crazy stuff in this universe. Saren has the largest “ship” in the galaxy and it has demonstrated abilities far beyond anything the council races can achieve. Even if they’re incredulous about the whole idea of “ancient machine gods throw a 50,000 year extinction party”, they ought to be pretty freaked out about this massive new military threat. Whether they believe in Reapers or not, they still ought to be worried about where this ship came from, who made it, and if there are any others like it out there. The argument between Shepard and the council creates this false dichotomy: Either the REAPERS ARE REAL AND COMING TO KILL US, or this is no big deal.

So while I think their actions make sense, their attitude towards the danger is a little unreasonable. It would make more sense if they wanted you (or someone else) to track down where and how this “ship” was made.


I`m going to betray Humanity by following the only reasonable course of action! Muahahaha!

I`m going to betray Humanity by following the only reasonable course of action! Muahahaha!

Udina goes along with this, and the story plays it off like a betrayal. It’s clear we’re supposed to hate Udina. His character design and his delivery are dripping with scheming villainy. But in-universe, the known facts are on his side. Poking around deep in the Terminus systems would be provocative and risky, and as far as anyone knows there’s no reason to take that risk. Shepard even says, “If Saren finds the conduit we’re all screwed!” Like the trial at the start of the game, his arguments are all passion and no substance. Nobody knows what the conduit is or what it does, so there’s no reason to expect that the blockade won’t work.

Basically, Udina didn’t need to be a bad guy for this scene to work, and I would have liked it more if the story had given him more depth. In the next scene Anderson punches him out, and it’s clear this is supposed to be an act of catharsis for the audience.

I’d rather they had dialed back on the slimy politician angle and painted him as a smart man playing a difficult game against the other races. I like the idea of Udina as a calculating and pragmatic politician playing realpolitik against the vastly more powerful and experienced members of the council. I like this so much more than making him some creep who just wants power. I think he is (or would be) a lot more interesting as a foil than an adversary. Pritchard and Jensen had this kind of dynamic in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and it was probably the most interesting relationship in the game.

Teach me more about this Earth thing you call kissing.

Teach me more about this Earth thing you call kissing.

Regardless, Anderson unlocks the Normandy and you escape with your crew. If you’ve been romancing someone, then now is your last chance to do the deed with them, you naughty commander you.

The Protheans

Stupid Protheans, always over-using gold color filters on their ruined worlds.

Stupid Protheans, always over-using gold color filters on their ruined worlds.

And here we are. The Normandy arrives in Ilos and the story pulls the trigger on two Chekov’s Guns at once: The Normandy’s stealth systems and Joker’s superhuman piloting. Joker drops the Mako almost on Saren’s head, and you begin the mad dash to the conduit.

But first you have to run around and shoot dudes and open containers and push buttons, because this is still an RPG shooter and you don’t just let players saunter to the finish line in this genre.

This is my favorite environment in the game. We get our first solid look at Protheans, their art, and even a little of their culture.

Yeah, don’t let Mass Effect 2 and 3 confuse you. Here in the first game, these are clearly the Protheans:

It`s like slenderman and Cthulhu had a baby.

It`s like slenderman and Cthulhu had a baby.

Unless you’re going to suggest they made statues that looked nothing like themselves. And let’s not forget the vision of the Protheans the game keeps showing us, where we see this:

You okay buddy?

You okay buddy?

…which is clearly the same creature. And then we hear their VI’s speak, and they talk with a gentle, vaguely aristocratic tone.

But then in the latter games some dingbat decided that Human-sized Jamaican Nigerian bug-men would be so much “cooler” than these design cues. And they decided that “coolness” was more important than consistency or delivering revelations that built on previous foreshadowing, so they chucked the Mass Effect 1 designs and never even bothered to put a lame, thought-about-it-for-ten-seconds excuse in the codex to explain this discrepancy.

This really bugged meNo pun intended., because you spent this entire game working to find out who the Protheans were and what they knew. I really felt like this planet was part of our reward for the long struggle, a major reveal of a long-kept secret. To have it carelessly erased or ignored by someone’s rule of cool approach to worldbuilding drove me crazy.


Stay a while and listen.

Stay a while and listen.

It would be grossly underselling it if I said this was my favorite part of the story. The conversation with Vigil the ancient Prothean VI is deeply satisfying. Hearing his long bitter tale about the end of a species is moving, and sets the stakes for the challenge ahead of you. But most of all I enjoy this part because this is where it all comes together.

I’m a big fan of sci-fi stories with an expositional payload. You can see it in a lot of Trek and Twilight Zone episodes. Asimov’s classic I, Robot was made almost entirely out of mysteries or puzzles that are unraveled at the end. “How could this robot kill people if its programming forbids it? Ah! It didn’t understand that this action would result in death! It all makes sense now!” The questions are answered. Inconsistencies are resolved or cancel each other out as the pieces of the puzzle snap together. We nod and breathe a sigh of relief. Ah yes. Of course! Of course, for this to work the payload has to be a satisfying answer. The author has to have established the rules and stuck to them.

Mass Effect isn’t a mystery, of course. But the game has presented us with some questions. What is Saren trying to do? What’s the conduit? What happened to the Protheans? What are the beacons? Where are the rest of the Reapers and are they about to invade us? What’s so special about these Prothean ruins on Ilos? These questions are all answered here, and a few new questions are introduced to keep us interested.

Fifty thousand years ago, the Reapers showed up to do That Thing They Do. But Ilos was a secret research center where a small group of Prothean scientists were working to figure out how the mass relays worked. Since it was a secret station, there were no records of it on the Citadel, so when the Reapers showed up and read everyone’s email, they didn’t find out about Ilos. So the researchers on Ilos quietly slipped underground and listened in on the radio as their civilization was systematically purged.

Everybody`s dead, Dave.

Everybody`s dead, Dave.

A few decades inBUT WHAT DID THEY EAT?!?!, they realized this was going to take a while. So they went into cryo-sleep and created the Vigil program to listen to the airwavesOr whatever they used to communicate. The beacons were never explained. and wake everyone up when the whole Reaper thing blew over.

Well, it turns out it takes a bloody long time to scour an entire galaxy of a particular species. Decades turned into centuries, and Vigil started running out of power. He cut all the systems he could, and then started shutting down cryo-pods, starting with the least essential people. By the time the Reapers finally left, they were down to a few dozen people and they realized they didn’t have the makings to re-create their galactic civilization. So they used the conduit to jump to the Citadel and sabotage the Keepers. The next time the Reaper alarm went off, the Citadel wouldn’t open up the mass relay into dark space. This would leave the Reapers trapped out there. Serves them right. Jerks.

Then the Protheans used the beacons one last timeAssuming there were any beacons left out there, which there were. Barely. to explain to any unlikely survivors what had happened and what they had done. These are the beacons Shepard has been running around interfacing with since the start of the game.

Every RPG fan has their favorite “storytime” moment from a game, where you stop the action and enjoy a bulk load of worldbuilding and character flavor. For some people it’s Cheif Hanlon in Fallout: New Vegas. Or Canderous in KOTOR. MorpheusThe AI prototype in Morgan Everet’s home. in Deus Ex. Dagoth-Ur in Morrowind.

For me, this conversation with Vigil is that favorite moment. We’ll talk more about Vigil next time.

Enjoyed this post? Please share!


[1] I guess nobody on the team thought to look up the word “conduit” in the dictionary?

[2] No pun intended.


[4] Or whatever they used to communicate. The beacons were never explained.

[5] Assuming there were any beacons left out there, which there were. Barely.

[6] The AI prototype in Morgan Everet’s home.

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  1. Gruhunchously says:

    Correction; Javik’s accent is Nigerian, not Caribbean at all.

  2. “I think either way is fine, as long as the player understands the rules. The problem is that it’s really hard to convey these rules because they come completely from outside the gameworld.”

    Actually, it’s really EASY to convey these rules if you practice integration, namely, MEAN WHAT YOU SAY/SAY WHAT YOU MEAN. Which means that you never, ever, EVER say or imply a time limit or a cutoff or whatever unless there actually IS one.

    The convention in games is for total non-integration, which is what makes it hard to communicate what’s actually going on to the player, because they never know when you’re just saying “hurry!” because drama or because it actually has a gameplay effect. The solution is that you never do it unless it has BOTH purposes. It might surprise people the first few times, but they will rapidly adapt and be very happy once they realize that when you say something, it means what it says.

    Interacting with games at present is like having that one friend who is always 30+ minutes late and unprepared for everything. They may tell you a million times “no, really, I’ll be on time for THIS . . .” but do you actually believe them? Are you dumb enough to trust them to do something that ABSOLUTELY HAS TO BE done on time? No, of course not. That is how game designers communicate with players–they fill the game with a bunch of garbage that isn’t meant to be taken literally, then complain that people have to be hit on the head with something 45 times before they believe it. Well, of course they didn’t realize that, FOR ONCE, you ACTUALLY MEANT IT.

    This is what integrity actually means in practice and why having it is important. It isn’t about not stealing peoples’ stuff. If people are used to the game crying wolf about rushes that don’t exist, they’ll be shocked when the metaphorical wolf actually shows up. Every time you communicate falsely, it makes true communication that much harder.

    • ” Shepard even says, “If Saren finds the conduit we’re all screwed!” Like the trial at the start of the game, his arguments are all passion and no substance. ”

      This problem is the primary reason I considered Shepard to be a boob and cringed when they kept him/her as the protagonist for the rest of the series. One game playing as Soldier Boob was PLENTY–turning him/her into the Resurrection of Space Jesus was just . . . urgh. No. While I don’t like playing as an idiot, I can tolerate it if I can say, well, this is the story of Soldier Boob, I don’t have to love them to enjoy the story. I like plenty of stories where the main character has flaws and overcomes them. Dandy.

      But when the writers clearly think that their idiot boobchild is Hot Stuff and keep shoving them in your face? No thanks.

      Probably why I prefer the Dragon Age series. It’s not any less a progression of boobs, but at least it’s a different boob every time so it’s understandable when they haven’t really learned much from their experiences.

      • This problem is the primary reason I considered Shepard to be a boob and cringed when they kept him/her as the protagonist for the rest of the series.

        The frustrating part for me was with the dialog wheel… “OK, we’ve got Shepard is an impolite idiot who is standing in front of the Galactic council and can’t see the big picture, we’ve got Shepard is a polite idiot who can’t see the big picture, and Shepard is a non-committal idiot who can’t see the big picture. Uh… where’s the fourth choice?”

        It would have been more sensible and satisfying on a number of levels if it went something like, “Hey everyone, I can’t prove it yet but I’ve got a lot of circumstantial evidence that suggests these bad things. Here, look at this enormous spaceship of questionable providence, etc etc.” and the response was “That’s not proof, but please keep investigating it, here’s some resources, and we’re at least going to put our militaries on yellow alert because the entire reason we have elite operatives we call Spectres is to sniff out stuff like this.”

        It was narratively hollow to make Shepard a Spectre when apparently everyone completely disregards every word coming out of his/her mouth even so. There’s options between blind faith and blind dismissal.

        • What makes it even more annoying is that it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference to the story if they’d made Shepard more reasonable in his conversations with the Council. Or whatever. Things still would have played out exactly the same way, just without Shepard looking like a massive irrational douchecanoe with self-induced tunnel vision because his head was shoved up his own butt.

          But, I mean, I could still dig that if Shepard was like the protagonist in, say, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The Prince was also a massive irrational etc. etc., but it made him human and loveable because you could see where he was coming from and that he was trying. But Shepard was at least partially a player-insert character. Having that character suddenly become obnoxiously obtuse at the worst possible time doesn’t work.

          That’s not to say that you can’t have a player-driven character be obnoxiously obtuse at times, but you have to set it up as a *consistent* character trait. If they had consistently written Shepard as a soldier with a temper who was impatient with all this political garbage and terrible at it, it would have been a cool scene. You would understand where Shepard was coming from and why he was just acting out. But for much of the game you can play Shepard as a calm, savvy, diplomatic Paragon-type . . . except for moments like this when he suddenly pulls this sudden turn and develops a completely different personality. It would have been SO much better if they’d actually made moments like this a Paragade payoff, where if you were primarily-paragon, Shepard would be reasonable about the Council’s concerns, but if he was primarily-renegade, he’d be obtuse. That would have been GREAT. And there was NO REASON NOT TO DO THAT because it didn’t make a bit of difference!!!

