Mass Effect Retrospective 14: Lord of the Retcons

By Shamus
on Sep 17, 2015
Filed under:
Mass Effect

Here is the final post on Mass Effect 1. And really, this post is more about the gap between the first and the second game. I know people rag on the ending of the third game, but for me the shift from ME1 to ME2 is where the entire world of Mass Effect fell apart. From there it was just a matter of waiting for the mistakes to take their toll.

So before we get into Mass Effect 2, let’s talk about the difficult work of connecting sequels by examining Lord of the Rings. Not because LotR is an unimpeachable work, but because it’s well-received, well-known, and we collectively have the benefit of decades of hindsightAlso because it gives me an excuse to link to the following CGP Grey videos, and they are really, really good..

Lord of the Rings


Link (YouTube)

In the first bookYes, Lord of the rings is a single story broken into three volumes of six books, but if you jump in and try to correct people referring to “Three Books” then you are officially the Most Annoying Person Ever. This is simply the most convenient and accessible way of discussing the story. Go away. the author presents an intractable problem: The Dark Lord is coming for his ring, and we can’t possibly hold off his armies. We can’t hide the ring, because it needs to be looked after to keep it from getting itself found by the enemy. We can’t hold onto the ring, because it will consume whoever holds it. And most of all we can’t USE the ring, because that would both hasten the corruption and act as a beacon for the enemy.

We can’t use it, hold it, hide it, or destroy it. This is quite a pickle we’re in, Mister Frodo!

Let’s imagine an alternate world where JRR Tolkien, for whatever reason, was unable or unwilling to continue Lord of the Rings beyond The Fellowship of the Ring. So the sequel is handed off to some different writer. Let’s call him George.

George looks back at Fellowship, skims the few notes Tolkien left for him, scratches his head, and comes up with his own version of The Two Towers: In it, Frodo meets another wizard named (say) Yandalf, who explains that no, Gandalf was wrong. The One Ring can totally be used to destroy Sauron, as long as the person wielding it is virtuous enough to resist corruption. Yandalf decides Frodo is worthy, so he teaches him to use the ring. Frodo gets all kinds of amazing super powers and raises an army. With the Ring he compels orcs to join his side, and when they join him they become niceI hate this story, but if someone decides to make it I hope you at LEAST have the decency to cast Peter Dinklage as Badass Frodo..

I am no longer Gandalf the Grey. I am now Gandalf the slightly off-white.

I am no longer Gandalf the Grey. I am now Gandalf the slightly off-white.

Along the way, Frodo needs to stay far enough on the side of virtue that the Ring won’t take control of him. He has to be an example of courage and diligence to the people of Middle-Earth. When a King loses his nerve and leads his forces away from the battlefield, Frodo humiliates him, rallies the fleeing men, and marches away with them, leaving the cowardly king alone. Frodo continues this way, drawing all men to his banner and stripping the undeserving of their power.

Frodo has to resist the advances of the smokin’ hot princess he meets, since That Would Be WrongSomehow. Make up your own reason.. He has to resist the desire to take revenge on someone who betrays him and gets hundreds of his forces killed, because while it’s okay to slaughter thousands of people in battle as part of a war, it’s wrong to kill just this one dude outside of the battlefield. A king offers Frodo a whole bunch of gold to help fund his army, but Frodo has to turn it down because greed is bad and would corrupt him.

So at the end Frodo’s army of good orcs and nice humans beats the evil army of mean orcs and evil humans. Then Yandalf explains that Frodo has to keep the One Ring, just in case Sauron comes back yet again.

I know this sounds like a ridiculous plot in the context of Middle Earth, but I want to point out that this is all standard stuff. These are all tropes that have cropped up again and again in genre fiction, and they worked just fine in many other stories.

Plot Twist!


Link (YouTube)

It doesn’t matter how well George justifies these changes. Yandalf can show up and yell, “Plot twist!” all he wants. George can contradict, explain, or lampshade as many alterations as he likes. It doesn’t matter. The problem with George’s story isn’t that he’s retconned some established facts of the setting. Even Tolkien himself – one of the most ambitious, skilled, and meticulous worldbuilders of the last century – had a few plot holes here and there. The problem with George’s story isn’t the re-write of lore, it’s that his story runs directly counter to the themes, ideas, tone, and sensibilities of the first book. It simply doesn’t fit as a continuation of what came before.

Fellowship presents a story where power is a perilous thing. Force is the tool of the enemy, yet force is needed to oppose the enemy, so how do we overcome him without losing ourselves and our values in the process? Even the wisest, most powerful, eons-old, most experienced champions of Middle Earth are afraid of what this power will do to them if they tried to use it. Tolkien had his heroes overcome this conundrum by pretending to meet force with force as Sauron would expect, but secretly sending someone small, gentle, and merciful into the realm of evil to destroy the ring forever. They literally overcame force with gentleness, and undid his power by refusing power. In the end, Sauron is undone because his foes (the good guys) did not desire power. This is a counterpoint to both he and his master Melkor, who basically created the concept of evil by desiring more power than had been allotted to him. This makes the ending of the story thematically complete, and serves as a vehicle for all sorts of ideas about the nature of power in this world.

Okay, so we can`t destroy the ring, but what if we pawned it? We could certainly use the cash.

Okay, so we can`t destroy the ring, but what if we pawned it? We could certainly use the cash.

George’s story contradicts this by saying, “Actually power is awesome, as long as you’re the ‘right’ kind of person.” Fellowship began a journey to destroy the ring – to annihilate the most powerful thing in the world, but George dropped that story in favor of one about mastering power and using it responsibly. I want to be clear that these are both acceptable themes for a story. Taken alone, either one can make for a fantastic tale. But they are fundamentally incompatible. Taken together, Tolkien’s story and George’s story disagree with each other on a philosophical level, and trying to fit them together will inevitably tear the rest of the story apart.

In Fellowship, domineering power over others isn’t just a tool that evil uses, it is the very essence and nature of evil itselfThis also explains why the God of this universe doesn’t just step in and solve all of the problems with a level 99 lightning bolt. Here, Good is sort of non-interventionist by nature.. In Fellowship, Gandalf even refuses to take the Ring from Bilbo by force, even though allowing him to keep the ring is dangerous both to Bilbo himself and to all of Middle-Earth. Gandalf refuses to impose his good and wise will on a gentle Hobbit, even for the good of the Hobbit and for all of Middle-Earth. Instead Gandalf appeals to him as a friend, and Bilbo gives it up because of his deep friendship and trust. Lord of the Rings is deeply idealistic, down to its very bones.

In Fellowship, power over others is evil. In George’s story, power is just a tool, and it’s up to the good guys to grab power expressly for the purpose of denying power to the bad guys.

This change unravels important details in the first book: If the ring is indeed the key to winning the war, then Gandalf’s advice in the first book is WRONG, which makes him a bit of a cowardly screwup. Elrond’s fear of the ring is wrong. Galadriel’s refusal to take the ring is beyond stupid. Boromir’s attempt to take the ring at the end of the first book is no longer a tragic story of a man consumed by fear. It’s no longer an illustration of how the race of Men destroy themselves and the things they value because of their lust for power. Instead it turns out Boromir was right, and was just unlucky in getting killed instead of getting his hands on the ring. That is, the changes George made to the lore have retroactively changed the nature of characters and events in the first book.

Getting Back to Mass Effect

The Reapers are still out there. And I`m going to find a way to stop them by doing absolutely no research at all and instead flying around hunting Geth.

The Reapers are still out there. And I`m going to find a way to stop them by doing absolutely no research at all and instead flying around hunting Geth.

Like Fellowship of the Ring, Mass Effect 1 set a tone and pushed the story in a very particular direction. It created a quest for knowledge, and put our heroes into a position where they were the best people to go on that quest. Not in a “chosen one as decreed by the gods / fate” sort of way, but in a practical way that the events of the first game gave them tools that nobody else had. They were explorers, searching for answers. The plot called for them to go out into that great big universe of mystery and danger, and find out how to break the cycle of destruction forever. They weren’t going to win because of their guns and biotics. They just needed the guns and biotics to get to the answers that would make victory possible.

The writers not only failed to make use of these plot elements, they took every single aspect of this setup and smashed it to pieces. The council is retconned to not believing in the Reapers and not caring about the massive attack that nearly wiped out their government. Shepard loses his status as both a Spectre and a member of the Alliance. Liara goes away and forgets all about Prothean archaeology. Shepard’s ability to understand Prothean is no longer an asset to their mission. Shepard’s relationship with the council reverts to the pre-Ilos status quo. Shepard is no longer the protagonist because his team is uniquely qualified to learn about Reapers, but instead he’s the protagonist because of his fame and combat prowess. As Miranda says, “He’s a hero. A bloody icon”. Most importantly, Shepard is no longer an explorer on a quest to uncover a mystery, but a badass trying to rouse an apathetic galaxy to actionWhich he fails at. But then they sort of win anyway. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves..

Like making a story about Frodo mastering the One Ring and becoming a general, this argument isn’t really about “plot holes”, even though there are plenty of those. You can’t fix this story by adding cruft to the in-game codex or touching up a few lines of dialog. The problem is that this is a fundamentally different story. The first volume set a goal and got the story rolling in a particular direction, and the second volume performs a hairpin turn and goes off in a completely different direction before we reach the opening credits.

And even once we’ve accepted the hand-wavy justifications, this new story is dealing with new themes and different ideas. You could even argue we’ve changed genres. Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 feel about as different as Star Trek the Motion Picture and Star Trek: Into Darkness. Even if you enjoy them both and even though they both allegedly take place in the same universe and feature the same characters, they don’t have any connective tissue. Placed side-by-side, they don’t seem to be saying anything.

Themes Matter

Just before the credits, Mass Effect 1 shows Shepard in front a planetary backdrop. There are explosions in the atmosphere, a lens-flare blue sun, and an unidentified space station / ship in the background. It`s not Earth. I wonder where this is supposed to be and what it was supposed to mean.

Just before the credits, Mass Effect 1 shows Shepard in front a planetary backdrop. There are explosions in the atmosphere, a lens-flare blue sun, and an unidentified space station / ship in the background. It`s not Earth. I wonder where this is supposed to be and what it was supposed to mean.

This is where fans will once again accuse me of nitpicking. This stuff about “themes and messages” strikes them as being horribly trivial. “Who cares? The game is still FUN isn’t it? Just enjoy the gameplay and hanging out with Mordin!”

It’s true that you can still enjoy a story with no coherent themes. But the point is that you can enjoy something even more when it has something to say. Lord of the Rings isn’t one of the most influential works of genre fiction in the English language because the public was clamoring for multi-page songs / poems that are barely germane to the plot. It wasn’t the elves, the rings, or the swords that made it so influential. It’s that fact that underneath all those trappings is a story with ideas that talk about big concepts like power, the nature of evil, the nature of a divine Creator, and the struggle to do what’s right when compromise seems so alluring. These ideas resonate with people and give the story a kind of potency that makes the work endure long after its most iconic elements have been pilfered, improved, and worn into clichés by the countless imitators that have followed.

No, Mass Effect doesn’t “need” to have profound themes to be a “good game”, whatever you mean by that. But it also didn’t need to spurn the first story. There was no reason – inside or outside of the world of Mass Effect – to sweep aside the groundwork laid by the first game. Even if you like the second game, it destroyed the first game just as surely as Frodo’s story of mastering the One Ring would destroy the tale begun in Fellowship of the Ring.

Themes matter. Tone matters. Something special was destroyed when the writer killed and resurrected Shepard as “a hero, a bloody icon”. Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 would both be stronger stories if we didn’t have to pretend one was a continuation of the other.

Enjoyed this post? Please share!

Footnotes:

[1] Also because it gives me an excuse to link to the following CGP Grey videos, and they are really, really good.

[2] Yes, Lord of the rings is a single story broken into three volumes of six books, but if you jump in and try to correct people referring to “Three Books” then you are officially the Most Annoying Person Ever. This is simply the most convenient and accessible way of discussing the story. Go away.

[3] I hate this story, but if someone decides to make it I hope you at LEAST have the decency to cast Peter Dinklage as Badass Frodo.

[4] Somehow. Make up your own reason.

[5] This also explains why the God of this universe doesn’t just step in and solve all of the problems with a level 99 lightning bolt. Here, Good is sort of non-interventionist by nature.

[6] Which he fails at. But then they sort of win anyway. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.



A Hundred!A Hundred!2010230 COMMENTS? What are you people talking about?!?

From the Archives:

  1. MrGuy says:

    Yandalf the Yellow?

  2. AReasonWhy says:

    I am constantly surprised at how well you found the issues that have been nibbling at the back of my head and which told me subconsciously that yes, something was off with the latter two games.

    As you said, when the later games just came out and while I was still engrossed in the universe (which was very nicely world-built in the first game) I had fun, it still had the characters I liked and it was sort of set in the same universe. Then the ending came, and while I wasn’t enraged by it I certainly disliked it quite, sending me off with a meh impression. I wonder if the meh feeling was more about ME2 and 3 not really delivering what I hoped after ME1, and not as much of the shambling ending.

    Now I remember why I liked the first game so much, and why I enjoyed the world of ME. Its just sad we’ll probably never get something with the ideas of ME1 out of ‘nu bioware’. Maybe some other creators will step up someday and do it even better.

    • I don’t know–the last DLC on the end of Dragon Age Inquisition was pretty shocking in that regard, because it wasn’t very Nu Bioware. I won’t spoil it for you, but they did something that let you frame the conflict in such a way that the ideas BEHIND everything became very important.

      Not that I think they’ll necessarily frame the next game this way, but imma yell at them a bunch and hope they stay the course.

      • djw says:

        Maybe I will finally bother to finish DA:I then. My completionist tendencies combined with the grind in that game wore me out less than half way through.

        • Yeah, if they’d done Trespasser as the actual end to the real game, it would have been radically different. The amount of stuff they brought out . . . whoo.

          It ain’t your grandpa’s generic fantasy world any more.

          • James says:

            So i wont directly talk about the plot but i agree, the very ideas it sets about what the people know of the past and the entire world is very very very interesting, one addendum id have added though would be telling the exalted council to do one, and keep the inquisition independent under the PCs control, ‘cus gentleman i got some rather dangerous work to do.

            ALSO just for cool awesome points i wanted to end with the PC getting a dwarven/magic prosthetic arm/hand just cus it’d look cool

          • Mike S. says:

            It ain’t your grandpa’s generic fantasy world any more.

            No, now it’s The Legend of Korra. ;-)

            (Which, to be fair, is what I thought of during the first conversation with Solas in Haven.)

      • AReasonWhy says:

        Honestly, your and the other peoples comments frustrate me to no ends because I tried playing DA:I. I tried. Twice. As much as the story might be good, the gameplay just felt so generic MMO like, the combat so lackluster, the initial hook to the story so meh, that I just couldn’t care. Maybe I’ll watch a LP that only covers the story or something cause I got more fun games to play than DA:I. It just hurts to hear that a good story is in it.

  3. Xaos says:

    I think Shepard actually stayed dead when s/he suffocated in space. Game Theory has even pointed out that “zombie Shepard” would’ve had too much brain damage to be recoverable, even with the level of futuristic wonder technologies Cerebus’ medical experts could bring to bear. You can’t restore Shepard’s brain without some sort of time machine.

    Shepard’s dead.

    All of ME2 and 3 is a walk through hell.

    • Mattias42 says:

      From my understanding its theoretically possible to destructively upload, ie slice into tiny, tiny bits and digitize the state of the neurons into a once-more functioning whole even a dead brain as long as its in good enough conditon.

