I know I said earlier in this series that I wouldn’t be covering DLC. And it certainly wouldn’t be fair (or wise) of me to attempt to dissect content I haven’t played. But I think we need to stop and at least mention the events and ideas of The Arrival anyway, because of the problems it creates for the main story.
The Arrival was DLC for Mass Effect 2. You can watch the whole thing above. In it, Shepard abandons the team he established in the main game and finds a cult of indoctrinated people who are predicting that the Reapers Are Coming. They even have a countdown timer on the outside of their base, showing how long until the Reapers arrive. Shepard ends up fighting them and then crashes an asteroid into the local Mass Relay to blow it up just as the Reapers arrive, thus slamming the door in their face.
This seems to make a mess of the previous games: How did the Reapers get here? Did they just fly in from dark space? Remember that we saw them all “wake up” at the very end of Mass Effect 2. So how long was it from the end of the second game to The Arrival? A few weeks? Months? If that’s all it takes, then Sovereign and Harbinger are idiots for enacting their plans instead of… whatever caused this to happen. The Arrival retroactively makes Mass Effect 1 dumb and pointless.
But that’s not the worst problem. The worst problem is that we are now dealing with an immensely important plotline that may or may not exist in the main story, depending on whether or not you bought enough DLC from BioWare. This is exactly the dystopian world people predicted when DLC became a thing.
Players: We don’t want to have our games cut into pieces! Will we have to pay for lore? For the last boss fight? For the end of the game?
Publishers: DLC is all about hats and guns and new skins and cosmetic things.
But here we are. The “How do we stop the Reapers from coming to kill us all?” plot – which most people seem to regard as the main plot – doesn’t budge in Mass Effect 2, and instead it only moves forward in this piece of DLC. The Arrival moved the Reaper plot forward, then moves it back again, because no matter what it does it can’t feed back into Mass Effect 3 because not everyone is going to choose to pay for The Arrival.
This also creates headaches for me as I analyze this story. Specifically, I have to deal with:
Me: So Mass Effect 2 never advances the main plot…
Fan: That’s not true! The Arrival does exactly that. You can’t claim a book doesn’t make sense if you skip chapters!
Me, later: So the Arrival establishes that the Mass Relays…
Fan: You can’t cite Arrival, because not everyone played it. It’s just add-on DLC, making it less canonical than the core games! You’re just looking for stuff to complain about.
(To be fair, nobody on this site has made these arguments. I’m just trying to show how optional content makes story analysis problematic.)
This series is long enough without me needing to review every possible permutation of every game+DLC. Mass Effect has a nominally branching story, but this blog is non-branching. So for the purposes of this series: I may have to reference DLC lore, but “it’s explained in the DLC” is never a good enough excuse for the failure of some plot element in my book.
At any rate, The Arrival ends with Shepard blowing up a mass relay, which also blows up a star system and possibly kills millionsAgain, I didn’t play it, so I may be off on the death toll or the timing or other incidental facts, but I think I’ve got the plot down in broad strokes.. That’s a big deal. That’s a “Shepard dies” level plot point. And like Shepard’s death, it’s going to be glossed over because this writer doesn’t care about worldbuilding and wants to create huge character-changing events but never wants to stop and explore them in detail.
So at the start of Mass Effect 3, Shepard is in the custody of The Alliance. He’s either there for blowing up a Mass Relay or he’s there for reasons unexplained. He’s been stripped of his rank, his ship, and his crew. Maybe this means the Alliance are idiots and maybe it means Shepard was an idiot for turning himself in and maybe his squad were jerks for running off, but to what degree any one particular character is an idiot depends on whether or not we’re talking about a universe where The Arrival took place.
Arrival and non-Arrival are both broken plots, but they’re broken in different ways. Luckily the Mass Effect 3 writer did us a favor by sweeping all these problems under the rug, giving us a choose-your-own-plothole kind of deal.
It was all Part of the Plan. If such a thing existed.
In this series we’ve had a lot of discussions about whether or not the writers had a plan, if they broke from that plan, or if they needed to plan. Tolkien purportedly didn’t have a hard plan on how Lord of the Rings would be resolved, and his story turned out just fine. Other writers failed spectacularly when working from a plan. The focus on “having a plan” is something of a distraction. The reader generally doesn’t care if the writer spent years planning out their story, or if they came up with each idea thirty seconds before they appeared on the page, as long as it holds together in the end.
What the audience wants is a story that’s not full of contradictions, contrivances, loose plot threads, forced dialog, dumb characters, and sloppy justifications for character actions. I suspect that the more scrupulously you adhere to the rules, the less you need a plan. If you’re willing to let the rules of the world and the personalities of the characters drive the storyYou can hear authors talk about this very thing, where certain characters or ideas seem to take over a story and take it where the author never intended. then you can get away with winging it. But if you want to arrive at some predetermined outcome at a predetermined time – perhaps you have a plot that needs to run for the length of three AAA games, end each game at a logical and satisfying point, and conclude at the end of the third with a resolution to the central conflict – then the sooner you get something passable on the dry-erase board, the lower your chances of ending in failure.
A plan can help a writer achieve this, but it’s not required and it’s no guarantee of success. What matters most is that the author makes a world that holds together. The reason I bring this up now is that Mass Effect has some bizarre story structure:
Mass Effect 1 is a slow reveal of the Reapers, ending with what seems to be a quest to prevent them from ever showing up.
Mass Effect 2 abandons this for a side plot, then circles back and ends on the same note as Mass Effect 1.
Having skipped act 2, The Arrival seems to jump to the end of the story with OH NO THE REAPERS ARE HERE oh wait you fixed it.
Mass Effect 3 then opens with OH NO THE REAPERS ARE HERE. AGAIN.