          • This is also part of the reason why Udina didn’t work and just came off as an ass for the sake of being an ass. Whenever Udina criticized Shepard, it was for stuff that the game makes you do, regardless. Udina bitches at Shepard for the mess on Eden Prime. Well, you, the player, had absolutely no way to reduce that mess–you had to create it in order to progress! If, instead, you had some kind of options about how to proceed and Udina bitched at you for the choice you actually made, that would be different. You could see where Udina was coming from, and there’d at least be the knowledge that you could have done SOMETHING differently, even if you personally didn’t think it would be BETTER. It could even have had great impact if Udina–who isn’t the least bit likeable–alternatively enthused about your “wise” decision if you instead did something really dumb, particularly if Anderson then quietly told you that Udina’s approval wasn’t necessarily something you wanted to be courting. It would make the Udina/Anderson dynamic a lot more interesting, you would feel that your choice, however minor, had SOME impact, and you wouldn’t just be Shepard The Boob at random when the story called for it.

            • I mean, imagine how much cooler the payoff would have been if you’d spent much of the game courting Udina, building up favor with him, and blowing Anderson off, and then Udina throws you under the bus with the Council while Anderson is all “I don’t like you Shepard, but I see it’s necessary for you to go to Ilos so I’m going to help you sneak out of here”. How awesome would that be?! That could be two really fun alternate narratives: one where Shepard sticks with Anderson throughout and the more military approach but is ostracized by the Council and other political groups, or one where Shepard attempts to butter up Udina and play politics but winds up getting screwed over because of it. It’d be such a good story but it wouldn’t change the overall game in the slightest! And you could even add more to it like Anderson warning Shepard that if he sticks with Anderson, he will wind up always on the outside where maybe he can’t get anything done due to lack of support. Udina could hint at future promotion opportunities, etc.

              And then, at the very end, you could confront Udina about the betrayal and Udina could tell you “that’s how it has to be, Shepard, see, I’ve taught you something valuable about politics, see how valuable I am? There’s no need for us to make this personal.” And there’d be a REASON to maybe support Udina for Council representative–because he really IS good at this political game. After all, by throwing Shepard under the bus he got Anderson to finally act independently and give Shepard what he needed to get this Reaper mess under control, yes?

              • Doing that would also have made the Paragade system make more sense, because Anderson would be the Paragon Representative and Udina would be the Renegade Representative from the get go. It wouldn’t be trying to model good vs. evil or nice vs. jerk or diplomatic vs. blunt or follows the rules vs. breaks the rules. It would, instead, represent “follows their own principles” vs. “does what will make them look good to other people”.

                This would work better as a system because what it’s measuring is not about how Shepard is but how Shepard appears to other people. Is he a bastion of personal integrity (which some people will respect and prefer), or is he, as Shamus put it, a practitioner of realpolitik (which other people will respect and prefer). That frees you to write Shepard’s actual *personality* as largely independent from the Paragade system instead of having the two inextricably tied together and thus rather confused.

                Then, in the other parts of the game, you should get your renegade/paragon points not for WHAT decisions you make, but for HOW you pitch them to people. So it’s not “freeing the Rachni is Paragon” while “killing the Rachni is Renegade” but that when your companions are like “are you sure this is a good idea, Shepard?” if you say “she’s a sapient creature and deserves a chance” that’s Paragon but if you say “she’ll be in our debt and could become an ally against the Reapers” that’s Renegade. Likewise if you say “the damage she could do is too great” that’s paragon but if you say “the Council would really hate it if I loose this on them without warning” that’s renegade.

                That would be so. much. more. interesting.

                • ARRGH this entire line of speculation is making me mad because, seriously, how much more awesome would that have been? Instead of being kind of a weird alignment/persuasion system, Paragade would have actually tied in with the overarching story AND the many sub plots as you see the countless ramifications and effects of people either standing on their own ideas or trying to get “in” with other pepole. I mean, in EVERY area you come across groups with competing agendas along these lines, yes? So it becomes a structure you can use to set up your narrative expectations and subversions and payoffs. You can show that over here some rigid Paragons are making things worse because the principles they’re operating on are poor, whereas over THERE some manipulative Renegades are killing people left right and center and covering it up because they only care how things look, not about any principles . . . and sometimes the best “solution” might be to reject both of them and live with some ambiguous middle ground that wouldn’t earn you any persuasion points with either side but you, the player, could at least live with the decision . . .

                  And THAT would have added a payoff to the “extreme persuasion” options because in order to get the points you’d have to pick sides in such a way that you’d be supporting extremely problematic people at times in order to be able to talk your way out of some situations later on . . .

                  It could have been so amazing if they’d just INTEGRATED this stuff!!!!

                  • They could have literally tied the ENTIRE GAME together into a unified whole if they’d done something like that, because this sort of “alternative” is present throughout the entire game. Organics vs. Machines. Engineering vs. Biotics. Killing vs. Persuasion. Humans vs. The Council Races. Trust vs. Coercion. Integrate those alternatives to the base and you’ve got a magnificent system for a virtuoso performance.

                    This is why my mantra is always INTEGRATE INTEGRATE INTEGRATE. You can’t build a skyscraper on quicksand. Everything must be tied to a base that can hold the entire thing together. If it prevents your writers from slapping off a few hurried “Save me, my hero, save me!” lines like every other thing out there, so much the better.

                    • Hector says:

                      Dear Jennifer SNow,

                      Can you name one – even one – Bioware game where the supposedly extremely important alignment system was not utterly broken in half due to the fact that the writers ignored their own explicit statements on what it was about, varied from scene to scene, and directly rewrote-the rules due to either apathy or ignorance? Is there one – even one – Bioware product which did not completely (pardon the expression) shit the bed and die when called upon to make a player choice meaningful and real in the context of the game rather than a multicolored glowy bar on the character sheet?

                      If so, please do, because I would like to see this creature of myth and legend.

                      And I even like Bioware.

                    • INH5 says:

                      Personally, I would settle for even one video game, made by anyone, ever, that does an alignment system well.

                    • @Hector (since I can’t reply directly this deep in the nest) . . . that depends a lot on what you mean by “meaningful” and “real” and “broken”. Which is also why I’m harping on the need for an integrating principle. An alignment system CANNOT work without an alternative that is fully integrated into every aspect of the game. They never fully integrate anything like this which is why they keep flopping all over the place about what that alignment system is supposed to do. If you don’t have a true goal (or if it’s a few mushy intentions without clarity), you can’t judge whether anything accomplishes that goal or not.

                      And, I should add, you can’t just make ANYTHING your integrating principle. It has to be something that’s actually capable of supporting the totality. To use the house-building metaphor again, just because you know you need A foundation, that doesn’t mean you can just willy-nilly declare “I shall use this marshmallow as my foundation!” nuh-uh.

                      I quite like Bioware, too. Just because I think there’s room for improvement, that doesn’t mean I think that everything they’ve made is complete crap. I do see many solid improvements in their work over the years. And many weird things that don’t make sense. And merely having an integrated approach doesn’t mean that you’re going to produce pure gold–it just means that you’ve created the necessary structure to hold your work TOGETHER. It may be mediocre, derivative, trite, and bland, but at least it won’t fall apart the second anyone tries thinking about it for two seconds together. And since I know they’re capable of work that transcends the mediocre, derivative, trite, and bland, I keep telling them they need to work on this structure bit. At present, that is what’s holding them back the most.

                      The brokenness of their alignment (or whatever) systems and their lack of “meaningful” choices are *symptoms* of the structure problem. And I’m not even sure how accurate that last claim is, because people still argue over the decisions years after the games came out. If people feel strongly about a choice, that sounds pretty meaningful to me, no? So what’s problematic there is that they make implications about the results of the decisions that they don’t carry through on. Some because it’s a technical issue–you can’t make two completely different games. So any choice is going to be limited in its impact right from the outset. So you have to be careful to tie your claims to that model. You can’t throw around “this will change the course of the future forever!” claims (unless you’re careful to subvert them).

                      A meaningful choice doesn’t even *have to be* a choice that substantially changes anything. It is not so much a matter of living with the consequences as being satisfied with the chain of reasoning that dictated your choice. And this is another area where they could improve dramatically. If you tell people too clearly “choose A, you get B, choose C, you get D”, then it becomes all about “which consequence do I want” instead of “what’s the right decision to make, and why?” You’re trying to land certain epilogue slides instead of going through that thinking process that really pulls you into the conflict and makes you expand and project and analyze. Aiming for epilogue slides is an utterly impersonal and basically meaningless process–it’s all dictated to you by the writers of the game. All you do is push a button. But a thinking process is INTENSELY personal and unique. Look at all the ire about the ME3 ending! Wasn’t this exactly the problem with it?

                      A lot of their “big” choices wind up this way. Sometimes there’s no thought process to go through–Ashley vs. Kaiden. There’s no REASON to pick one over the other except that you happen to like one more than the other. Sometimes they render your thinking moot after the fact, because nothing interesting comes of it–like the Rachni queen. They ultimately can’t deal with it functionally because they have no goal structurally–its random grab bag for everyone.

          • Grudgeal says:

            I think the problem is, the writers built Shepard on the assumption that he’s Right. I mean, you can be a jackass as a renegade and say a lot of stupid offensive stuff to be edgy but in all important and story matters Shepard is always Right. And then everything Shepard says or does is inimically traced back to the fundament that Shepard is Right.

            They never seemed to think of (and therefore write) Shepard as ever being capable of being Wrong, nor on the possibility that other people may have a valid point in constructing Shepard as being in the Wrong. Hence Shepard can say as much outrageous and stupid stuff as possible and constructed as justified while what everyone else says, no matter how seemingly sensible, must always be constructed as unjustified based on the fact that Shepard is Right and everyone else is Wrong. Shepard is acting like a guy who *thinks* the universe has already gifted him with the grace of being Always Right, and while this is something he is (unwittingly) correct in it also makes him look like a pompous arse.

            • This theory just doesn’t hold together with the way they write Shepard (or any of their protagonists), though, because NPC’s always get the last word in any conversation, and that last word is very often written to make it sound much more sane and reasonable than anything Shepard ever says.

              Shepard isn’t written to be Right. Or Wrong. Or Anything. Shepard is written to be a foil for the NPC’s to show off their viewpoints, service their jokes, etc. Shepard’s behavior is thus wildly erratic because it has NO purpose except to let NPC’s get their lines off. Everything is written to service the NPC’s. Which is why those NPC’s are almost always the best part of the game.

              • Every so often the writers will toss Shepard a Badass Bone to make it look like he has some reason to be there. But it doesn’t happen during interactions with major NPC’s. It’s almost always when talking to pointless mooks nobody cares about. You don’t get to make cutting points that will make your squadmates shrink in horror as they suddenly gain a new perspective on their own actions. You merely get to either approve their actions (in which case they’re all yay! Shepard BFF!!) or disapprove (in which case they snarl at you a bit).

                The priority is not making an integrated, fun-to-experience narrative. The priority list is:

                Main Plot NPC’s (who do what they do regardless–in this game these would be Saren, Matriarch Benezia, Udina, Anderson, The Council, and so forth)
                Companion NPC’s (who have their perspective regardless, but you can affect what they get to do)

                In an integrated approach all these would actually be equal and the goal would be “how do we tie these elements to our underlying structure to yield an integrated story?”

      • Khizan says:

        The protagonist is clearly Garrus; you just play as his sidekick for all three games.

      • MrGuy says:


        The parallel I see most clearly is actually with Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan books, where we have a well-constructed, meticulously researched, highly realistic world where the same dozen-or-so people (not all of them highly placed) save the world every goddamn time.

        Not that I necessarily would call BioWare’s universe meticulously researched or highly realistic, but given the goal and tone of making the galaxy feel big, it’s really weird that the same small band of heroes is somehow the solution to every single problem.

        Give someone else a chance, dude.

        • Mike S. says:

          That’s just serial convention, though. The Enterprise is the only ship in the quadrant close enough to deal with any overarching danger. If Green Arrow’s name is on the cover of the book, he doesn’t solve a threat of mass carnage by calling the JLA Watchtower and asking Superman, Green Lantern, and the Flash to swing by for five minutes. It’s not remotely realistic, but it’s an established and popular form of storytelling.

