Once the introduction is over, TIM sends Shepard to the human colony of Freedom’s Progress to see what the Collectors have been doing. He claims that we’ll find proof that the Reapers are behind our disappearing colonies.
The colony is empty. Well, empty except for Tali, who we just happen to bump into here at random, in an out-of-the-way location neither one of us has ever visited before, just a few hours after Shepard wakes up for the first time after being dead. She’s literally one of the first people you meet.
Look, if the galaxy was the size of Rhode Island this would be a shockingly unlikely happenstance. It would be implausible enough to warrant some sort of hand-wave, lamp-shade, excuse, or some other storytelling trick to smooth over the contrivance. If the galaxy was the size of the United States, the odds against this meeting would be astronomicalIf we scrambled teleported a random American to a random room in the continental US, what are the odds that they would end up in the same room with one of their five closest friends?, far more unlikely than winning the lottery. If the galaxy was the size of Earth, this would be a one-in-billions chance encounter. But the galaxy is the size of the galaxy, and thus this meeting is a hilarious miracle contrived by the author.
Even worse is that she’s not even needed here. She brings no special knowledge or skills to this encounter. Her friend Veetor is the one that solves all the technical problems. If nothing else, the Veetor character should have been dropped and his feats of technical wizardryUnderstanding human computer systems better than the humans themselves. could have been performed by Tali. It’s bad enough to have this chance encounter, but having it happen and then not using the character is just strange.
You could perhaps argue that she’s here to reassure the player that this is indeed the Mass Effect universe they remember by throwing in a fan favorite. Still, this seems like a sledgehammer solution to that problem.
And just to push this conversation over the top into maximum awkwardness, one of the Quarians immediately clocks your team as “Cerberus operatives” before you identify yourselves or even say a word. We’re still reeling from the last contrivance and the writer hits us with this? If you want to suggest that it’s Jacob’s yellow icon on his uniform, then portray that with a close-in shot to focus on the logo so we understand that this Quarian hasn’t been reading the script. And once you’re done with that, you could follow-up with an explanation for WHY IS JACOB WEARING IDENTIFYING MARKINGS OF A CLANDESTINE ORGANIZATION?!?
According to the game, nobody knows who has been kidnapping our tens of thousands of colonists. They erase all traces of themselves when they leave, and when the next ship arrives all they find is a ghost town. Well, it only takes one delirious Quarian (Veetor) to recover the security footage and see the Collectors stealing all the people.
This also ties into the lack of agency I mentioned last time. Shepard is told to come here. He didn’t even know what he was looking for. He just kept walking forward and shooting stuff until someone else gave him what he needed.
If Shepard brought a tech expert to this location and told them to scan the computer, then it would feel like Shepard was an active participant in the story. If Shepard had contacted Tali and asked her to meet him here, it would both make him proactive and rid the need for the massive contrivance of bumping into her at random. But in this scenario he makes no decisions and makes no contributions aside from shooting shit.
A Lack of Worldbuilding
A later mission reveals that the Collectors have to land their skyscraper-sized vessel to load all the colonists on board. This ought to leave a stadium-sized footprint, which would then be turned into a “stadium, plus parking”-sized crater when they blast off again. And yet nobody knows who is doing this, the colonists aren’t fleeing back to earth, nobody is doing anything about it, and we don’t even know why they’re coming out here to begin with.
For contrast, everyone vanished from the English colony of Roanoke Virginia back in 1580. That was 400 years ago and involved just over 100 people, and yet we’re still captivated by the mystery today. Yet here in the world of Mass Effect, nobody cares about “tens of thousands” vanishing in mysterious circumstances.
I’m not saying this is an impossible outcome. I’m saying this is a curious enough outcome that it warrants some sort of exploration. But the complete lack of exploratory dialog regarding this setup makes it clear the author never spent time pondering how these events would shape politics, military, or even human behavior. They thought, “I’ll have bad guys kidnap people and send my main character to stop their plan” and that was the end of their attempts at worldbuilding.
In Mass Effect 1, Wrex gets angry at the Salarians because of the Genophage. The Genophage exists because of the Krogan rebellions. The Krogran rebellions happened because the Salarians uplifted the pre-spacefaring Krogan and gave them space-weapons. They uplifted them because they needed help in the Rachni wars. This chain of events has shaped technology, politics, and galactic development for hundreds of years.
This is what worldbuilding looks like. Things happen for reasons and actions have consequences. The events of the past shape the present, and the resulting history puts the whole thing into some kind of context. For contrast: What events are driving this colonization effort? What’s preventing anyone from helping? What’s making the human leadership so apparently ineffectual?