      Its far more complicated, yes, but just as possible as doing it to a fresh brain. You ‘just’ need to compensate for lost information and fill in the gaps.

      Of course, if you go that route it means that the savior—nay, exemplar of humanity has been reduced to a computer that thinks its the real Sheperd built into the original’s skull. What basically amounts to a half-flesh based android cobbled together out of the scraps Cerberus managed to scrape out of the original Sheperd’s suit.

      And speaking as a transhumanist? I think that’s rather awesome and fully in keeping with the type of projects Cerberus has been shown dabbling in.

      Still, given how human focused the plot is, and how vile the Reapers are presented as in both goals and simply their technology, I doubt that was the read you’re supposed to take of Sheperd’s resurrection.

      There’s a token nod to the whole ‘Do Sheperd’s Dream of Curb-stomping Electronic Reapers’ just near the end of the third game, but its just this one scene.

      Still, I must admit I don’t think it really matters. Sheperd has still been a leader in times of horror, be he man or machine. Those deeds frankly should be what counts, not if his brain is carbon or silicon based.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        It depends on how reliant on quantum fluctuations brains are.If every information is stored just on the molecular level,replicating someone will become possible in the future.If not,then you will only be able to replicate a person to a degree,with some subtle variations in either personality,or memory,or who knows where.

        • Decius says:

          Current thought is that almost all information is stored on the cellular level, but processing in progress uses molecular and electrical mediators.

          In any case, I don’t it’s possible to reconstruct the information lost when getting the brain to a state that it can be deli-sliced.

        • Tom says:

          In-universe, true intelligence in Mass Effect is totally quantum dependent. The difference between VIs and AIs is quantum computing effects, referred to by the codex as a “blue box.”

      • AReasonWhy says:

        I am actually fond of this idea. Cerberus wanted Shepard, the icon of humans success in space, to live on. How much of him are replicated memories and thoughts and how much his leftover neurons are actually his, is up in the air and only cerberus scientists know.

        • GrinOfMadness says:

          I dare say that Cerberus’s plan all along was to create a clone that they could control to replace Shepard with. Over the course of time between ME 1 and ME 2 they’ve been secretly collecting DNA samples and had a spy on the Normandy to sneak in and make a digital copy of Shepard’s brain using fancy futuristic spy-tech. However, since Shepard went and got himself/herself killed before Cerberus could collect enough samples to complete the clone, they had to cut a few corners and weren’t able to get the mind control tech in place :)

        • Wide And Nerdy says:

          I’d like that too but they did far far too little with it. Late in ME3, Shepard him/herself speculates something along these lines (or even that he/she is just a well programmed VI.) Even worse, if Liara is there, she’ll say “I knew it was really you the moment we kissed” or whatever, cuz she’s psychic. Problem solved.

          Of course, Shepard could still be really Shepard but with gaps in memory that are filled in by a well meaning Miranda. He could be left with a sense that his memories are empty, wrong, or missing something and could wonder if these fake experiences affect his personality, attitudes, reactions. Rich untapped vein there.

      • Writiosity says:

        Main problem I see with this is how laughably bad Cerberus has been at literally everything else they’ve ever tried to do. Their experiments always blow up in their faces, unleashing galactic terrors in the process, yet somehow they managed to bring Shepard back from the dead, better than before? Hmm.

  4. Daemian Lucifer says:

    and we collectively have the befit of decades of hindsight

    Never seen “befit” used in this context.Is that an actual thing or a typo of “benefit”?

  5. Squirly says:

    “So the sequel is handed off to some different writer. Let’s call him George.”

    I don’t know why, but I already hate George.

    “Then Yandalf explains that Frodo has to keep the One Ring, just in case SARUON comes back yet again.”

    That’s why! Damn you George! Can’t you even spell the villain’s name correctly?!

  6. Abnaxis says:

    While I wouldn’t say the story ME 2&3 switched to weren’t inherently invalid, I really am getting tired of the “hero, bloody icon” trope in video games.

    Again, not that it’s bad, just… It would be nice for a little variety sometimes

    Incidentally, I would bet that “all the ‘popular’games are doing it” is the reason why we got Big Damn Hero Sheperd

    • Ringwraith says:

      Made slightly more palatable because Shepard earns it through an entire game.

      • Wide And Nerdy says:

        I agree though it would have helped if they could have cast that as another case of Shepard being “special” because of circumstance, like with the Protheans. Like, sure he’s “a hero, a bloody icon,” because he was at the center of the action in the last game and he’s the first human Spectre which would mean something at least to other humans.

        They could have chosen to use Shepard because she’s the first human Spectre meaning she’s gotta have something going for her, and hey, she’s also got this reputation from the events of the first game which may be useful.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Its the reason why most of the fiction does it.After all,humans are special.

    • AReasonWhy says:

      > I would bet that “all the ‘popular’games are doing it” is the reason why we got Big Damn Hero Sheperd<

      Coincidentally, Bioware became part of EA when the tonal shift happened between 1 and 2. I mean its not proof but damn that's one hell of a coincidence. I would put it to EA asking the writers nicely for a more streamlined and approachable story.

      • RCN says:

        EA got in between ME 1 and 2. It also got in between Dragon Age 1 and 2 (while it launched DA:O, the game was all but complete when EA showed up).

        Then both games said “Fuck you” to all the high-concept and gameplay quirks of the originals to become a full-blown cover-based shooter/cooldown spamming beat-them-up, while deciding the story should stop being about an insurmountable threat that needs an unorthodox solution to a just slightly above average threat that just needs someone, nay, one human who’s bad enough a dude to sort it out.

        I mean, what more proof do we need that Hawke Shepard, the baddest dude in the galaxy-realm who was the only human capable of rescuing the Galactic President’s daughter from the Dark Spawn of the Reapers, was just a Marty Stu from some EA CEO’s fanfic?

        • Hermocrates says:

          I have a question about both of those series, given what I’ve seen of ME and heard of DA: is it possible to play just the initial entries (ME1 or DA:O) and be satisfied with them, as complete and isolated games, or do they leave a tonne of open plot threads that make playing the rest of their respective series essential? I liked what I saw of ME1, and I’ve heard a lot of good things about DA:O, so I would like to play them, but I have no intention at this point to play beyond either.

          • Drew C says:

            While Mass Effect does leave itself open for a sequel it’s more like Star Wars (a new hope) in that it’s a fine standalone game. Dragon Age Origins is the same way (if not more so). It’s just the continuation it leaves it self open for is it’s expansion, Awakening, not Dragon Age 2. Also the Dragon Age games never have the same protagonist so that does put a bit of distance between them.

            • Hermocrates says:

              That’s what I was hoping for. Awesome, thanks for answering! I guess I’ll keep an eye out for those games then. Too bad ME1 never received a standalone PS3 physical release, otherwise I could probably find it for about $15 or less in a bargain bin nowadays.

          • AReasonWhy says:

            I would say its easier with DA:O, since the protagonists change and while the stories are semi connected I never really felt much of some sort of continuation and they were pretty self contained (I haven’t finished inquisition tho bear that in mind, I couldn’t play that… thing).

            Mass Effect, on the other hand will feel a bit cut off. 1 is a complete experience, but it doesn’t finish the story. Like a satisfying season 1 of a show, where the protagonist wins over a small hurdle, but there’s a bigger boss around that needs to be fought in season 2, then the show gets canceled. You’ll yearn for more. And honestly, I think 2 and 3 are still fine games to play. I played 2 and 3 close to launch so I didn’t hear 3s ending was a stinker. I liked 2 and 3 was fine for the first half, until things just slowly started not feeling right, and well by the endings time I felt disappointed by how they decided to finish it all up. Its still a fine game from other perspectives and to be honest I stuck with 2 and 3 for the characters more than the story in the end.

            I wonder how it would be to play these games for the first time knowing it has a meh ending.

        • djw says:

          Well, for all of the flaws in DA2 (and there were MANY) I do at least have to give them credit for making a game that was not about some epic event. There were hints of a really cool, novel, and interesting story in there. Its just… well, you were nailed to railroad tracks the entire way and all the graphics were of the same damn cave.

          • guy says:

            DA2 was about Hawke’s continual and inexplicable capacity to ruin everything nearby slowly scaling up to launching a continent-wide genocidal war, and that’s before considering Legacy. I semi-seriously refer to Hawke as a disaster demon, because in each act Hawke does something that seriously contributes to triggering the war:

            Retrieving the cursed idol wound up destroying the mind of the sane and reasonable templar commander. Intervening in the Qunari invasion did save a lot of lives in the short term, but also kept them from destroying the only Circle located in a cursed city where the Veil is torn by ancient blood sacrifices of thousands of slaves a year. Then in act 3, Hawke proceeds to slaughter the moderates on both sides and may subsequently assist Anders in providing a flashpoint.

            • djw says:

              I more or less agree with your assessment, to a moderate degree. I think that the main problem is that you were stuck to the rails and did not really have much chance to influence things.

              That said It’s hardly fair to blame the idol on Hawke, since he/she had really no way of knowing that it existed, and neither did anybody else. IMO that absolves Hawke of Meredith’s crimes.

              The Qunari incident was Hawke making the best of a bad situation. The Arishok was one of the most interesting “villains” that I have seen in a video game, and I really wish that the Qunari had been the focus of the main plot, rather than just act two. That would have allowed for a wider latitude in the players reaction to the situation, rather than railroad tracks that lead to the Arishok leaving/dying.

              In act III I really wish there was more latitude to put a stop to Anders. It was obvious that he was up to no good. Friend or not I would have killed him myself to stop that big an act of terrorism, if I had been given the opportunity by the game.

              In any case, the real “star” of the game was the abominable reuse of graphic assets and the “falling men” half way through each encounter. Ugh.

              • guy says:

                Oh, I’m not saying that all the negative consequences of Hawke’s actions were forseeable. It’s just that they did end up massively contributing to the Mage-Templar War and subsequently the Breach, and it bugs me whenever anyone talks about how DA2 is a story in which the main character is not powerful enough to alter the course of history, when Hawke is apparently quite capable of doing so as long as it makes everything worse.

                Also, in Act 3, even if you threw Anders out of the city and therefore don’t help him with the bomb, there is a quest where you track down a bunch of mages and templars secretly meeting to try and avert open warfare and proceed to kill them all. Granted, in my case I was forced to do that because they randomly assumed I had shown up to kill them despite having openly been a moderate for the entire game.

          • Joe Informatico says:

            There were a lot of good ideas, that if any one of them had been executed better, would have been fantastic.

            Varric narrating as a framing device? Cool idea, but they only do something interesting with it at the beginning and maybe one point in the middle.

            The time skips in the story? Not a bad idea: it drives home that this isn’t a race against time RPG plot to find the MacGuffin before the Dark Lord wins, but a festering problem that’s slowly tearing society apart. But the time skips are too long. There’s a difference between, “in the months that followed, things got a bit worse” and “Hawke sat on his/her ass for three years while the mages and the templars had the same argument.”

            The crafting system? See, that would make more sense for a typical BioWare game where you’re ostensibly racing against time to save the world and don’t have a good story reason to be picking flowers all the time. But instead, they put it in the one story where it’s justified if you want to spend whole days looking for components!

      • GloatingSwine says:

        If by “streamlined and approachable” you mean “more like Call of Duty”, yeah.

        This happened with basically any property EA could possibly wedge into the mould at the time. Everything became as much like Heroic American Manshoots as they could possibly make it, from Mass Effect to Dead Space to Crysis* to Battlefield. All put far more focus on linear corridor shooting with each iteration and anything that might scare or confuse people like too much freedom of movement got stripped right out.

        * For bonus points listen to the Crysis 2 theme and the Modern Warfare 2 theme back to back and see if you can tell the difference. It’s like they specifically asked Hans Zimmer “make us a tune like you did for Modern Warfare but change it just enough that we can’t be sued please”.

        • AReasonWhy says:

          I think of all these streamlined sequels they bought off, Dead Space 3 still hurts my heart the most. Even worse than ME3.

          Here’s a game about space zombies and a cult. So lets make the third one about a crazy and jealous scientist, shooting men instead of zombies, and totally not reaper like beings no we are not recycling ME plot-devices no. Oh as a bonus you get not-protheans that predicted the not-reapers and have the not-crucible way of destroying a reaper. I am surprised star child didn’t show up at the end of DS3 as well.

          Gods its like 2 years and I am still pissed to the point of rage when I think of DS3.

      • 4th Dimension says:

        It doesn’t have to be EA. In other Bioware games your character is ussually a hero, so ME2/ME3 is simply Bioware going back to the ussuall formula. The lead writer that wanted to do something interesting but probably risky wasn’t around so they reached for what worked previosly. Thus ME2/ME3

        • AReasonWhy says:

          I always like to think that for something to happen there’s always multiple causes. In my mind it was EA relocating the lead writer, pressure on the other writers (as you said they fell back to their old themes) and other circumstances that influenced me2 and 3.

          I still think the missing lead writer was what hurt 2 and 3 the most, he was not there to point out obvious tone problems and issues with characters and plot. We all heard of the rumors that there was to be a lot more stuff about the black matter energy thing and Geth to have an even bigger role etc etc. The other writers simply didn’t have access to the guys mental notes and had to make stuff up on the fly, under deadline pressure and the steady watchful eye of EA. I don’t envy their position. They must have felt bad when they saw all the backlash.

          • INH5 says:

            My theory for what happened is that some higher up at either Bioware or Microsoft Games forced the inclusion of a nonsensical sequel hook at the end of ME1 that broke the entire story, and no one was able to think up a good way to put it back together again in time. The Dark Energy idea was an attempt to fix the overarching plot, but at some point they decided not to do that and eventually just threw up their hands and made ME3 a generic story about fighting a terrorist organization for possession of an artifact that can save or destroy the galaxy. Then Casey and Mac decided to go off and make a suitably “epic” ending for the trilogy by themselves, and the rest is history.

            Oh, and Drew Karpashyn was definitely on board during the early stages of ME2 development, which is when the main plot outline would have been hammered out. From descriptions of the Bioware writing process, the way it works is that the lead writer, project director (Casey Hudson on all 3 Mass Effect games), and lead gameplay designer meet up and hash out an outline for the story, then show it to the other writers for peer review. Then the writers divide up and work on their assigned sections of the game while the lead writer regularly checks on their work to make sure it lines up with what the other writers are doing, with other writers also doing peer review of each other’s work from time to time. So when Mac Walters took over the lead writer position on ME2, it would have been more of a management position with all of the plans already pretty much in stone.

            • AReasonWhy says:

              Hey that was pretty interesting to know. I’d say it only confirms that it wasn’t ‘one big mistake’ but probably many people messing up small stuff until the story didn’t line up and made sense anymore, but it was too late to rewrite again.

    • Writiosity says:

      Hope you’re looking forward to Fallout 4, then, because this is Bethesda’s favourite trope ever. A lowly courier who happens to get caught up in events? NO FEAR! Our new character will be the centre of the universe! Again. Just like in 3.

      *sigh* Bethesda :(

      • grelphy says:

        That’s their shtick, at least. TES has always been about big damn heroes. (And in TES, it works well and it’s got established metaphysics around it and everything.) It’s a shift for Fallout, but at least the developer is being consistent.