          Though in video games, the emphasis on combat does sort of turn it up to eleven. Where someone like Jack Ryan or Kirk might be involved in commanding a large-scale military action, Shepard personally kills more enemies than some entire wars– a randomly googled reddit thread, which I can’t vouch for, estimates about 6000 killed through the entire trilogy.

          (Presumably not counting cutscenes. It mentions Arrival, which of course would bring it up a couple orders of magnitude, but there’s also potentially Legion’s loyalty mission in ME2, and what you do with the Crucible at the end of ME3.)

          • Just because it’s a convention doesn’t mean that there aren’t better ways to do it, though. Many of my favorite authors are smart about this and make hints about Other Things Going On in the background all the time so it doesn’t feel like EVERY big problem that EVER occurs is handled by This One Group. You don’t even have to get particularly specific about it, just put stuff in there. It’s a type of lampshade hanging. Done well, it adds a lot.

            • MikhailBorg says:

              The Trek universe is a lovely place for roleplaying and fanfic set on other starships. Trek stories frequently mention that there are lots of Federation starships out there doing important things. (“You have to meet the U.S.S. Potemkin on this Stardate to transfer the MacGuffin because it’s on a tight schedule of doing its own universe-saving.”)

              This worked in Paramount’s favor when it came time to make Deep Space Nine, of course. “Yes, Picard’s important but as you’ll see, so is Sisko.”

              • Mike S. says:

                The last is more just a matter of shifting focus to another person who’s Doing Everything. Where’s the Federation flagship in the third existential crisis this year? Nowhere to be found unless there’s a movie being released, while a Commander (later Captain) with a spotty record deals with the worst threats to the Federation in living memory. (Except the Borg, but the Dominion did wider and more lasting damage.) Sisko suddenly has to juggle station command, warship design, diplomatic missions in two quadrants, and grand strategy, stopping to personally foil a coup against the Federation government. Because apparently no one else in the Federation, including the formerly omnicompetent Enterprise crew, is capable of doing anything.

                Do enough different character-focused serials, and you can build a universe or a multiverse. (That’s pretty much how superhero comics got where they are, for better or worse.) But historically that’s more a side-effect of a focus on single characters or teams than an intentional method.

                If Mass Effect lasts a few decades without a reboot and produces more than a handful of games, it’s possible it will do something similar. (Though the discontinuity with Andromeda will make it tougher.) Jacob and Miranda are sort of an abortive example: they did engage in a critical adventure that had nothing to do with Shepard, saving the Citadel from a batarian plot. But too few people played the iOS game they featured in or otherwise cared about them (especially Jacob) for them to be another nexus of the universe, and they were rolled into Shepard’s adventures rather than remaining on their own.

                Whatisname in the second iOS game could have been another such seed, if there’d been enough character and plot to be memorable. (But I’m sure he has fanfic in which he has a full emotional life.)

                Sure, you can also do a cast-of-thousands War and Peace-like epic. I’d be glad to see the attempt, especially in space opera where anything that gives a sense of scope is welcome. But they’re harder to get audience buy-in for, because people seem to like latching onto particular characters. And for anything that requires actors they’re logistically more complex. You keep the continuity problems that series already have, but also get some of the standalone’s need to win over the audience from scratch again.

                I’m all in favor. (It was the old Infinite Earths that won me to DC as a kid, and I love sprawling future histories in SF.) But it’s not my money that’s at risk. :-)

                • I’m all for a War and Peace style epic with the following caveat…
                  Do not end a chapter on a cliffhanger involving the possible death of a major character and not get back to it for 200 pages (my copy was 1100 pages total, so that was quite a long time to wait). It annoyed me so much that that’s all I really remember of the book (well, that and that books like it make great college admission essays and carrying around Russian novels for a year is a good way to make your teachers worry about you).

          • 4th Dimension says:

            Don’t get me started on how idiotic is the premise that the fate of the universe rests on how good is a ground pounder at shooting his gun in a space opera, with warships that can devastate planets.

            • Mike S. says:

              How many space operas place the fate of the universe in plausible hands? (Farm boy with natural, untrained magic talent that lets him instantly operate space fighters better than veterans? Borderline legal crew of a marginal cargo ship? Teenager who’s good at arcade games? Preteen who doesn’t even know that he’s actually fighting the war?) To some extent, this is arguably criticizing the genre rather than the story.

              To be fair, the granddaddy of them all, the Lensman series, did have its protagonist rise in administrative rank and utilize fleets in addition to his fists. But he still had to get hands-on more than once in a way better suited to adventure fiction than the way the world tends to work. And the great-granddaddy, the Skylark series, put the fate of multiple galaxies into the hands of a couple of clever early 20th century Earth scientists who’d discovered an interesting property of one copper alloy.

              • 4th Dimension says:

                My problem isn’t so much that the fate of the universe rests upon one man. That fighter pilot might make great contributions by protecting his capital ships, the scoundrels might be important because they are the only ones that can smuggle the macguffin through SPACE. My problem is that they have these big space battles whose outcome they hinge upon the performance of a grunt. In space if a fleet is nearby grunts are irelevant to the wareffort since once a fleet controls the orbit of a planet, they can glass anything on the surface with IMPUNITY.
                If you want gunshooting and want the PC to be a hero you need to scale back the level of conflict, to something a grunt can actually contribute to.

                • INH5 says:

                  Though that sort of thing is far from uncommon in other sci-fi stories either. See, for example, Return of the Jedi, where the shield protecting the second Death Star is generated from a facility on a nearby moon solely to provide a reason for a ground battle to be relevant to the success of the big climactic space battle.

                  But I agree that this is a huge problem for the Mass Effect series. It’s even worse than Star Wars and similar franchises because it is perfectly feasible for those movies to have the climax entirely consist of a space battle (see the original Star Wars), but since the Mass Effect games have absolutely no space combat or space strategy elements, every space battle is going to be a cutscene. In fact, they’re almost invariably short cutscenes, because time and money spent making impressive pre-rendered cinematics is time and money that isn’t spent on the parts of the game that people will actually play.

                  I still think that this is the single biggest non-ending-related problem with ME3 in particular. ME3 is initially presented as a story about fighting the Reapers to save the galaxy, but because the game can’t tell that story, it quickly turns into a story about fighting Cerberus for possession of an ancient artifact that can save or destroy the galaxy.

                  • Mike S. says:

                    As someone (maybe you?) already noted, making the main opponents of a groundpounder actual spaceships was an odd choice. But once the enemy is mechaCthulhu, it’s pretty clear that the gameplay part of the finale is going to be about either activating or destroying the Great Dingus that you/they need to save/conquer the galaxy. (Which is, of course, how each installment in the series ends.) Even if the enemy were living tanks like the larger geth, or something otherwise more amenable to shooting on a planetary surface, the difference in power level points to some equivalent to hitting the vulnerable exhaust port or dropping the Ring in the fire of Doom.

                    And you could convert either of those to the other combat mode: destroying the Death Star requires someone to get to the vulnerable bits deep inside the structure on foot via stealth, subterfuge, or straight up firefights (if they hadn’t already used that for the Save the Princess phase); destroying the Ring requires the hottest Eagle-wrangler in the northwest of Middle Earth to thread a way through an air defense net of blasting fires, an Eye that can see for a thousand miles even without a seeing-stone, and horrific undead sorcerers on pterosaurs, to reach a tiny volcanic vent wreathed in ash clouds. (“Eored Five, I’m going in.”)

                  • 4th Dimension says:

                    I know it’s common, and that is precissely why it annoy’s me so much. Like in BSG where the main chars in military are pilots. But moment there is any infantry battle, like a boarding party or something they grab guns and start LEADING marines. NO NO NO you dinguses. You are a pilot, a valuable resource for the war effort. It’s a dereliction of duty to cast yourself in a infantry role where normal infantry that are TRAINED to do what they do would be smiliary or more effective, and infantry can be replaced more easily.

                    But it seems somebody is not a badass unless they shoot a gun at some point.

                    • INH5 says:

                      Battlestar Galactica’s issues with this are more due to the limitations of a live action TV show. The short version is that under union rules extras can’t have any lines, and if a character has even one line the actor playing the character must be paid the full union rates. As such, introducing new characters is expensive, so TV shows tend to contrive to have the main cast do as much as possible. You see this not just in Battlestar Galactica, but also in medical dramas like House where a handful of characters perform a wide range of tests and operations that would realistically each be done by trained specialists. Or in CSI, where the main characters investigate crime scenes in the field, run all sorts of laboratory tests, interrogate suspects, and more. I’m a big fan of these reviews of House episodes by a doctor, and he makes some very similar complaints to the ones you’re making about BSG.

                      Video games don’t have this problem to the same degree, partly because actor unions don’t have anywhere near the level of clout in the video game industry that they do in the American film and TV industries, but also because a single voice actor with a decent range can portray many different characters, especially when the characters only have a few lines each. Hence, Mass Effect is actually pretty good at having the various specialists stick to their specialties with the notable exception of Shepard commanding a space ship and leading every away mission and participating in high stakes diplomatic negotiations. Or at least it was pretty good at this until ME3, when a bunch of your squadmates get at times absurd promotions to very high ranking positions yet still accompany you on away missions for no real reason.

                    • 4th Dimension says:

                      I understand why they do that, but it still annoys me. And they could have had like one side character who is Marine Commander and have him be the one in charge of marines, and if you really waant to throw main line actors at the enemy, establish that on the ground they are under his command.

                    • Daemian Lucifer says:

                      So what you are saying is that starship troopers is the most realistic one of them all.

                    • 4th Dimension says:

                      It was kind of sort of modelled to Starship troopers, the granddady of military SF, so that is not surprising.

    • SlothfulCobra says:

      It’s so tempting to say things that don’t fit in with the rest of the game mechanics though. If you restrict yourself like that, you have to throw out a lot of the standard narrative tricks.

      • All the better, because those narrative tricks are lazy cliches and falling into them without thinking lessens everything that you do. Having restrictions on what you can do actually furthers creativity and makes everything BETTER. If you know from the outset “no B.S. allowed”, then you have to discover how to MAKE that work. You’re always tying the story and gameplay more closely together instead of just slapping down a couple of prefabricated bits and saying “yeah, that’s pretty okay!”

        • “Yeah that’s pretty okay!” could basically describe EA’s entire business model. :P

        • Blovsk says:

          Not that I entirely disagree but you’re going to end up handwaving either way and acting like there is a time limit when there isn’t is invariably less text than explaining why there isn’t a time limit when there should be.

          E.g. fictional RPG 32 wants to include Generic Cannibal Kidnapping Quest 7. PC 6 has to rescue NPC 123 before Generic Cannibals eat them. How do you frame that in such a way that it doesn’t have a time limit?

          Scenario 1: the person that sends you on the quest displays an unrealistic lack of concern because they can’t tell you to hurry or that you need to do it.
          Scenario 2: there’s an enormous amount of handwaving at the end (or better, start) of the quest as to why the kidnappee was never going to be eaten but you still did something useful.
          Scenario 3: You ignore the fact that the game doesn’t have a time limit and sort of take it on faith that the player is suspending their disbelief in the game mechanics to feel like the character the quest entails.

          Now, in a linear story, I think you can do that. I don’t think it’s remotely practicable in an open-world sidequest-riddled RPG of the kind that Bioware makes.

          Honestly, I’m convinced the closest you can get to that is the approach Baldur’s Gate 2 had where the dreams, loss of fluffy fancy powers, slayer transformation and so on give you a sense of urgency for (and continual interest in) the main quest while the cutaways to Spellhold indicate that bad stuff’s happening but that you getting there later might also be valid. Within the individual quests it’s almost completely hopeless.

          • Syal says:

            I think you could get away with it just by having one character always act like you have all the time in the world. Half a dozen people can tell you that time is of the essence, but your one NPC companion is like, “They’re overreacting, we’ve got time”, and suddenly that time limit is just someone’s opinion.

          • “E.g. fictional RPG 32 wants to include Generic Cannibal Kidnapping Quest 7. PC 6 has to rescue NPC 123 before Generic Cannibals eat them. How do you frame that in such a way that it doesn’t have a time limit?”

