Last time I talked about how building a massive warship in secret is an implausible idea that, at the very least, needs a thick layer of expositional excuses and lampshading.
Cerberus Building an Army
Think back to last week’s hypothetical project to build a single destroyer. Now imagine you don’t need to build one destroyer. Imagine you need to build an entire fleet of them. Also you need warships of several different classes. You also need shuttles, fighters, mechs, and ammunition. You need thousands of trained soldiers, pilots, mechanics, medics, officers. You need special custom-made body armor for all of them.
You need to feed, house, clothe, and train thousands of sailors, soldiers, officers, and military support personnel. You need cooks, plumbers, electricians, doctors, machinists, police, heavy equipment operators, and all those other people we talked about.
You’ll need literally hundreds of TIM Towns for this. Even if you steal the ships or poof them into existence using vast automated robo-factoriesBuilt by who? you still need supply lines of food, ammunition, fuel, and replacement parts to keep your forces going. And instead of moving all of those supplies over the vast empty ocean, you have to transport them from civilization to your (hopefully remote) base through many well-traveled mass effect relays.
You need to somehow hire or recruit these hundreds of thousands of peopleAnd to be fair, I think a Cerberus army is large enough to require millions of people back home., but also somehow HIDE this burgeoning society from a galaxy of people who hate you and want to shut you down. Because you’re not a no-name secret organization. You’re Cerberus, one of the most notoriously brutal forces in the galaxy. “Rogue cells” or not, your name is forever associated with terrorism and atrocities and no sane person would willingly work for you.
But Shamus! Cerberus has Reaper Tech™.
Yeah. See, more advanced technology generally means more infrastructure, not less. The larger and more complex your technology, the more experts you need back at home, taking care of it. We tend for forget this because most of the infrastructure of our daily lives is hidden far away. If I need a new PC, I just go to the store and buy one without needing to think about where they build the power supply, the case, where the chips are fabricated, where the hard drives are assembled, or who fed the people who assembled the dang thing. The PC you’ve got humming away under your desk represents the work of literally tens of thousands of people. Those thousands of people can build me a PC, but if I need (say) an AN/SLQ-32 Electronic Warfare Suite, then suddenly I need to worry about building the whole thing from scratch, because they don’t sell those at Wal-Mart.
That means I’m going to need to employ all those disparate experts directly to essentially turn raw materials into some of the most complex machinery around. There’s no getting around it: This will take a massive workforce. The more complex the device, the larger the chain of experts between raw materials and final product. Saying Cerberus has better technology than everyone else only makes their advantage more absurd. Not only will they need more infrastructure, but they need more time to figure out how to make the final product. If they’re building experimental prototypes based on Reaper Tech™ then they can’t even copy established techniques from everyone else. Which means you need even more people working on the problem.
Well, Cerberus can enslave people by turning them into partial-husks, which makes them loyal! So a large workforce isn’t a problem for them.
I’ll just allow the hand-wave that Cerberus can acquire an unlimited number of workers, but only because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life belaboring this point. Fine. I can accept having husk-ified footsoldiers and husk-brained stevedores. But a husk-ified biochemist? Husk aerospace engineers?
Remember back in Mass Effect 1, Sovereign faced the problem where he couldn’t indoctrinate someone too fast, or it would make them a drooling zombie. It took time – perhaps decades – for him to make Saren his thrall. And even that was a troublesome project where Saren wasn’t quite as badassA lot of his apparent blunders in Mass Effect 1 can be attributed to his indoctrination. and he wasn’t perfectly loyal.
And yet we’re supposed to simply accept that TIM has – in the space of a couple of years – developed indoctrination technology that works better and more reliably than indoctrination personally administered by a Reaper? And TIM’s indoctrination works more than ten times faster? And can be applied to thousands of people at once? This idea is less plausible than any of the previous impossible to accept ideas.
Maybe they use automated factories?
