on Oct 29, 2015
We’re still playing Mass Effect 2. Still collecting team members. But let’s stop and talk about someone we’re not taking with us:
I`d go with you, Shepard, but it would take me several days just to get these gloves off.
In Mass Effect 1, Liara was a shy, bookish, gentle, polite, socially awkward introvert who specialized in archaeology and geeked out over Prothean ruins. Then we bump into her here in Mass Effect 2 and she’s a tough-talking hard case with her own team of Asari commandos, and she runs some sort of cutthroat information business. That’s not “character growth”. That’s a complete re-write of her personality.
But even if we’re incredibly generous and pretend that this new Liara has simply been transformed by the events of the last two years, this character change feels completely unearned. In the last game she discovered a dire threat to the entire galaxy, killed her own mother, fought in several massive battles, and saved all of known space. It was a big deal and she had a little character growth in the process, but it was nothing compared to this jarring transformation that takes place entirely off-screen.
Worse, this change obliterated one of the most unique personalities in the game. The cast is packed with various flavors of badasses. We’ve got stoic, mercenary, philosophical, military, and berzerker badasses. Liara’s idealism and introversion made her unique. Her Prothean expertise and knowledge of history linked her to the overall plot of breaking a cycle that’s been repeating for longer than anyone knows. Now she’s just another swaggering biotic hardass with a gun.
And now we’re supposed to believe that not only does she have a completely new personality, but she’s changed to a completely unrelated career as an information broker? Somehow she’s even become “one of the best” information brokers on Illium, despite her ignoble backgroundPure-blood Asari are looked down on., lack of experienceBeing socially awkward would actually be a huge disadvantage in a job that involves so much interpersonal wheeling and dealing., lack of starting capitalThere’s a reason “rich like an archaeologist” isn’t a common rap lyric., limited time investmentTwo years is a short time for any career change, and she spent a lot of that time rescuing Shepard for Cerberus., and relative young ageShe’s only 100, on a planet of people who live to be 1,000..
Sure, it’s “possible” for this change to have happened in some fan-imagined side-story, but this is not how you handle characters in fiction. You don’t radically change their personality entirely off-screen, particularly not between works. Especially if it doesn’t even lead to some dramatic flashback, emotional payoff, or something else that serves the needs of the overall story. Especially not in a game that seems to be selling itself so hard on the characters.
Am I dramatically back-lit enough? Maybe a little to the left?
Thane is a quiet, circumspect, philosophical assassin. He also highlights just how little sense it makes to run around the galaxy getting people to join a team to accomplish an unknown task. In reality, his recruitment conversation ought to go like this:
Thane: I would be honored to help you fight the collectors, Shepard. Who is my target?
Thane: I’m assassin. I assume you need me to assassinate somebody?
Shepard: (Shrugs) Beats me. We have no idea what the collectors are like or how we’re going to stop them.
Thane: So why are you asking me to join you now?
Shepard: I dunno. The quest journal says to go get people to join. I figure it’ll all just work out somehow.
And Shepard is right. It does work out “somehow”. But unless your story is about having faith, or destiny, or fulfilling a prophesy, then this is not a good enough as a framework for player action.
You can have mystery elements in your story. The Consort on the Citadel has a soothsayer vibe about her. The Prothean visions in Mass Effect 1 were pretty fantastical. There was a terrified worker on Eden Prime that had a crazed hobo doomsayer thing going on. But those things weren’t our only source of guidance and motivation. They were things used to give our motivation emotional weight or give the dry technical stuff an air of mystery.
As people are always so eager to remind me, the writer can’t possibly explain and justify every possible action in the story. I agree. But when you have a plot element that intersects with player action, then you need to make sure it can survive them thinking about it. If the player stops to ask, “Why am I doing this and how does it advance my goal?” then there needs to be a good answer, and assuming you’re not doing something subversive and meta with player choice, that answer can’t be the author saying, “Trust me, it’ll make sense later.”
Thane, I know it`s a long shot, but do you have any experience assassinating building-sized terminator robots?
