So the player is finally cut loose. They have their ship, their pilot, a new boss who is either boring or irritating, and a list of people to round up for an ultimate goal that hasn’t been explained yet. The returning Mass Effect 1 player is naturally going to want to return to the Alliance and the Spectres to continue what they started in the first game. And so they go to…
Anderson says the Alliance can’t help you because you’re working with Cerberus, so you have to work with Cerberus because the Alliance won’t work with you. The writer placed Shepard into this thematically wrong situation and they can’t give us a better justification than circular reasoning.
The Council won’t meet with you for some hand-wavy political reasons, depending on whether you saved them or left them to die at the end of the first game. I’m okay with that, although it clashes with the “You’re a hero and a bloody icon” idea the game is attempting to sell. If Shepard is such a valuable beacon and leader that he’s worth bringing back from the dead, then why isn’t anyone willing to listen to him?
But whatever. The point is: While I can accept that the Council refuses to meet with you in person, it’s ridiculous that they wouldn’t be willing to send a representative to meet you in secret. You guys don’t want any Cerberus intel? You don’t want a tour of my new super-ship? You don’t care what I’m doing? Nothing?
Note that this isn’t a “plot hole” in the sense of being impossible. You can devise all sorts of excuses or theories for how the universe got into this shape. The problem is that betraying Cerberus – or simply working for the Alliance either overtly or covertly – is something many players will want to do. It’s something that it seems like it should be possible. The problem isn’t that we can’t do it, the problem is that we can’t explore it. If the writer wants to wall off some area of possibility space, then they need to spend some time answering reasonable, “But why can’t I do X?” type questions.
It’s like a game where your character really needs a cup of coffee, so you go to the diner and discover that none of the dialog options will allow you to order a coffee. “Maybe they’re out of coffee!” is the reflexive apologist excuse. And if that reality was reflected in the dialog I wouldn’t find this scenario so frustrating.
I can understand that you can’t allow for every single possible player desire. Shepard can’t become a space pirate with Jack. He can’t become an assassin with Thane. He can’t romance Barla Von and he can’t set up his own upscale curio shop selling erotic Asari soap carvings in the presidium. That’s fine. But this isn’t some exotic idea that only a few players would want. Working for the Alliance (or working as a Spectre) are a natural continuation of the ideas of the first game. It’s something that lots of returning players really wanted (and expected!) to do. The writer doesn’t have to let them do it, but they do need to deal with and explain this new state of affairs. They need to satisfy the player’s curiosity and objections with sound reasoning. But this writer wants to solve all their problems with a sledgehammer that has “BECAUSE I SAID SO!” embossed on the face.
Shepard does the first batch of recruitment missions and then TIM calls him up and forces the next story mission:
TIM sends Shepard to the Human colony of Horizon, saying he believes there’s a collector attack in progress. At the start of the mission, Shepard comes to Mordin and asks if he has a way to avoid being paralyzed by the collectors. The camera cuts to an isolation box showing a collector bug, and Mordin says, “Yes!”
What? Mordin joined the team long after Freedom’s Progress. And you never go back there. How could he have possibly obtained this sample? Do the Collectors leave evidence behind or not?
In a details-based universe, this is simply not good enough. Heck, in any universe this isn’t good enough. “Oh no we have an insurmountable problem oh wait nevermind it’s over” is not storytelling. The writer couldn’t even be bothered to give us some lazy technobabble. The story has already established that the collectors leave no trace, which presented this obstacle where we knew they were capable of some kind of mass-paralysis, but we didn’t know how it worked or how to defend against it. The story then resolved this difficulty entirely off-screen, without comment, and without Mordin even leaving his lab. Mordin might as well have put on a wizard hat and cast “Mordenkainen’s Magical Bug Repellant” on the party.
There’s a cutscene where we see Kashley is here on Horizon. Apparently the Alliance finally sent some forces to help these colonists, which means they aren’t apathetic and impotent after all. Except, they sent exactly one soldier and some broken guns, which means they really, really are.