      • TMC_Sherpa says:

        I’m OK when Bethesda does it because the story doesn’t matter in their games.
        They shoehorn you into a world and then say have at it, I mean the biggest complaint I remember about vanilla FO3 was if you did the story the game ended. Think about that for a second. The story is finished and now everyone is mad because because they weren’t done screwing around.
        To me Bethesda makes exploration games (which is why I hated Morrowind but I’ll wait until Ruts gets there before going off on that tangent) that have a loose framework to hang the dumb off of.

        Sherpa

        • Abnaxis says:

          (which is why I hated Morrowind but I’ll wait until Ruts gets there before going off on that tangent)

          …eh? Ok, now I got to know, Ruts or not…Short version, what’s wrong with the exploration in Morrowind? I enjoyed exploring it way more than the later TES games.

          • djw says:

            I’m going to guess it has something to do with Cliff Racers.

            • TMC_Sherpa says:

              Close, it’s diseased cliff racers. The short version of what I wrote is

              Feedback_Loop
              {
              I wonder whats over there?
              Monsters.
              Oh, I’m diseased.
              Oh, my strength is 0 and I can’t move.
              Oh, my healing spells failed.
              Oh, I’m dead.
              }

              • Syal says:

                Strength Drain stuff was definitely a pain in the butt. Especially since a lot of events in the game could give you a permanent strength buff, but the game wouldn’t heal it if it got drained so those debuffs would do permanent damage.

                • Trevel says:

                  Restoration magic has the unnecessarily overpowered restore strength spell. Once you get it and then rebuild it into a cantrip version (1 mana 100% chance to restore 15 strength instead of 34 mana to have a 50% chance to heal 180 strength) it’s pretty useful.

                  If it’s not working because of a buff, you just need to take off whatever is giving you a strength bonus, cast the spell, then re-equip.

          • Squirly says:

            10 bucks says the sluggish running at the start and the back and forth without quick travel. Bethesda’s quests haven’t changed much, they’ve just made them less tedious by giving you teleportation.

            • GloatingSwine says:

              I remember when Oblivion launched one of the major complaints was that the world was much smaller than Morrowind’s. It’s actually not, but the default walk speed is something like two or three times faster.

            • djw says:

              This is a matter of taste of course, but the first thing I do with any Skyrim play through is enable Frostfall and turn off fast travel. This means I can only “fast travel” with the carriages, basically replicates the same type of fast travel that was built into Morrowind from the start.

            • 4th Dimension says:

              Traveling back and forth is only an issue untill you master the mark/recall and teleport to closest shrine/temple, and using teleporters in mages Guild and other methods of travel. I remember once I mastered that it wasn’t too difficult to cart entire dungeons of loot to the vendor by going back and forth.

            • TMC_Sherpa says:

              I’m cool with slow walking. Heck I really enjoy just looking at the games I play.

              I had a save game in the original Unreal at the top of the waterfall outside the ship. Unless you were there at the time you have no idea how good looking that water was(Thank you 3DFX). Anyone who came to the house I grabbed and showed it to them regardless of their interest (hint: Most people don’t give two craps what the water looks like in a video game). I probably died more times accidentally falling off the top of that waterfall than anywhere else in the game combined.

          • TMC_Sherpa says:

            I don’t know if I can write short but I’ll try.

            In every other TES game the world levels with you and up until Skyrim you could control your level by abusing the misc skill category(1). What this let me (2) do was open the map, see a spot that looked interesting and go there. Maybe it was nothing, maybe it was a dungeon or a shrine or whatever. In Morrowind the answer to what’s over there is GADANG IT more cliff racers. Unless you were unlucky in which case the answer was diseased cliff racers please enjoy the helljoint (3). It felt like my curiosity was being punished unlike in Arena or Daggerfall. I like my open world games to be…open(4)? An electric fence at the top of mount Doom? Sure, why not. You need a thingy to open the cave at the end to fight the *REDACTED*(5)? That’s fair. I can’t see whats on the west coast of this island until I’m level 15 and have my disease resistance high enough that every hit doesn’t screw me? Really?

            I played Arena and Daggerfall first so my expectations were probably different than most of the folks that played Morrowind. It’s a good game but, in my opinion(2), it is not a good TES game. On Chocolate Hammer I called it the ME1 of the TES universe and I’ll stand by what I said.

            Sherpa

            1) Is it cheese? Maybe, but in a single player game does it matter?
            2) I’m just talking about me and my preferences. Your millage may vary.
            3) Cast cure disease. *fail* *fail* *fail* rest *fail* *fail* *Success!* Yay?
            4) I’m looking at you Ubisoft. You can take those towers and shove them up your….
            5) Is the end of Morrowind a spoiler?

            • Abnaxis says:

              I had a feeling you might say that, which is why I asked. For all the reasons you find Morrowind less explorable, I see it as more explorable.

              In Oblivirim 3, every single place you go is the same. Every “new” location is basically chosen from a 4×4 table–I can go to one of ((Ayleid Runs, Fort, Natural Cave, Dwemer Ruins, Camp)), and (at early levels) this location will be always be inhabited by one of ((Skeletons, Bandits, Scamps, Imps)).

              It sucks all the reward from exploring, because the difficulty curve is flat and there aren’t enough dungeon tile-sets to keep me engaged. Without the auto-leveling, there is an extra dimension to the locations because the inhabitants themselves are different from area to area since they don’t all come from the same (short) list.

              Morrowind had some horrendously unbalanced systems–both for the players and for the monster abilities–but the first time I found a mod to remove the levelled lists from Oblivion, I was ON IT.

              • TMC_Sherpa says:

                Well, that is Bethesdas strong suit. (Almost) anything you don’t like can be fixed to turn it into the game you want to play. Am I happy that Oblivion was set in Englandland? Hell no, the setting from the books would have been much better. I think they made Cyrodiil “normal” to offset the look they had for oblivion…which also wasn’t great but what do I know.
                If Skywind ever gets finished I’ll play the heck out of it. Morrowind has the best story by a country mile I simply didn’t like the mechanics. I have more to say but I’ll save it and end with this.

                I don’t think there has been a “best” TES game yet. They all have their own irritating flaws.

                Sherpa

                PS Sorry Shamus for derailing your excellent ME1 post, sorry to the comment section for messing up your alternate LoTR story flow, its hilariously bad and sorry to Ruts who will have to deal with me in a couple weeks :)

                • djw says:

                  Level scaling vs not level scaling is a matter of taste. I hated the bandits in Daedric armor in Oblivion. When I realized how blatant the level scaling in Oblivion was I rage quit.

                  That brings me to the REAL strength of the elder scrolls series… Mods. There is a mod for Oblivion called “Oscuro’s Overhall” (I think, its been years since I played it) that eliminates the level scaling in Oblivion almost entirely. I found the game much more acceptable after I installed that mod.

                  So in the end we both got the game we wanted.

                  • Abnaxis says:

                    Which, I suppose, is a strong argument for including level scaling. Since there will always be some characters that are not randomly generated, it’s a lot easier to mod out the scaling than it would be to mod it in.

                    Sucks for all the people stuck on consoles, though.

                    • MichaelGC says:

                      I think they’re planning to do console mods for Fallout 4 – i.e. ones ported over from PC. Presumably only after approval from Microsoft and/or Sony and Bethesda and whoever else wants a slice. Not counting the mod authors – I doubt they’ll get a say! :D

      • modus0 says:

        But the Bethesda Fallout games are more along the lines of “witness this person’s story as they get wrapped up on world-changing events.” Your character is important to the story partially due to their associations, and partially because they happen to get involved.

        Not like the Elder Scrolls, where from Morrowind on you’re essentially the “fated hero”. You are important because you are a reincarnated hero, were seen in a prophetic dream, or (most egregious) you are the legend fated to show up for a “final battle”.

  7. MichaelGC says:

    Frodo has to resist the advances of the smokin’ hot princess he meets, since That Would Be Wrong … [s]omehow. Make up your own reason.

    Easy! Make it so that the princess is also a senator.

    • Mike S. says:

      Or have him fail to resist:

      Galadriel is more interested in Frodo, touching his Ring, which makes the others gasp. She looks into Frodo’s eyes, shakes out her mane of hair, and nets Frodo with it: “You shall look into the Mirror; and you alone.”

      Galadriel takes Frodo into her tent. Inside are carpets and cushions, as well as a small silver basin filled with water. What can I do now but quote the script:

      FRODO: I look and I see nothing.

      GALADRIEL: You look and you see nothing, for you are not yet ready.

      FRODO: When, when shall I be ready? And how?

      GALADRIEL: With knowledge. And I am that knowledge.

      FRODO: I – I don’t know what questions I should ask.

      GALDRIEL: Your eyes ask questions…already.

      Accepting the invitation, his eyes wander over her body, drinking in its loveliness. GALADRIEL’s austere and aloof features soften. GALADRIEL’s hand touches the chain from which the Ring dangles. And FRODO’s hand takes hers. FRODO looks again into the reflection in the basin and sees their two faces come together and kiss.

      (From Excalibur director John Boorman’s insane 1970 screenplay for The Lord of the Rings.)

      • Jabrwock says:

        I was going to say, sounds like something out of “Bored of the Rings”.

        “Do you like what you doth see . . . ?” said the voluptuous elf-maiden
        as she provocatively parted the folds of her robe to reveal the rounded,
        shadowy glories within. Frito’s throat was dry, though his head reeled with
        desire and ale.

        She slipped off the flimsy garment and strode toward the fascinated
        boggie unashamed of her nakedness. She ran a perfect hand along his hairy
        toes, and he helplessly watched them curl with the fierce insistent wanting of
        her.

        “Let me make thee more comfortable,” she whispered hoarsely, fiddling
        with the clasps of his jerkin, loosening his sword belt with a laugh. “Touch
        me, oh _touch me_,” she crooned.

        Frito’s hand, as though of its own will, reached out and traced the
        delicate swelling of her elf-breast, while the other slowly crept around her
        tiny, flawless waist, crushing her to his barrel chest.

        “Toes, I _love_ hairy toes,” she moaned, forcing him down on the
        silvered carpet. Her tiny, pink toes caressed the luxuriant fur of his instep
        while Frito’s nose sought out the warmth of her precious elf-navel.

        “But I’m so small and hairy, and . . . and you’re so _beautiful_,” Frito
        whimpered, slipping clumsily out of his crossed garters.

        The elf-maiden said nothing, but only sighed deep in her throat and held
        him more firmly to her faunlike body. “There is one thing you must do for me
        first,” she whispered into one tufted ear.

        “Anything,” sobbed Frito, growing frantic with his need. “Anything!”

        She closed her eyes and then opened them to the ceiling. “The Ring,” she
        said. “I must have your Ring.”

        Frito’s whole body tensed. “Oh no,” he cried, “not that! Anything but .
        . . that.”

        “I must have it,” she said both tenderly and fiercely. “I must have the
        _Ring!_”

        Frito’s eyes blurred with tears and confusion. “I can’t,” he said. “I
        mustn’t!”

        But he knew resolve was no longer strong in him. Slowly, the elfmaiden’s
        hand inched toward the chain in his vest pocket, closer and closer it
        came to the Ring Frito had guarded so faithfully . . .

      • Cinebeast says:

        Thank you SO MUCH for linking that. I’ve been wondering for years what Boorman’s script looked like.

        Turns out the answer is MAGIC. Dauntless, objectifying, awful, pants-on-head MAGIC.

    • Mephane says:

      Frodo has to resist the advances of the smokin’ hot princess he meets, since That Would Be Wrong … [s]omehow. Make up your own reason.

      A good read concerning this very trope where it is the most blatant – Star Wars: http://www.starshipnivan.com/blog/?p=8793

      Excerpt:

      Essentially, we are told that Anakin falls because… he loves his mate and so cannot gain the detachment required to become the Supreme Jedi Enforcer, a Buddhist Robocop.

      To put it succinctly, Mr. Lucas advocates that only hierarchical interactions are legitimate and that partnerships between equals are toxic. Those between women and men are destructive and doomed. Those between men are acceptable only if based on the religious/military model of abject submission, in which alpha males apportion rewards at whim (there are no interactions between women in Mr. Lucas’ opus, as there is a single girl in each trilogy).

  8. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Shepard loses both his status his Alliance and Spectre status.

    Theres one status too many.

  9. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 feel about as different as Star Trek the Motion Picture and Star Trek: Into Darkness. ”

    Not that apt comparison though.The motion picture was also very effects heavy and story threadbare.Its just that those effects were much slower than current ones.

    • Septyn says:

      ST:TMP is much more watchable and entertaining when you convince yourself it’s an episode from the 3rd season and not a multi-million dollar film.

      • RCN says:

        Then it needed an editor to cut that down to 40 or so minutes. I assure you nothing of substance would’ve been lost.

        • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

          On the thematic point, the better comparison seems Wrath of Khan and Into Darkness. Both movies are dealing with the same characters and same events, and ostensibly the same themes, but their approaches are diametrically different.

  10. Daemian Lucifer says:

    You missed a great opportunity Shamus.You couldve written about the continuation of lord of the rings,written by some new writer,lets call him Christian.It would involve a new hero,in fact lets make it a pair of heroes,one good with swords and the other with arrows and magic.Their task would be to slaughter orcs left and right,and even convert some to fight amongst each other,and all just for petty revenge.It would also involve some chick and some kid dying in the beginning,and then some fluff about an oracle,and a culmination where one of saurons generals gets beheaded.This new story could be called something epic and dark and gritty,something like the darkness of mordor.

  11. Lanelor says:

    There are so many things, big and small, that are gnarling at the player during all three parts, I wish there was an “Amassed effect” mod who moves 1 & 2 into 3’s move/combat gameplay and fixes all(most) of the points Shamus makes about story and characters.

  12. Taellosse says:

    Just before the credits, Mass Effect 1 shows Shepard against a planetary backdrop…It’s not Earth. I wonder where this is supposed to be and what it was supposed to mean.

    I think it’s supposed to mean, “isn’t space COOL?!”

  13. Zekiel says:

    That is a really, really interesting comparison. In spite of me still loving ME2 (for reasons not related to the plot/themes) I am feeling more and more upset about its lack of continuation of ME1’s excellent plot.

    Incidentally the footnote (5) about also illustrates one of the problems with the Diablo universe. Now I’ve not played 3 and don’t know the plot, but in 2 the overarching plot was “demons/evil gods are running havoc; the good god(s) can’t stop them because of [insert reason here] so humans have to instead”. You’re using force to combat force, but there is no adequate reason given why the powers of light can’t intervene directly to sort out the baddies themselves. They don’t intervene because it is an established trope that good deities don’t intervene. But no adequate reason is given why, and – unlike in LotR – the mortals are left to win entirely through application of force.

    • Xapi says:

      The reason given is: They don’t care.

      The “angels” in the Diablo Universe seem to be self serving a*holes who could not care less for whatever happens to the mortal realm as long as it doesn’t affect them.

      Tyrael is the exception, not the rule.

      In D3 this trend continues, until Diablo actually invades the “angels'” realm, and when he does, they seem to be pretty powerless to stop him.

      • Starkos says:

        It’s also established that angels are corruptible. Near the end of Diablo 2, you have to fight one of Tyrael’s former lieutenants, Izual. Who was captured and corrupted by demons. He shows up again in Diablo 3, because callbacks are a thing.

        In the third game’s expansion we have the Angel of Death, Malthael, show up and try to eradicate evil. However, since the main characters already killed off the big bads of Hell, Malthael sees humans as the new evil in comparison to Heaven.

      • Muspel says:

        Tyrael isn’t really the exception. Ithereal is a good guy, as is Auriel.

        Imperius is kind of a jackass, but his main flaw is his inability to compromise or stop fighting. I wouldn’t call him malicious, just blinded by pride.