            Uh, easy. You don’t create a quest wherein somebody needs to be rescued “before they get eaten”. It doesn’t take any effort to EXPLAIN the lack of a time limit because you don’t write situations that ought to be time sensitive unless they actually are. You don’t say “I want to write X situation” and then try to jam it in to your structure somehow. You throw out, from the get go, anything that would violate your structural imperative. You don’t build a structurally sound house by saying, out of the blue, “I want to make this out of peanut shells!” and then go research some insanely esoteric and bizarre contrivance that’ll let you build a house out of peanut shells. You start with your end goal in mind and then seek out the options that will allow you to achieve that goal.

            In philosophy, this is known as the principle of final causation as opposed to the principle of efficient causation. You do what will achieve your defined goal as opposed to doing what you “want” and taking what you get. The latter method is an amusing one because it’s generally impossible to decide what you want (and prioritize it) without some idea of what your goal is, anyway, so if you use this method you’re going to end up with a random grab-bag of conflicting elements.

            There are a lot of options in what goals you select and how you get there. A LOT. But people like to act as if they can’t be “creative” within a structure so the random grab bag is the preferable option. It is not. Unless you’d actually like to try living in a house made of peanut shells. I don’t recommend it.

            • If you look at their more recent games, Bioware actually seems to be trying to implement a more integrated approach. Look at the ideas behind “Galactic Preparedness” and the “Power” and “Influence” meters in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Companion approval meters are also a limited attempt at this. But it doesn’t work because the system itself is not a fully integrated work. I haven’t played ME3, but in DA:I, at least, the requirement to get power to do plot missions doesn’t work if only because the amount of power you need is miniscule compared to what you can GET. There are no trade-offs to weigh, no decisions to make–you simply farm power until you have enough. It’s a type of grind with story locked behind it, and locking anything behind grind simply makes that thing obnoxious. It does not, in itself, become a motivation. Instead it relies on a preexisting motivation that the player is already assumed to have. An assumption it may not be safe to make.

              There are areas you don’t HAVE to do as part of the main line plot, but here’s the thing . . . they’re basically only areas you can use to grind power. So you’re spending power in order to get more power. It’s a dog chasing its tail. Why bother?

              The reason why they’ve ended up with this model is because they have two conflicting goals–make lots of content, AND make most of that content “optional” . But having two conflicting goals like that is going to disintegrate your game. You wind up with two groups of players that both dislike it–the completionists, because the vast majority of the content is trivial or downright pointless, and the storyline-only people, because they wind up having to grind tedious stuff they don’t care about to get access to the story. The system that was SUPPOSED to bring it all together in fact accomplishes nothing of the sort.

              This is precisely both why the integrating principle is so important AND why it has to be something that can tie EVERY aspect of your game together–story, gameplay, mechanics, characters . . . everything you’ve seen fit to include. THEN you can make some things “progression-optional” . . . but people will probably want to do them anyway, because they will be integrated even if they aren’t a plot door. And, likewise, doing them won’t feel “grindy”.

            • Syal says:

              Even with a quest like “you have to rescue someone before they get eaten”, you can point out that if they wanted to eat her soon, it would have been easy to kill her before they took her back to camp, so the fact she’s still alive means they’re not ready to eat her yet and are going to keep her alive to preserve the freshness of the meat.

              Who knows, maybe she’s one of many people they’ve captured and are storing for the winter months when the other food supplies run low. Have you ever eaten human? There’s a reason animals won’t unless they’re really hungry.

              Seriously, the villagers are overreacting here, we’ve got time.

              • Yep, I thought of that, too. Or maybe they’re planning a big feast for the celebration of (indeterminate event). Or maybe something else is going on. “Kidnapped by Cannibals” doesn’t necessarily imply “time crunch”. A lot depends on how you phrase things, so you don’t have to ADD a lot of content, just change up your approach.

                But if the quest-issuing NPC says “there’s no time!” and “hurry” and “emergency!” 300 times, it’s pretty hard to get ’round the concept that you’re IMPLYING THAT THERE IS A TIME LIMIT.

                • Syal says:

                  I think the thing is, I’m fine with the game implying you should treat a quest like there’s a time limit, as long as it makes it clear that mechanically there isn’t one.

                  Preferably the argument for why you have plenty of time is noticeably flawed (“These people don’t shower, those cannibals won’t eat her until they find some soap, which means they’ll be waiting for traders”), and then when you put things off and that’s the only explanation you get for why you still succeed, the reaction is “I can’t believe I forced that stupidity to be canon.”

                  • The problem with this approach is that “makes it clear” is a WILDLY varying measure. Any DM will tell you how frustrating it is to have to yank out the clue bat and smack your players upside the heads with it to get them to pay attention to something you said loud and clear multiple times. You cannot BOTH communicate objectives clearly AND freely hand out false “information”. It’s a plain fact that if you burble a bunch of junk, people will start to ignore you. Then they wind up stumbling around blind because you have no way of telling them clearly what they need to do. It doesn’t matter whether any given person “minds” it or not–it’s lazy and bad writing AND bad design and it needs to stop. It sucks all the potential for subtlety and complexity out of everything for the sake of spectacularly inane crappy writing shortcuts.

                    Also, your solution for bad and lazy writing is to punish the PLAYER with FURTHER stupidity?! The heck?! Might as well title the quest “stupid waste of your time” and be done with it.

                    • Syal says:

                      With in-game quests, a voice of dissent that doesn’t give up is as clear as a game needs to be that there’s another option. And if they ignore the hint that the time limit isn’t really there, all that happens is they act on a deadline that doesn’t exist and it makes things more dramatic.

                      You say punish, I say reward. A game that doesn’t have the option to make some things look stupid is a game that takes itself too seriously for me anyway.

            • Blovsk says:

              I think that’s really putting the cart before the horse, though, and when you eliminate any quest where time would obviously be a limiting factor, you’ll end up with a very different type of game to what’s currently being done. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but I think you end up in a scenario where you’re writing around the neatest introduction into a particular concept because you don’t want to give the player a false sense of urgency.

              Let’s say you have things to talk about, interesting ideas about how to frame a cannibal society – a tension between devoted cannibals and pragmatic ones within the society, some stranglehold on other food sources (perhaps implemented by the village or whatever you’re aiding) that the player can remove. You still need a quest hook to get the player to go there. Now, if as a principle of gameplay you want to cater to completionists and not force the player into doing quests they don’t feel like at the moment, I don’t really see what incentive you can offer them. This type of RPG thrives off variety and ideas generally, not off ludo-narrative consistency.

              • Kian says:

                You could then maybe implement some time-keeping mechanic. She’s not saying “don’t ever have quests that rely on a time-limit”. She’s saying “communicate clearly and truthfully.” You could have travel and quests take some known amount of time, keep track of that time, and then have some quests say when you grab them “you have x days to complete the quest”. Then you can urge players to hurry (or to not dick about) or they fail the quest.

                If the concept you want to introduce is important to the game, the game mechanics should reflect it. If it’s just some generic idea that clashes with the mechanics you can actually use, then maybe this is not the game for it.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Actually, it’s really EASY to convey these rules if you practice integration, namely, MEAN WHAT YOU SAY/SAY WHAT YOU MEAN.

      Youre a loose cannon Jennifer Snow!Such radical ideas have no place in my narrative precinct!Its never going to work I tell you!

    • Jörg says:

      A lot of THIS!

      Every time a game tells me to hurry up, I just wave it away, because it never means anything. Moreover, every time a game tries to build tension through cut scenes or quick time events, it utterly fails. A fact that is made worse if you can just repeat the sequence after failing it. Let there be real consequences!

      I’ve only encountered two exceptions to this so far.

      1) The beginning of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where you are repeatedly told to hurry up and there is actually a consequence. Imagine my surprise (and anger, because I didn’t realise)!

      2) The game “I Am Alive” has a stamina system in place, where you can only climb for so long, until you fall. This system creates real, adrenalin inducing tension. It’s really fantastic and (so far) a one of a kind experience for me, that I wish would get more use or was build upon.

  3. Raygereio says:

    and never even bothered to put a lame, thought-about-it-for-ten-seconds excuse in the codex to explain this discrepancy.

    You can ask Javik in ME3 about Ilos and he’ll say those statues were made by a race from before the Protheans’ cycle. The Protheans basically just squated in the ruins.
    Not the best of handwaves, but at least it fits with the established setting.

    But then in the latter games some dingbat decided that Human-sized Jamaican[2] bug-men would be so much “cooler” than these design cues.

    The problem was more that some dingbat on the ME2 team thought it would be cool to have the Protheans make a return and have them engage in combat. So the Protheans would have to be redesigned into something that would fit with the game’s combat system (meaning bipedal and of such a size that they can use cover).

    • INH5 says:

      The explanation is rather awkward, but it actually does make a few things in ME1 make more sense. For one thing, the description of Illos mentions that it is dotted with the ruins of multiple cities, but Vigil’s story only makes sense if the research facility of a few hundred people was the only inhabited settlement on the planet. If Illos was a fully inhabited colony then 1) it’s unlikely that a few files getting lost on the Citadel would be enough for the Reapers to miss it (and Vigil says “Illos was spared,” not “this research facility was spared”), and 2) if the Reapers did miss it, then there would be no need for the business with the stasis pods, they could just hunker down and survive off of the pre-existing Illos economy until the Reapers left, then repopulate and rebuild the empire.

      Now that I think about it, it also helps explain why Liara can know about Illos from references in Prothean ruins when the Reapers supposedly did not. Presumably, the Protheans at large knew about Illos as “the lost planet of the Inuusanon,” and referenced it in artifacts that survived into the present cycle, but only the top Prothean leaders knew about the super secret mass relay research facility that they established on it.

  4. Attercap says:

    Javik makes a throwaway line in ME3 about the statues actually being the race on that planet in the previous cycle (guess whatever that race was, they knew how to build statues that last), but it doesn’t explain why they’re the race in the vision. …Incidentally, I believe Javik’s accent is Kenyan or Nigerian, which isn’t Caribbean at all. Though his presence would have been a lot more fun if he said things like, “e’rry ting is not irie.”

    • INH5 says:

      I can think of a few possible handwaves. Vigil did say that the message was meant for any surviving Protheans out there, so maybe the message it was trying to get across was, “those things that nearly wiped us out are the things that wiped out the Inuusanon 50,000 years ago, and they’re gonna try to come back in another 50,000 years!”

      But no, I don’t think the game ever tries to explain it.

      • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

        It’s also mentioned that the Prothean Empire included many species, of which the most powerful was Javik’s -the Protheans from whom the rest took their names. Sort of like how the Greeks called themselves the Romans from 400-1453.

        However, I still find it dissatisfying. After Ilos, we never see any type of Prothean other than the Javik-type, so it feels like (and is) an obnoxious retcon.

        • Mike S. says:

          Yeah. The game could have treated the Protheans as a civilization rather than a species, or as something that meant one or the other depending on context. Unfortunately, it didn’t– in ME2 and 3 they were the insectoids whose DNA shows up in the Collectors plus (according to Javik) their slaves.

          This could be handwaved as a combination of limited archaeological evidence and Javik– who after all was living in a militarized rump state after centuries of focus on a losing war– being an unreliable narrator. But since we’ll never see anything else from the Milky Way post-ME3, that’s unlikely to ever be established. (Even assuming anyone writing cared to make the change.)

          Though Javik’s having a different accent from Vigil strikes me as pretty minor in itself. A galactic civilization should have multiple accents– multiple languages– and translation is handled through multiple handwavy ways (machine translation, Shepard having the Cipher, Vigil listening to broadcasts, Javik being able to pick up knowledge through chemical traces somehow) that would let them sound like anything.

          • Joe Informatico says:

            Man, there’s still this hang up in a lot of space opera where a given civilization must always be composed of a single species–or occasionally two if it’s a Very Special Episode about not committing genocide. You can find exceptions among well-written literary SF but the visual media rarely break from it.

            Star Trek was such a huge influence on the genre for TV, film, and games, to be sure. (In a sense, the Federation is a civilization composed of multiple species, but in a more accurate sense, it’s a galactic alliance of different species-civilizations that share some common philosophies–a space United Nations with teeth.) I suppose most productions have to worry about costume and makeup budgets, and effects, and that’s part of the reason why they keep things simple. But a AAA game like Mass Effect? How much more does it cost to make a few more diverse art assets, after the sunk costs of development? Especially if they’re mostly non-combat character models.