The earlier conversation with Anderson made it clear that, “Those people went out there to get away from the Alliance.” And now the Alliance is here.
Look, you can absolutely make a game about human colonists that have effectively seceded from the human government and then need their help. That’s a great concept for a plot. But the game refuses to explain what’s going on, why the colonists dislike the Alliance, what events caused this dispute, or how the two sides feel about each other now. This is one of the driving forces of the plot and the writer simply refuses to explain any of it. Which, fine. You want to make a popcorn game that hand-waves all that boring worldbuilding bullshit and focuses on style and action. Then just pick some excuse and stick with it. It shouldn’t be hard to keep your facts straight when you have so few.
But no. The Alliance can’t help the colonists except they are. Sort of. The Collectors never leave any evidence except they do. Somehow. Shepard is a hero and an icon except he’s not. This story manages to somehow be both vague and contradictory.
Note how stingy the game is with dialog here. In Samara’s optional loyalty mission, we get numerous long conversations with topics to explore, and several short conversations with side-characters. Here on HorizonFun fact: This was written while New Horizons was doing its flyby of Pluto. I was literally tabbing between NASA and Google Docs for a whole evening. Which means I kept typing “New Horizons” instead of “Horizon” all through this article. I THINK I fixed them all. – one of the small number of core missions – we have exactly two conversations, and they’re both ridiculous and awful. If they wanted, the writer could have contrived any number of people for us to bump into. Perhaps someone was hiding inside a cargo container right where your team touches down. Maybe all the people in stasis are set free when the collectors blast off. Maybe you find a way to free someone from stasis as you move through the colony. This would have been an ideal time to allow us to feel some kind of emotional connection with these colonies. It could have been used to give some exposition, or to patch over some of the cracks in the story.
Meet Joe Colonist
Instead, we meet exactly one person from the colony. He’s a rude, unreasonable dim bulb who wanders in, complains at you, and you respond with a binary answer that doesn’t matter. This entire game is about saving colonists from Collectors, and this one guy is the only one we meet. In a story sense, he represents everything we’re fighting for. He blames your squad of three people for letting the colony be kidnapped by an army, and then he wanders off alone to pout when you point out he’s being a butthead. Also, he gets the last word in, thus maximizing how irritating he is.
Like I said before, the writer was so enamored of the idea of making this game all about saving Human colonies instead of the galaxy, but they couldn’t be bothered to characterize those humans. We’re supposed to care about humans that the writer doesn’t care about.
If this had been Mass Effect 1, then this mission would have been bookended by conversations with a half-dozen peasants designed to represent the colony as a whole. They would tell us their story, and through those stories we’d come to care about their plight and want to fight for them. It would also double as some world-building where the author could patch over their hasty retcons.
Some examples, in the BioWare style:
“They warned us that the Alliance was stretched thin and wouldn’t be able to help us. That sounded pretty good at the time. Don’t tell [Kaiden / Ashley], but I might have kinda left the service before my contract was over. (Looks down, rubs back of neck awkwardly.) But now? These aliens are crazy! I’ll take my chances with Alliance MPs any day.”
“I came out here because I wanted to escape the big cities and crowding back home. I thought country life would suit me. Never thought I’d see anything like this.”
“The only reason I came out here was to work off my debt to ExoGeni. Forget that. If they want their money they can hire a bounty hunter. I’m outta here on the next shuttle. Was never much of a farmer anyway.”
“I came to this colony with my husband Jon. He was so angry at the Alliance for compromising human interests all the time. He insisted we would be better off on our own. Now he’s… (sobs)”
That’s all we need. It’s not hard. I did that in five minutes, and I’m sure a more experienced writer with a proper supply of time could do quite a bit better. Just put a face on the tragedy.
