I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this story. I’ve looked at events from various angles, tried to see the world through the eyes of various characters, and tried to piece together what the author was trying to do. And I’ve found a lot of problems on a lot of different levels. But even after all this effort, it turns out I’ve still managed to miss some really perplexing ones. As reader Gruhunchously pointed out in the previous entry:
You know what my favorite thing about this sequence of events is? That when you get to the derelict Reaper, the IFF you need is conveniently just lying there on a table waiting for you to pick it up.
And that suggests that the team TIM sent to the Reaper extracted it before you got there, which suggests that they already knew what to look for. And since TIM sent them there, and lost contact with them before he sent Shepard to the Collector Ship, it suggests that he ordered them to extract the IFF at some point before then as well.
So TIM put Shepard in extreme peril by sending her into a trap that he knew about in order to confirm the importance of something that he had already had his science team identify and extract from a dead Reaper beforehand. And never told her anything about it until after the mission was over. What a dick.
It really is amazing just how fractally broken the story is. Every problem seems to be made up of a dozen smaller problems, which are made up of smaller problems, which are you get the idea.
Regardless of how Shepard got the IFF or how much sense TIM doesn’t make, it’s time to use this gizmo…
Shepard acquires the special IFF from the dead Reaper. This will, in theory, allow his team to maybe pass through the Omega-4 relay. This is just a theory, cooked up by TIM, the most untrustworthy person in the story. Nobody really knows what happens to ships that go through the relay. So Shepard decides to test TIM’s hypothesis by sending a probe through.
Just kidding. The plan is to just send the Normandy along with Shepard and his team of badasses through and hope it all works out on the first try. Because it’s more dramatic if we have our characters behave irresponsibly.
No really, it is. A probe would be boring. Drama is good. You can have your drama. Just lampshade this. Have a little conversation that explains why we’ve brought this guy back from the dead, built another billion-dollar super-ship, and recruited all these badasses, and now we’re going to risk their lives on complete roll of the dice with some untested Reaper tech, on the word of a crazy man, where any failure means death. Explain why the obvious alternatives (like a probe, or ambushing the Collectors when they exit the relay) won’t work.
They act like the risk isn’t going through the relay, but the fight we’ll face on the other side. It’s like they know they’ll make it through just fine. Once again, people seem to be reading the script.
The author could give us a conversation where Shepard expresses just how bad it is to be backed into a position where he has to take this massive risk. It will simultaneously highlight the risk – thus building tension – while also establishing that Shepard is a person who can think ahead. Instead we handle things backwards. The characters ignore the obvious (to us) risk, thereby deflating tension while also making them seem dumb.
One of the problems is that the IFF is basically some kind of Reaper… software? It’s not entirely clear. But EDI says it will take some time to integrate with the Normandy’s systems. This basically means that you should go off and do more loyalty missions and the IFF will come online at some unknown (to the player) point in the future.
This is what? We’re doing what?
At some point the player will click on the map to go someplace and it will trigger a cutscene. EDI says the IFF is ready for testing, and the ship needs to stay put while that happens. “No problem,” says Shepard, “I’ll just wait until the test is over and resume my mission.”
Just kidding. Shepard concludes he doesn’t need to be around while the crew test dangerous and unpredictable new technology created by cunning doom machines that want to extinguish all sapient life. So he decides to use the shuttle to get where he’s going. And rather than pick his 2 squadmates beforehand, he has every single member of the team – all 10 or 12 of them depending on DLC – suit up and pack themselves into the shuttleCan they even fit? The other cutscenes in the game make it look like the shuttle is a six-seater..
This is just baffling. The player didn’t actually pick a destination on the map. They just clicked on the map and triggered this cutscene. So the player has no idea where Shepard and crew are going or what they’re doing. This game has been really bad about maintaining the link between the player and the player character, but this simply obliterates it. Even if this was a movie where we weren’t expected to have control over the protagonist, it’s still madness to have the entire plot turn on an event where the actions of the protagonists are completely inexplicable to us.
Imagine watching the Death Star assault in Star Wars, except the writers left out the scene where they explained the exhaust-port weakness to the audience. So we’re all just sitting there thinking, “They’re going to shoot up a moon-sized base with fighters? What?” Instead of enjoying the drama we’d spend the entire sequence scratching our heads and trying to figure out what the heroes are thinking. And then when it blows up we’re like, “What? They found a magic hole that blew up the whole station? Did they know that would happen, or was it a lucky guess?”
In an action story, confusion kills drama.
Part of the confusion is that the map isn’t just how you select your next mission, it’s also your to-do list. Sure, you’ve got a journal, but the most convenient way to see what your tasks are is to open up the map and look for the little pins showing what systems have missions in them. So when the player clicks on the map, they aren’t deciding to do something, they’re trying to look at their to-do list. Hijacking the game at this point is bound to cause confusion, because the game is pretending to react to a decision you never made. If nothing else, the cutscene should have been triggered when you tried to go somewhere, not when you opened the map.
But even that change wouldn’t really fix the numerous immersion-shattering problems with this scene. In the play-through I did for this series, I was actually going to do a little mining because I was a few units short of the palladium needed for my next upgrade. Which means I guess that Shepard was loading up the shuttle with all his badasses to do the probing minigame?