        And all of this predates Diablo 3, although you generally had to dig through in-game lore and even the novelizations to find out about some of it.

        In the world of Diablo, the point seems to be that angels aren’t inherently good or evil. They’re just people. People who have a lot of power, yes, but people all the same. Some of them are good. Some of them are genocidal nutjobs. Some of them are just assholes.

    • Xeorm says:

      Diablo is one of those worlds where all life is built to suffer. Most notably, there’s no good or evil like you’d imagine with having angels and demons. Instead, the humans are all half angel and half demon. The demons love tormenting them because that’s what they do to anyone they can. But the angels don’t like them either because they’re half-demon.

      Tyreal is the exception, not the rule. Plus, both the demons and angels have been locked in an eternal war. The whole mess in the human world is a side effect of the war where the demons ran a coup against the leaders.

      Diablo even has the trope that humans are stupid strong. Canonically, a single human beats the three strongest demons in one-on-one combat afterall. So it’s not like they really needed the help anyway.

      • GloatingSwine says:

        The fact that humans are stupid strong (because they’re a mix of angel and demon) is also why the angels (bar Tyrael) hate them so much. Because they fear what humans might do if they become bored.

  14. Mersadeon says:

    Yes, yes! Shamus, with this series you have put into words what I’ve been trying to explain for a long time. It’s such a gigantic shame that we’ll never see the story ME1 promised. I really enjoyed ME2, but I felt so incredibly disappointed that it had this entirely different heart.

    I think the most important entry in this series for me is the last one you wrote, that really explained how ME1 set up a story to come.

  15. Jack V says:

    That’s an excellent description. In fact, I’ve often had similar complaints about books written by only one author, that they often have some plot twists or reveals that retroactively change our interpretation of the characters in the first parts. And I don’t like the plot holes, but even more I don’t like it when it turns a sympathetic character into a sociopath or similar. I don’t like it even when it’s done well (eg. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, for years I didn’t like because of how it undermined the characters in the first half, even though that was actually consistent and well told and now I love it). And I especially don’t like it when it seems to be a mistake and no-one else seems to notice the problem.

    • Phill says:

      I’m curious as to what you are referring to in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (love Le Carre by the way – and my family was once investigated by him when he was still an active MI6 officer – a rather dubious claim to fame). The only person who is revealed to be different to how they appear is the mole (trying to avoid spoilers here for a 40 year old book), and I don’t recall it being a particularly large shift (and not into being a sociopath). Or is it just the whole concept of a story presenting events to you and later presenting the same events in a different light, and it feels like cheating because the author simply didn’t give you the information necessary to understand it correctly the first time around.

      I know you can’t argue about whether you should or should not find any given thing annoying, but all I can say is it didn’t bother me there, although the equivalent thing in murder stories does bother me: where you get to the final “I’ve invited you all here to the drawing room today” scene, and the author simply hasn’t given you all the necessary information to figure out who did it yet. That seems like cheating. But for me, that’s because murder mysteries are often primarily about solving the puzzle of the available clues to identify what happened. Whereas Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy is not (for me) really about trying to figure out who the mole is, but about the methods, the psychology, the paranoia and the whole messed up world these people have to live in.

      Everyone is different :)

  16. Darren says:

    I know you don’t want us to get off-track here, but I’ve heard the argument “Lord of the Rings is popular in spite of its deep and complex mythology,” and I’ve never quite bought it. The Lord of the Rings is neither short nor terribly easy to read, consciously mimicking themes and structures that, even at the time when it was written, were archaic. Yet it has gone on to much more success than many books that undoubtedly were as thematically strong and which didn’t feature multi-page diversions into songs and poetry. And the only thing I can think of that sets it apart is the sense of cohesiveness that Tolkien granted to his fictional world. It might be worth looking at the world-building of Mass Effect or another popular franchise in this or another series.

    • Phill says:

      I think many people are very bad judges of understanding *why* they like something. Humans are good at rationalising, and consquently their stated reasons for liking (or disliking) a book / film / game may not have a very good correlation with what they actually find themselves liking and disliking.

    • Kylroy says:

      Tolkien was an amazing world builder. The incredibly rich and detailed history of Middle Earth inspired so many future writers that it effectively invented modern fantasy.

      He was an adequate plotmaker. By his own admission, Tolkien was more interested in echoing old European sagas than doing something new and interesting; the advantage of this tried and true approach is that it works.

      As an actual composer of prose…um. He had some great moments (I still love the opening of The Hobbit on a purely technical writing level), but on the whole he was an independently wealthy academic writing for his own amusement and it showed.

      • Mike S. says:

        I can’t think of any traditional quest plot, pre or post-Tolkien (other than direct imitators) that ends the way that LotR’s Ring-quest does. The hero fundamentally failing and falling at the last, and the quest succeeding despite him because of providence and previous good moral choices, is many things, but it’s not an echo of any of the sagas I’ve read. If it’s not new and interesting, I’d be interested in the antecedents.

        There’s a lot of tragedy in literature and a fair bit of heroic triumph, but Tolkien-style eucatastrophe is a rare bird.

        • Joe Informatico says:

          Return of the Jedi. Yoda and Kenobi told Luke throughout the whole trilogy that he’ll have to kill Vader. When Luke finds out Vader is his father, he says, “there must still be some good in him” but Yoda and Kenobi disagree. At the end, Luke refuses to kill Vader, and it’s that act of mercy (like Frodo’s towards Gollum) that ultimately defeats the Emperor. Not his skill with a lightsaber or his strength in the Force or the evidently misguided counsel of his Jedi mentors. Mercy.

        • Zekiel says:

          It is somewhat ironic that the massive fantasy roleplaying genre spawned primarily by LotR (including of course computer RPGs) almost always goes with the approach of “let’s use power to defeat evil”, in direct contravention to the LotR approach. Perhaps that is because it is difficult to create mechanics for mercy/compassion/sacrifice. More likely I suspect its because waving swords around and casting spells seems cooler :-)

          • Mike S. says:

            To be fair, Gygax and Arneson were more inspired by Fritz Lieber, Robert E. Howard, Poul Anderson, and Jack Vance than by Tolkien. Those authors’ characters were still generally underdogs rather than combat monsters (except Howard’s), but there wasn’t the same philosophical opposition to using power if it became available.

  17. Mike S. says:

    I agree that ME2 was a departure, but I’m not sure that the comparison with The Lord of the Rings really holds. LotR is a single story broken into parts for publishing reasons. (If Tolkien had been publishing today he’d have gotten one volume, shorter than the average Wheel of Time installment, and probably have been expected to come up with two more books equally long.[1]) Mass Effect may have been vaguely planned as a trilogy, but Mass Effect 2 is still a sequel story rather than part 2 of a single narrative.

    [1] Ignoring the fact that he’s a big part of the reason that trilogies became a genre standard.

    The first game is, by structure, a mystery: we begin with the events of Eden Prime and have to piece together what Saren wants and how he intends to accomplish it. Which in turn leads us to the solution to deeper mysteries underlying the history of Citadel space. But every installment doesn’t have to be a mystery. (E.g., Star Trek could do mystery, comedy, war story, costume drama, etc. while still being recognizably Star Trek.)

    So ME2 is more of a quest structure: we know from early on that there’s a threat (the Collectors), where it’s coming from (the Omega-4 relay), and what we have to do (go through the relay and stop them). In and of itself, that’s not out of place for the kind of character Shepard was shaped up to be. He is, after all, a Spectre, and that sort of freelance investigation and action in places where sending a fleet would cause an interstellar incident is pretty much what Spectres are for.

    Killing and resurrecting him, and making him work for Cerberus were missteps. But not ones that actually matter all that much in the scheme of things. The extent to which it doesn’t matter is itself a plot problem– he can walk around the Citadel, make himself known to Anderson, Udina, and the Council, get his Spectre status reaffirmed, etc. without anyone giving him the slightest trouble. But by the same token, what Shepard actually does wouldn’t necessarily be all that different if Shepard were working for the Alliance and/or the Council.

    (“Of course we’re worried about those alien attacks on colonies which may have connections to the Reapers we all agree exist. But we can’t blanket the Terminus systems with ships in concentrations high enough to deal with this mysterious super-dreadnought wherever it might strike, and even trying would get us into a bunch of wars. This is why we pay you, Spectre. Gather some deniable sub-agents if you want, and let us know what you find.” Then you get the one device that will get one ship through the impassible relay, and time doesn’t permit going back and asking for the Destiny Ascension, and you need the Normandy’s stealth systems anyway.)

    While ME2 has a different spin on them, both Humans are Special and Shepard is Special are carryovers from the first game. Humanity is already doing in years what takes other species centuries, to the consternation of their ambassadors. Shepard is a famous war figure in two out of three origins and the first human Spectre (again, something normally expected to take generations) in all of them. By the end, we’ve leapfrogged our way to Council status less than thirty years after first contact (compare the volus at two thousand and counting), and Shepard has punched out Cthulhu by proxy. That this makes both friends and enemies take a second look at both doesn’t strike me as a sharp turn into left field.

    (The Reapers talk a good game about been vast, cool, and unsympathetic superintelligences who don’t deign to notice individual sapients. But Sovereign evidently talked to Saren, and thought Shepard was worth monologuing exposition at. So Shepard’s profile going up with them after he’s messed up their billion years of pitching no-hitters is, I think, justified, even if most of the credit really belongs to the Protheans.)

    • Victor McKnight says:

      I do have to agree that the Humans are special angle is a carry-over from ME1, but its handled more subtly. We hear things from the Elcor and Volus to the effect that part of why they aren’t on the council is a functions of their own cultural and political tendencies. But by the end of ME2, we have Harbinger saying how genetically great humans are.

      Also, yes, there are plenty of things in ME2 that could have worked had other elements of the story been better. The Alliance looking to protect colonies is pretty notable.

      But… I think I can square your points about LotR really just being one story with your comments about game structure. I’ll use Star Wars instead of LotR. Empire is certainly structured differently than A New Hope. A New Hope is a fun action romp. Empire had elements of that too, but it most of the middle is split between a chase story structure (everyone in the Millennium Falcon) and an extended training montage (Luke at Dagobah). No one hates Empire, so differing narrative structure is fine.

      But in a New Hope, Obi-Wan suggests that Vader was “seduced by the Dark Side” and that his power is evil. At the end, he sacrifices himself rather than give into his anger at his old pupil for becoming evil and murdering other Jedi. Obi-wan shows restraint in many instances. Vader flaunts his power.

      If, in Empire, Yoda was some burly fighter who told Luke that anger is okay if it is righteous anger and not petty anger born of fear or jealousy, that would be a huge change. Then Obi-wan looks like an idiot who let himself be killed because he didn’t understand the Light side of the Force well enough to use it to defeat Vader. I mean, if anyone should have some righteous / “good” anger to use against Vader, its Obi-wan.

      So yeah, LotR’s single story structure is not a perfect fit for Mass Effect. But Shamus’ points about themes still hold true, because they aren’t really about narrative structure.

      • Mike S. says:

        I think the end of ME3 was thematically at odds with the rest of ME2 and ME3. (Though actually less so than ME1– you could skip straight from the AI encounters in the first game to “AI and organic life are fundamentally incompatible, unless you utterly transform the conflict” at the end of the third with minimal violence to the story.)

        I’m less convinced that ME2 is thematically incompatible with ME1. They’re atmospherically very different, though not in a way that makes Shepard an inappropriate protagonist for either. (If anything, being the one who just dealt with a mysterious overpowered threat from outside is a better recommendation for investigating a mysterious, overpowered threat from outside than “a thresher maw ate her squad, let’s make her a Spectre!”)

        But they both ratify going outside the law for the greater good. (Spectre status practically makes that official policy, and the most Paragon Shepard still has to blow off the Council and Alliance and steal the Normandy.) They both emphasize the way Campbellian upstart humanity is unexpectedly active and important. ME2 escalates the specialness of humanity in ways I don’t necessarily like (especially since our genetic variation is unusually narrow for terrestrial species). They both mostly make Shepard indispensable for what she can do rather than who she is.

        (For all Miranda’s “bloody icon” speech, in practice what they’re getting is knowledge, leadership, and judgment. Using Shepard on a covert mission means she’s barely a recruiting tool beyond the Suicide Mission participants themselves, half of whom don’t give a damn about her history. Grunt knows nothing about it, Jack doesn’t really care, Zaeed just cares if the check clears, etc.)

        And if anything, ME2 gives us a better view of the diversity of a galaxy in which humans are increasingly important, but still far from preeminent. In Mass Effect, we visited a human colony, a mostly human corporate world, a couple of empty ghost planets occupied by robots, and a bunch of uncharted worlds with bandit camps. In ME2 we go to Tuchanka, to the Migrant Fleet, to an asari corporate world… we see a lot more of the galaxy that’s not either empty or run by humans than we did in the first game.

        We may occasionally be reminded we’re fighting for Earth (not inappropriate for someone who signed up for the human military, in a world in which 99+% of humanity still lives there), but we have a better sense of what else is out there than we did in ME1. And where ME1 is, fundamentally, a “humans to the rescue!” climax, ME2 demands the best efforts of a multispecies team to be a full success.

  18. boz says:

    Worst part of ME2 is I can see a working ME2 backbone if I can squint hard enough when I look at ME2.

    – Shepard is special not because he is an icon but his brain is changed via beacon. We don’t know how and we can’t replicate it (yet). (Insert O’neill ancient brain dump from Stargate SG-1)

    – There are multiple assassination attempts at Shepard. One nearly succeeds. Normandy is damaged (not destroyed), Shepard is gravely wounded/comatose (not dead). Alliance declares them destroyed and dead. Not-Cerberus recovers both and starts fixing.

    – We are working for “Not-Cerberus” clandestine black-ops wetwork part of the Systems Alliance (because there ought to be something like that). Hiding our revival to stop the assassination attempts (plus, we can change our face with this, and it’s a valid reason to disband our original team “for their safety[P]” or “operational security”[R]).

    – Reapers are still in dark space but awake signal has broadcast. Harbinger still controls the Collectors to build one reaper in our galaxy (they can still use humans as organic building material). Their actual objective is to replace Sovereign so that they can activate citadel for Reaper’s return trip from dark space.

    • RCN says:

      Sincerely, the Systems Alliance, as presented in 1, wouldn’t have the resources or intel to make this happen. The Salarian STG would find out about Shepard within the week and the Alliance alone would never have the technology to rebuild the Normandy. Not to mention that it would still kill some of the main setups from ME1: Shepard’s a Specter and has unique authority in Council space and he has direct access to Liara who’s a Prothean expert.

      Also, it would still shift the focus of the plot to the Humans and make them special, which is another counter to the themes of the first game.

      So, all in all, it really didn’t change from the core problems of Mass Effect 2: Cerberus Bangaloo.

      Note that it is still better than ME2, though. The Systems Alliance somehow having the means to rebuild the Normandy is still leaps and bounds more realistic than some random human-based small-time bumbling terrorist cell being able to REVIVE Shepard with technology surpassing the entire Council and IMPROVE the Normandy, which was the MOST ADVANCED COUNCIL SHIP IN THE GALAXY. (It also baffles me that “improving” the Normandy involved more than doubling its size, which is just absurd when we’re talking about a ship whose main purpose was STEALTH).

      • Raygereio says:

        It also baffles me that “improving” the Normandy involved more than doubling its size, which is just absurd when we’re talking about a ship whose main purpose was STEALTH

        What’s absurd about it? It’s not real-world stealth tech. ME’s stealth involves ‘capturing’ heat emission via magic tech. The only real limitations ME1 gave was that it doesn’t make the ship invisible and there’s a time limit on how long the stealth could be enabled.

