I’ve found that retrospectives like this one can be very therapeutic, both for the author and the audience. If we find ourselves annoyed and frustrated at the way the story has failed us, we can’t very well do anything to fix it besides compose ever-more convoluted headcanon to try and patch over the holes. But even though we can’t fix the story, there’s a certain satisfaction to be gained in enumerating and organizing the problems as a way to give them a sense of finality and closure.
The opening of Mass Effect 2 is doubly painful. Not only is it packed with retcons, but it’s also exposition-heavy and clumsy. This is painful because the first game had already paid off the expositional overhead. With the Mass Effect 1 setup, the second game would have been free to jump right into the action without the need for an extended series of setup scenes. By breaking from the existing status quo, the writer obliged themselves to twist the world in knots to make the new setup work, and then they executed the transition in the most desultory way possible.
At the opening of Mass Effect 2, the Normandy is flying around the Terminus Systems looking for Geth. A strange ship (the Collector ship) pops in, spots the Normandy despite their stealth driveI’m not going to cry foul over this one. Someone mentions it, so it’s not an oversight. I’m okay with them being able to spot the Normandy, given the handy excuse of “Reaper Tech”. It’s lampshaded. No foul. and attacks. Shepard runs around, gets seemingly “everyone” to the escape pods, and is then blown out into space. We see Shepard flailing, his suit leaking atmosphere, vanishing into the distance. As we fade out, we see what appear to be “re-entry” particle effects around him as he drifts towards the planet below.
Somber music plays, and we transition to the “bringing Shepard back from the dead” opening credits montage.
Some people insist Shepard didn’t really enter the atmosphere, simply because that is too stupid to believe.
Case against: Shepard only floats a hundred meters or so. Was the Normandy really hugging the atmosphere of this planet? If Shepard really fell through the atmosphere, then he either turned into a wet crater on the surface, or (more likely) was totally incinerated. I mean, atmospheric deceleration is extreme enough that it routinely disintegrates rocks, which is why we don’t have to hide in underground bunkers during a meteor shower. In either case, if Shepard had fallen into the planet there shouldn’t be enough of him left to fill a shot glass. He’s not just dead, he’s stopped existing. This scenario is so preposterous that we simply can’t entertain it.
Case for: What else was the author trying to say here? The Normandy and Shepard were moving together, and the Normandy crashed on the planet. Therefore, Shepard falling into the atmosphere was an inevitability of physics. The “re-entry” lines get stronger as Shepard moves away from the camera and closer to the planet, which suggests that the author really was trying to imply that Shepard’s body did in fact pancake on the planet. No other outcome is possible. Yes, that’s ludicrous for any number of reasons, which is probably why people look at this scene and think, “No. That’s not actually what I’m seeing. It’s just… stylized. Or something.”
So right in the middle of upending the status quo, the writer throws in this sequence that’s either artistically inept or scientifically illiterate. Either way, it’s incredibly jarring. It’s yet one more thing to yank the viewer out of the story and encourage them to start questioning everything.
(There was a comic released to fill in the two-year gap between Shepard’s death and resurrection. The wiki has a plot synopsis, but it doesn’t seem to clear this issue up. Shepard’s body is recovered off-screen and put into a stasis pod, without explaining where the body was found.)
Shepard is then brought back to life in the opening credits and the tutorial mission involves him escaping the facility and teaming up with Jacob and Miranda. From there he’s taken to see The Illusive Man. There’s another short mission, and then it’s revealed that Cerberus has built a new Normandy and many surviving members of the old Normandy crew have left the Alliance and joined up with Cerberus. We’ll go over all of that in much more detail later in the series.
Drama vs. Details
This ineptitude with regards to establishing the new setup is a little easier to understand if we view this huge mess as the wreckage of shifting from “Details First” to “Drama First”. I’m not suggesting this change was deliberate. It’s just that this second game was (seemingly) written by a different writer who had different passions and sensibilities, and that writer either did not understand or did not value the contributions of the first.
I often find myself examining individual parts of Mass Effect 2, looking at the tone and trying to figure out who wrote it. I have my own theories about Who Wrote What, but I don’t have anything to back them up and I think they would be a distraction from our efforts to examine the game as a whole. It’s all speculation and gossip and guesswork, and I don’t think there’s anything useful to learn.
Naming authors would be an exercise in assigning blame, and that’s not why I began this series. I’m trying really hard to keep this focused on the art and not the artists. I’ll leave the “who ruined Mass Effect?” argument to others.
So I’m going to continue talking about the “Mass Effect 1 writer” and the “Mass Effect 2 writer” like they’re different individuals, even though both games were written by overlapping but slightly different teams. This is simply for convenience on my part and to avoid cluttering up this entire series with footnotes and speculation.
