So now that the Reapers are actually on Earth and have begun the reaping process, Shepard sort of accidentally steps into the quest hinted at in the closing moments of Mass Effect 1. He doesn’t know it when he arrives, but his job on Mars is to recover plans for a device to beat the Reapers. Better “Way, way, WAY Too Late” than never, I suppose.
Shepard arrives on Mars to discover that the plans for the MacGuffin are here in a research station, and that Cerberus is murdering everyone to secure those plans.
Like the main plot of Mass Effect 2, there aren’t any peasants to meet. There’s no dialog where you can talk to somebody about what this place was and how it worked. Liara shows up, but she’s just here to join the party and explain where we need to go and who to shoot. She’s not here to tell stories. Mars is just a big industrial base filled with mooks and dead civilians. Nobody around here is interested in filling in details or worldbuilding.
During the assault we discover that Cerberus has been partially husk-ifying their soldiers, turning them into half-machine slaves. We see that Cerberus is willing to slaughter a bunch of civilians to steal some intel for themselves. We see that they are needlessly cruel and the whole “pro humans” idea is just a fig leaf excuse for their atrocities.
So Cerberus mole Dr. Eva Coré infiltrated the outpost, betrayed the scientists, and let the Cerberus strike team in. They slaughtered the scientists, presumably twirling robo-mustaches beneath their power armor. Once they have the plans for the Crucible they start deleting them so that nobody else can have them.
There’s no reason given for killing everyone. Dr. Coré apparently had run of the place and access to the data. It’s not clear why she couldn’t just download the data and leave. Why kill everyone? Why erase the data? Those are both difficult, dangerous, risky, and costly tasks that don’t advance Cerberus goals. But it does advance the goals of the writer who is really fond of the idea of the player shooting dudes dressed like space marines. Again, the storyteller has gone from details-first to drama-first, and now from drama-first to gameplay-first.
This would be tolerable if Cerberus was just some minor side faction like the Blue Sun or Eclipse mercenaries. But Cerberus is right in the center of this story, and we can’t even tell what the storyteller is saying. Which is it? Is Cerberus a grey-hat pro human organization, or are they cartoon space Nazis? One or the other. Just pick something. Barring that, acknowledge this discrepancy in dialog by having your allies try to reconcile their different views on Cerberus.
We also pause to have an argument with Kashley about working for Cerberus. That’s a big topic and so we’ll come back to it next entry. Right now we have more important stuff to nitpick…
Dr. Coré is revealed to be fully-functioning AI in a robot body that can seamlessly disguise itself as human without raising suspicion, even when in the company of scientists for a week. That’s three different amazing reveals in a single package:
- An ambulatory full AI, which even the Geth have only recently mastered!
- A robot indistinguishable from a human in appearance.
- An AI able to mimic human conversation and behavior.
And Eva was invented not by a government or by one of the more advanced species, but by a human terrorist organization. The story doesn’t pause to explore any of this. We’re here to shoot bad guys and bang hot aliens. Worldbuilding is for dorks.
If this game was written in the style of Mass Effect 1, then the writer would have set aside some time for some exploratory dialog that shows why this invaluable piece of information survived the previous cycle, why it just happened to be on the planet right next door to Earth, why the plans would be there at all, and why we were only just now finding it at the last possible moment.
Recognize contrivances in your writing. Then have the characters recognize them. Then deal with them in dialog through additional lore or character discussion.
Mass Effect 1 had tons of this sort of due diligence in its storytelling, and this game has no patience for it.
For example, perhaps Shepard could have dialog with a random scientist that reveals:
It turns out we had the plans for the crucible all along! It was among the first artifacts we uncovered on Mars. The Prothens probably recognized that our species had potential and so put this stuff on Mars specifically so that we would find it. Maybe they seeded this stuff on lots of worlds, and we’re lucky that the Reaper cleanup crew missed this one.
But when we discovered the Mars tech, we got caught up in studying the more obviously useful stuff like FTL drives and zap guns, and we didn’t know what to make of the crucible, what it was for, or how it worked. And after the First Contact War, we shelved a lot of artifact research and focused on stuff with obvious and immediate military application.
But then Shepard’s discoveries on Ilos made us take another look, and we’ve spent the last two years studying these plans.
It’s not hard. That only took me a couple of minutes, and it covers a ton of sins. The problem isn’t that this writer can’t think of these kinds of things, it’s that it doesn’t even occur to them to do so. They’re happy to have the entire story turn on a single massive contrivance and they don’t even feel the need to lampshade it in dialog, much less justify it as I did above. The sensibilities of this writer are wrong for this genre of fiction and this style of story.