        • RCN says:

          The limit was based on the heat that the Normandy produced, which would only increase with an increase of mass (because it would require more output out of the engines) and size. And when the only weak point of your stealth is someone actually looking for you, becoming bigger is a BIG drawback.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            Not to mention that the second normandy is so big its not suitable to land on planets anymore.Except when it totally enters earths atmosphere to fire shots and stuff like that in me3.Because why the fuck not.

          • Raygereio says:

            The issue of the increased output of heat from a larger ship can be handwaved away with a larger ship having the room for larger captured-heat-buffers. We are talking about magic-tech. The concept of realism and real-world science rules have exited the building.
            If you’re deadset on complaining about the lack of realism, I’d start with element zero and all the laws of physics it laughs at.

            And when the only weak point of your stealth is someone actually looking for you, becoming bigger is a BIG drawback.

            Space is big. This is something most people tend to underestimate,but it’s really, really big. And space battle in ME (as per lore, not cutscenes) happen over long distances. If the Normandy would be close enough for you to look out of your window and see it, you’re already screwed.
            There’s a counter to the Normandy’s stealth system (which ME ignores) in that you could simply observe the stars around you and have the Normandy-alert go off whenever something obscures them. But again: Space is big and that would require sheer luck and knowing the Normandy’s around. More importantly, if you have the processing and sensor capability to that for the Normandy 2.0, you could also do it for the smaller 1.0 version.

            @Daemian:
            Welll… it didn’t land, did it? It just sort of hovered instead. And the ME2 codex only talked about not being able to land on certain planets.[/pedant]
            The ME series has a proud history of ignoring its own lore in favor of making a cool looking scene. *Shakes fist at ME1 and its space battles*

            • 4th Dimension says:

              I know we are arguing abut technology that is based on coolness factor but I just can not resist.

              Even though ME tech might be powered by magic or something, some of the normal logic has to apply. Like the size of the engines baring a tech upgrade needs to be proportional to the mass of teh vessel they are propelling. And the heat output would again be proportional to the mass, and the size of the engines.
              What makes “doubly” longer Normandy less stealthy is the fact that when the length increases lineary the mass and volume increases quadratically if not more. So to cool Normandy effectivly a two times bigger Normandy will need four or more times more heatsinks which will increase the amount of heat it radiates even when in stealth.

              While we are on the point of Stealth it sort of works in ME because we need an explanation why Normandy isn’t blown out of the sky the first time we get inserted into a warzone. But realistically stealth in Space is highely unlikely baring attempts to sneak in by hiding behind rare physical objects or approaching from the direction of the sun. It’s impossible because any vessel with life support on inside will be radiating at least room temperature heat even on it’s dark side. Further more coolers which are necessary so that the crew doesn’t get cooked alive radiate considerably mre thermal energy than that. This all makes vessels HIGHLY bright objects to sensors. And we are here talking about logicall progression of today’s sensors/cameras with more resolution and mor eprocessing power.

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              Fiction =/= whatever you pull out of your ass is ok.Meaning that if the story establishes a thing,it cannot just do the opposite thing without explaining why its ok now.And for stuff that is shown to operate like in the real world,unless its established otherwise,they should operate like in the real world.

              So to this specific example,if heat is the problem,and its not established that heat operates differently than in reality,the bigger your ship,the more heat it gives off.And energy is also something thats not established as infinite,so the bigger the engine,the less efficient it is.Meaning that you cant just scale the ship upwards without immensely increasing its energy requirements and decreasing its effective cloaking abilities.The biggest problems with this is that its established that in order to cloak,normandy 1 captures heat inside,and prolonged use can cook the crew.This means that the bigger normandy will cook its crew faster.In conclusion,maybe normandy 2 is a viable stealth ship,but it either is way less useful(drastically cutting down its stealth time,at least twice,but probably much more),or it uses some new energy source previously unheard of.

              As for the space battle in me1,its not contrary to the lore established in that game because the lore talks about typical space battles,when the one at the end of the game is not a typical space battle.

              • Raygereio says:

                Fiction =/= whatever you pull out of your ass is ok.Meaning that if the story establishes a thing,it cannot just do the opposite thing without explaining why its ok now.

                I agree that a properly structured fictional setting should have rules. I do think that a writer can always break those rules after they’ve been established, but that should only be done with a very good reason.
                That said: ME1 did not establish anything about there being a size limitation for its stealth drive. The closest thing to it was the cost of its drive core. And Cerberus being able to afford another, bigger Normandy is another issue (one that I’m sure we’ll get into fairly quickly once Shamus starts with ME2).

                And for stuff that is shown to operate like in the real world,unless its established otherwise,they should operate like in the real world

                I’m not sure what exactly you’re trying to say here. But if it’s what I think it is, then I disagree. You can never apply real-world rules to fiction. Not unless the writer clearly establishes stuff works like in the real world.
                To come back to the problem of heat-storage-capacity. You’re making assumptions there about a piece of magic-tech that you do not know the capabilities of. Applying real-world logic to fill the gaps the writers left concerning it’s capabilities, is kinda silly when said piece of magic-tech already breaks real-world logic with its very existence.

                • Daemian Lucifer says:

                  If we see humans walking around like humans walk around in real world,there is no need to establish that the gravity is working the same as in our world.Same goes for heat.And what the codex says about stealth has nothing to do with magic space tech.It mentions heat storage,refrigeration and venting of heat afterwards(with specific mention to the risk of being cooked alive inside the ship).The only piece of magic space tech is in how it moves(the tantalus drive that allows movement without emitting heat).So standard laws of thermodynamics are in effect,and increasing the size of normandy does mean it produces more heat.And in fact,the whole “bigger ships require more energy” is also referenced a few times.

                • RCN says:

                  I’m fairly sure the reason the Normandy was a Frigate was because they couldn’t make the engine bigger for a larger class. The engine itself was a state-of-the-art, secret Turian tech and the most advanced piece of technology in the entire council space.

                  Taking that and just outright replicating it for a considerably larger ship (Normandy-2 could be considered a small Cruiser) is a HUGE stretch, if we’re even trying to pretend we’re having a consistent setting. It is like Tolkien had stated, the audience has absolutely no problem with magic(futuristic technology) as long as it is well established and follows it’s own rules. What the audience hates is when you start to break your own rules and having Cerberus come up and say “Hey, that ship you had was a piece of crap. We’ve rebuilt it and made it stronger, faster, better and bigger!” Is paramount to spitting right in the audience’s face while unequivocally stating that Cerberus is a Marty Stu that can just do whatever the hell it wants in the story and all you can do is bend over and accept it.

                  When I started playing ME2 and the game told me “Hey, the new Normandy is much better. It is stronger and twice as big!” I replied “SCREW YOU! The Normandy was a Stealth ship, not some rugged battle-worthy warship! You ruined it you idiots!” It didn’t help that I was being strongarmed to play ball with cerberus when my initial background was that Cerberus killed everyone Shepard knew and loved. When TIM said “Oh, that was splinter group of Cerberus” I was almost foaming from my mouth.

                  The International Space Station can be fairly easy to find in the sky, but you have to look for it. You can certainly agree that if we had a kilometer long ship orbiting out there, it’d be MUCH easier to spot than the International Space Station, right? Making things bigger directly influence how easy something is to find. Normandy-2 can be spotted from twice as far as the original, you tell me that’s not a design flaw?

                  • guy says:

                    I wouldn’t think making a larger Normandy would be impossible, but it would be rather expensive and potentially technically difficult. There’s no indication that the drive core doesn’t scale, and a bigger ship has more volume for heat sinks, but getting everything powered and operating efficently on a larger scale might not be trivial. And there doesn’t seem to be much point in making a larger one unless you’re prepared to go all-out and make a stealth dreadnought. Which according to ME3 the Salarians did at tremendous expense and a significant reduction in their total dreadnought production.

                    The Normandy is a frigate because that’s plenty big for spy operations and cost quite enough already.

                    • RCN says:

                      Well, as you said there’s a huge difference.

                      Besides, I can believe the Salarians building stealth Dreadnoughts. What I can’t believe is Cerberus building as much as a stealth donut. Or any human faction building any stealth ship without the help of the Turians.

                      Besides, at the very least their Stealth Dreadnoughts were actually considered something unthinkable by the codex and their sole purpose was to fight the Reapers, who don’t rely on conventional spectrographic vision for anything.

                    • guy says:

                      I think people make too much of the “can be seen by the naked eye” thing. If a dreadnought wants to stay in stealth until it’s at optimal engagement range, we’re still talking spotting a kilometer-long warship more than the diameter of the earth away. It’s only a significant issue for planetary landings.

            • ehlijen says:

              Space is big, yes. But generally speaking, if you want to sneak, you’re trying to get near or close past something important, meaning distance isn’t always going to save you.
              If you could stay as far away as needed, you wouldn’t need heat baffling either.

              • Mike S. says:

                You would if you planned to be in the same solar system as the target. According to Project Rho’s analysis of stealth in space, the Space Shuttle’s maneuvering thrusters were detectable with modern tech from the asteroid belt, and the main engines from beyond the orbit of Pluto. Even a ship with cold engines and life support turned down to freezing could be detected a hundred times the distance to the Moon.

                (And again, that’s with current tech. Presumably a couple thousand years of interstellar wars boosted by convenient Prothean^WReaper tech caches means much more sensitive detection technology.)

                So if you want stealthed spacecraft, you’ll need some non-passive way to hide your heat emissions that we don’t know how to accomplish. Which, to its credit, the Normandy has. (And the name of the project in the ME2 Arrival DLC suggests to me that the creators may have read that very page when coming up with the Normandy’s stealth mechanics.)

                • Daemian Lucifer says:

                  Thats all true if you are searching for it.But what if you arent?For example,with our current equipment we can notice and observe asteroids in great detail,even when they are hidden in the belt full of other space rocks far away from us.And yet one of those had no trouble sneaking up on us.And thats a dumb rock.A smart space ship will actively abuse stuff like coming from the direction of the star and hiding in areas not usually observed.

                  • Mike S. says:

                    Dumb rocks are at ambient temperature. Things with life support systems and drives can’t be, modulo superscience doubletalk. (Which the Normandy of course has, and that handwave is fine.) We’re also generally looking at systems that either have space traffic control or an expectation that they’re defending against enemy spaceships or both. And VIs that don’t get tired or bored.

                    • guy says:

                      Dumb rocks are in sunlight. They won’t be at empty vacuum temperature either.

                    • 4th Dimension says:

                      @guy Yes but rock’s dark side will have a temperature measured in single digit Kelvins. Meanwhile a ship’s darkside has a temperature in HUNDREDS of kelvin.

                    • Daemian Lucifer says:

                      Dumb rocks are cold only if they dont rotate,meaning if only one side of them gets heated by the sunlight while only the other one radiates that heat.If they rotate however,all the heat collected when facing the sun will be released once that side turns away.So yes,asteroids that get close to the sun are also very hot.

                      But sure,on a planet with extensive surveillance,it would be pretty hard to come in stealthy.Still,establishing such a huge network of sensors will also be quite difficult and expensive,so not something for your dime a dozen colony.

                    • 4th Dimension says:

                      I wouldn’t agree completly. Sure a tumbling rock will have less of a variance between temperatures, but not by much. Much of that rock is at couple degrees of Kelvin, and there is a limit how much you can heat a material solely through radiation, and while you are slowly heating up the sun side the dark side is radiating any heat it had back into the space. Also asteroids are so bright not because they are warm but because they are reflective, which would mean they reflect most of the energy back out of themselves. They only keep the difference and that difference is then also radiated away.

                    • Mike S. says:

                      This thread suggests a 300m asteroid (so about 15 times the size of the Chelyabinsk meteor) has a detection distance of around 1.5 AU. Which is pretty far out in the scheme of things, but a lot closer than even a small powered object.

                      There are already plans in place to get the ones that cross Earth’s orbit tracked as something considered feasible with 21st century tech. (Though only down to 150m, which still misses Chelyabinsk-sized objects.) Presumably anyplace with interstellar traffic and enemies would consider that a higher priority than we do.

  19. wswordsmen says:

    I am going to try to actively troll Shamus to expand the series (if he didn’t think of this first), but are you going to talk about the change to how quickly powers can be used in the later games?

    In the first game you had access to all your powers, but it took over a minute (2 minutes at the start of the game) for them to recharge, which meant you used them and then had to wait for them to recharge, while in sequels you could use a single power every 5 seconds or so.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Its one of the good changes actually.Yes powers would get strong late in me1,but even then you still would spam them all at the beginning of a fight,and then rely on your weapon to finish it off.Then youd enter the next fight with the same tactics.Sometimes youd get into a bit longer fight where youd get to spam your powers twice,but still the same.

      In 2,you actually did a mix between shooting and powers,especially because powers all had the same cooldown.So if you wanted to go invisible to line up a sniper shot,you had to wait before you could torch that guys armor(and vice versa).It was a nice well implemented balance,hurt only by the stupid inclusion of thermal clips.

      • Trix2000 says:

        I feel like the clips get a bad rap, because I think they’d have been completely ignored if the first game hadn’t had an unusual ammo system. Plus, I think there WAS a problem with the way gunplay worked in ME1 that needed to be solved in 2… and while thermal clips were not the most elegant (or even right) method to do so, they at least felt a lot better to me.

        Perhaps it would have been better if either A) they used the clip system from the start, or B) they’d simply modified the ME1 system to something more punchy rather than throwing it out entirely. Maybe it would have been as simple as tweaking cooling rates to better balance how much shooting you could expect to do. A lot of my problem in ME1 was how the shooting seemed to have no impact beyond the firing sound – enemies hardly reacted outside dying and too many seemed like bullet sponges (especially while using assault rifles).

        I actually liked ME2 and 3’s system insofar as the gunplay feel and dynamics, but collecting clips all the time still doesn’t feel right.

        • wswordsmen says:

          I for one hated them with a passion. They didn’t give you enough ammo to finish a fight. I would run out basically every fight. I was forced to conserve ammo so much that in ME3 I would go through huge areas never firing a shot, because ME2 had trained me to only shoot if I had to.

          • Khizan says:

            I think there was enough ammo, you just had to take some care with your aiming instead of just spray+pray.

            • guy says:

              Depends, when you’re fighting husks or animals that don’t drop clips for a long period you can run low.

            • 4th Dimension says:

              Yes, but have they given me my normal weapons with no sink bulshit I would have been completly fine. Besides, the clips are heatsinks from what I could understand. So why aren’t we throwing them away when we could simply put “spent” in a bag and wait for them to cool down.

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              No,there wasnt enough ammo.There was enough ammo LYING AROUND.Thats the key difference.You are constantly forced to bolt out of cover to collect more.Which is fine for some classes,but for infiltrator,the one thats supposed to stand in the back all the time,its just ridiculous.

              • Kana says:

                The heat sinks just felt like they should have been an optional reload. Have less of them but you don’t need them unless you want to be firing again right this second.

        • ehlijen says:

          I think the real difference between ME1 and ME2 weapons is eclipsed by the ammo system: ME2 and especially 3 had more variety inside each weapon class.

          All M1 assault rifles were essentially the same: fire fast and continuously. There weren’t any that fired in short bursts but with longer pauses between them like ME2’s vindicator, for example. The difference between the Mantis and the Viper sniper rifles far exceeded that of any ME1 rifle (6 shots to 1 vs 1.2 shots to 1.7 or something like that).

