Now we have a big block of cutscenes to try and wrangle this open, player-directed adventure into a conventional three-act story structure. Shepard has the fight with Saren, Kashley snuffs it, and the Normandy flies away from Saren’s base as the whole thing goes nuclear.
Assuming you’ve visited all the planets now, you do one final mind-meld with Liara, and the vision reveals that the conduit is on the planet Ilos.
Race Against Time
Annoyingly, you’re locked into the endgame here. When you interact with the starmap the game simply triggers a cutscene taking you back to the Citadel. On one hand, we’ve just gone through a big emotional turning point and it would make no sense at all to suck the tension out of the story by wandering around the galaxy. On the other hand… BUT WHAT ABOUT MY SIIIIIIIIIDE QUESTS?
Here we have the inescapable tension between the needs of a story and the needs of an open(ish) RPG. Some people are put off by the fact that the main quest in this game is titled “Race Against Time” when you’re actually free – encouraged, even – to screw around doing odd jobs for random peasants. Other people are put off anytime the game pushes the main story forward before they’re ready.
There’s no way around this, really. If the game doesn’t push hard enough some people feel indifferent and directionless. If it pushes too hard they resent it, or end up skipping side content out of fear that something “bad” will happen in the story. That actually happens in Mass Effect 2, where doing too many sidequests after the big turning point will result in a bunch of people getting killed. This annoyed the other group of people, who felt that there was an unspoken agreement between the game and the player that time shouldn’t matter outside of missions.
I think either way is fine, as long as the player understands the rules. The problem is that it’s really hard to convey these rules because they come completely from outside the gameworld.
The Normandy is Grounded
Shepard flies back to the Citadel to meet with the council. It turns out they still don’t believe him about the Reapers.
We know where Saren is, we know he’s looking for something called “the conduit”, and that it’s on Ilos. Up until now we’ve been assuming it’s a weaponI guess nobody on the team thought to look up the word “conduit” in the dictionary? and that Saren is going to get it to use against the Citadel. The council doesn’t want to send ships into the Terminus systems to look for Saren and end up provoking a war. The old problem of “an enemy agent is hiding in the region controlled by a rival nation” should sound pretty familiar to anyone who’s followed geopolitics recently. (Or ever.)
Shepard doesn’t like this, so he throws a tantrum in front of the three most powerful politicians in the galaxy and the Normandy is grounded.
Looking at it from the council’s point of view: I have to say they have a point. They don’t know what conduit is. None of the good guys do. As far as anyone knows, Saren would have to assault the Citadel directly, and their fleets are camping the mass relays. Given what they know, this isn’t an unreasonable course of action.
On the other hand, their steadfast refusal to even entertain the Reapers as a possibility is starting to wear a little thin. It’s not like there’s a shortage of crazy stuff in this universe. Saren has the largest “ship” in the galaxy and it has demonstrated abilities far beyond anything the council races can achieve. Even if they’re incredulous about the whole idea of “ancient machine gods throw a 50,000 year extinction party”, they ought to be pretty freaked out about this massive new military threat. Whether they believe in Reapers or not, they still ought to be worried about where this ship came from, who made it, and if there are any others like it out there. The argument between Shepard and the council creates this false dichotomy: Either the REAPERS ARE REAL AND COMING TO KILL US, or this is no big deal.
So while I think their actions make sense, their attitude towards the danger is a little unreasonable. It would make more sense if they wanted you (or someone else) to track down where and how this “ship” was made.
Udina goes along with this, and the story plays it off like a betrayal. It’s clear we’re supposed to hate Udina. His character design and his delivery are dripping with scheming villainy. But in-universe, the known facts are on his side. Poking around deep in the Terminus systems would be provocative and risky, and as far as anyone knows there’s no reason to take that risk. Shepard even says, “If Saren finds the conduit we’re all screwed!” Like the trial at the start of the game, his arguments are all passion and no substance. Nobody knows what the conduit is or what it does, so there’s no reason to expect that the blockade won’t work.
Basically, Udina didn’t need to be a bad guy for this scene to work, and I would have liked it more if the story had given him more depth. In the next scene Anderson punches him out, and it’s clear this is supposed to be an act of catharsis for the audience.
I’d rather they had dialed back on the slimy politician angle and painted him as a smart man playing a difficult game against the other races. I like the idea of Udina as a calculating and pragmatic politician playing realpolitik against the vastly more powerful and experienced members of the council. I like this so much more than making him some creep who just wants power. I think he is (or would be) a lot more interesting as a foil than an adversary. Pritchard and Jensen had this kind of dynamic in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and it was probably the most interesting relationship in the game.
Regardless, Anderson unlocks the Normandy and you escape with your crew. If you’ve been romancing someone, then now is your last chance to do the deed with them, you naughty commander you.