Earlier in the series I sort of forgave the game for not putting these kind of peasants into a lot of the side missions because there are so many missions, and you have to make compromises someplace. But here their omission is disgraceful. There’s supposedly half a colony worth of people left, but Shepard never sees – much less talks to – any of them. Kashley never expresses concern for them during his/her conversation with us.
Catharsis comes from Characters
Let’s back up and talk about Samara’s loyalty mission again.
Samara wants to capture Morinth, her psionic serial killer daughter, and she wants Shepard to act as bait. During the mission you visit the home of the most recent victim, Nef. You listen to some audiologs that show the arc of Nef’s relationship with Morinth. You see early excitement turn to infatuation, and you realize the strength of Morinth’s mental manipulation. We see what Nef wanted in life, what she valued, and how those perfectly normal desires became a weakness that her killer exploited.
But it’s kind of impersonal to see the victim this way, so the writer also has you meet Nef’s mother. Momma Nef is distraught and confused over what has happened to Nef. She doesn’t understand.
The audiologs telegraph Morinth’s power, and the chat with momma drives home the horrible, heartbreaking cost of her killing spree. Once you go through both of those, the game sends you to the club to meet her in person, and from there back to her apartment where she’s planning to flay your mind.
Now imagine that entire quest without without meeting momma and without hearing from Nef. You’d be tracking down a criminal you know nothing about (aside from her powers and her body count) to avenge the death of a victim you know nothing about.
Yes, the confrontation with Morinth is a powerful, tense, and exciting moment. And it’s cathartic and sad when it’s resolved. But this moment only works because the previous scenes made it possible.
Everything is Backwards
How is it that Nef – a deceased character we never personally meet, from a completely optional sidequest – is more thoroughly and carefully humanized and characterized than the supposedly thousands of colonists at the center of the conflict in this game?
I’d love to know why the quality in this game is so backwards. This main story represents the worst plot work BioWare had done up to that pointThat I’ve played., and yet the character missions still stand as some of the finest work in the history of the studio. The main story is vague, filled with glaring contrivances, and packed with plot holes. The dialog is atrocious and the player choices barely exist. Why is the main story so amateurish and so unlike previous BioWare stories in tone and style? This is like a movie where the principal director was Uwe Boll but the second unit footage came from Stanley Kubrick. It’s baffling.
This is why I keep referring to the Mass Effect 2 writer as a single person. It’s clear they aren’t, but it would be impossible to get through this series without it turning into a crime scene where we try to answer the question “Who killed Mass Effect?”
We’re not quite done on Horizon yet. Next time we’ll catch up with Kashley and talk a bit about our new Reaper.
 Fun fact: This was written while New Horizons was doing its flyby of Pluto. I was literally tabbing between NASA and Google Docs for a whole evening. Which means I kept typing “New Horizons” instead of “Horizon” all through this article. I THINK I fixed them all.
 That I’ve played.
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90 thoughts on “Mass Effect Retrospective 25: Horizon”
I think it’s the same explanation as the one for the story in Dragon Age 2: the main story isn’t the point of the game. In ME2, it’s the companions that are the main focus and the main plot is just the excuse to get you to the cool companions. In Dragon Age 2, it’s the personal story that’s the focus, and the main plot is just there to give you a background to work against. So why are the main stories so bad? Because no one cared about them, and so no one really focused on making them work. It’s “Slap them together and if it reasonably works, that’s good enough. We need more time to build out Mordin’s side conversations”.
ME3 is where they decided to try to do both. They … didn’t succeed, but they did indeed try.
The problem in DA2 is that there are three separate “main stories” (separated by time jumps) and only the first and third have ANYTHING to do with each other. The entire middle third is off in its own room somewhere. It’s a cool third, but it has no reason to be there and it throws everything into confusion.
I didn’t care enough about the main plot in any of the thirds, really, to notice that. The plot works well enough as background events, but that’s all they really are up until the end, and even then the best parts of them are what impacts me personally, not anything in the broader scope.
