Like I said last time, the conversation with Vigil is my favorite part of the game. That incredible music plays, you’ve got your two favorite companions with you, and Vigil lays it all out. He explains just how long the odds are, just how powerful the enemy is, but he also explains the little glimmer of hope you have.
As much as I love this section, you knew we weren’t getting through it without a little nitpicking, didn’t you? Let’s paraphrase / summarize this conversation:
So Vigil, what are the beacons and why do they show us these psychedelic visions of machine murder?
Those are our telephone system. The vision wasn’t clear because you’re not Prothean. But good on you, Shepard. You managed to get the gist of it.
What’s the deal with the Reapers? Why do they kill us meatbags every 50k years?
We don’t know either.
Why haven’t the Reapers invaded yet?
We sabotaged their ambush machine. It won’t stop them, but it has given you this fighting chance to get ready for them. I sure hope you don’t spend the entire next game dicking around with a secondary threat instead of working on this problem, because that would make you a monumental idiot. Good luck!
What’s the deal with Sovereign?
Sovereign probably stayed behind to keep an eye on the galaxy and wait until there was a society advanced enough to fully appreciate just how much it sucks to experience genocide on a galactic scale. But since we sabotaged the Keepers, when he rang the dinner bell the Keepers didn’t open the door to dark space. So all his Reaper buddies are probably still out there, napping.
What’s the deal with Saren?
The Reapers indoctrinate servants and use them to infiltrate the cultures they’re killing. Did I mention they’re assholes? They are patient and cautious. Rather than just brazenly assaulting the Citadel all by himself, Sovereign went around and indoctrinated some followers. Saren probably isn’t the only one, he’s just the most visible and active. Not trying to make you paranoid or anything, but, you know… heads up.
Okay so Saren was looking for the conduit. And he attacked Eden Prime to find it. But the purpose of the conduit is to give him access to the Citadel, so he could get to the Council chambers, since that’s where the controls for the station are. But, like… he was a Spectre. Why would he attack Eden Prime to gain access to a magic door that will let him enter a room that, presumably, he was already allowed in?
I don’t understand the question?
Why didn’t Saren just walk into the Council chambers and push the button? Why didn’t Saren just undo whatever the Protheans did to the Keepers, so Sovereign could go back to Plan A?
Those are great questions, Shepard. Good thing you never ask them in the game!
Conjecture on my part:
Saren could indeed walk up to that control panel, but he’d be doing it right in front of the Council, which is roughly the equivalent to walking into the office of the American President and thumbing through his big book of nuclear launch codes. It’s a safe bet that security would provide a spirited response. Saren is a badass, but presumably he’s not a match for all of C-Sec. So while he can walk into the chambers alone, what he needs is to walk in there with an army of Geth. And the only way to get that many Geth into the Citadel without starting a war is to use the conduit. Sovereign only gets one chance to poke this particular hornet’s nest, so he probably doesn’t want to take any chances. Beaming an army of Geth into the station is a lot like usual plan of popping Reapers in around the station. It’s got that sudden surprise invasion vibe that seems to appeal to Reaper sensibilities.
Saren’s plan does seem to have a few cracks in it like this. The difference between Saren and antagonists of the future is that Saren’s plans seem mysterious at first, and then only seem questionable once you know the full story and have time to let the fridge logic to settle in. This is different from adversaries in the subsequent game, who seem to do confusing or stupid things, which are then sort of half-justified if you read enough codex entries and selectively believe certain sub-section of the things the Illusive Man says. It’s the old gradient of plot holes at work again. No story is perfect, but the job of the storyteller is to avoid those plot holes that immediately launch you out of the story and require you to begin authoring your own headcanon to get back in.
Saying goodbye to Vigil, Shepard chases after Saren and drives the Mako through the conduit to land at the “statue” of the mass relay in the presidium. From there it’s a massive hike up the tower, while Sovereign looms on this new indoor horizon. The arms of the station have closed, hiding the nebula and the stars around the station. The new sky consists of the wards – the cities filled with the people Shepard is fighting to saveToo bad the textures are so painfully low-fi that it looks like a giant blurry circuit board. Alas..