          None of that really required the change to finite ammo, the mod system even allowed some of these effects to be done in ME1, but somehow the meaningful differences were hard to spot between the constant item shuffling to get +.5% better gear on the right person each time you looted something.

          The ME2/3 system was less cluttered and thus looked more interesting, to me at least.

        • Khizan says:

          Thermal clips made the shooting experience much better, imo.

          The big problem was just that the giant overall switch seemed pointless. They’d have been a lot better off framing it something more like this…

          “We have an AR-A of X quality that gets effectively infinite shots, and we have AR-B of X+Y quality that’s reliant on thermal clips. The thing here is that our marines, typically, only fire N times per battle and N is a number that is muuuuch less than infinity. Because of this, we find we get increased performance when we use AR-B and give our Marines 2*N shots worth of thermal clips. The soldiers like the new guns because they really are better than the old ones and they’re willing to trade off infinite shots for the performance increase.

          However, since pistols are keeping to the infinite ammo system because they’re a sidearm instead of a primary weapon and we’ve found that troop morale dramatically increases when they know that they’ll never be COMPLETELY out of ammo.”

          Explain it like that and now players never run entirely out of ammunition while providing a solid excuse for primary weapons to switch to the ammo system.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            Thermal clips made the shooting experience much better, imo.

            Please explain how.All I see are negatives:

            The reloading replaces cooling down period,so it improves nothing.In fact,in certain cases it detracts from the experience because with certain mods and powers you were able to completely negate the cooling period.Which you cant do in me2,though me3 fixed this.

            You are forced to change weapons based on ammo scarcity,not based on whats best for the given situation,which is a bad thing.And contrast this with powers,where you pick the one best suited for the situation instead of just unloading them all at the beginning of combat,which greatly improved their usage and combos you could achieve with your teammates.

            You are also forced to bolt out of cover to hunt for ammo in prolonged fights,which is ridiculous if you are playing a sniper or a support class.This makes classes less distinct,so its a bad thing.

            Also,you are forced to scrounge for ammo after every battle,which is just tedious for this kind of game.

            And thats not even mentioning the numerous plot holes it introduces to the story.

            Now if they stuck with their original idea of having thermal clips in addition to the cooldown that you would get when you spend them all,all of those would go away and it would indeed be an improvement,instead of turning the gameplay into “yet another cover based shooter with some rpg elements”.

            • ehlijen says:

              Some of what you describe as downsides, others would consider advantages.

              Actually running out of ammo for one weapon gives a point to the soldier carrying anything else on top of the assault rifle. It also ensures that the other classes will have to look at their powers for alternatives.
              It introduces more choices that need to be made under pressure and thus makes the game more interesting. (Interesting as in more decision points obscuring the ability to predict the outcome ahead of time, given player input more meaning.)

              Same with making the player look around for ammo. It takes some of the load of the AI when it comes to forcing the player to actually move. Not everyone wants to sit still throughout the entire fight and ammo gives a reason for the player to keep moving and exploring.

              I also found scrounging for ammo only had a minimum of tedium, what with clips lying around everywhere and each clip reloading all guns at once.

              Could it have been done better? Absolutely, but I likewise found the gunplay in ME2+3 more enjoyable. They had a lot of problems, but thermal clips weren’t one of them.

  20. “In Fellowship, Gandalf even refuses to take the Ring from Bilbo by force, even though allowing him to keep the ring is dangerous both to Bilbo himself and to all of Middle-Earth”

    Bilbo giving up the ring voluntarily is what allowed Frodo to resist its effects for so long. If you cause harm to get the thing, the hold it has over you is immense and devastating. That was the difference illustrated by having Smeagol in the book–because he killed to get the ring, and you saw what it did to HIM. The difference between how Frodo got the ring and how Gollum got the ring is the essence of the story in a lot of ways.

    • guy says:

      I don’t think that’s the reason, though the fact that Smeagol would kill for the Ring probably made it harder for him to resist. But I think it’s mostly a time issue. I don’t know if we ever find out exactly how old he is, but the Ring would not have been content at the bottom of the river for long after Isildor’s death and Smeagol had it the entire time since.

      I think the core of the story is in the conversation with Galadrial. When she refuses the Ring, Sam says he’s sure she’d put it to good use and set things straight, and she replied that it might be that way at first, but it would not stay that way. The hobbits can carry it and give it up because they don’t have grand ambitions for its power. Bombadil has no use for it at all and to him it’s a pretty bauble that he’ll play with for a bit before getting bored and forgetting about it. All the elves and wizards and great warriors would use it to strike down Sauron and protect the innocent. Then they would find other uses for its power.

      • Mike S. says:

        The Ring sits in the river for a surprisingly long time: something like 2400 years. But Gollum still had it for five centuries before meeting Bilbo. He probably declined faster, but I doubt any of the Hobbits would be distinguishable after half a millennium of bearing the Ring.

        Gandalf says he’d ultimately be worse than Sauron, and Tolkien expanded on that in a letter by saying that he’d start as righteous and end as self-righteous. Where Sauron was all about personal aggrandizement, Gandalf would dominate everyone for what he saw as their own good. As CS Lewis put it in another context:

        “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

      • It’s not that the ring was harder to resist per se–Smeagol was FIXATED on it. It became his entire life. And once that happens, you can’t ever give it up. Something that you buy at that price HAS to be important. And if it’s important, you don’t want to give it away. At that point, you don’t own it. It owns you.

        Bilbo resisted as long as he did (almost a hundred years!) because it was just a THING to him. A useful thing, to be sure, but just a trinket to play with.

        • Mike S. says:

          Partly that, but Gandalf outright states that Bilbo’s beginning his ownership with pity and mercy made a big difference, and that if he’d killed Gollum when he’d had the chance (which he seriously considered, and which Frodo wished he had) it would have affected him more and faster.

    • Mike S. says:

      Frodo would probably be okay (or rather, given that the burden did break him eventually, no worse off). He wouldn’t have been the one who forced Bilbo to give it up. (Just as Bilbo took comparatively little hurt by beginning his ownership with pity and inadvertent theft vs. Smeagol’s deliberate murder.)

      But if Gandalf had forced Bilbo to give it up, it would have been irreparably devastating to Bilbo. And the temptation for Gandalf to claim it himself might have been insurmountable. The exercise of power over others is what the Ring is all about, so it’s the perfect opening for it to work. In his mind, it would spawn perfect self-justifications about how this showed that even the best of Hobbits isn’t really strong enough to resist. Gandalf would just have to shoulder the burden himself.

      (Worse, at that point Gandalf still thinks it might be some other ring than the One, since it took seventeen years of research to come to that conclusion. So while it’s obviously perilous, he’s already taken up Narya, he can take precautions, he’ll certainly never use it… and as the danger mounts and he learns more about it, it would be there offering the power for one of his stature to counter Sauron, at the moment when he needs it most.)

      • Ivan says:

        I thought that Frodo’s decline (to the point that he was ready to seize the ring for himself instead of throw it into Mt. Doom) was primarily related to his proximity to Mordor. If that wasn’t mentioned at some point I’m pretty sure there were some things going on that implied it.

        • Mike S. says:

          Sure– that’s why Frodo is much worse off after less than twenty years than Bilbo was after many times that, despite actually using the Ring much less than Bilbo did. (Twice, I think– once in Bree, once to escape Boromir.) Frodo is closer to Mount Doom and Barad-Dur, is the subject of an active search by Sauron, is weakened by physical and mental injury (including being stabbed by a Morgul blade) and starvation, etc. Even Sam, when he briefly bears it, feels the Ring’s temptation with a directness that Bilbo never seems to have.

          Though Bilbo wasn’t that much farther away from Sauron, then at Dol Guldur, when he first got the Ring. So it may be Sauron’s greater concentration on the search, the Ring’s further awakening as Sauron grew in power, or something similarly metaphysical.

          (We’ll leave aside the piddling fact that Tolkien was just writing about an invisibility ring in The Hobbit, and only decided it was a powerful and malign magical artifact when it came time to write a sequel.)

  21. ogg says:

    Looking forward to the next one, so many interesting comments today.

  22. Dev Null says:

    It’s fascinating to watch you chart the descent of the series into depths I haven’t yet seen – you keep referring to the big controversy over the ending of the third game, and I haven’t played it yet. (Sort of waiting to see if they’ll release it without the DLC. And sort of just lazy and behind the times.) I guess I’ll have to stop reading this series when you get to the third one, but for now it’s a lot of fun.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      No need.If you enjoy the games for their gameplay,the main problem youll have with the ending is that its just an hour of somewhat interactive cutscene.If you like the story,the main problem youll have with the ending is that nothing you did matters.Whatever the reason though,no spoilers will manage to ruin it for you,but they may prepare you to shrug it off better.So spoil yourself,it will only improve your enjoyment.

    • wswordsmen says:

      The trilogy ends with a hard right turn into a wall of stupid. Even people who had forgiven how stupid some parts of the narrative were thought so. No questions get answered a bunch more are raised, the rules of the universe are clearly suspended for the sake of drama and things the writer thought were meaningful but are just stupid.

      I recommend spoiling it for yourself to take the burn off if you ever want to play ME3. If you don’t avoid spoilers so when Shamus gets there it can hit you full force.

  23. DGM says:

    >>”Okay, so we can`t destroy the ring, but what if we pawned it? We could certainly use the cash.”

    “Alas,” said Goodgulf solemly, “It is not that easy.”
    “But why?”
    “Alas,” explained Goodgulf.
    “Alackaday,” agreed Orlon.

  24. Fnord says:

    George looks back at Fellowship, skims the few notes Tolkien left for him, scratches his head, and comes up with his own version of The Two Towers: In it, Frodo meets another wizard named (say) Yandalf, who explains that no, Gandalf was wrong. The One Ring can totally be used to destroy Sauron, as long as the person wielding it is virtuous enough to resist corruption. Yandalf decides Frodo is worthy, so he teaches him to use the ring. Frodo gets all kinds of amazing super powers and raises an army. With the Ring he compels orcs to join his side, and when they join him they become nice

    So basically Shadow of Morder, then?

  25. Matt Downie says:

    “He has to resist the desire to take revenge on someone who betrays him and gets hundreds of his forces killed, because while it’s okay to slaughter thousands of people in battle as part of a war, it’s wrong to kill just this one dude outside of the battlefield.”
    Surely this was one of Tolkien’s actual themes? It’s OK to exterminate all the nameless bad guys, but we have to show mercy to Saruman, Wormtongue and Gollum, because they have Joker Immunity.

    • Mike S. says:

      Tolkien isn’t okay with exterminating anyone. He ratifies fighting against people who are fighting you, but not with murdering people who aren’t, just because they’re dangerous and it’s convenient.

      (Which is why Peter Jackson’s bit with Aragorn beheading the Mouth of Sauron during a parley may well be the worst betrayal of the source material in all three movies.)

      • ehlijen says:

        And also probably the dumbest. Wasn’t the whole point of the march on the Black Gate to distract sauron as much as possible? How is getting stuck in a longwinded back and forth of ludicrous demands before the fighting finally starts not going to help with that?

    • Shamus says:

      You’re right. The “revenge is wrong” trope falls apart in a George-style story where killing and violence are celebrated. So Tolkien’s attitude towards killing BECOMES stupid when transplanted to another story with different sensibilities, but it’s not inherently stupid. I should have either explored that one a bit more, or left it out.

    • guy says:

      Actually, the nameless humans in the books get plenty of mercy when they surrender.

  26. Fnord says:

    I’m not sure this is quite right, or at least the whole story. I mean, in some ways Mass Effect 3 pivots back towards the “explore and find a solution theme” (including Liara’s Prothean archaeology). Except most of it is still trying to rouse the galaxy, even if it’s not terribly clear why a giant krogan army is going to help successfully deploy the MacGuffin.

    And, playing through Mass Effect 1 again, there really are a fair number of “Shepard is a huge famous badass” and “Shepard is special and bringing the galaxy together” moments. If they’d actually followed through on the “badass trying to rouse an apathetic galaxy to action”, it would still be less of a mess than what we got.

    That would still require not doing what they did in Mass Effect 2, though. Actually, it’s worse. Hitting the reset button on Shepard’s Council status for no well explained reason isn’t a huge deal if the important progress in the plot is learning about the Reapers, but if the important progress is rallying the galaxy to action, you’re invalidating everything the player did in ME1. Being an outsider working on the backend of the galaxy can work if the goal is exploration and discovering, but Mass Effect 2 isn’t about an “badass trying to rouse an apathetic galaxy to action”, either (except, arguably, Cerberus, which is invalidated when they get turned back into an antagonist).

    It isn’t just that they changed direction once, but that they failed to settle into a coherent plot at all.

    • Mike S. says:

      In ME2, you are making contacts that will be important to rallying the galaxy. You help out the quarian admirals, do some favors for whoever’s in charge on Tuchanka, recruit an STG veteran. You optionally get your Spectre status restored, and make one of your best friends the Shadow Broker. And a lot of that does come back in ME3.

      It doesn’t work completely as a single continuous story. But as three episodic stories with a running background plot tying them together, I don’t think they’re in as much conflict as some do.

      • Joe Informatico says:

        That stuff’s all fine. It’s tying it to the really dumb Cerberus/Collectors main plot that’s the problem. Why couldn’t Shepard have done all those things as a Spectre on a Council mission?

        • Mike S. says:

          I agree. Cerberus is a narrative dead end that makes less sense the longer the story goes on and the more powerful it gets. And working with them, rather than turning the SR-2 over to Anderson the first time you dock at the Citadel, is inadequately motivated to say the least.

          • INH5 says:

            They should have given ME2’s Cerberus a different name and had it be a completely different organization than ME1 Cerberus. The only thing the incarnations from each game have in common is that they carry out mad scientist experiments which frequently blow up in their face, and that’s far from a rare practice in the Mass Effect universe.

            Having it be a new organization that Shepard has never heard of before also would have helped people like me who started with Mass Effect 2, as well as people who skipped or didn’t remember those sidequests in ME1. I spent a good portion of ME2’s tutorial thinking to myself, “who are these Cerberus people, and why does the game act like I should care?”

            And obviously Cerberus shouldn’t have been shoehorned into the role of the main villain in ME3. I understand that this is due to the Reapers not working as a villain for the kind of game and story that ME3 was, but I think that virtually any other faction would have worked better in that role. Even one of ME2’s merc gangs would have been better, since at least they all have extremely good reasons to not like Shepard.

  27. Zak McKracken says:

    Congratulations on both the excellent use of LoTR to explain the problem at hand, and the use of the name George in this context, because we all know that this is what George would actually do, and then claim that this had been his vision for the story all along.

    I do take some issues (though few) with some of Peter Jackson’s decisions as a director for LoTR (and a few more as director of the Hobbit) but I am forever glad that the rights to the material did not fall into George’s hands.

  28. INH5 says:

    I don’t want to repeat myself, so I won’t go into the specifics of why ME1’s “the Reaper fleet is still coming, and I’m going to find some way to stop them” sequel hook doesn’t fit with the rest of the game, like I did in a comment to the post before this.

    Like Fellowship of the Ring, Mass Effect 1 set a tone and pushed the story in a very particular direction. It created a quest for knowledge, and put our heroes into a position where they were the best people to go on that quest. Not in a “chosen one as decreed by the gods / fate” sort of way, but in a practical way that the events of the first game gave them tools that nobody else had. They were explorers, searching for answers. The plot called for them to go out into that great big universe of mystery and danger, and find out how to break the cycle of destruction forever. They weren’t going to win because of their guns and biotics. They just needed the guns and biotics to get to the answers that would make victory possible.