            • Mike S. says:

              Though in ME, while the governments (other than the Citadel itself) are all species-based, most of the planets are pretty diverse. There may be a majority species, but there’s nothing odd about seeing volus, salarians, humans etc. on Ilium, asari, hanar, and krogan on Noveria, etc. The species themselves are still relatively monocultural, it’s true, but it’s a start.

              occasionally two if it’s a Very Special Episode about not committing genocide.

              Or a Very Special Episode advocating genocide-through-inaction.

          • Dragmire says:

            Aren’t Javik and Vigil the only characters of the same species(other than humans) to not share the same accent though as depicted in the games? Since accents have been presented as one per race, it’s rather jarring when the only exception show’s up without explanation or hand waving.

            • Attercap says:

              Humans in ME have multiple accents. And due to the voice actors, some Asari have mildly different accents. The Quarians have very diverse accents. Which also stands out a bit, given that the race is probably the most self-contained–but a colony of hundreds of ships would still develop its own slang and potentially accents per ship.

  5. Kameron says:

    I wish more games had a time factor for the main crisis. It would add to the sense of urgency, that the PC’s actions are central to action. One way to reconcile having a clock on the main plot and allow the freedom and openness necessary for sidequests is to have those sidequests grant time to the clock. By delivering X goods, or repairing the relationship between characters Y and Z, you’ve freed certain resources that add a few ticks to the countdown timer.

    • Zombie says:

      Mass Effect 2 does it pretty well. Collectors abduct your crew, and then you can only do two missions before they become puddles of goo.

      They don’t actually tell you you only have two missions, but its made pretty clear that you should probably go know to save them.

      • Falterfire says:

        I’d say ME2 actually does a really rubbish job here because of the surrounding context. In a vacuum, the idea that you can only do a couple more things before you undertake the next mission sounds interesting, but the game makes a couple terrible decisions that undermine that:

        1) You have no clue you’re about to trigger this timer. If you haven’t played through the game before, this event will come as a surprise after another story mission. This is really important because…

        2) This is your last chance to run missions before the final level. If you started this timer too soon, you won’t have time to run all the sidequests before running the final level, which is an even bigger problem because…

        3) If you don’t have loyalty missions for all your crew members, they can die in the final fight. So at this point you have to choose between saving your party members or saving the rest of the crew, which is a choice that can be totally avoided if you know going in not to set off the timer until you’ve done that. And this really screws over players who don’t have backup saves before the timer is set off because…

        4) You need the save from completing the last mission to import into 3, which means you could potentially be missing Tali & Garrus in three because you didn’t know what would set the timer off in 2 and didn’t save before setting it off.

        It ultimately serves as a ‘gotcha’ moment that comes out of nowhere and only threatens players who had the gall to try playing through the game without having a guide at hand.

        • Thomas says:

          I can’t remember, but doesn’t Mass Effect give you a big warning if you try to do a mission after the event occurs? I feel like EDI says “Are you sure you want to do that Shepard?”

          If that’s the case, that’s plenty hint enough that something might happen. The game is signalling that this time is different than the others

          • Taellosse says:

            As I recall, it only gives you that warning AFTER you escape the Citadel, and go to select Ilos on the Galaxy Map. Technically, you can keep doing side quests before hitting Ilos, so long as they don’t involve returning to the Citadel. Which ties into that whole narrative disconnect Shamus was talking about.

          • Falterfire says:

            Yes, but by that point it’s too late to do both do the loyalty missions and save the crew – a dilemma players who have played before or have read a walkthrough will never face, but which will punish players who didn’t keep backup saves or obsessively complete all available sidequests before progressing the main story.

        • Mephane says:

          It is BS like this why I do all the side quest first, in every game – but I will still resent it every time I recognize this extra-cautious approach of mine as justified.

      • SlothfulCobra says:

        I thought the time limit was two missions between the Reaper IFF and the Collector attack, and then if you wait any then half your crew (including Kelly and Gabby) is Reaper goo. Then the rest goes if you keep stalling for time, leaving only Chakwas left.

        I kind of like games that give you a set deadline off in the future, like Fallout, Star Contol 2, or Pikmin. That gives you some latitude for dicking around, but it’s clear and straightforward that there will be tension if you start running out of time. Springing a deadline on the player while they’re in the middle of things puts too much of a wrench in your plans.

    • Victor McKnight says:

      Thanks to ME1, a few Final Fantasy games (VIII in particular) and various other old RPG examples, I have just started assuming the second to last mission in any RPG will trigger a point of no-return. This ended up working out really well for me in ME2.

      Of course its not always easy to tell what that second to last story mission is going to be.

      One game that is actually pretty good about this is Quest for Glory 2 (and now I feel old). From the start, the game hangs the caravan departure date over your head. NPCs make just a big enough deal about it that you basically know its a point of no-return.

    • Falterfire says:

      The trick is figuring out how to set the clock up effectively and making sure the player doesn’t feel like they need a guide to beat the clock. There are games where it can work – In Recettear, working with the clock is sort of the whole point – but I think in a lot of games it would just lead to needless frustration rather than building tension.

      You need it to be obvious how fast time passes, but you also need to ensure it doesn’t actually pass in real time. You don’t want a player to lose because they forgot to press the pause button before getting up to do something. You also have to ensure that the time limits are for the next thing and are reasonable, or else you risk having unwinnable saves.

      It would be super frustrating to play through a game and realize five hours in that you didn’t have enough in-game time left to actually complete the next objective but no saves to fall back to where you did have enough time (And of course, even if that save exists, most players will likely quit rather than redoing large chunks of the game again).

      So I think you would need the clock to be based on some sort of in-game action (Like interplanetary flights taken) rather than time spent in world, and you also need to make sure a player never ends up stuck in a position where they haven’t lost but don’t have enough time to win. I’m not sure there are that many games that would get enough out of the timer to make it worth the time you’d spend making sure it didn’t make the game less fun.

    • Blovsk says:

      It’s really tough communicating to the player exactly what the time factor is in an in-universe way. Fallout 1 is more or less the only RPG that has *ever* done this well in my view.

      In addition, the central countdown would kind of need to be a feature of a very different type of RPG to the ones we have now… something more like Faster Than Light than a completionist Skyrim or Fallout 3 or Mass Effect. It’s also incredibly unsatisfying and gamey to lose because ‘time ran out’ most of the time.

      • Andy_Panthro says:

        Fallout 1 did it very well, it allowed you to extend the limit even, but people still hated it.

        I thought it was a nice way to present the urgency of your situation, it was always clear how many days you had left. Fallout 1 didn’t have tons of places to visit either, and there was a level cap, so I’d be surprised if many people ran out of time.

    • Trix2000 says:

      I think an interesting case is the Persona games, since not only do they have time progression (only so many days) but they also have instances where you have limited time to accomplish certain goals (ie: rescuing people before they die in 4). But these are not at all based on real time – essentially, every ‘large action’ takes up one period of time, of which each day has two (daytime, evening) so that you can easily plan out what you want (and take care of any number of small ancillary things, like buying stuff and getting/turning in quests) while still having that inexorable forward motion that makes you really consider how you are spending your time.

      And the consequences of failing the timer aren’t too bad either – you get a scene in which the bad thing happens, but then the game sends you back a fair bit of time to try again. It still sucks to hit that point, but you’re never stuck.

      The system is also part of why I encourage people to play the games without a guide the first time, since the initial experience feels more real that way and there’s no major negative consequences (outside 100% completion, I guess) for making the ‘wrong’ use of your time.

      • guy says:

        Also, you know well in advance when plot critical events will happen; Persona 3 advances on full moons and Persona 4 advances when you see a giant block of rain on the forecast.

        • Ringwraith says:

          Although Persona 3’s version was much clunkier, and due to the fact you were forced into a fight when the time was up, you don’t have to chance to prepare yourself if you didn’t beforehand.
          However, what the game doesn’t tell you is that the night before a full moon, no-one will ever get tired on a trip the resident dungeon to level up, so as long as you have a save there you can’t lock yourself into a losing situation. Though full moon days you’re forced to immediately leave after school, without even being given the chance to buy stuff from the shops. 4 fixed this by making it possible to not turn up to your time-sensitive objective (which flings you back a week to give you a chance to reorganise yourself), and you initiate it when you want, even the first day it pops up.

          Basically 4 does it so much better. But you are always aware of how long you have to sort things out, though 4 makes it so you’re aware of what you face before the deadline, rather than facing something unknown right on the deadline itself. 3 even spoils itself by having a lunar indicator on the UI at all times long before anyone in the game makes the connection to full moons.

    • Bubble181 says:

      And then there’s the Daggerfall approach, where there’s no real time limit, until you randomly – yes randomly, it can be on day #1 or after five in-game years, pretty much – get a letter telling you the world will end in 300 or so days.
      Hint: it really, actually does, unless you progress the main quest far enough in the time left. Sadly, it’s perfectly possible to be more than 300 days away from the next point you have to go to to finish that main quest. Good luck!

  6. MrGuy says:

    Man, now I’m thinking how awesome it would be if Udina had worked your way.

    “You’re disappointed, Shepard. I understand. But this is a fight we can’t win in the council chamber. You have to understand – they’re afraid you’ll start a war. And they don’t see the threat from Saren.

    “I mean, you and I both know that if the council let you leave, you’d sneak into the Ilos system, keep things nice and quiet and you’d come back with hard evidence we could use. And if you brought back that evidence, we both know the council would support you. But they can’t take that risk.

    “I’m sorry, Shepard, but my hands are tied here. For the short term, the Normandy is on lockdown. Locked with this code I have here on this disk I’m holding in my hand right now. I simply can’t overrule the council and give it to you. I’m sorry, Shepard. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put this disk back in the third drawer of my desk where it belongs. I have meetings to attend. I’m sure you can show yourself out of my office.”

    • Alexander The 1st says:

      That would’ve been great, actually. It would’ve also explained why Udina was trying so hard to get in good with the Council – he could get the position, then still “misplace” the way to keep his Spectre companion from doing what needed to be done.

      • Ringwraith says:

        His character finally works in 3 really, as he’s quick to be on your side now it’s both your problem.
        The turian councillor similarly quickly offers to help due to being stuck in the same boat, though he has problems he needs assistance with first before he can work something out.

  7. Mattias42 says:

    About the ‘The Conduit’ being a silly name for a weapon thing…

    We know from the later games that we were lied to about that, but at this point in the series we thought the Proteans were the builders of the mass effect relays.

    The idea that they made some super relay that, say, conducts white dwarf matter towards any point in the universe at speeds and distances far beyond what’s safe for organics to to travel at but would obliterate entire systems isn’t that stupid an idea.

    That, or some type of translation error. The Proteans are near unknowns, after all, so something that used to be named ‘The Conduit of The Creators Wrath’ for example being partially corrupted (or for that matter shortened without Sheperd’s knowlage) isn’t beyond the veil of possibility.

    So, yeah, the faults of ME aside, I have to admit I think that particular red herring was rather clever. Even if you see The Conduit as being a literal name, there’s still a big chance of miss-reading what it conducts.

  8. Zombie says:

    For the council’s refusal to take Reapers seriously at this point: The council has a pretty big fleet in its own right. I mean, they’re confident enough about taking on a giant fleet of Geth, why should one bigger than normal ship (which should just have conventional weapons, or at least Geth based weapons, right?) be a threat to the Destiny Assention and a combined Turian/Asari fleet (I think its Turians and Asari at least).

    Also, which story is easier to buy:

    Saren goes insane and/or wants to take over the galaxy, enlists the Geth using their gods, the Reapers, and leads on a gullible Spectre with the same story.


    Every 50,000 or so years sentient machines come through and wipe out all intelligent life in the galaxy; one of these machines has corrupted Saren, the best Spectre the council has, and is now attempting to attack the Citadel because….. reasons (remember, we don’t have Vigil at this point to tell us why the Reapers want the Citadel).

    • MrGuy says:

      Now I really want “Geth-based weapons” to have been a thing.

      Imagine – rather than shooting projectiles, the Geth have guns that literally shoot other Geth at another ship. Rather than have a kinetic impact be the thing that damages your ship, instead you have an engineer bot literally cutting open your hull from the outside, the tossing a nerve gas grenade into your environmental systems or something.

