on Feb 10, 2010
The Mass Effect Trilogy
One of the great things about planning to make a trilogy in advance is that you can design a coherent three-game story arc ahead of time. You don’t have to weld a series of self-contained stories together, but instead can weave the tales together elegantly. You can set up foreshadowing and plant characters that will pay off in later installments, and you don’t have to hide the seams between the games with a bunch of messy retcons and plot hacks.
The usual franchise works like this: At the end of the first game the hero becomes super-powerful, defeats the bad guy, gets the girl, and retires. Then the sequel has to take away his powers, eliminate the girl, and resurrect the bad guy so the hero can come out of retirement. A writer that is able to plan ahead will be able to wrap up story 1 without walling off story 2 like this.
When you plan ahead for a trilogy, then everything can be made to fit, and the three games together can end up greater than the sum of their parts. So many games are written as if each game will be the last, and knowing you have three games to tell your story is a rare and unique opportunity.
BioWare took this opportunity, and pissed it away with Mass Effect 2. The core story is a really small part of the game, which is good because it’s also the worst part of the game. Everything else is polished, engaging, and witty, while the central story features some of BioWare’s sloppiest plot-work in years.
The main plot of Mass Effect 2 not only fails to stand up to scrutiny, but it retroactively goes back and messes up parts of Mass Effect 1 which worked perfectly fine. It’s cheap, obvious, and tacked-on. It fails to exploit any of the great ideas set up in the original, and instead does a messy reboot and burns all of the bridges built by the first game. The only thing it keeps is the idea that “Reapers are coming from beyond known space to kill us all”. But it even screws that up, because it takes the very small number of things we know about Reapers and changes them for no good reason.
But what’s interesting is that this mess is carefully (perhaps even deliberately) quarantined, and the rest of the game is much more satisfying. Furthermore, the plot holes, while numerous, are all spiderweb cracks radiating out from two problem areas:
1) The first ten minutes of the game.
2) The last ten minutes of the game.
I’m going to go over the plot in detail, but I want to stress that I don’t think that BioWare has suddenly let a crayon-wielding imbecile write their games. This is something else.
I’ll talk more about this later.
From here on are heavy spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.
The game starts with the Collectors destroying the Normandy and killing off commander Shepard.
You could argue that this was how they introduced the New Threat, but they already had a dire threat which was already firmly established as an insurmountable foe. One lone Reaper was nearly a match for the entire Citadel fleet, and it was hinted that there are limitless numbers of them lurking somewhere out there.
The game then has the terrorist organization Cerberus bring Commander Shepard back from the dead because they recognized that he was the only one who could save humanity from the Reaper threat. This is the first giveaway that nobody was trying to make the games fit together. Cerberus in the first game was unambiguously evil and ruthless and it was never demonstrated that they had any goals besides the acquisition of power. (They claimed to be pro-human, but they arguably killed more humans than the bad guys. Never once were we shown how Cerberus was helping humans.) Shepard was their chief nemesis. Cerberus in Mass Effect 2 presents itself as a group with noble intentions and questionable methods. If they had planned on having us work for Cerberus in part two, they could have set things up for us in part one so this felt like a twist and not a rewrite. The Cerberus missions you foiled in the first game could have been part of an overarching scheme that is revealed at the start of the second game. There are so many interesting things they could have done with this. They could have connected the dots and shown how Cerberus weren’t as bad as they seemed.
Instead, they simply shoved you into service of Cerberus and then threw in a few dialog options to let you bitch about it in petty, non-specific ways.
Why did they need to reboot the story by killing and reviving Shepard? This is something you should only do if you’ve been painted into a corner. But Mass Effect 1 left plenty of wiggle room to put Shepard into whatever situation they needed. When you’re planning to write a three-game trilogy, scene one of Act II should not begin with “start over”. This is particularly frustrating when, after the messy reboot, they have to come up with a bunch of contrivances to put nearly everything back where it was!
1) Your entire body is pulverized, but they bring you back exactly as you were before.
2) Your ship is destroyed, but they build you a new one that’s very similar and then give it the same name. (Except the new one has the CERBERUS LOGO stenciled on the side, which is a bit odd for a super-secret shadow organization. Somehow this doesn’t cause constant problems for you every time you try to dock somewhere civilized.)
3) You’re declared dead, but when you show up again the Alliance accepts you and your new career working for their enemy.
4) All of your original crew resign the Alliance and (on their own, apparently) join up with this terrorist organization. They seem to do so without knowing ahead of time that they will end up working for you again on a copy of the original ship. Apparently your entire crew was teetering on the edge of treason at the end of the last game? (Really. Dr. Chakwas’ excuse for signing up with Cerberus is that she missed space travel. She signed up with one of the most ruthless organizations in the galaxy – an organization that you had fought many times in the first game – because that was the only way she could think of to get back into space!?!) So by the time you take command of the new Normandy, everyone is already waiting for you.
So after all of this vandalism to the original plot and characters, we end up almost exactly back where we were at the end of game 1, with the same ship, same crew, same setup. The only thing different is who we’re working for. Which brings us to…
The Illusive Man
“Illusive Man”. Really BioWare? (Keep in mind this universe already has a character named “Shadow Broker”.)
Exhibit B in the case that nobody bothered to plan ahead: Nowhere in game 1 does anyone refer to the Illusive Man. You are sent to meet him a few minutes into the game. If the first game had been seeded with allusions to this guy, this could have been a mind-blowing moment. “Woah! I’m going to get to meet the Illusive Man?!?” Instead I was like, “Who?”
In the recruitment dialog, you’re never given the chance to confront him about any of the past crimes of his organization or give him a chance to tell you his side of the story. Note that if you have the “Sole Survivor” background, then Cerberus is responsible for the life-changing backstory events that led to you undergoing severe physical and mental trauma and killed your entire unit. You can’t even bring this up during your chat with Illusive Man. In return, he never brings up any of the plans of his that you wrecked in the first game. He never tries to change your mind about Cerberus.
In fact, you can’t really say anything of value to him. Your only dialog options are halfhearted resignation or Luke Skywalker-level, “I’ll never join you!” bravado. The latter is particularly risible since, by the end of the conversation, you’ve done exactly that.
Building Your Team
Once the game is done messing up your backstory, the characters, and the setting itself, it cuts you loose to recruit your team. And then Mass Effect 2 becomes completely awesome. Once the introduction is out of the way, you start collecting teammates and seeing their interesting stories. This is where you will spend a majority of the game. Assuming you recruit all the characters and do all of their personal missions, you’ll spend 75% of the game on the fun missions and only 25% on the annoyingly porous story.
But we’ll talk about the good stuff later.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.