    This is an inaccurate description. Here’s what really happens in ME1:

    ME1 introduces Saren as a bad guy who wants to do something bad. As you find out more about his plans, you learn that he intends to destroy the galaxy by bringing back the Reapers. When you finally meet the person with the answers, Vigil, he tells you that the way to win is to stop Saren and Sovereign from opening the Citadel relay, and if you do this then you will break the cycle of destruction forever (those are almost Vigil’s exact words) by keeping the Reapers trapped in dark space. Then you go and do exactly that, killing Saren and destroying Sovereign in the process. By all of the rules that the story has established, you have won, you have broken the cycle of destruction forever, and the Reapers are no longer a threat. Then at the last minute the game suddenly changes the rules and says that no, actually the Reapers are still coming despite everything that you did, without any explanation at all.

    It’s like if The Lord of the Rings had Frodo go and drop the One Ring in the Crack of Doom, then escape from Mordor and attend a victory celebration in the Shire where he is given a medal. Then after receiving the medal, Frodo suddenly says, “the armies of Sauron are still coming, and I’m going to find some way to stop them!” And then Aragorn makes a dramatic speech about how, when the armies of Sauron come, the people of Middle Earth are going to fight them and drive them back into Mordor. Then the book suddenly ends without even an attempt to explain why destroying the ring didn’t stop Sauron permanently, like we had been repeatedly told that it would, or how Frodo and Aragorn could possibly know that it hadn’t stopped Sauron permanently.

    This is, for me, the breaking point of the entire Mass Effect story. Knowing about this makes it hard for me to care about anything else. You can talk about mismatched themes or lapses in plot logic all you want, but this is the story suddenly and inexplicably breaking the established rules of its central conflict. If a serialized story can’t keep the rules of its central conflict consistent over the course of even one installment, then it can’t be anything more than an incoherent mess. Like MrBTongue said, if your story doesn’t make sense, then it doesn’t matter how good the characters or themes are.

    Not that I’m letting Mass Effect 2 off the hook. It could have fixed this problem but didn’t, and in fact it made the problem worse by having Shepard and other characters make contradictory statements about what is going on with the Reapers. It isn’t until Arrival that some semblance of coherence is restored to the story. But while Arrival and ME3 establish a new set of rules they don’t even attempt to reconcile the new rules with the old ones, particularly by answering the nagging question of “why did Sovereign go to all that trouble to reopen the Citadel Relay when the entire Reaper fleet can just fly in a few years later?” (Which admittedly is a pretty difficult question to answer once you establish that the Reapers can just fly back quickly enough to be of concern.)

    • Mike S. says:

      Especially since per Arrival if the Reapers could fly back, they could have gone to the Alpha Relay, overwhelmed the batarian colony there, and gone straight to the Citadel from there. The difference between that and using the Citadel relay itself is trivial, especially if you don’t have Sovereign’s attack putting anyone on alert. (At worst, have Saren in place to stop Citadel Control from closing the Ward arms too soon.) Once the Citadel is taken, the Reapers are back to Plan A.

      I’d prefer they left the Reapers inaccessible in dark space. But given that they decided not to, they really needed to establish some disadvantage to coming the long way. Which could have been the means to allow a non deus ex machina victory.

      (There’s no way of squaring the circle of those final speeches. Vigil being wrong about the finality of the victory is acceptable, but as you say, Shepard et al. have no way of knowing that.)

      • guy says:

        I thought the Alpha Relay was just an emergency backup route out of Dark Space? I mean, the long-range relays are one-to-one (vs. the shorter-ranged ones like the Mu Relay that can connect to any relay in range as long as you know the coordinates), and while theoretically that could be an artificial limitation the Reapers installed, if it was they could easily have responded to closing the Citadel relay by using their end of the relay to jump to one of the relays adjacent to the Citadel.

        Also, no, I don’t believe they’re trapped in Dark Space. I would have accepted the answer that they didn’t have any other Relays and they’d arrive at the galactic rim in thirty thousand years at .8c, but they can’t possibly be stuck there forever even if they didn’t have any emergency backups, and I’d expect them to have at least one backup hidden in a brown dwarf seventy light-years from anything. And speaking personally, if they weren’t going to arrive in Shepard’s lifetime, I’d have preferred playing Matriarch T’soni when they did arrive to playing Shepard. That might be a matter of the Sci-Fi vs. Cosmic Horror tone conflict that Shamus mentioned; I feel Mass Effect is a story that should end with the monster slain forever rather than Cthulhu’s return to sleep. If the Reapers weren’t going to show up, ME3 should have ended by using the Citadel to go to them and make sure of that.

        But I do agree it’s odd that they’d wait so long if they were apparently six months away the entire time, even with the advantage of the Citadel. I feel like the story would have been well-served by a thirty-year gap between the end of ME1 and the Reaper arrival for the galaxy to make preparations.

        • Mike S. says:

          The gimmick with the Alpha Relay is that while it looks like a secondary relay (go to any other relay within a few hundred light years), it can be adjusted to do a direct long-distance hop to any of multiple distant target systems, including (if the wiki is correct) the Citadel. So once the Reapers reach it they can quickly invade– and should be able to quickly hit the Citadel.

          Normally that kind of distance is only possible between matched pairs of primary relays that only link to one partner relay, so it would take some time (evidently about six months) to work their way through the network.

    • wswordsmen says:

      The Reapers aren’t Cthulhu. Cthulhu doesn’t give a **** about humanity, the Reapers do.

      To make Cthulhu fit into this story it would mean Cthulhu would actively trying to destroy humanity. It doesn’t matter that the cult is dead, because Cthulhu was actively looking to be summoned, so if Cthulhu is half the threat he is made out to be resting on your laurels will just let him slip in. The idea the Reapers don’t have a back up plan makes them the Saturday Morning Cartoon Villain who doesn’t have the blueprints to rebuild his death-ray when the hero blows it up. It only works if on some level it is meant to not be taken seriously.

      Also you seem to be basing your whole understanding of the situation on the phrasing of Vigil, which makes no sense. Vigil is a VI who only just learned to speak to Shepard, for all we know the word he was trying to say is more akin to contained, or he could just be wrong.

      Also note: I am not saying the Reapers don’t care about the other species, or endorsing the humans are special of ME2/3.

      • INH5 says:

        If the Reapers do have a backup plan, then they’re idiots for having Sovereign go through the rigmarole to reopen the Citadel Relay instead of just using the backup plan to invade while Sovereign keeps a low profile until they arrive, or even if invading through the Citadel Relay is extremely important using the backup plan to send in a few dozen Reapers to help Sovereign out. Either way they’re dumb Saturday Morning Cartoon Villains, but one of these scenarios is consistent with what ME1’s story establishes and the other scenario is not.

        It’s not just about what Vigil says, it’s about how the other characters react to it. None of your dialogue options allow Shepard to express any doubt about what Vigil is saying. Your squadmates never doubt what Vigil is saying. Like Mike S. says above, the problem isn’t that Vigil turned out to be wrong, it’s that at this point Shepard and co. have no way to know that Vigil is wrong.

        • Trix2000 says:

          Depends what the backup plan is. It could be that using the backup leaves them vulnerable enough to attack that allows the galaxy to reasonably fight back. After all, I think part of the idea of having galactic society gather at the Citadel was so that them warping in and destroying everyone would likely cut the head off of most resistance, leaving the rest of the galaxy in no position to survive the purge.

          But if they had to take another way, one that requires coming in more directly and with more warning… then the galaxy might be able to organize a proper response and possibly win.

          So it makes some sense for them to rely on the main plan until it becomes unfeasible, since the alternative might be a chance at being destroyed for good (or at least, never being able to perpetrate the cycle again). That all hinges on whatever backup the writers could come up with, though.

          • Remember that the reapers are machines and limited somewhat by their logic/programming.
            They are also overconfident in their own superiority.
            It is only at the very end of ME3 that the reaper control “unit” (if you can call it that) tells half dead/badly beat up shepard that the parameters have changed.
            Basically admitting that that they maybe aren’t that superior any longer.

            EDI also states at some point that while she can rewrite her own code (evolve) whenever she wants, she’ll only do it if she think’s it’s really necessary.

            After all, re-writing one self (if you are an AI) would be admitting that your programming isn’t good enough. And I’m sure a AI would have a sense of self/ego/vanity/pride. Rewriting would also require possible downtime/reboot, and the code has a chance of not working which could be problematic, so re-writing ones own code would be a last resort. Usually finding a solution using your existing code would be preferable.

            Organics are more prone to make rash decision or not always think through (act on emotion or instinct).

            I’m not so sure that the BioWare storytellers managed to get that through to the players though.

            • INH5 says:

              It may well be possible to come up with a good explanation that reconciles the two premises of “Sovereign, alone, goes to great lengths to reopen the Citadel relay to let the Reaper fleet in,” and “the Reaper fleet invades the galaxy without using the Citadel relay a few years later.” It still wouldn’t change the fact that it makes no sense for Shepard to know – not just fear or suspect, know – at the end of ME1 that the Reapers are coming.

    • Syal says:

      About the Reapers: they barely managed to kill one, and they’re sure that more are out there. I see it as a perfectly normal reaction to try to figure out a way to beat them if they ever show up again. The difference between “The Reapers are still coming” and “The Reapers still want in” is mostly just semantics.

      (Just to comment on Lord of the Rings here: That ending would have actually made sense. The book establishes that destroying the Ring will weaken Sauron to the point where he’ll never have form again, but it never explains how that will stop the armies he’s raised. I think Frodo even mentions that during the journey.)

      • INH5 says:

        The difference between “the Reapers want to invade the galaxy,” and “the Reapers are currently traveling to the galaxy so they can invade it” go way beyond semantics. The former describes a desire, the latter describes an action that is currently being undertaken. Imagine the different reactions that a country might have to being told “the Mongols still want to invade us even though there is a virtually uncrossable mountain range between us and them,” or “the Mongols are still coming to invade us right now.”

        Saying “we should make preparations in case the Reapers try anything else” is sensible. But that’s not at all what Shepard and Anderson/Udina say. Shepard doesn’t say, “the Reapers might have other plans,” he says, “the Reaper fleet is still coming.” Anderson/Udina doesn’t say, “if the Reapers come,” he says, “when the Reapers come.”

  29. Grudgeal says:

    So in other words, ME2 is to ME1 what Shadows of Mordor is to the Lord of the Rings.

  30. The Rocketeer says:

    The conflict between Fellowship of the Ring and Shamus’ hypothetical sequels based on different themes presents a thematic conflict very familiar to me: the very same thematic incongruity that plagued Final Fantasy XII in its entirety.

    Final Fantasy XII’s confused, meandering diatribe about every kind of power- military power, political power, supernatural power- are what ultimately prevent it from achieving greatness. The game constantly undercuts its own attempts at forging a thematic framework to empower the actions of its characters with a sense of underlying meaning by stumbling, constantly, on the specifics of how that framework is actually shaped. In short, the game frequently aspires to passionate expression while having no idea what it’s trying to say.

    Sometimes it’s a conflict of what individual characters seem to believe. Sometimes it’s a conflict of what certain elements of the plot and world are supposed to represent. Sometimes it’s a conflict of what the game claims the audience should infer and a much more obvious reading contradicting it. Sometimes the game just seems to introduce characters and concepts into the plot that fundamentally alter its intended message without seeming to realize they pose a problem.

    And this comes from the same root Shamus suggests above: an ultimate lack of vision. The tragedy of Final Fantasy XII isn’t that it couldn’t have succeeded on its thematic intentions, but that it easily could have, in another world. The final product bears every sign of a game that had a strong, cohesive vision thrumming in its foundation, slowly winnowed away by the loss of its creator, Yasumi Matsuni, and the long, laborious route to its eventual release and the thousand petty, near-sighted tweaks by duller, pettier interlopers along that road. The misfortune of potential unpossessed is common and unremarkable, but Final Fantasy XII’s far greater misfortune of potential unfulfilled makes it stick intractably in my mind.

    Elsewhere, the series struck boldly into potential sabotaged, but that’s another story.

  31. Nelly says:

    The only good thing about that “bloody icon” line is I always read it as said in a wearied, slightly cynical tone. Works in British English use of bloody, and kinda sums up the direction of the story to me

  32. Paul Spooner says:

    I’ve never played any of the Mass Effect games, and this series seems to imply that is a good thing. I kind of want to play the games that could be extrapolated off of Mass Effect though. Are there any good ME1 continuation fan-fix stories that follow the themes outlined above?

    • Trix2000 says:

      The games are still well worth playing. They have many flaws, but the result is a lot more “what could have been” rather than “this is terrible”. There’s a reason so many people got invested in the series anyways.

    • Michael says:

      The games are great! Shamus just exaggerates their (in my opinion, minor) flaws. Seriously, they are absolutely a must-play.

    • Christopher Kerr says:

      The problem is that ME1 has the most interesting story, but it doesn’t play all that well as a game. No matter how you play it, there’s a lot of combat, and the combat sucks.

      ME2 and ME3 are great cover-based third person shooters, but Shamus is right – it’s like they were written by somebody who had skimmed the wiki without bothering to understand what ME1 was about about.

      To use a Star Trek analogy, it’s like going from The Next Generation (the good later seasons) to Enterprise (specifically, the first season). It feels like the same universe, but it’s thematically and tonally inconsistent, and contradicts the canon often and for no particular purpose.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        ME2 and ME3 are great cover-based third person shooters

        No,they are good cover based shooters.Better ones exist.

        • Bubble181 says:

          Even so, I, like many story-interested (RPG) nerds, don’t actually like the cover-based shooting mechanic at all. You can make me the very definitely best salmon sandwich in the world, so lauded by Michelin, but since I’m allergic to salmon, well, I’ll still prefer this crappy Pizza Hut “pizza” which may not be any good, but is at least of a type I can tolerate.

  33. Knul says:

    Brilliant article.

    While I liked ME1, I greatly disliked ME2 and now I know why my difference in taste between the two was so large. I loved the themes and the setting of ME1. ME2 just violates all of that (and in additioan dumbs down the gameplay even more).

  34. Christopher says:

    These articles are my favorite pieces of current content on this site, I’m happy you wrote so many of them.

  35. I agree with you Shamus. ME2 seems out of place. ME1 and ME3 has more of a direct connection.
    If you removed the reaper stuff from ME2 you could still create a good Sci-Fi romp out of it.
    With the mess after ME1 it would not be odd for some organization to try and usurp power.

    Udina being a Cerberus collaborator in ME3 would work better if placed in ME2. This would have allowed Ashley / Kaidan to be a squad mate in ME2 as well.

    The Cerberus annoyance and Shadow Broker, and maybe curing the Genophage would have been “enough” for ME 2, no need for the reaper stuff. ME2 could have ended with a cliffhanger “Oh shit, there’s more reapers and they are on their way right now?”.

    Likewise ME3 (with all Cerberus stuff handled in ME2) could focus fully on uniting the Turian/Asari/Quarian/Geth/Human/whatever forces against the reapers and then fighting the reapers, no Cerberus stuff needed in ME3.

    That is probably how’d I’d move some of the plot stuff around between the games.