    • 4th Dimension says:

      One small problem, they should know this ship is not powered by normal tech. They have footage of it LANDING/LEVITATING above planet surface. The power requiremnts to perform such a feat with a ship MUCH larger than anything ever seen by Council races is staggering. And the game does note that. Also Normandy did sensor record Sovreign doing an 180 turn like a jet and pulling insane speeds once you start talkong to Sovreign. That should start cluing them in that they are dealing with as ship hundreds or thousands of years more advanced than their own.

  9. Jeff says:

    The old Spiderweb Software RPG Exile III: Ruined World did the time thing really well – it makes clear that friendly settlements are under attack, and Bad Things will happen if nothing is done. Over the course of the game, if you haven’t finished specific quests in a timely manner, certain settlements are destroyed, which closes off some side quests, kills some NPCs, etc. – but nothing in a way that forces you to move forward before you’re ready.

    So there is a logical consequence for doing too much screwing around – but at the same time, you’re free to do as much screwing around as you want (as long as it’s not in the settlements that get destroyed).

    • cassander says:

      Hah, I came hear to say exactly this. God that was a fantastic game, such a ludicrously gigantic world to explore. I probably sunk hundreds of hours into that game, and I’m still miffed that I never managed to find out if you could Kill Erika and loot her tower.

  10. SlothfulCobra says:

    Bioware’s games have an advantage in exposition, because it feels like way less of a hassle to be delivered exposition in a conversation rather than a cutscene of someone lecturing at you. The player can give reactions to statements that the NPC makes, and if you get tired of the exposition, the player can decide to skip over some of the inquisitive options to skip straight to the next bit.

    That’s one of the key parts of what defines storytelling in games as a medium; all of the information is pre-recorded like in a book or a movie, but you as a player get to choose what parts you focus on or skip over. A quick little conversation can telescope out into a big ol’ lecture, but you can also usually skip through the prompts and not bother listening to the whole speech clip, and through it all, you are periodically given pauses to think about what you’re hearing when a cutscene would just steamroll over you. You choose your own pacing as you go through. It’s a little microcosm of the greater system of storytelling in games, where a player can investigate an area or pass it over.

    Naturally, Mass Effect 3 approaches this by refusing to let you get into real conversations with people most of the time.

  11. guy says:

    I felt like the council was being pretty stupid in this scene and Shepard was failing at being convincing. The thing is, everyone seems pretty confident that the Geth can’t storm the Citadel. Saren is almost certainly aware of this. He’s been putting a lot of work into finding the Conduit, evidently because he thinks it will change that. It would thus be a very good idea to keep him from getting it. Of course, sending a fleet could trigger a war, and it might be a decoy to weaken their defenses. That is a dilemma that could be resolved by the stealth ship of the person they are talking to, since it provides little firepower and turns invisible. They don’t think of that and Shepard inexplicably fails to suggest it.

    • Raygereio says:

      Shep can suggest sending her with the Normandy’s stealth systems in.
      The council’s reaction is to basically roll their eyes at you and say that “Hah, you expect us to believe you can be discreet? You blew a nuke on Virmire!”.

      Yeah, they went there. Even before ME2 where people called you out for having “made the choice” of working with Cerberus, Bioware had NPCs chew you out for daring to follow Bioware’s own railroad.

      • INH5 says:

        Worse, detonating the nuke wasn’t even Shepard’s idea. Kirrahe was the one who came up with that plan.

        • Alexander The 1st says:

          Although to be fair – the idea was allowed access because Shepard felt it was needed to stop the Krogan cure in Saren’s hands – is there reason to believe he would be less willing to help someone else do similar to Saren when it comes to reaching the Conduit?

          I mean, if Shepard wanted to be discreet about the Saren Krogan Cure, he could’ve done a mission to disable it (Standard Salarian protocol, even), or to turn it towards the Council’s attention and/or use – take Saren’s effort and claim it was Shepard’s work for the Council, since it *is* off the books anyways -, and try to get the Krogan on their side.

          This isn’t even getting into destroying the Therum Prothean Ruins with a mining laser, heavily disrupting Noverian relations and potentially unleashing the Rachni on the galaxy again or removing the last potential subject for Council research custody, nor the [Potentially non-lethal] firefight on Feros.

          Shepard really doesn’t have a record of “subtle” work.

          • INH5 says:

            But I still don’t see how it would be relevant in this case. The entire thing about Illos is that no one during this cycle has ever visited it or even its star system. So no matter what kind of chaos Shepard ends up causing on Illos, no one who matters is going to know about it (at least not for several years, due to light speed lag). The only concern is if the Normandy’s stealth systems can get it into the Terminus Systems and to the Mu Relay without being detected, and that’s entirely independent of Shepard’s command style.

            • Mike S. says:

              Except insofar as Shepard’s command style is to stop on the way to mission-critical planets in order to reduce bases full of random mercs and collect asari matriarch writings and old salarian medallions. And prospect. (“Oooh! Tungsten!”)

      • Tom says:

        That also sets the precedent of later Mass Effect games schizophrenically lurching back and forth between super-futuristic weapons (hand-held mass-effect mass-driver rifles that don’t need magazines, ethereal hard-holographic drones, forcefields, etc) and late WWII-era tech (the nuke used in ME1 is as huge and bulky as a first-generation atomic bomb – in reality those things got miniaturised fairly rapidly, to the point where they even built nuclear mortar rounds and artillery shells, although I suppose we can handwave it since in-story it’s a bodge job using a power reactor – maybe making it smaller would take too long), culminating in shooting down a reaper with a couple of truck-mounted V2 rockets. It may be the future and halfway across the galaxy, but apparently still nothing beats the stuff humans had in 1945.

  12. INH5 says:

    The scene where Shepard gets put into lockdown is where the game’s story lost me on my first playthrough. Nothing about the scene makes any sense at all. Why does the Council think that Saren is going to attack the Citadel? The player never comes across any suggestion that this is going to happen until the talk with Vigil, yet the Council somehow already knows that it is going to happen. Did they read the script? Why are they criticizing Shepard for a plan that the STG came up with? Why do they care about a nuke being detonated on a planet that was only inhabited by killer robots, traitors, and war criminals? Why does Shepard refer to the Conduit as a weapon when he still has no idea what the Conduit is? When they say that Shepard has only seen the Reapers in dreams, why can’t you tell them about the time that you friggin’ talked to one?

    Why can’t you reason with the Council? Point out that whether the Reapers exist or not, Saren is headed to a planet that is sure to have a bunch of Prothean tech, so there are very good reasons to want to get there first. Point out that you have a stealth ship, so you can get to Illos without anyone knowing that you were ever in the Terminus systems. Ask what, exactly, they plan to do about Illos with their “deft touch.” All the game lets you say is “we have to go to Illos!”

    The entire Normandy lockdown plot point is breathtakingly nonsensical.


    While this is more a complaint about the next part of the game, I’ve got a lot of stuff I plan to say about that part when it comes and I want to get this one thing out the way now. After all that, how on God’s green Earth does Joker end up back with the Alliance fleet during the battle of the Citadel? Shepard never orders him to head back to the Citadel, and never tells him about what is happening with Saren and the Conduit. In fact Shepard never contacts Joker at all after landing, so as far as Joker knows Shepard is still down on Illos and will likely need an evac in the near future. Why would Joker leave Shepard behind? (For some reason I’m getting a weird sense of deja vu…)

    As if that isn’t enough, I’m pretty sure that the trip from the Citadel to Illos and back the normal way takes longer than the hour or so at most you spend on Illos. On the galaxy map, a trip from the Eden Prime to the Citadel, which is said to take 19 hours, is shown with 2 node connections, whereas a trip from the Citadel to Illos is shown with 3 node connections. Unless traveling through the Conduit takes a really long time, there are big problems with the timeline here.

    And even if Joker did get back to the Alliance Fleet in time, it makes no sense that they would just welcome him back and let him lead the battle. Joker just disobeyed orders and deserted (for extremely good reasons, but the MPs wouldn’t care). Surely there would be a court martial or something. Whatever happened, he wouldn’t just casually answer when Shepard contacts him from the Citadel as if there was nothing unexpected about him being there. What is the point of having all that contrived drama about Shepard getting locked down if it’s just going to be ignored an hour later?

    The worst part is, the whole thing was unnecessary. Just cut out the lockdown nonsense and change the Council dialogue to have them tell Shepard that they’re willing to let him take the Normandy to Illos because it is a stealth ship, but they won’t be giving him any backup because Terminus Systems. Then when Shepard finds out about Saren’s plan, have him radio Joker and tell him to head back to the Alliance fleet and warn them about the attack on the Citadel. That would eliminate all of the above plot holes except for the travel time.

    • guy says:

      Since the Conduit is a Mass Relay, it should take as long as a direct relay trip. How that compares to a 3-node jump would depend on how much non-relay travel is needed. Since the Mu relay is a beta relay, you could jump directly from the other end of the connection to another beta relay in range.

      • Alexander The 1st says:

        It was my understanding that the Conduit was actually a direct-to-Citadel-structure relay – the Protheans had been trying to create their own relays themselves, which is why it’s inaccessible from the rest of the relay network despite being active.

        It would also explain how Saren managed to use it to get back to the Citadel once he learned what the Conduit itself was, without having to deal with being intercepted by blockading ships. Furthermore, it would explain how Sovereign didn’t even know that it was there until Saren got the beacons that listed it.

        • guy says:

          It is a dedicated point-to-point relay in the style of the primary relays, but that doesn’t mean it would be faster than if the Reapers had decided to install a direct link between Illos and the Citadel. The trip through the existing network should be roughly that transit time plus time to move between relays. Maybe more due to network geometry, but on the other hand as an experimental prototype the Conduit is probably slower than the ones the Reapers built.

    • Alexander The 1st says:

      After all that, how on God’s green Earth does Joker end up back with the Alliance fleet during the battle of the Citadel? Shepard never orders him to head back to the Citadel, and never tells him about what is happening with Saren and the Conduit. In fact Shepard never contacts Joker at all after landing, so as far as Joker knows Shepard is still down on Illos and will likely need an evac in the near future. Why would Joker leave Shepard behind? (For some reason I’m getting a weird sense of deja vu…)

      Perhaps there’s a default tracker on the Mako or the suits themselves – and Joker noticed it disappeared one second and appeared at the Citadel the next. Alternatively, the Conduit and other Mass Relays aren’t exactly subtle when they go off – Joker might have even noticed Saren beforehand, not knowing exactly what it was.

      At that point, alerting the Alliance fleet that *something* odd happened would be prudent. I mean, at that point, any point of the stealth aspect of the mission was completely shot down.

      • Except that any information leaving the suit tracker would have speed-of-light limitation and have to be relayed through a Mass Relay communication array for Joker to have any clue where Shepard had gone. Disappeared? Yes. Show up again anywhere else in time for Joker to do anything about it? No. IIRC in Mass Effect you need something the size of a ship to push an actual FTL message.

        Granted, rejoining the Alliance fleet after Shepard and crew disappeared (and IIRC you talk a fair bit about what you’re doing aboard the Mako during the conduit chase–Joker may be able to hear that radio chatter about what you’re doing) would make loads of sense.

  13. Retsam says:

    It’d be nice if they just stuck in some interface dialog when you try to land on Virmire saying “completing this mission will make some side-quests unavailable” or something to that effect. Sure, I guess it tips their hand a bit that Virmire isn’t just another episodic mission; but in my book that’s a lesser evil than the pain of an unannounced point-of-no-return.

    As said, the rules either way come from outside of the game world, so it’s really best just to convey these rules via an “obviously out of the game world” system dialogue.

    • guy says:

      Yeah, I prefer that approach, and they’ve gotten better about doing it.

    • Pyrrhic Gades says:

      Completing Virmire doesn’t necessarilly lock you out of a load of side missions. You only get locked out of doing that after completing all the 4 main mission worlds, Virmire is unlocked after completing 2 of them.

      • Alexander The 1st says:

        There’s also the side effect that it only locks you out of quests you have to go the Citadel, then back out to space, then to the Citadel again. You can still *technically* do the sidequests when you decide “Hey, let’s get un-grounded again and go to…Not Ilos!”

        At least, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t lock you out of all the sidequests you’ve taken, IIRC.

  14. Dreadjaws says:

    I was actually annoyed by that in Mass Effect 2, since I felt the game didn’t communicate to me clearly enough that spending time doing side-quests would result in people dying in the main story because I arrived too late.