The author wants us to work for Cerberus because they think Cerberus is cool. And then to make it work they have to make all of humanityOr at least, all colonists and the Alliance dumb, incompetent, or apathetic so that we have no choice but to work
with for Cerberus.
Film Crit Hulk has an essay on the failures of Man of Steel where he talks about the lazy blockbuster shorthand of “assumed empathy”. It’s how you end up with forgettable movies of epic battles, and sensory experiences that you can’t remember the next day and you never feel like re-watching:
“This person is the main character, so the writer assumes you will care about them without the writer having to do the difficult work of characterizing them.”
“These are humans so the writer assumes you will care about them, without having to depict or humanize them.”
“This person is the mother / girlfriend / brother / father / husband / barista of the main character, so the writer assumes you will care about them without needing to portray their relationship.”
It makes for a story with no emotional core. It follows the framework of a story, but is lacking in the personal connection that makes the thing worth watching in the first place. It’s all hole, no donut.
The story of Mass Effect 2 revolves around saving human colonists from the Collectors. This is presented in the laziest and most abstract form possible. Do you know how many of those colonists we meet in this game? I’ll give you a hint: It’s three less than the number of Quarians we meet here on Freedom’s Progress. In a game all about saving colonists we meet exactly one.
And that doesn’t happen until the halfway point of this game.
And he’s not even a sympathetic character.
Somehow, the subject of this videogame isn’t actually portrayed in this videogame. In Mass Effect 1, we met the colonists on Eden Prime. Then we met about a dozen different people on Feros. We met a few dozen more named, voice-acted, developed characters on Noveria. The Mass Effect 1 writer understood that if you want a story to work, you need to develop things like characters, motivations, and stakes.
Leaving the colonists out of the game is a pretty staggering omission, but we could still build up the colonists by proxy. If the other characters in the story care, then our existing relationship with them will let us see the colonists from their point of view and want to help them. In Star Wars, when the Empire blows up Alderaan the storyteller has an established sympathetic character (Leia) react to it so we have some kind of framework. Later, Kenobi reacts as well. The writer conveys the enormity of the crime not just by telling us “this is really bad” but by showing us through the characters.
But the Mass Effect 2 writer didn’t do that, either. Not only does the writer not give us a reason to care about the colonists, they don’t even create any developed characters that care about the colonists.
Your team doesn’t care.
Well, they “care” inasmuch as it’s their job to solve this problem, but they don’t “care” in any kind of way that bulds up the world, the story, or the characters. They don’t “care” about these colonists the way Leia cared about Alderaan or the way Frodo cared about the Shire.
Jacob and Miranda never really discuss the colonists. Their loyalty missions don’t involve colonists. They don’t know any. They don’t have any sob stories that might give us an emotional connection to the problem. Same goes for Joker and Chakwas.
You’d think that maybe one or two of your dozen or so crew members would have a mission related to the plot. Maybe someone has a relative they lost contact with, and they’re worried the Collectors nabbed them. Maybe someone wants to look into the Collector-based trade in genetic specimens that the game tells us about but never shows us. Maybe Mordin is dealing with a couple of refugee families on Omega who are fleeing the abduction threat and trying to buy their way back to Earth. Maybe Shepard could help them secure transport?
Tell us something about the people we’re trying to save.
But no. None of them have stories that contribute to the plot at all. If anything, their concerns trivialize the problem even further: “Oh Shepard, I know the lives of thousands of people are supposedly on the line, but I have a problem with my dad so can we go take care of that?”
Okay, one of the Cerberus people in engineering mentions they have a colonist relative. It’s not part of a dialog with Shepard. It’s actually one of those walk-by-and-eavesdrop deals. Is this single line of overheard dialog supposed to be the emotional foundation for our entire journey?
The writer is willing to have the amazingly unlikely coincidence of bumping into Tali on the first planet you visit, for basically no reason, but they couldn’t contrive that any of our dozen or so friends would have some connection to the colonists we’re supposed to be saving?
The Alliance doesn’t care.
Anderson says at one point that, “Those people went out there to get away from the Alliance.” And suddenly I sit up, because we’re about to learn something about the colonists and the universe they inhabit. What do they have against the Alliance? How deep does this antipathy go? Are people still going, despite the abductions? How does Anderson feel about all this? Does he know any colonists? Has he dealt with them? What kind of political or cultural shakeup caused these people to leave earth? Is this a headache Udina has to deal with? What do the people back on Earth think of all this?
Tell us something about the people we’re trying to save.