    And in ME2 instead the collector stuff just Cerberus doing weird reaper/tusk experiments would be enough (maybe Miranda is a cerberus agent you’d “rescue” or turn to your side, same with Jacob)
    Grunt and Legion you’d stumble across like you do in ME2 currently. EDI should get a body partway through ME2. Normandy SR2 should be a ship that Cerberus is building (TIM has a fascination of Shepard), maybe Shepard and the team stumble upon a bunch of failed Shepard clones in some tanks at a Cerberus research station where they find the SR2 etc.
    Samara is stumbled upon while visiting Liara for example, and Jack is stumbled on while looking up Shadow Broker leads (part of a Liara loyalty mission maybe?)

    Thus ME2 would allow Shepard to increase the size of his special team, gain reputation with the various races and media. And a reaper reveal cliffhanger the player would be well prepared for ME3.
    And how well you did in ME2 would determine how easy getting allies or even who would be the allies in ME3.

    The human reaper in ME2 could instead have been at the start of ME3 and the collectors could have been at the start of ME3 and would be the first signs/infiltration by the reapers, and could be used as an example to get the other species to get their act together.

    Now it’s easy for me to criticize the plot/story and they way things are done, I’m sure at the time of writing it made sense to the writers.

  36. Michael says:

    “It created a quest for knowledge, and put our heroes into a position where they were the best people to go on that quest. Not in a “chosen one as decreed by the gods / fate” sort of way, but in a practical way that the events of the first game gave them tools that nobody else had. They were explorers, searching for answers. The plot called for them to go out into that great big universe of mystery and danger, and find out how to break the cycle of destruction forever. They weren’t going to win because of their guns and biotics. They just needed the guns and biotics to get to the answers that would make victory possible.

    The writers not only failed to make use of these plot elements, they took every single aspect of this setup and smashed it to pieces. ”

    I disagree. Mass Effect 2 is still about a quest for knowledge, it just has a different tone. Instead of the trekky tone, it has a noir, Bladerunner-esque tone. The core of going to exotic locales, meeting its inhabitants, and searching for clues is still there.

    Also, Shepard isn’t the only guy who can do it because he’s a good shooter. He’s the only guy who can do it because he’s a great leader, who’s able to unite a bunch of people from different races and backgrounds into a cohesive fighting force. That’s what a lot of ME2’s story revolves around- gathering your team and making them loyal. Plus, he’s the only one who still believes the Reapers are a threat, and has access to Cerberus intel and funding ( and before you go “Cerberus was so stupid and railroady!”, that’s a different argument and this comment is already long enough).

    • Gruhunchously says:

      See, I don’t buy that “being a great leader” is enough to justify that crazy amount of funds and resources needed to bring someone back from the dead. The Illusive Man could have saved himself a lot of trouble just by hiring an experienced mercenary to do the job. Shepard’s iconic status is of questionable relevance given that this mission is small scale and clandestine.

      And the whole “Shepard is a great leader” aspect seems to come out of nowhere given how downplayed it was in the first game. Everyone that Shepard leads in ME1 is either under his command or working with him for personal reasons or reasons of convenience. Shepard is marked as a Spectre, an elite operative capable of working alone, not a leader. If you pick any background other than “War Hero”, then Shepard doesn’t appear to have any exceptional leadership qualifications at all.

      • INH5 says:

        I sometimes wonder if everything that TIM tells Shepard in ME2 about him being a symbol or a great leader is a lie, and in reality TIM only resurrected Shepard for the purpose of using him as bait to learn more about the Collectors. Everything else is either busywork or “well, we’ve got Shepard here, so we might as well let him handle this difficult and dangerous task.”

        • Deager says:

          I never thought about that angle with TIM. While it maybe wasn’t the intent of the writers, that actually is a clever way to view it. Coupled with viewing the “bloody icon” line as more sarcastic instead of what she thinks herself.

          And to a lot of the comments here; Mass Effect, overall, is enjoyable. Obviously this is a critical review but, let’s face it, you don’t react so something if you don’t care about it. Apathy is the real indication something doesn’t matter. But something or things matter in Mass Effect to many people. Shamus has done a good job, for me, of laying out what is “wrong” because I could always feel things were off but couldn’t figure out why. Why I keep playing ME1 makes sense now (and MEUITM helps a ton.)

          Still, I’m modding, testing a mod for someone while finishing yet another trilogy run, and still plan on more play throughs. It’s an enjoyable game and characters for me. The flaws are….annoying, but I can overlook them.

  37. Neko says:

    Yes! Mass Effect should have remained Mass Effect, and EA should have published Commander Kickbutt and the aliens, some of which are bad and need to be killed, some that are hot and you can bang them.

    • Corsair says:

      The worst part about Mass Effect 2 is that it’s a Mass Effect game. If it were unconnected, or even if it was just a gaiden game set in the same universe I would embrace it wholeheartedly.

  38. arron says:

    The alternative proposed by Yandalf in the alternative Two Towers wouldn’t have worked with the ring. If it was a passive expression of power like any other magic ring then the hobbit might have mastered it. But the power came directly from its creator and it desired to return to his side by any means possible.

    If it could not have corrupted the hobbit, it would have tried to corrupt others to take it. Or to fall away from the hobbit to hide and be found by someone more sympathetic to it’s desires. Like it did to Isildur when it caused his death through attracting the orcs and escaped to the river by falling from his hand. The ring is ruled by the will of Sauron, and like him is not going to aid the likes of Frodo against the power that created it. It tried desperately to incapacitate the ring bearer and if it hadn’t been for Sam (who was free of the influence of the ring), Frodo would have failed.

    Lord of the Rings is not a quest for power over evil. It’s a quest for seeing and avoiding desire when presented with an adversary that knows how to corrupt and stop you dead in your tracks. And the ring will win in the end as no-one can completely remove all desire from being human, elvish, dwarven or hobbit.

    • wswordsmen says:

      Not sure how you interpreted everything Shamus said correctly and still missed his point.

      Of course it wouldn’t work with LotR as we know it today, however if the only thing we ever got from Tolkien was Fellowship and Not Tolkien wrote the sequels then the writer could go off in different directions that totally contradict the original. The new writer would retcon everything you said out of existence.

      Shamus was talking about how a new writer can destroy works that came before them by changing the tone, themes, and details of a work.

      Not trying to attack you, although it sounds like I am reading this over.

      • arron says:

        I think I was disagreeing with the “narrative possibility space” going to this alternative Two Towers. If the story from Fellowship was pretty much self contained and nothing had been laid down for the sequel, then George might have pulled it off story wise. It switches streams, but it might be possible such that people ignore that it’s a cut-n-shunt plot.

        But as we’d seen in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the nature of the ring is that it cannot be controlled and George would have just ignored any foundation laid down, to the point that people reading the other two books would have probably got upset because the change of direction would been jarring. And the publisher would have critical of the writing. It’s that bad in being out of context to the previous two books.

        ME2 is like this – Shepard is resurrected by Cerberus after being a corpse for an unknown time. Cerberus were an enemy before and rebuild a super Normandy given it was already a secret high-spec ship. ME1 had a much larger narrative space compared to LOTR that George could have positioned the plot to ME2, but somehow still managed to leave most of this writing outside of a most optimal narrative where all the plot remains in the established lore. Which makes me wonder whether they were just lazy, or didn’t care with the idea they wanted to do..or perhaps they wanted to wreck things. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

        • Mike S. says:

          You just need Yandalf to explain that what Gandalf said about the Ring was true from a certain point of view. Specifically, part of the quest becomes the need to disconnect the Ring from Sauron’s control and reorient itself so that it focuses on serving and remaining with someone else.

          But that would take a master of Ring lore. Happily, the head of Yandalf’s order has been doing just such researches. He only needs an intrepid adventurer to track down a few last bits of knowledge (helpfully marked out on this map)…

          Obviously, that’s about as far from Tolkien’s themes as you can get. But it’s a bog-standard fantasy quest narrative. The basic idea underlies Dragon Age’s Grey Wardens, for example: the only way to fight darkspawn effectively is to internalize their corruption and use the power it gives you. (With long term bad effects even if you survive the Joining. But no one’s come up with a plan B.)

          And while Tolkien never trusted power as such, The Fellowship of the Ring was nearly as discontinuous in its treatment of the Ring with respect to The Hobbit. Especially compared with the original edition, before Tolkien rewrote Riddles in the Dark. The Ring in The Hobbit is useful to the point of being indispensable (without it, the quest fails several times over), and causes no bad or corrupting effects whatsoever. Gollum is just a monster who as far as we know always was one, rather than being a Hobbit turned into one by the Ring. In the original version, Bilbo doesn’t even lie about how he got it, so there isn’t even that sign of corruption.

          There’s a decent argument that the atmosphere and tone of Tolkien’s children’s story and its epic sequel are far more different from one another than ME1 and ME2 are, and the retcons more obtrusive. (Can anyone really imagine the Elves of LotR’s Rivendell singing “Tra-la-la-lally?” Does Elrond really let a Dwarf just wander off with his great-grandfather’s sword, which somehow wound up in a random troll-hoard? The Ring stirs itself from Gollum to try to get to Sauron, but passes through the forest the Dark Lord is based in without so much as a tingle to try to get Bilbo to turn south?)

          They’re both better stories, and Tolkien worked hard to reconcile things. But to do so he had to retroactively turn Bilbo into a conveniently unreliable narrator.

  39. Warclam says:

    Aw, I’m so sad. I want to listen to that guy explain more stuff, but none of the other videos are about a topic that interests me.

  40. John the Savage says:

    I remember reading a comment, I believe on this site, about how the writer that made ME1 so great wasn’t the lead writer, but one of the other writers who was often at odds with the lead writer. They posted a link to an article that I found fascinating, about how he and the lead writer eventually had to agree to disagree on many things, like how many countries would earth have in the future (the lead optimistically thinking that many countries would merge together, while the other writer believed that the world would only be split into more factions and the number of countries would grow). The dissonance between ME1 and ME2, according to this comment, was explained by this writer’s departure.

    Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name of the writer, find any trace of the comment, or locate the article it linked. Can anyone help me out?

    • INH5 says:

      The writer’s name is Chris L’Etoile, but it isn’t possible that him leaving is responsible for any differences between ME1 and ME2, because he didn’t leave before the development of ME2. In fact, he wrote Legion, Thane, and several ME2 missions, and didn’t leave until August 2009, which would have been after virtually all of the writing work was complete and the development team would have been well into “bug hunt” mode. If anything, ME2’s general tone seems more along the lines of L’Etoile’s sensibilities.

      Though I do think that some of ME3’s writing issues, especially with the Rannoch arc in general and Legion’s characterization in particular, can be blamed on L’Etoile’s departure.

      For the record, this is the article that you’re talking about.

  41. Paul says:

    So you’re saying Mass Effect is like Highlander 1 and Highlander 2?

    I have heard of a person who saw Highlander 2 first, and thought it was a great movie (seriously). After going back and watching Highlander 1 they baffled.

    Now for anyone who’s watched Highlander 1 first, 2 is basically a steaming file of crap being dumped on something special. And I won’t even start to discuss the fact that the writers took 2 as permission to just repeatedly dump all the canon into the toilet again because they couldn’t think of a logical sequel.

    • INH5 says:

      To be fair, it is pretty hard to make a sequel to Highlander 1, considering that that movie ends with the millenia long beheading contest over, leaving one immortal alive and with the Prize, which he uses to bring about world peace. At that point, rebooting the story seems to be the only good way of making more non-prequel movies that are recognizably Highlander movies.

  42. ironstar says:

    there’s some good stuff here, Shamus. there’s also some great debate in the comment section. very fun to read! it’s opened my eyes to “what could have been”, which isn’t a pleasant thought.

    but as someone who still likes all three games almost equally (the second one most of all), I can’t totally agree with Shamus’s vitriol. some of his disappointments? sure. some of his longing for a more consistent narrative? of course. but the outrage? the claim that the writers knowingly and deliberately smashed every plot thread from the previous game for their own desire for… whatever? that the theme of the series is so wonky and inconsistent that it makes the games unplayable? I think that goes too far.

    I play the games first and foremost for the gameplay. each one is fun. each one is much more than “serviceable”. character interactions are next, and again, I think each character is interesting and adds to the game. atmosphere is great too. any time there’s collectors, I feel genuine fear. that’s not something many games have managed.

    the thematic differences are very noticeable to me, but they don’t detract from the experience either. nor does the thoroughly stupid plot everyone keeps complaining about. could the series have been better? yes. would it have improved my experience? maybe a little. I certainly wasn’t throwing my controller at the screen (metaphorically or otherwise) every time something jarring came up. I didn’t even notice anything overly jarring. despite all my high-level English classes, I didn’t notice very much wrong with the series. maybe I represent what’s wrong with this generation.

  43. Max says:

    I’m wiping a tear from my eye as I read this. For all these years I felt alone in my frustration with the direction of the ME saga after part 1 – and here Shamus not only sees it the same way, but he also puts it in more (and more elaborate) phrases than I ever could. ;-)
    Thank you.

  44. natureguy85 says:

    Not only did the second game set a premise that did not flow from the first, it failed to deliver on that premise. Shepard never rallies people to follow him. Even the few people he gets to join him either want a favor first, are hired guns, or have nothing better to do. Even in Mass Effect 3, where the Reapers are there, people want Shepard to do something for them before helping to defeat them.

    I love the comparison to LotR and you’re spot on. I don’t know if it was intentional, but like how your comments about the Saren fight pointed to Kai Leng, your comments here point to TIM in the 3rd game.

    “In Fellowship, power over others is evil. In George’s story, power is just a tool, and it’s up to the good guys to grab power expressly for the purpose of denying power to the bad guys.”

    Control didn’t make sense as an ending option because in their final argument, Shepard argued from Tolkien’s story and TIM argued from George’s.

  45. natureguy85 says:

    I just recently read your old article detailing your problems with Shadows of Mordor. It’s interesting how close the themes you saw there were to George’s version here.

  46. CdrJameson says:

    It seemed like ME2’s brief was to undo everything from ME1.

    You’re dead! But you get better!
    You’re working for Cerberus! For no good reason!
    With the Normandy! And Crew! For No Good Reason!
    You’re not a Spectre! Except when you are!

  47. Roger says:

    Let’s call the new author George? It would be indeed interesting if George R. R. Martin would be the one to finish LOTR after the first book.

    I can’t help but think we’d have a much more interesting variety in stories of the ‘standard fantasy’ setting. Aren’t people sick of all those LOTR clones that keep popping up in games?

  48. Ninety-Three says:

    I love Mass Effect 1 to death, but I think you’re giving it too much credit for thematic cohesion.

    Shepard’s last line in the denouement is “Sovereign was only a vanguard. The Reaper fleet is still coming. Hundreds of ships, maybe thousands. And I’m going to find some way to stop them!” accompanied by swelling epic, inspiring music. In that moment, the last thirty seconds of Mass Effect 1, the writer has trashed one of the major themes of the game, introduced a major plot hole, and set us up for all of the awful mishandling of the Reapers that is to come.

    The Reapers were Space Cthulhu, and I don’t just mean they’re big scary monsters. Mass Effect 1 has so many parallels to Lovecraft that it can’t possibly have been an accident. Like a Lovecraftian God, the Reapers were an unfathomable doom that would one day destroy us all, but when Shepard talks about the oncoming Reaper fleet, the music doesn’t convey doom and gloom, instead telling us “Fuck yeah, we’re gonna stop all the Reapers!”

    With Shepard’s line, the writer is establishing the direction that future Mass Effects will take: the plot will throw out the idea that the Reapers are trapped in dark space, going to war with the Space Old Ones will be presented as a reasonable course of action, characters will read from the script, once-key canon will be casually thrown away and the whole thing will be made as epic as possible.

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