The moment Shepard and the team leave, the Collectors show up to kidnap the entire crew.
So imagine we’ve got some players sitting around the table playing D&D. Their characters are at their secret campsite just a few miles outside of town and are planning their next move.
How are we on supplies?
Someone needs to go into town and get some potion ingredients.
Suddenly Casey, the DM, perks up…
You’re going into town? Well, while you’re there some bandits raid your camp and take the Nega Sword.
What? We didn’t actually say we were going! We didn’t even say WHO was going! And why would we leave the sword behind?
Well, you did. And then bandits robbed you.
This isn’t just a designer’s foul, this is willful incompetence. It’s nakedly obvious what the storyteller is doing. It doesn’t flow naturally at all. It doesn’t feel fair, it doesn’t make sense, and worst of all it kills all the tension by burying it in incredulity and frustration. It’s the writer showing contempt for the very idea that the player needs to have reasons for the actions their character is taking, and it greatly harms what would otherwise be an interesting idea.
I’m pointing this out because one of the head writers at BioWare is Casey Hudson, and I don’t want anyone to think this is some sort of cryptic dig at that guy.
This is actually just the right point in the story for a setback. And we’re long overdue for the bad guys to get their act together and score a win over the good guys. Conceptually, this event is fine. The problem is that the storytelling is so clumsy it kills the drama.
Don’t Shove. Entice.
Putting ourselves in the writer’s shoes: It’s our job to get all the pieces into place without shattering immersion. If we need to remove Shepard and all of the squad members from the Normandy, then we can’t just swoop in and begin shoving. The solution is to make the player think it was their idea. Think of a problem where the player would want to do this, and put that problem in front of them. Give the player the chance to realize this is a good idea, and then have the player character suggest it.
EDI: The Normandy is disabled because of [technobabble]. We need [MacGuffin] to enact repairs. There should be one in the nearby [location].
Joker: Yeah. This has “OBVIOUS TRAP” written all over it, Commander.
And then the player is thinking, “Oh please don’t make me stupidly fall for another lame trap. If [location] is an OBVIOUS trap, why don’t we just bring a shitload of firepower?”
And then when the player sees they can take the whole team, they will understand what they’re doing, why the team is going, and they probably won’t notice how railroad-y the whole thing is. Then when we spring the trap it will feel like it happened fair and square. For the most part. Okay, it’s probably not possible to make something this arbitrary and contrived and have it work seamlessly, but you can certainly do better than this.
Also, there should have been a real mission on the other end of that shuttle ride. Shepard and friends should have gone through a brief shooting interlude to allow the player to settle into this new situation before the writer cut back to the Normandy to spring the trap.
It’s still really clumsy, but at least the player won’t be sitting there dumbfounded, asking why the entire cast was leaving the story for no reason.
Once the writer hand-waves the heroes out of the story, the Collectors board the ship and begin stealing everyone. EDI could mount some kind of defense, but there are security systems in place that prevent her from directly controlling the ship. Being an AI, people were worried that she’d go crazy and try to kill all the meatbags. It would figure that the one time Cerberus thinks to use some kind of safety protocol it turns out to be a mistake that gets people killed.
Joker is forced to leave the cockpit and run down to the AI core to take the safety protocols off of EDI so she can fight the Collectors. He does, she blows them out of the airlock, and the Normandy escapes.
Like I said, I like this sequence in concept. This gives us a chance to see the Collectors as most colonists see them: As horrifying, unstoppable abductors. After playing as Shepard for so many hours it’s easy to forget that all humans aren’t fearless armored bioticYou ARE playing a vanguard, aren’t you? It’s pretty fun! badasses. It’s a break from shooting and a short dis-empowerment which can – in theory – enable them to more fully appreciate the empowerment of playing as Shepard. It gives us more of the Joker / EDI banter, which has been uniformly excellent. It finally gives us an emotional connection to what the collectors are doing by having them abduct known characters instead of hypothetical colonists.
But it’s hard to view this sequence without thinking about how we got here, and how we got here was through a brute-force contrivance that immediately launches the player out of the story. It’s okay to have the bad guys score a win over the heroes. In fact, it’s almost a required ingredient in a story like this. But this should be accomplished by having the antagonist do something smart, not by forcing the hero to do something stupid, and definitely not by doing something that’s initially baffling, and then later only stupid once you’ve gone over it again.
And just to put a couple more whip marks on this dead horse:
Did the Collectors somehow know that Shepard was going to abandon his ship with his badass buddies? Because this assault wouldn’t have turned out the same way if he hadn’t been so nonsensically stupid. Last time they ran into the Normandy they were trying to blow it up, but now they’re abducting people. Did they even know Shepard was gone before they boarded?
Also: I find it really odd that the Normandy continues to function after the entire crew has been kidnapped. It sort of makes me wonder why we dragged them around with us. I guess you could say that taking the shackles off of EDI enabled her to run the whole ship autonomously? If there was a hand-wave of this in dialog, I missed it.
But these are minor points, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed them all if the previous section hadn’t been so outrageously baffling, practically begging the player to look closer to figure out what everyone was doing.
 Can they even fit? The other cutscenes in the game make it look like the shuttle is a six-seater.
 You ARE playing a vanguard, aren’t you? It’s pretty fun!
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