And here we are. The Normandy arrives in Ilos and the story pulls the trigger on two Chekov’s Guns at once: The Normandy’s stealth systems and Joker’s superhuman piloting. Joker drops the Mako almost on Saren’s head, and you begin the mad dash to the conduit.
But first you have to run around and shoot dudes and open containers and push buttons, because this is still an RPG shooter and you don’t just let players saunter to the finish line in this genre.
This is my favorite environment in the game. We get our first solid look at Protheans, their art, and even a little of their culture.
Yeah, don’t let Mass Effect 2 and 3 confuse you. Here in the first game, these are clearly the Protheans:
Unless you’re going to suggest they made statues that looked nothing like themselves. And let’s not forget the vision of the Protheans the game keeps showing us, where we see this:
…which is clearly the same creature. And then we hear their VI’s speak, and they talk with a gentle, vaguely aristocratic tone.
But then in the latter games some dingbat decided that Human-sized
Jamaican Nigerian bug-men would be so much “cooler” than these design cues. And they decided that “coolness” was more important than consistency or delivering revelations that built on previous foreshadowing, so they chucked the Mass Effect 1 designs and never even bothered to put a lame, thought-about-it-for-ten-seconds excuse in the codex to explain this discrepancy.
This really bugged meNo pun intended., because you spent this entire game working to find out who the Protheans were and what they knew. I really felt like this planet was part of our reward for the long struggle, a major reveal of a long-kept secret. To have it carelessly erased or ignored by someone’s rule of cool approach to worldbuilding drove me crazy.
It would be grossly underselling it if I said this was my favorite part of the story. The conversation with Vigil the ancient Prothean VI is deeply satisfying. Hearing his long bitter tale about the end of a species is moving, and sets the stakes for the challenge ahead of you. But most of all I enjoy this part because this is where it all comes together.
I’m a big fan of sci-fi stories with an expositional payload. You can see it in a lot of Trek and Twilight Zone episodes. Asimov’s classic I, Robot was made almost entirely out of mysteries or puzzles that are unraveled at the end. “How could this robot kill people if its programming forbids it? Ah! It didn’t understand that this action would result in death! It all makes sense now!” The questions are answered. Inconsistencies are resolved or cancel each other out as the pieces of the puzzle snap together. We nod and breathe a sigh of relief. Ah yes. Of course! Of course, for this to work the payload has to be a satisfying answer. The author has to have established the rules and stuck to them.
Mass Effect isn’t a mystery, of course. But the game has presented us with some questions. What is Saren trying to do? What’s the conduit? What happened to the Protheans? What are the beacons? Where are the rest of the Reapers and are they about to invade us? What’s so special about these Prothean ruins on Ilos? These questions are all answered here, and a few new questions are introduced to keep us interested.
Fifty thousand years ago, the Reapers showed up to do That Thing They Do. But Ilos was a secret research center where a small group of Prothean scientists were working to figure out how the mass relays worked. Since it was a secret station, there were no records of it on the Citadel, so when the Reapers showed up and read everyone’s email, they didn’t find out about Ilos. So the researchers on Ilos quietly slipped underground and listened in on the radio as their civilization was systematically purged.
A few decades inBUT WHAT DID THEY EAT?!?!, they realized this was going to take a while. So they went into cryo-sleep and created the Vigil program to listen to the airwavesOr whatever they used to communicate. The beacons were never explained. and wake everyone up when the whole Reaper thing blew over.
Well, it turns out it takes a bloody long time to scour an entire galaxy of a particular species. Decades turned into centuries, and Vigil started running out of power. He cut all the systems he could, and then started shutting down cryo-pods, starting with the least essential people. By the time the Reapers finally left, they were down to a few dozen people and they realized they didn’t have the makings to re-create their galactic civilization. So they used the conduit to jump to the Citadel and sabotage the Keepers. The next time the Reaper alarm went off, the Citadel wouldn’t open up the mass relay into dark space. This would leave the Reapers trapped out there. Serves them right. Jerks.
Then the Protheans used the beacons one last timeAssuming there were any beacons left out there, which there were. Barely. to explain to any unlikely survivors what had happened and what they had done. These are the beacons Shepard has been running around interfacing with since the start of the game.
Every RPG fan has their favorite “storytime” moment from a game, where you stop the action and enjoy a bulk load of worldbuilding and character flavor. For some people it’s Cheif Hanlon in Fallout: New Vegas. Or Canderous in KOTOR. MorpheusThe AI prototype in Morgan Everet’s home. in Deus Ex. Dagoth-Ur in Morrowind.
For me, this conversation with Vigil is that favorite moment. We’ll talk more about Vigil next time.
 I guess nobody on the team thought to look up the word “conduit” in the dictionary?
 No pun intended.
 BUT WHAT DID THEY EAT?!?!
 Or whatever they used to communicate. The beacons were never explained.
 Assuming there were any beacons left out there, which there were. Barely.
 The AI prototype in Morgan Everet’s home.
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