From Shepard’s perspective, it’s possible he might reach the Collector’s realm and find out what he really needs is a hundred engineers. Or a fleet. Or robots that can withstand extreme heat and radiation. Or a bunch of biotics. People even call the other end of the Omega-4 relay the “Collector Homeworld”. What would he have done if there was actually a planet of Collectors on the other end? Conquer it on foot with his 3-person squad? Shrug and apologize to the team and send everyone home?
“Oh geeze. What a waste of time gathering up all you people. Looks like I don’t need your help after all. Sorry! Let Joker know if we can drop you off somewhere.”
You spend a majority of the game rounding up people when you have no idea if their skills will be relevant or useful because you don’t know what the job entails. BioWare mostly got away with this because the characters we’re rounding up are so fun and interesting that we’re happy to have them on board, even if the in-universe explanation for this does not stand up to any level of scrutiny.
This is a game the writers have been playing throughout Mass Effect 2: Bullshit plots that don’t follow reason, but the audience goes along with it because we love the characters. It’s a trick that works right up until the end of the trilogy, when they take the characters away and all we’re left with is the last few threads of this quickly-unravelling world.
Oh look! Blue-bies!
Samara is a fine concept for a character. Yes, “Fanatical Space Paladin” is extremely trope-ish, but this is BioWare we’re talking about. Tropes are in their DNA. Star Wars was assembled almost entirely from tropes, and it’s a beloved classic. Building atop tropes is not a sinAlthough some people fault BioWare for returning to a small handful of particular tropes again and again. But that’s another discussion..
Samara’s problem isn’t the character concept, it’s that nobody ever settled on a specific tone for her. Her character is pulled in several different directions as her super-serious demeanor is comically undermined by her towering heels and a neckline that goes down to her belly button.
Here’s a few of her concept sketches from the Mass Effect 2 art book. Click for the full view, it’s way to big to stick in the middle of an article:
Click for full view. DO IT.
I love the second row of drawings. (The ones showing her in profile.) I see those images and I think the artist behind Kurt’s Coil Suit must still be working at BioWare. And that makes me happy. Actually, all of the art books make me happy.
The limits of modern graphics mean that our game worlds are rarely as spectacular as the concept art. The Mass Effect art has much more of a “sci-fi novel cover” feel, which regrettably drifts towards mundane photorealism when realized in the game. This isn’t a Mass Effect problem. Look at the concept art for just about any AAA game and you’ll see the same thing. It’s just where the medium is at right now. I’m not complaining about the visuals of Mass Effect, I’m just saying the concept art is so amazing it makes me wish we could have graphics capable of looking like this.
Anyway, Samara is supposed to be ancient, serious, and matronly. Her delivery is so deadpan serious. But her costume is pushing this character into a comical place that I don’t think the author intended. It’s like having the infamous Bat-nipples on the Christian Bale Batman. The writer and the costume designer weren’t on the same page. Or even in the same book. Or speaking the same language.
There are so many fantastic designs in the sketches above. I can’t believe they went with this one.
My justice code requires me to kill police officers who stand in the way of my killing in the name of justice.
The Justicar code sounds like a terrible idea even before we get to the part where Samara might have to kill an honest cop in the name of “justice”. And then once they establish that she’s all about a rigid moral code, she agrees to join your crew not because of a moral or legal imperative, but because she’s so “honored” by your invitation to join the team, and without hearing much in the way of the details or goals of your cause. And she does this despite the fact that everyone else in the galaxy can somehow smell you’re with Cerberus, and Cerberus is infamously evil.
But Shamus, she swears to kill you if you do anything wrong. So it makes sense that she would join.
No, that gives her a contingency plan. It doesn’t even begin to explain why she would join you in the first place.
Maybe she’s joining to learn about Cerberus and planning to punish them!
