on Sep 17, 2015
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 Also because it gives me an excuse to link to the following CGP Grey videos, and they are really, really good.
 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.
 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.
 Somehow. Make up your own reason.
 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.
 Which he fails at. But then they sort of win anyway. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.