If vast automated factoriesAlso: Even an automated factory needs parts, raw materials, maintenance, electricity, etc etc etc. are part of this universe, then why don’t the other races use them? Everyone else acts like building and maintaining warships is a big deal, so what makes it so easy for Cerberus?
The point is, the power of Cerberus relative to the other powers in the galaxy is unforgivably preposterous on every level.
This World Makes No Sense
Maybe you found the post on building TIM Island to be incredibly tedious. “Who cares how you build the ship? Just launch it and cut to the action!” But it’s all part of making a fictional universe that’s based on rules. We don’t know how your fictional universe works yet. Unless stated otherwise, we’re likely to assume it works like the real world, or like other fictional worlds in the same genre. If you want, you can absolutely make a universe where ten people can build an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. Just make up some science-magic and make it part of your world. Make sure the audience knows what the rules are.
The goal isn’t to make a perfectly simulated reality. The goal is just to establish the rules so the audience knows what can and can’t happen. Without rules, the world is just a child slamming their action figures into each other while making explosion noises. The problem isn’t that Cerberus is “too powerful”. The problem is that their power isn’t clearly defined or justified, it comes from nowhere, it changes abruptly between games without explanation, and it’s often portrayed and talked about in contradictory ways. They are as strong or as weak as the current scene requires. Cerberus isn’t properly integrated with this universe.
At one point one of the members of the Normandy’s crewThe woman standing guard beside the body-scanner loading screen thing. I was stupidly running around the ship without recording, and so I don’t have a screenshot of this line. says something to the effect of, “We can’t hit Cerberus back because Cerberus doesn’t have bases to attack”.
Cerberus can pump out ships, soldiers, and guns, yet they don’t have any vulnerable colonies or supply lines to attack. The Reapers never bother them. The entire galaxy is caught in this desperate war for survival. Nobody can get resources, supply lines are cut, and it’s hard to move around because of the Reaper Invasion. Except Cerberus, because the rules don’t apply to them.
This is not something the Mass Effect 1 writer would ever dream up. That thought experiment I did last week? That’s what worldbuilding looks like. You don’t have to design TIM Island if it’s not shown in the game, but you do have to allow for the fact that it exists somewhere in your universe. I know it’s sort of a joke how I always ask “What do they eat?”, but that’s really just a shorthand for this larger concept of building worlds with verisimilitude. The writer didn’t need to show us the massive infrastructure of Cerberus if they didn’t want to. They just needed to realize that it existed and allow that truth to shape their world.
A worldbuilder likes to think about how the universe works, where resources come from, how technology develops, what motivates people, and how they relate to each other. The Mass Effect 3 writer has no interest in that sort of storytelling or worldbuilding. This writer wanted us to shoot some space marines, so they sprinkled Cerberus mooks around and that was the end of them thinking about it.
Maybe you don’t care about worldbuilding. Maybe this is an irritating waste of time to you. But as someone who admires it, as someone who loves to explore ideas like this, jumping from a worldbuilding style of writing to a “drama first” style was infuriating. The vast majority of videogames and movies are built drama-first. This was one of the few exceptions. Seeing the whole wonderfully constructed universe dissolve into G.I. Joe vs. Cobra Commander was heartbreaking. When the writer claimed that Cerberus has fleets and armies but no bases, it was like watching public vandalism as performance art.
Heck, just a bit of remedial lampshading would go a long way to smoothing this out:
Cerberus is everywhere! How could The Illusive Man possibly have amassed forces this huge?
We don't know for sure. Alliance Command thinks that <EXCUSE A> but some of my intelligence contacts have suggested <EXCUSE B>.
Sure, it’s still a mess, but at least the writer would…
- …signal that this is still a universe based on rules, even if they seem to be breaking them right now.
- …avoid nailing things down with one excuse, and instead hedge their bets between multiple justifications.
- …show that “hero and bloody icon” Shepard can actually operate on a strategic and logistical level, and he’s more than just a really tough space marine.