Anyway, getting back to “details vs. drama”…
Yes, the details say it makes the most sense for our hero to be at the center of the action because of his relationship with the beacons, the Protheans, Vigil, and Liara, but it’s more dramatic if he’s central to the story because he’s a famous badass superspy who came back from the dead to Save Us All.
Yes, the details say that we should be working for the council, but it’s more dramatic to have us working for a mystery man with glowing robot eyes and a hidden agenda who has a crazy space-throne room that would strike Palpatine as “perhaps overdoing it a bit”.
Yes, the details say that improvements to the Normandy should be part of an in-between game retrofit, and that Cerberus as presented in the first game is barely able to run a lemonade stand much less act as a galaxy-spanning superpower, but it’s more dramatic to have the ship blown up in the opening and replaced by this shadow organization.
Yes, the details state that saving the entire galaxy from the Reapers should be our priority, but it’s more dramatic to fight against bug-faced collectors who are threatening humans, and kidnapping your friends.
Yes, it’s ridiculous that Joker and Dr. Chakwas would leave their highly respected positions with the Alliance and sign on with an actual terrorist organization with the blood of hundreds on their hands, and who may be personally responsible for the worst thing that ever happened to Shepard, but the story is so much more dramatic if our friends come along!
Yes, the details (and common sense) dictate that people ought to stay dead, but it’s so expedient to establish our new villain by having them kill the main character.
(You can put sarcastic scare quotes over the word “dramatic” in the previous paragraphs if you need to. It’s okay. I understand.)
So much of the debate here centers around whether or not these events “made sense”And to be clear: They really don’t.. How did a generic terrorist organization – one with no narrative build-up in the first game – bring someone back from the dead? How did they build this ship? Why did your loyal Alliance crew abandon their lifelong careers to work for this terrorist organization that was blatantly behind some atrocities that Shepard dealt with in the first game?
But these questions are a dead end. You end up arguing over codex entries, which are maybe kinda supported by other codex entries, and this one thing that guy says if you pick the right question on the dialog wheel. And if you do an item-fetch sidequest then Chakwas gives you a new excuse that’s slightly less implausible than the excuse she initially offers. And then there’s a link to some forum where some guy has constructed twenty paragraphs of fan-cannon that “explains everything”.
We act like this would be an acceptable way to start act 2 of a story and the only problem is that the writers forgot to properly fill out the right codex paperwork. But this approach to establishing a new status quo is brutal hack job with no sense of pacing, build-up, pay-off, or structure.
In the first game, the codex was a reward, a place where lore-hounds could go to get a deeper understanding of the world. In the second game, it was where they stuffed all their retcons and excuses for whiners who didn’t like working for terrorists instead of trying to save the galaxy.
Switching Genres is Dangerous
This shift in genres (or at least, in tone) cuts both ways. Moving from a world of details to one of drama will destroy the rules that grounded the original, but going the other way is just as bad. In Star Wars, the Force is a nebulous thing controlled by feelings, relationships, and destiny. Darth Vader didn’t pull out some scanner to detect Obi Wan on the Death Star, he supernaturally sensed the presence of this powerful rival and former friend.
So it drove fans crazy when this drama-based element was reduced to technical details with “midichlorians”. Suddenly the Force wasn’t about sensing auras or seeing visions, or feeling strong emotions. It was about having a blood test and looking at the readout on the gizmo. Drama was reduced to details, and it was awful.
The death and abrupt resurrection of Shepard, the abrupt destruction and rebuilding of the Normandy, the sudden shift in the nature of Cerberus, and the removal of key characters from the first game – all of these changes eat up screen time, they’re incredibly jarring and off-putting to returning fans, and none of them are required to make this story work. Without an in-world or out-of-world explanation, they come off as sloppy. Perhaps even petulant.
When I criticize the plot failings of Mass Effect 2, people defend the game in terms of the gameplay and characters. And it’s true: The gameplay is better and the characters are fantastic. Yes, even Jacob, even though I make fun of him all the time. (I’ll talk about the characters later.)
But this creates a false dichotomy. It assumes we can’t have good game feel unless we upend the story. It assumes we can’t have Mordin Solus without working for Cerberus. It assumes we can’t have drama unless we get rid of all those icky boring details.
But whatever. The stage is set: Shepard is back from the dead and working for Cerberus. This setup either works for you or it doesn’t, but we’re done bellyaching about it for now. Much later in the series we’ll come back and look at this sequence in more detail, but for now we’re going to move on and talk about the gameplay.
 I’m not going to cry foul over this one. Someone mentions it, so it’s not an oversight. I’m okay with them being able to spot the Normandy, given the handy excuse of “Reaper Tech”. It’s lampshaded. No foul.
 And to be clear: They really don’t.
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WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.