But no. This isn’t worldbuilding, it’s hand-waving. The Alliance won’t help, or can’t help, or their help isn’t wanted, or something. The game isn’t interested in explaining the central conflict. They threw some helpless colonists into deep space and unleashed bug aliens on them, and if you need more motivation than that you’ll need to write your own fanfiction.
The Colonists themselves don’t care
Why are they still living out in the fringes? Why don’t they flee back to Earth? The game never tells us. You can theorize if you want, but in a story about “Save these people from danger” it needs to answer rudimentary questions like, “Why are they still in danger?”
And just how many colonies are left there? Dozens? Hundreds? Three? Is Freedom’s Progress a typical colony, or a small one? What is the scale and scope of this problem? How many people am I trying to save? TIM mentions “tens of thousands”. Is that how many people have been taken, or how many are left? What percent of the colonists remain? Across how many worlds?
Tell us something about the people we’re trying to save.
But Shamus! The first game had you saving the whole galaxy! Isn’t that pretty abstract, too?
It would have been, except the galaxy was full of interesting characters to care about. Anderson, the Sha’ira, Kirahee, Barla Von, Lizbeth Baynham, the people of Zhu’s Hope, Agent Parasini, Dr. Michel, Lorik_Qui’in, Chorban, Han Olar, Dr. Cohen, the Hannar evangelist, General Septimus, and dozens of others are given personalities and goals and agendas. You are fighting for all of them. Who are you fighting for in Mass Effect 2? What is Shepard’s relationship to them? How do they feel about Shepard?
The game abandoned it’s details-first approach to telling a story. Fine. We’re going to have a drama-based story now. Except this writer has absolutely no idea how to create drama. They’re not willing to give us the worldbuilding to explain this problem, but they’re also not willing to give us any characters to give the problem any emotional weight. They just wave in the vague direction of “humans are in danger” and expect drama to happen. It’s like a version of Spider-Man’s origin story where we never see Uncle Ben and he dies entirely off-screen.
There’s actually quite a bit of smart, powerful drama in this game, but it’s all in the character side-quests and none of it is here in the main plot.
Drat the Luck
It’s really astoundingly bad luck for the galaxy that Shepard just happened to bump into Tali here on Freedom’s Progress. If they’d missed each other, then Shepard would have found no proof of the Collectors. He would have gone back to TIM and said, “Nope, not convinced.” And then maybe he would have rounded up his team and gotten back to work on solving the space-mystery of trying to defeat the Reapers.
But instead he discovers that yes, the Collectors are abducting humans. And then the entire scope of the Mass Effect story takes a massive step down from, “Stop the unstoppable machine gods that want to kill the galaxy” to “Stop these dudes who are kidnapping humans on the edge of space and who nobody else will help because the writer says so.” And that would be fine – not every story needs to be an epic about saving the galaxy – except the writer has no interest in establishing these humans or telling their stories. We’re supposed to care about characters the writer doesn’t care about.
Note that we haven’t hit on any universe-shattering plot holes in the sense of “This couldn’t possibly happen”. It’s just ill-fitting. Thematically wrong. Poorly justified. Emotionally empty. Discussions of the plot like this one tend to be heated. Some people look at this list of flaws and think, “That’s not a big deal. That one only bothered me a little. That one bugged me but I got over it. That one is just petty. I came up with an excuse for why this one isn’t necessarily as bad as it seems at first. Okay, that one was bad, but they sort of justify it a little in a later mission. That one was stupid but it made me laugh.” This story wasn’t slain by a single plot hole. It died by tripping over its own feet a thousand times.
Sure, the writer could’ve gotten away with a couple of these. If they nailed the feel on everything else, then randomly bumping into Tali wouldn’t be quite so obnoxious. We could perhaps grudgingly accept a Council that still doesn’t believe in the Reapers if we were still on the same quest for knowledge given to us in the first game. We might be able to accept an uneasy alliance between Shepard and Cerberus if they didn’t kill the main character and revive him again before the tutorial started.
But there are just too many writer-imposed “miracles” going on here. None of this feels genuine. And even once you choke down all the contrivances, all you get is an empty story with no emotional stakes.
 If we scrambled teleported a random American to a random room in the continental US, what are the odds that they would end up in the same room with one of their five closest friends?
 Understanding human computer systems better than the humans themselves.
 Or at least, all colonists and the Alliance
The Best of 2014
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2014.
A Lack of Vision and Leadership
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In Defense of Crunch
Crunch-mode game development isn't good, but sometimes it happens for good reasons.
Diablo III Retrospective
We were so upset by the server problems and real money auction that we overlooked just how terrible everything else is.
The Disappointment Engine
No Man's Sky is a game seemingly engineered to create a cycle of anticipation and disappointment.