Huh. That’s a really interesting dramatic twist. Too bad nobody thought to put it in the game. No matter how much head-canon we invent, it doesn’t change the fact that a paladin is joining a terrorist organization, and she doesn’t even bother to get a detailed explanation of what you’re going to be doing. (Which Shepard can’t give her, because he doesn’t know either.) Samara might indeed have a hidden reason for joining Cerberus. And if that reason was discussed, revealed, or hinted at in the game, then it would help form the series of motivations and actions that we could call a story.
These characters frequently do things that make no sense or don’t flow naturally from the events of the story. The fact that we can easily patch this hole with an off-the-cuff suggestion only highlights just how easy it would be to fix these problems.
Even setting all of that aside, it’s not really clear why TIM would choose her for the mission. Yes, she’s a badass. But I imagine there are a lot of phenomenal badasses in the galaxy. What additional benefit does a justicar bring to the table? Are we worried we might need someone to arrest the Collectors? Why would TIM expect her to join our team?
Samara is the quintessential Mass Effect 2 character: Someone we’re not sure how they could help with our ultimate goal, with a flimsy excuse for joining us, who probably has a silly costumeSamara, for confusing her neckline with her waistline. Miranda, for wearing boots that would require a team of Cerberus engineers to get on and off. Jacob, because walking around with a dick drawn on your forehead would be less embarrassing than WEARING THE CERBERUS LOGO. Jack, for wearing an impossible belt instead of pasties. Garrus, for buying NEW armor which STILL SOMEHOW HAS A HOLE IN IT?!? but who we like anyway because they’re interesting to talk to.
Hey Shepard, we`re squishing your head.
Samara’s loyalty mission is amazing. Samara’s daughter is basically a psionic serial killer, luring her victims to her apartment with drugs and raw sex appeal so she can melt their brains. Morinth is powerful, crafty, and creepy as hell. Samara has been chasing her for ages, and asks Shepard to pose as bait in an attempt to trap her. It’s a suspense thriller where you track down the killer while nearly becoming their prey.
The quest takes place entirely in dialog with no combat whatsoever. It’s really easy for something like that to fall apart, particularly in an action-focused game like this. It’s one thing to ask your voice performers to deliver exposition explaining how the Cerberus lab burned down and killed all the kittens they were experimenting on, but it’s another thing to ask someone to go through a gut-wrenching two-minute character arc. You visit the mother of the latest victim and she has to go from desperate and lost, to angry, to grieving, to letting go in the hope of finding closure. The writer and actors were up for it, and the quest is able to stand on the strength of its writing and acting.
Morinth technically qualifies as a squad member, since you can betray Samara at the last minute and get Morinth as a replacement. I’ve never heard of anyone actually doing this. (And there really is no good in-character reason to chose Morinth.) But the option is there.
This is the mother of Morinth`s latest victim. It`s a bit disappointing that you can`t go back and tell her you caught the killer. She seems like the news would really help her out.
It’s tempting to sneer at the faults of Mass Effect 2 and complain that our smart, talky RPG was turned into a Big Dumb Shooter, but then something extraordinary like this pops up and shows that someone at BioWare still has their mojo.
Still, Samara’s character design is teetering on the brink of unintentional comedy. All you’d need to do is change her delivery a little to make her into a hilarious satire on the entire paladin archetype.
 Pure-blood Asari are looked down on.
 Being socially awkward would actually be a huge disadvantage in a job that involves so much interpersonal wheeling and dealing.
 There’s a reason “rich like an archaeologist” isn’t a common rap lyric.
 Two years is a short time for any career change, and she spent a lot of that time rescuing Shepard for Cerberus.
 She’s only 100, on a planet of people who live to be 1,000.
 Although some people fault BioWare for returning to a small handful of particular tropes again and again. But that’s another discussion.
 Samara, for confusing her neckline with her waistline. Miranda, for wearing boots that would require a team of Cerberus engineers to get on and off. Jacob, because walking around with a dick drawn on your forehead would be less embarrassing than WEARING THE CERBERUS LOGO. Jack, for wearing an impossible belt instead of pasties. Garrus, for buying NEW armor which STILL SOMEHOW HAS A HOLE IN IT?!?