But even if they bothered to cover up this contrivance, the crucible is still wrong for this story because…
Victory Must be Earned
In a story, great deeds generally require great sacrifice. The heroes need to give something up in order to win. They need to work for it, to grow, to earn their victory. Okay, not all stories. But Mass Effect 3 isn’t some avant-garde deconstruction of the Hero’s Journey. It’s a broad action adventure. Or trying to be. The least it can do is aspire to be competent at that.
Luke spent a majority of Empire Strikes Back learning to use the force. He didn’t become a Jedi master during a training montage halfway through Return of the Jedi, and he didn’t become strong enough to win because some no-name handed him a super-powered lightsaber just before the final confrontation. Frodo spent most of the Lord of the Rings painstakingly making his way through mountains, swamps, forests, and rocky wastes. He endured hardship, capture, distrust, hunger, cold, poison, the undead, monsters, a giant spider, armies, betrayal, fatigue, and numerous wounds – both physical and mental. It was an arduous, daunting task that would have destroyed many great men, and in the end he just barely made it. But when The One Ring went into the fire, we had a sense that the victory had been earned. Frodo didn’t spend the first two books killing bandits on the borders of the shire and then had eagles carry him to the slopes of Mount Doom in the last chapter of the book.
This applies to previous BioWare games as well: In KOTOR, the player spends the entire game gathering the clues that lead to the Star Forge. In Mass Effect 1, Shepard spends the entire game working to find the conduit. The writer sets a goal, and then our heroes work towards that goal. That struggle changes them. The resulting events are our story.
But here in Mass Effect 3, we’re simply handed a solution with no buildup, no foreshadowing, and without needing to look for it. We spent Mass Effect 2 fighting an enemy that didn’t exist in part 1. That struggle didn’t give us anything to help us in part 3. Instead, a totally new element is handed to Shepard.
Shepard Has No Agency
Note how this artifact and this shift in story focus robs both Shepard and the player of agency:
- Shepard didn’t discover the location of these ruins during his adventures or investigations.
- He didn’t explore the ruins.
- He didn’t find the artifact.
- He didn’t discover what the artifact was or what it was for.
- He didn’t hear about this attack over the radio and decide for himself to intervene. He was ordered by Hackett.
- Shepard doesn’t decide to build the crucible.
- Shepard doesn’t participate in the building of the crucible except in the abstract sense of occasionally (and accidentally) acquiring resources for it in his adventures.
- And until the very end, Shepard doesn’t even know what it is or what it will do.
Instead of Shepard discovering these things and telling everyone else, other characters show up and explain these things to him. He has done nothing to earn or deserve his victory and he has no stake in it.
There’s a reason that military stories usually feature characters that are either isolated from the main force or buck orders and go rogue. It’s because in a broad adventure story, the main character should be an agent of change. Their ideas – not their combat prowess – should drive the plot. The combat is simply a viscerally pleasing means to that end.
Remember how in Mass Effect 1, the game did the best it could to pretend you were autonomous? People deferred to you, and you were the one who was getting the answers and figuring things out. The council always presented the game missions as intelligence and suggestions, and they demurred if Shepard acted like they were in charge. The game was selling the notion that Shepard was the person making all the important things happen and thus the main character. He was making decisions and forging his own path. Mass Effect 3 abandons this idea entirely and treats Shepard like a child. He’s told where to go and what to do, and often he’s not even told why. Everyone else does the thinking and planning, and Shepard does the shooting. Outside of the Mass Effect 1 stories (the Genophage and Rannoch storylines) Shepard makes almost no meaningful, informed decisions.
The story has stripped him of everything that made him special to this universe and turned him into a thug with a gun. But then the author turns around and pretends that Shepard is special anyway because he’s so famous and good at shooting people. At least when a deus ex machina shows up it’s typically somehow centered on the main character and their efforts. Typically, a “god” shows up and rewards the hero for an earlier good deed, or for having a good heart, or whatever. Sure, a “god” solves the problem, but at least they do so in response to something the hero did. Mass Effect 3 doesn’t even manage to do that. This feels like a deus ex machina solution for someone else’s protagonist.
On one hand the writer keeps clumsily stroking the player’s ego by talking about what a Big Damn Hero Shepard is, but on the other hand they’re treating Shepard like a child who can’t be trusted to make plot-relevant decisions. Once again, this is backwards.
We have a main character with almost no agency in the central story. He’s on a quest to gather military allies for a battle that the story has already clearly stated that can’t be won through military power. Unrelated to this, he’s also recovering some data that will miraculously solve this problem, somehow.
The advantage of a trilogy is that by the third act, the stage is set, the goals are clear, and the story just needs to follow through. But here’s the writer trying to establish two competing plots at the same time. Even at this early stage, the story is already broken or malformed in multiple ways.
And we’ve got a long way to go.
And it gets worse from here.
(Although to be fair, there are a couple of really good moments to look forward to as well.)
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