- …protect immersion and raise our interest level by hinting that maybe this is a mystery that will be resolved later. (Even if it never is.)
But instead, people ignore how improbable the Cerberus power level is, while also making this power a major driving force in the story. Once again, the writer seems to never pass on an opportunity to do the wrongest thing possible.
All of this makes Cerberus a giant plot-hole factory. But that’s not really their worst sin. No, the big problem with these guys is that…
Cerberus is Boring
I get that The Illusive Man is just a big dumb crazy-man who wants powerAnd is sometimes indoctrinated, depending on what scenes you believe and which ones you ignore. Fine. I could wish for a more interesting enemy, but when the writers thought we wanted a more “interesting” enemy they gave us Kai LengSoon. Be patient., so I guess we should be grateful The Illusive Man is just dumb and shallow.
But the problem is that his organization doesn’t interact with the gameworld except to produce mooks for you to shoot. Sure, there’s some history in the codex, but it’s the kind of disconnected history that adds plot cruft without contributing anything to the rest of the world. Compare Cerberus to (say) the Krogan and the complicated chain of cause and effect that brought them onto the galactic stage and established all the relationships between the races.
In Mass Effect 1 we get a sense of how all the other races feel about each other and their place in the galaxy. How the Krogan feel about the Turians and the Salarians. How the Volus feel about the council races. How the Asari feel about Humanity. It all forms this complex web of politics and culture. But you can’t find Cerberus anywhere in there. Nobody talks about Cerberus. Here’s the biggest threat outside of the Reapers, and they don’t seem to have any impact on galactic politics, history, or culture. The writer has never put any meat on the bones of this organization.
Here’s the codex from the Mass Effect 2 wiki:
Immediately following the First Contact War, an anonymous extranet manifesto warned that an alien attempt at human genocide was inevitable. The manifesto called for an army – a Cerberus to guard against invasion through the Charon relay.
Derided as “survivalist rhetoric written by an illusive man”, the manifesto and its anonymous author soon fell off the media radar. But in 2165, terrorists stole antimatter from the SSV Geneva, the sole figure arrested named his sponsor “Cerberus”. Throughout the 2160s and 2170s, alleged Cerberus agents assassinated politicians, sabotaged starships bearing eezo, and conducted nightmarish experiments on aliens and humans. Denounced as human-supremacist, Cerberus calls itself human-survivalist.
Counterterror experts speculate Cerberus may have changed leadership with its recent shift to stockpiling ships, agents, and weapons. Whether “he”, “she”, or “they”, the Illusive Man hides his finances behind shell companies. Few doubt he will kill anyone attempting to expose him.
For one thing, Cerberus is a central part of this story, so stuffing all of their backstory and motivations into the codex is completely unreasonable. The codex is meant to augment your story, not replace it. But more importantly, none of that backstory means anything. You could re-write it to be some totally different origin without conflicting with what we see in the game at allAside: I could have sworn that in Mass Effect 1, it claimed Cerberus was an Alliance black ops unit that went rogue. Did I imagine that? I can’t find any mention of it in the wiki.. You could move their origin to twenty years ago. Claim they were started by an Alliance general. Maybe they were the remnants of an old political party on Earth. None of the events above tie into history and none of them tell us anything about their goals.
So what does the Cerberus rank-and-file believe in? The Cerberus peons you met on the Normandy in Mass Effect 2 were cheerful and positive and seemed like nice folks. Were they aware of the breadth and depth of cruelty Cerberus has inflicted on people? Do they see those actions as justified, or do they think it’s all Alliance propaganda? Jacob likes Cerberus for “getting things done”. Aside from fighting the Collectors, what things did he think needed to be done? Presumably not a single thing we see them do in the game. Did he know about that stuff?
When Miranda claimed Jack’s childhood torture was the work of a “rogue cell” is the writer trying to say this is actually the case, or is the writer trying to show that Miranda is delusional? Before the Collectors arrived, what was the big cause at Cerberus that got her excited? Is she even aware of the sheer number of atrocities her organization has perpetrated?