    Or maybe the game did, and I ignored it, because games tend to constantly communicate urgency when you can literally spend days standing on a corner looking at the ceiling and nothing bad will ever happen until you actually move the plot forward on your own.

    In any case, I found it annoying because it happened to me on my second playthrough, not on the first one. I generally do all available side-quests first and then move on to story missions. This time, though, I spiced things up by doing story missions in between the side-quests, and that ruined my chances at saving those people.

    I will repeat, though, I feel the game didn’t communicate it hard enough. They could have said something along the lines of “Pay attention: don’t waste too much of your time in silly side-quests, or those people might not be alive when we go there”.

    • If they were honest about the way they presented things in the first place, they wouldn’t have to beat you over the head with it. But since games lie constantly about time pressures and resource pressures and other “problems” that don’t actually exist, when there IS an actual limitation, you never know about it until boom, there it is.

      The problem isn’t that they don’t telegraph, it’s that they constantly telegraph stuff that isn’t real.

      • guy says:

        I feel that when it’s necessary to convey information like that, the correct way to do it is have the interface tell you, or have an actual calendar that advances and some indication of when things will happen. Most games are in settings where there is some form of opposing force that actively does things, and it does not make in-world sense to not have a time crunch or for the characters to lack a sense of urgency. The lack of a time limit in virtually every game is an out-of-universe conceit, and information about it should be conveyed out-of-universe.

        • Having such a concept as “out of universe” communication for things that happen in game is lazy and immersion-breaking. That’s like expecting you to spend hours reading codex entries to hunt down trivial information so you can get past a plot door.

          And, no, most games don’t occur in settings where there is an opposing force that “actively does things”. Most games occur in settings where there is an opposing force that SUPPOSEDLY does things, but ACTUALLY sits around until the player finishes doing whatever they’re doing. There is a reason why this type of thing is called a “conceit”.

          It is very, very easy to take the pretend “time pressure” away without changing anything. Most games don’t even have any particular way to measure or track the passage of time ANYWAY. You don’t know if your dicking around was the work of a single day or a month. So why imply that time is “running out” when that’s clearly not the case?

          I really don’t get why anyone would defend the practice of intentionally serving up a wad of bullcrap. Because that’s the old familiar way of doing it so it must make sense somehow? Or are you afraid that they’re going to start instituting REAL time limitations (which often kind of suck). Or you just don’t grasp any narrative way to push a story without some screaming yahoo cracking a metaphorical whip over the protagonist?

          If I were making a parody of silly video game conceits, this would certainly top the list. I’d just make it blatantly obvious. Put a big ol’ 24-style pinging digital countdown clock in the Wise Old Mentor NPC’s office or something . . . but it only counts down when you’re actually IN his office. When you leave, no matter how long you’re gone, it hasn’t changed when you get back. Eventually, you get an option to ask him about it. “Oh, that thing? I just put that up there to motivate you. Frankly it annoys the heck out of me and I turn it off the moment you leave. I have no idea how much time we have left. What am I, a fortune-teller? I’m a Wise Old Mentor but I can’t predict the future. And who knows, maybe saving Little Sally’s cat and trying out every option in the local brothel will turn out to be important or something.”

          There is enough of mindlessly copying formulas in this industry.

          • INH5 says:

            Though I note that ME2 only has this problem between completing the Collector Ship mission and completing the Derelict Reaper mission. Before that point, you actually don’t have anything better to do other than to recruit team members and complete various sidequests while waiting for the next lead from TIM. After that point, crew members will die if you waste time before going through the Omega-4 Relay, and obviously once the Suicide Mission is over the whole issue is moot.

            So it seems that another solution is to have something other than the player’s actions drive the plot, but that has its own drawbacks.

            • Dreadjaws says:

              That’s kind of the issue. Since it only happens once it’s completely unexpected. Had it happened before with some mild consequence (like the loss of a small side quest or something like that) then players would probably be more careful next time.

              Another solution would have been to simply had some kind of on-screen countdown clock with some advice like “Shepard, I’ve extrapolated data based on previous encounters with Collectors and calculated the approximate time we have before the crew is irrevocably lost. I’ll put a timer on your omnitool and I suggest we act before it runs out.”

              It would have been an effort at least not to alienate the player who up until the moment it happens has literally zero clue that such a thing might happen.

              Edit: what the heck happened to my avatar?

          • MichaelGC says:

            Having such a concept as “out of universe” communication for things that happen in game is lazy and immersion-breaking. That’s like expecting you to spend hours reading codex entries to hunt down trivial information so you can get past a plot door.

            No, it’s more like a health-bar or a level-up notification.

            There’s a point in the Witcher 3 past which you can’t do several of the sidequests, and it handles this with a pop-up suggesting you make a manual save. I’m not sure what would have been a better way to handle it – possibly a conservation with Yennifer or something where you discuss how everything might change and wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to preserve the world in its current state…

            But I guess as the pop-up worked fine for me, I’m insufficiently motivated to come up with a better alternative! I guess one option would be to create a save for you, but then not tell you about it until afterwards.

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              Agreed.Having out of universe pop ups is way preferable(and easier) to stuff like “Hey there,Im xyz.So,my good sir,do you know how to wield your sword yet?Its a very important skill you know.Just push the ‘E button’,so to speak,in order to equip it.”

  15. Thomas says:

    Every interaction with the council in these games is written by someone with no understanding of how this works. It irritates me how dumb Shepard is about what the council is saying and it irritates me even more than someone wrote the council being reasonable quite a few times but _thought_ that was the council being dumb.

    It’s a special kind of stupid to write intelligent motivations and mock them for their stupidity.

  16. Mike S. says:

    I’d rather they had dialed back on the slimy politician angle and painted him as a smart man playing a difficult game against the other races. I like the idea of Udina as a calculating and pragmatic politician playing realpolitik against the vastly more powerful and experienced members of the council.

    I really thought they were moving in that direction in Mass Effect 3, where Udina allows himself to express vulnerability and desperation, and it seems as if he and Shepard are finally in a place where they’ll have to work together.

    It would have been nice if there’d been a choice to either pursue that, in which case he throws in with your desperate plan and becomes an asset, or to rebuff him due to distrust over previous dealings, in which case he can’t see any alternative to trying to seize power. (We’ll leave aside getting him a more plausible lever with which to do that than Cerberus.)

  17. Nelly says:

    First time through, I saw a quest called race against time and so tried to complete it as soon as possible. What a dumkopf! What an idiot! Surely I should have known that despite its name you can leave it for as long as you want, bimbling around the Galaxy, chatting up blue alien girls and shooting ineffective terrorists…

  18. Khizan says:

    “Nobody knows what the conduit is or what it does, so there’s no reason to expect that the blockade won’t work.”

    A conduit is a channel that allows something to pass through it, a pipe through which something passes. The very name of it should be a hint that it’s some kind of travel mechanism.

    I mean, if I find references to something called the “pipeline” and it turns out to transport something, I’d sound pretty stupid if I tried to claim that I had no idea what it would do.

    • guy says:

      On the other hand, conduit is usually used when referring to electrical systems.

    • It really doesn’t give any information about what the end result will be, though. “a thing that something passes through” is pretty unspecific. I mean, it could easily be:

      1. A channel that massive energy passes through to blow up all the Reapers.
      2. A passage that transfers all intelligent beings to another galaxy where they’ll be safe from the Reapers.
      3. A gateway that summons Cthulhu in the hopes that he will destroy the Reapers.
      4. A trap that sends all the Reapers to another dimension.

      You get the picture.

      • Khizan says:

        When the enemy is rushing to something called “the conduit” like Saren was, I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that they’re not letting in the deus-ex-machina that your side wants.

        The fact that it’s called a conduit should be a clue that something will use it to travel; the fact that Saren is going pedal-to-the-metal to get there should be a clue that you don’t want that something to do it. That or that Saren wants to seal the conduit and that you don’t want him to do it.

        • What’s most ironic, of course, is that Shepard could have just camped at the Mass Relay statue on the Citadel and shot Saren when he came through instead of going through all that rigmarole about chasing Saren down. I think that bit, at least, was INTENTIONALLY ironic, though. “Wait, I have to race to get BACK to the Citadel now? Didn’t I just bust my butt to get AWAY?!”

  19. Spammy says:

    The end game of Mass Effect 1 feels like it needs to come with a huge list of qualifiers and reminders given what happens later in the series or what is in the Codex.

    Remember, nothing explicitly says the Ilos statues are Protheans.
    Remember, Vigil is also not indicative of what Protheans look or sound like.
    Remember, Vigil says they sabotaged the Keepers, so that’s why the Reapers are rushed in 3.
    Remember, the Prothean flashback also doesn’t explicitly confirmed show living creatures so maybe that was another statue or the Prothean interpretation of the previous big race dying.

    The further we get into the endgame the more of these there are. But remember, almost everything you see from Vigil on is either oddball or not indicative. Even the writers forgot that in parts.

    • INH5 says:

      To be fair, you hardly need to add a qualifier of “Vigil is not indicative of what the Protheans look like,” because Vigil doesn’t look like much of anything.

  20. Alex says:

    I’ve found that after leaving the Citadel for Ilos you can actually go around and do sidequests after that, though I didn’t try returning to the Citadel. Doing quests then was what allowed me to get some needed level-ups for Master Lift.

  21. SlothfulCobra says:

    Every time you meet Udina or the Council, these games make very clear that they have a certain opinion on politics in general. At all times, all politicians ever do in these games is get in the way and make things worse. That’s why the default ending is to murder them all and put Udina on the new Council, because the writers feel that the politicians deserve to die, but Anderson needs to remain clean of politics, because Anderson is supposed to be the “good” authority, but politicians are supposed to be the “bad” authority.

    • Mike says:

      Are there any stories with a military protagonist in which politicians and political appointees aren’t either obstacles or antagonists? (With maybe one friendly exception, whose hands are inevitably tied.)

  22. Deager says:

    Loving the read while I just started trilogy run #15 tonight. Thanks Shamus. :D

  23. Zaxares says:

    Heh, that probably explains why in both ME2 and ME3, before starting the mission of no return, there is an NPC who basically says to you, “Are you SURE you want to do this? There’s no going back if you do!”

    ME3 also does a pretty good job of making Udina seem more relatable and human, at least before he went all “Oh, I’m just gonna ally with a terrorist organisation because I’m SURE that they can do a better job than our established militaries.”

    I also agree that Bioware basically decided to do a retcon on the appearance of the Protheans. They obviously intended to make those the Protheans in the first place, but backtracked for whatever reason when ME2/3 came along. (I have a suspicion it was because all those tentacles and the models used by the Protheans would have been too ungainly for a shooter.) They did it in a fairly plausible way (“Ilos was a Prothean planet that was built among the ruins of an earlier civilisation, the Inusannon.”), but I still think it wasn’t the best solution.

    It’s also interesting that the Reapers apparently took centuries to completely eradicate the Protheans, yet in ME3 the game makes it seem like the Reapers could completely exterminate all organis within a few decades. Granted, once you’re down to a handful of survivors on scattered stations, finding them all would be incredibly time-consuming, but you could honestly just target all the major planets, destroy all the fuel-production facilities, lock down the Mass Relays and then head back to dark space secure in the knowledge that the scattered survivors would not have the numbers, resources or facilities necessary to rebuild. They would either slowly die out, or regress to a primitive society and be of no further interest.

    • INH5 says:

      At one point in ME3, Liara does say something along the lines of, “we aren’t quite as widespread as the Protheans were, so it wouldn’t take them quite as long to wipe us out, though it should still take at least 100 years.”

      Regardless, I think the Reapers would have good reasons to want to hunt down as many scattered outposts as possible once they get done with the major planets. First, even if these settlements don’t have viable populations, they could still potentially leave some warning messages behind for the next cycle or otherwise potentially screw things up, like the Protheans on Illos did. Second, there’s the whole harvesting thing. The games never make it quite clear how that works (in particular, the Reaper tactics in ME3 look very inefficient for either wiping people out and at rounding people up for “ascension,” especially in comparison to the Collectors’ methods in ME2), but it does provide a motivation to go around the galaxy and grab as many people as possible.

      In addition, once the culling is done, there are still a lot of preparations to be made. The galaxy has to be swept clean of any evidence that the Reapers were here, except for a few caches of technology to give the next cycle a head start. I could see how that could take a while.