It’s a long hike up the tower, fighting against the same two or three enemies you’ve been fighting for a majority of the game. The designers do what they can to keep it fresh by changing the terrain, but it still feels like BioWare’s standard mook-fest padding. It’s the classic late-game slog for which RPGs have become infamous. KOTOR, KOTOR II, all the Mass Effects, Neverwinter Nights 2, Fallout 3, Fallout New Vegas, Oblivion, Skyrim, and numerous others. Dragon Age: Origins subverted this by having their slog in the middle-ishAlthough if you ask me, I think the whole game was a bit of a slog. Don’t tell Josh I said that., and making the end-game mooks all low-level pushovers. There’s always a misguided attempt to increase the tension by loading us with combat, but for me it ends up sucking the drama out of the story. Changing Star Wars so that the final X-Wing dogfight was an hour longNote to George Lucas: THIS IS NOT A SUGGESTION. would not make the payoff at the end bigger.
Ideally, I think it would be best to design things so that the section from Ilos to the closing credits should all fit in the average game session. In any case, whatever happened to the Fallout 1 idea of using disguises, bullshit, and subterfuge to avoid all that combat? I’m not saying they needed to do that here, I’m just saying I wish somebody was still doing that sort of thing now and again.
At the top of the tower Shepard has a fight with Saren – right in the council chambers where the two of them debated at the start of the game. If you’ve been investing in Paragade, then Shepard can even convince Saren of just how lost he is, so that he can find redemption through suicide. Regardless of which gun kills him – Shepard’s or his own – once he’s down Shepard opens the arms of the station so the fleet can get at Sovereign. We get an epic space battle and we get to see the Normandy spearhead the attack. Sovereign blows up like the Death Star. A chunk of Sovereign comes in the window and seems to crush Shepard’s team.
But no! Music swells, and Shepard emerges, injured but strong, standing atop the carcass of the slain Reaper! He’s backlit, and everyone else is looking up at him.
Is it a bit hokey? Yes. But it works. It’s far too early to begin the long autopsy of the Mass Effect 3 ending, but I want to peek ahead for just a moment so we can compare how the two games handled their big “moment of truth” finale, at least in cinematic terms. Let’s compare this staging to the same scene at the end of Mass Effect 3.
Here in Mass Effect 1, the author had already established the locations of the tower and Sovereign. They placed the control panel in the council chambers, which placed the final shootout between Shepard and Saren in the same room. So when the writer wanted Shepard to symbolically stand on top of a dead Reaper, at the seat of galactic power, they didn’t have to contrive a way to move those plot elements together, because the earlier parts of the story – going all the way back to the first hour of the game – had carefully laid the groundwork for this. Instead of feeling forced, it feels inevitable. Of course! It had to end here, like this.
In Mass Effect 3, the Citadel isn’t immediately invaded in the initial wave, even though that’s Standard Reaper procedure. Then when they do finally invade the Citadel, they move it into Earth orbit, which isn’t something we knew it could do and which doesn’t really fit very well with what we already learned about them from Vigil. It looks like Shepard is standing in space without a helmet and without an explanation, and while there’s a huge space battle in the background we’re disconnected from it.
The ME3 writer crudely shoves the plot elements into position and proclaims, There! NOW FEEL STRONG EMOTIONS ABOUT THIS!” If they’re feeling generous they might shove a half-assed justification into the codex to shut up the whiners. It’s very brute-force, and so when Shepard is talking to the Star Child with the ruins of the Earth in the background, it doesn’t feel like a natural culmination of everything that came before, it feels like a clumsy and heavy-handed attempt at being profound in the most banal way possible.
The end of Mass Effect 1 shows that details-first stories can have drama too. They can have iconic imagery, symbolism, foreshadowing, irony, and catharsis. They can have heroic poses and blunt, on-the-nose camera framing. They can have cliché situations and musical cues. They just have to do their homework first. They have to plan ahead. They have to earn it.
We’re not quite done with Mass Effect yet. We’re going to talk about the ending for a couple more entries before we move on to Mass Effect 2.
 Too bad the textures are so painfully low-fi that it looks like a giant blurry circuit board. Alas.
 Although if you ask me, I think the whole game was a bit of a slog. Don’t tell Josh I said that.
 Note to George Lucas: THIS IS NOT A SUGGESTION.
The Best of 2013
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2013.
Good to be the King?
Which would you rather be: A king in the middle ages, or a lower-income laborer in the 21st century?
The Witch Watch
My first REAL published book, about a guy who comes back from the dead due to a misunderstanding.
A Telltale Autopsy
What lessons can we learn from the abrupt demise of this once-impressive games studio?
Batman v. Superman Wasn't All Bad
It's not a good movie, but it was made with good intentions and if you look closely you can find a few interesting ideas.