What does the average Cerberus mook want to see in the future? Humans isolated from aliens? Humans ruling over aliens in a meritocracy sense? Ruling over them in a “British Empire in Space” sense? Ruling over them in a “Sith Empire” sense, with the aliens reduced to slaves? Or maybe just exterminating them? Are there disagreements and factions within Cerberus? Any religion? It’s clear that most Cerberus personnel are volunteers before the events of Mass Effect 3. So what makes people join Cerberus in the first place? How does the average human C-Sec officer feel about Cerberus? Secretly cheer them on? An embarrassment? An outrage?
None of the Cerberus people we meet espouse any worldview that would justify joining up with this army of murder-clowns. The writer keeps pushing Cerberus further into the spotlight, but they have no interest in characterizing the organization or showing how they tie into the existing galaxy. Once again, it’s a lack of worldbuilding.
Like I said above: Sure, you could justify Cerberus power and technology with space-magic. But there’s no reason for the audience to give the writer the benefit of the doubt and even less reason for them to try and repair this mess with their own headcanon.
Cerberus is Thematically Wrong
Sometimes the author pretends that Cerberus is a secret, and sometimes Cerberus is an infamous terrorist organization guilty of war crimes. Sometimes Cerberus is a clandestine organization and then later they’re a galactic superpower. Sometimes they’re the only people working for humanity’s interests, and sometimes they’re space Nazis. Sometimes they cure death and sometimes they’re killed by science so bad it wouldn’t be out of place as a Doofenshmirtz plot. They’re a terrorist organization with no clear ideology. They’re a standing army with no means of support.
Putting Cerberus into this universe is like putting a Bond villain in a Tom Clancy techno-thrillerTo be fair, plenty of late-period Clancy ghostwriters did exactly that, which is one of the reasons I lost interest in the genre.. That’s great if you happen to like bombastic, over-the-top action, but ruinous if you were reading because you liked the depth and attention to detail. Except, Cerberus isn’t even a good Bond villain. They’re flat and boring and draw precious screen time from the main event, which is the conflict against the Reapers.
The first game set us up for a story about exploring strange far-flung worlds, meeting aliens, and fighting aliens. Now here at the end we’re fighting to save humans on Earth from humans in spaceAnd also the Reapers, when they can be bothered to show up.. This is thematically a different sort of story with a different appeal. Imagine if the last couple of Harry Potter books had a major story arc going on where Harry took a break from opposing Voldemort so he could fight a drug-dealing biker gang in muggle world. Sure, you can make a good story about fighting biker gangs, but that’s not what the Harry Potter audience is here for.
So even if you fixed the myriad of plot holes orbiting Cerberus, you’re still left with a vague villain with no worldbuilding. And if you fixed that, you still have a shallow villain that runs on crazy and doesn’t have anything interesting to say about life in the galaxy. And even if you ignore that, Cerberus is the wrong kind of villain for this style of story.
 Built by who?
 And to be fair, I think a Cerberus army is large enough to require millions of people back home.
 A lot of his apparent blunders in Mass Effect 1 can be attributed to his indoctrination.
 Also: Even an automated factory needs parts, raw materials, maintenance, electricity, etc etc etc.
 The woman standing guard beside the body-scanner loading screen thing. I was stupidly running around the ship without recording, and so I don’t have a screenshot of this line.
 And is sometimes indoctrinated, depending on what scenes you believe and which ones you ignore.
 Soon. Be patient.
 Aside: I could have sworn that in Mass Effect 1, it claimed Cerberus was an Alliance black ops unit that went rogue. Did I imagine that? I can’t find any mention of it in the wiki.
 To be fair, plenty of late-period Clancy ghostwriters did exactly that, which is one of the reasons I lost interest in the genre.
 And also the Reapers, when they can be bothered to show up.
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