      • Mike S. says:

        It’s interesting that one of the game’s themes is strength through diversity and working together, but the monocultural, aggressive Protheans outdid the current cycle in breadth and tech advancement. Despite the current cycle having extra innings gifted them by the selfsame Protheans. (Over a millennium, if the Rachni War was Sovereign’s response to not being able to remote-activate the Citadel via the Keepers.) And the Protheans actively tutoring the asari. What did that diversity make us better at, again?

  24. Darren says:

    Shamus, I know your relationship with Neverwinter Nights 2 is…complicated, but you should at least watch or read a Let’s Play of Mask of the Betrayer. There is one hell of a show-stopping sequence where all the questions of the game are addressed, and I’m sure it would make for an interesting case study should you ever want to address this topic again.

  25. The Specktre says:

    I’m with you here, Shamus. Despite the action completely stopping at a time when you’re suppose to be in a desperate rush, Vigil’s story is one of the coolest moments (if not the coolest moment) in all of Mass Effect for me.

    I told you this before a few years ago, but as a Halo fan, Halo 3 was going to be THE final chapter to end all chapters for 16/17 year-old me. The first two games spent time building the stage and setting up all these questions, and The Fight would not only be Finished in act 3, we would have all the answers. Who are the Forerunners? What happened to them exactly? How was the galaxy reseeded with life after the Halos fired and everyone supposedly died? How is humanity (the “Reclaimers”) involved with the Forerunners exactly? Where did the Flood come from? Is there a way to stop them that doesn’t involve firing the Halos? Is there a cure? … And none of that came. The story addressed almost none of this. The game focused so intently on Master Chief stopping the present threat that it left EVERYTHING ELSE in the dust, or as an afterthought. It wasn’t even clear if you really saved the day at the end–whether the war with the Covenant was really over or if anyone was going to get around to thinking about the SURVIVING HALOS that likely have FLOOD STILL ON THEM.

    But the fight is still finished! Why? Because the game told you so. It’s Halo 3 after all, right?

    And yeah, Bungie shoved a few hidden text files into the game that delves into the backstory, but you had to find them all, across all game difficulties, then piece it together to make sense of it. When I eventually got around to that, I found what I was seeking–mostly; it’s not perfect. But the Forerunner’s story is still both incredible and poignant. Yet it has no bearing on anything in the game. This isn’t Marathon where the terminals drive the story. Mass Effect 1 made me realize EXACTLY what I wanted from Halo’s delivery all along. Halo 3 needed a tangible “Vigil” character to bring this story to the player. The worst part was that it had one. Halo DOES have a character that’s at the heart of all its events, who was hinted at the end of Halo 2 and Bungie never bothered to pick that thread up. He’s relegated to a short text file on the final level at Legendary difficulty where he promises to help you in some obscure way that is never shown or explained.

    I felt shattered after experiencing Halo 3’s execution and it sent me spiraling downward on a road of bitter cynicism that took me a long time to overcome. Because that’s what happens when you’re young, impressionable, and put high hopes and expectations in imperfect people and things, so hey, there’s a lesson in there at least. It still stings a little. Maybe that’s sad of me, but it is what it is. Seeing 343 Industries work on this new “Reclaimer Saga”, I think it’s safe to say Halo 3’s execution was Microsoft wanting to drag the story out. … Oh good grief.

    So hey, here’s to BioWare’s Vigil.

  26. Benjamin Hilton says:

    I agree with everything that Shamus said regarding the Vigil conversation. What made it even better was that this story of the end of Prothean civilization provided the perfect framework for the heroes to defeat the reapers without punching out Cthulhu. It’s not that were more awesome than millions of years of species, it’s that we got help from the greatest minds of the last cycle.

    At least until ME2 started us down the path of “Humanz beat all cuz we’re so cool lol”

    • Mike S. says:

      However one might wish to criticize the Crucible, one thing I really liked about it was the idea that the key to ending the Reaper menace was a relay of countless civilizations, each passing the torch as its dying act. Our completing it, while demanding our own best effort, also serves as merely the capstone on and fulfillment of that eon-long effort.

      Having to be lectured by and negotiate with the Reaper King to use it is another matter, as is the logic of the process itself. (Shamus’s (paraphrased) “one civilization in isolation invents a hammer, another a trigger, another a barrel, etc., and somehow at the end you have a gun without anyone knowing what a gun is”.)

      But the basic idea is the kind of building on and expanding in scope the heroism of the ME1 Protheans that befits the climax of the story. We’re not just stronger because we’re many species united now. We’re also, in effect, united with every species who went down fighting for a better day. If not for themselves, then for someone.

      And the Refuse ending lets us, rather than negotiate with the entity who set the Reapers on the galaxy, share the Protheans’ choice and fate, and make possible the victory of the people of the next Cycle instead.

      • Benjamin Hilton says:

        Yeah I agree with that too. I just wish it had stuck to that idea completely rather than making Shepard a messiah and Humanity the only (living) species capable of leading the fight.

  27. Pseudonym says:

    I think the issue of time pressure in an RPG quest is a lot more subtle and complicated than a lot of people are giving it credit for being. I don’t think it’s as simple as “if the story says it’s urgent, it should be urgent” because that presupposes that there it is never possible for it to be desirable to create a sense of urgency but undesirable to put the player on the clock.

    I actually think that sense of urgency in RPGs has a lot in common with fear of death in survival horror. As Shamus points out in this article from really quite a long time ago now, it’s a mistake to assume that the best way to create a particular emotion (fear, say, or sense of time pressure) is necessarily to actually create the circumstances that would lead to that emotion in real life.

    In your Traditional Bioware-Style RPG, making all of the quests time-critical would probably be detrimental to gameplay – you want the player to be able to wander around and explore the world at their leisure. But making them explicitly non-time-critical would make a mockery of many narratives (and indeed, many whole genres). It’s fine in something like Fallout: New Vegas, where the main plot starts with you tracking down a guy you have a personal vendetta against – there’s really nothing at stake except your pride and the game pretty explicitly doesn’t care if you want to let that go and just roam around the wasteland instead. But in a game with a central plot, where your character is ostensibly heroic and doing something important, it sort of undercuts the narrative if your mentor’s dying words are “a great … evil … is rising. You should … maybe do something … about it … y’know … when you feel like it. I mean … it’s not like … it’s going anywhere.”

    Basically you either have to jettison the whole concept of sidequests (perfectly doable, but essentially destroys a genre of game I personally quite like), jettison the whole concept of main quests (again, perfectly doable but essentially destroys a genre of game I personally quite like) or accept that “X saves the world while also picking up people’s laundry” is a genre convention that people who like that style of game will generally accept perfectly happily.

    • MichaelGC says:

      that presupposes that there it is never possible for it to be desirable to create a sense of urgency but undesirable to put the player on the clock.

      Aye, right – and this works on various levels. I often have the experience of only-just frantically scraping through a tough fight, desperately trying to get in the last hit, with pumping adrenaline compromising my fine motor control… and only-then remembering I’ve got a pause button.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      I still say that something like the clock in original fallout *drink* works the best.It forces you to focus on the main quest at first,until you find a way to extend it,and once you deal with it,it gives you ample time to mop up everything and still have time to spare.It also teaches you to multitask,instead of going to an area to do one thing,returning for the reward,then going back to that same area to do another thing.Which is something that really annoys me about how witcher 3 tracks quests.

    • Fnord says:

      I’m not sure it’s such a good thing to try to create a narrative sense of urgency that the player is not only allowed but expected to ignore. Players in the survival horror game are still expected to actually feel the fear of death. But if the player feels free to wander around, clearly they’re not really feeling that narrative sense of urgency.

      And I don’t think it’s such an insoluble problem to have in-narrative ways to relax the urgency, at least some of the time. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea to have actual, gameplay urgency everywhere you’re trying to create a sense of urgency in the narrative. But I think, if you want to do a game with exploration, side quests, etc, I think it’s beneficial to have a least some spots on the main questline where you can do those things without being forced to ignore an apparently urgent main quest.

  28. Alec says:

    Deus Ex:HR did this very well. In the first mission of the main campaign, you are repeatedly warned not to dawdle to the chopper as people’s lives were on the line.

    If like me you are used to games that continually harass you about false time limits and RUSH RUSH RUSH exposition, I ignored the warnings to keep trying to pick locks and explore vents at Jensen’s main office.

    Result: I was too slow and basically failed the mission and a bunch of people died. But this wasn’t a failstate and I had to play on with this shame.

    At first I was really mad at the game, but it really added to the world that ignoring my boss and duty had consequence. And I took what the game told me more seriously thereafter.

    What makes it slightly more interesting is that while you return to the office later and can explore those same areas you were rushed from early – not *everything* is the same, and some items and clues will be lost forever if you didn’t grab them on your way through initially.

  29. Writiosity says:

    “It would be grossly underselling it if I said this was my favorite part of the story. The conversation with Vigil the ancient Prothean VI is deeply satisfying. Hearing his long bitter tale about the end of a species is moving, and sets the stakes for the challenge ahead of you. But most of all I enjoy this part because this is where it all comes together.”

    And the Vigil BGM playing, the music adds a haunting atmosphere to the whole scene, was fantastically well handled.

  30. Jeff says:

    The whole Cassandra protagonist trope really, really suck hard in Sci-Fi settings.

    In a Fantasy world, absent truth spells or scrying, it’s entirely understandable and plausible.

    In a Future setting, though? In a world of GoPros and police/military body cameras? Why the heck is there no Record function on your futuristic body armor when you’ve got a HUD and a connection to orbiting spaceships?

    The first time someone questions your assertions should be the last time you aren’t recording every bit of your investigation. I did this in a tabletop campaign and neatly screwed the villian over in front of the authority figure.

    Which is why the “nobody else believes Vigil exists” story point was such shit in the later games. If somebody stumbled upon an ancient alien hologram today, half the team would have whipped out their camera phones.

  31. natureguy85 says:

    I’m ok with the Council’s initial lack of action against Saren due to the lack of proof. I also like how even with that there is still the undercurrent of disdain for Udina or humans generally and lack of interest coming from the Council.

    My problem with the scene here is that the Council and Udina act like they are doing what Shepard was asking of them. Did Shepard ever claim Saren is going to attack the Citadel? I don’t know why they can jump to conclusions and Shepard can’t. :)
    And, as others have mentioned, Shepard didn’t just hear about the Reapers from the Geth and Saren; he spoke to Sovereign. No suit recordings?

    As for Udina, he seemed at the start to be someone who would do the politically expedient thing, but it seemed like it was for humanity generally and not himself. Later, when he says the Council will handle the situation “with my help, of course,” it suddenly seemed about personal gain, rather than him being a politician dealing with political battles.

  32. natureguy85 says:

    I love the conversation with Vigil, but it’s also my starting point for “What Mass Effect could have been.” The idea that the Citadel relay is so forgotten that even people who recognized the issue with the ME3 endings stranding the fleet at Earth forgot that the Citadel’s destruction would cause a Bahak type event and wipe out the Sol system. People who remember that plot point from Arrival generally point to the Charon relay, not the Citadel. I expected we’d eventually use the Citadel relay to attack the “sleeping” Reapers in Dark Space.

  33. Julius De Michelis says:

    On the Prothean appearance on Ilos, um, actually Javik gives some sort of explanation for that in Mass Effect 3.
    Like you, I immediately noticed the discrepancy, and that initially pissed me off. I realised that they made the Protheans look buggy simply because they had the Collectors looking buggy and at the end of ME2 they probably came up with the great revelation that the Collectors were actually the Protheans, so it was too late for them to change the Collectors’ appearance to be closer to those of the -anyway- badly defined statues on Ilos.

    So they put a very simple line in ME3, from Javik. Prompted about Ilos, he mentions that Ilos used to be a Inusannon planet (where the Inusannon are to the Protheans what the Protheans are like to the Humans/Asaris/Turians etc). They found the planet in ruins like we did in our timeline, and just moved in. Arguably then, despite the clearly Prothean design of some parts of Ilos, the rocky-almost aztec ruins where you stroll at the beginning, where the statues are, are REALLY OLD Inusannon ruins. Which makes the creatures depicted in the statues also Inusannon. And that gives some coherence to it all, after all. Yes, the creatures you very briefly see in the beacon-visions look inusannon, but come on. It’s a fraction of a second long, random-footage almost-live-action vision. I think we can overlook that.

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