While we can perhaps forgive them not having a proper through-line planned for the whole trilogy, this goes far beyond a lack of planning. The Arrival and Mass Effect 3 were made one after another. It’s even possible their development overlapped. Maybe it’s not fair to expect a writer to have a plan for five years from now, but certainly they ought to have a plan for what they’ll do tomorrow, right? Not burning a bridge you’re about to cross isn’t really “planning ahead”. It’s just basic sanity.
But now let’s get into the game proper…
Arrested Plot Development
2) The Reapers are ‘about’ to return? HOW? The last two games made it clear they didn’t have a way to get to us. This is the core hurdle the bad guys needed to overcome in this story. You can’t just brush it away without explanation in the opening crawl.
3) Actually, EVERYONE saw that legend come to life when Sovereign attacked the Citadel.
4) Are we really going to frame this supposedly epic conflict as ‘only one soldier can save us all’? Ew.
5) The Reapers do NOT cleanse the galaxy of ALL ORGANIC LIFE. They cull civilizations above a certain tech level. Those are two very different things!
Like last time, the game opens with jarring discontinuity. Shepard is under some sort of arrest for past events. Shepard has potentially done any number of things that might land him here:
1) Maybe the alliance is mad about him swiping the Normandy at the end of Mass Effect 1? Except, things were just fine at the start of Mass Effect 2.
2) Maybe the Alliance was mad about the whole “working with Cerberus” thing. In which case, this is an infuriating case of the game condemning you for something you didn’t want to do, and only did because none of the more sensible options were available to you. Spec Ops: The Line did this. But Spec Ops was doing it on purpose. People hated and resented the game for it, but at least the Spec Ops railroading was intentional. It was a deconstruction of a genre. In Mass Effect 2 it was just a dumb plot that ran on circular logic, and having Shepard punished in the third game is just salt in the wound. Instead of glossing over the mistakes of Mass Effect 2, it rubs the player’s nose in them. Also, it uses those past mistakes as an excuse for why the game continues to make them: Shepard isn’t allowed to pursue his goals because of the way the last game forbid him from pursuing his goals.
Also, Joker resignedOr possibly went AWOL? and signed on with terrorists. But instead of being put in plot-jail he was given back his old rank and even allowed to fly the Normandy again. If working for Cerberus is a sin, then why isn’t he also stripped of duty and rank like Shepard?
3) Maybe the Alliance is upset that Shepard blew up a solar system in The Arrival DLC? This would be one of the most historically significant events since the Rachni wars or the Krogan uplift. It’s the equivalent of dropping the A-bomb on Hiroshima. The death toll is massive. Given that most of the galaxy still doesn’t believe in the Reapers, there will be a lot of controversy on how “necessary” this was. The various races will be asking themselves: Can other Mass Relays be destroyed? Has the balance of power changed? Is this something we can do defensively? Offensively? Do we know who did this and why? A Paragon Shepard should be haunted by the weight of this choice. And if nothing else, this act should have brought the galaxy to the brink of war.
All three of these are wrong, but the frustrating thing is that the writers wouldn’t at least commit to one of these wrong ideas.
The game opens with a conversation between Anderson and Shepard, and the writer flat-out refuses to nail anything down. Do people believe in the Reapers yet? Maybe. Is the military preparing for them? Maybe. Is Shepard under house arrest, or here of his own volition? Eh. Did Shepard turn himself in? If so, why? Why didn’t he keep his ship and his mandate?
For a series that began with such an eagerness for worldbuilding and details, this is a horrendous way to open a game. This is the opposite of worldbuilding. This is tearing down the ideas and assumptions of the series, and then refusing to build something new in their place. Nobody knows anything. Nothing matters. Don’t ask too many questions. Just shoot the bad guys when the talking stops.
Regardless of what happened during Schrödinger’s interlude, it’s not the only thing wrong with this setup. Once again, the last game ended with Shepard making a promise to solve the Reaper threat in some vague, non-specific way. And once again the next game opens with him having abdicated all his agency and leaving the non-believers in charge.
Imagine instead, a game that opened up with Shepard mid-mission. Perhaps he’s hunting down someone with information. Or he’s securing a base that has technology. Or he’s exploring a ruin that might have historical information on the Reapers. He could then have some dialog with his squad, “Boy these things we’ve been doing for the last few months sure have been effective/not effective!” We would get the sense that our hero is driven, forward-looking, and proactive.
But the writers of Mass Effect 2 & 3 never really understood how this story was supposed to work, so they never have Shepard doing things on his own. Shepard’s default state seems to be one of inaction. He simply reacts to the world around him. In Mass Effect 2, he was wasting his time on orders from the council until the Collectors showed up. After that, he took orders from TIM. Here in Mass Effect 3, he’s sitting around for various reasons and not making any progress on his goals.
Before the player has a chance to settle in and figure out which part of this broken story is the most annoying, the writers distract them with OH NO THE REAPERS ARE HERE.
 Again, I didn’t play it, so I may be off on the death toll or the timing or other incidental facts, but I think I’ve got the plot down in broad strokes.
 You can hear authors talk about this very thing, where certain characters or ideas seem to take over a story and take it where the author never intended.
 Or possibly went AWOL?
Even allegedly smart people can make life-changing blunders that seem very, very obvious in retrospect.
Spec Ops: The Line
A videogame that judges its audience, criticizes its genre, and hates its premise. How did this thing get made?
The Game That Ruined Me
Be careful what you learn with your muscle-memory, because it will be very hard to un-learn it.
Let's ruin everyone's fun by listing all the ways in which zombies can't work, couldn't happen, and don't make sense.
Juvenile and Proud
Yes, this game is loud, crude, childish, and stupid. But it it knows what it wants to be and nails it. And that's admirable.