If you had to pick a theme for DA2 “Religion vs. Public Policy” would be a solid one. And in that frame, Part 2 makes total sense. A logical, fair handed leader makes a fanatic’s decision out of obligation to the tenants of his belief system, knowing what it could (and does) cost his people.
Meanwhile, the religions (belief systems) of the Templars vs Mages clash the entire game long. Mages care about developing their relationship with the Fade and their powers, and see restrictions on that as basically restraints on the sense of being. Templars consider Mages an irrational sort of-diseased (disabled for the more moderate Templars) group that has the potential to go off like a bomb at any moment. Throughout the game, both sides make decisions based on “this side is ALL like this” that only increases the opposing side’s slanted view. So the Mages refuse to consult with the Templars because “they’re all bullies who want to mindwipe us or kill us” and the Templars regard unsanctioned activity as proof that “they can’t be controlled and have to be destroyed.” Meanwhile, the policy makers fail to appreciate how strong these beliefs are becoming until it’s too late.
That kind of got away from me, but hopefully that’s interesting in some way.
I think that DA2 would have been much better suited as a DLC package, call it Stories from Kirkwall split the three acts up, and charge like $15 bucks for each, and people would have in my minds eye happier with it.
No, then each act would have been criticized as abruptly ending and incomplete. It works well as a three part game because you get to see things change. Your party goes from starving waifs to the respected Major Players in the city. People develop relationships or change from what happened in prior parts. If the budget was better, the map probably would have noticeably changed as well.
I think this criticism overlooks the root causes that led these acts to be so disparate, which also serves as a great hook to my thoughts on this conversation as a whole. I think I can see how these game got their greatest flaws.
DA2 and ME2 were the biggest, most ambitious projects Bioware had attempted at the time, and trying to keep these bloated projects organized an unified was simply not a challenge they were fully prepared for. Those ballooning budgets of EA cash meant more staff, which meant more people who needed to be kept in the loop on every decision.
By breaking the game up into a crude facsimile of the Three Act Structure, they could have different parts of the team working on different parts of the game in parallel. you establish a general outline of the situation in each act, and let people develop content that goes in front of that backdrop. You only need a rough outline of the scenes that connect the acts, to get started.
The problem is that making changes to those connecting scenes is the only thing that requires buy-in from both teams. As the hardest thing to do, it’ll naturally get put off until last. As delays pile up and the deadline looms, the last thing you do is the thing you never do.
Nobody ever went back and took the time to polish up the beginning and ending of each act. You know— the most important part of every story.
It’s a natural, logical consequence of the way we make games, but it’s utterly unthinkable for any other artistic medium for stories, to ever tolerate such inanity. How long would a TV series survive if the stand-alone episodes were okay, but the season finales, season premieres and mid season twists were always bland, uninspired, and underfunded.
Yup, pretty much. Bioware really does seem to have a thing for falling into episodic structure and that might be something that lends itself to modern triple A games if they’d just embrace it. Ditch the main story and just focus on giving us these episodes that explore the world and their characters from all different angles and maybe have a big event at the end of the “season”. I’m not saying do it as a game released in episodic installments (though they could and that might be more satisfying than a lot of what people are doing with episodes). I’d love to play a game where I essentially got 8 good short stories and could experience each with an evening or two of solid play. I guess some games do that while still delivering an overarching plot but in Bioware’s case, making that their focus might serve them well.
But I would love to hear your further thoughts on that.
The problem with this method is that it is difficult to market. The Episodic nature of events in DA2 are great for storytelling and getting to know the characters, but it doesn’t sell games and fans don’t like being lied to by marketing (sometimes vehemently). Dragon Age 2’s greatest mistake was title: It wasn’t a direct sequel to Dragon Age: Origins, both in story and gameplay, but many people expected it to be.
We’ve only recently seen success with episodic large games, like the Telltale series’ adventures (which, I would argue, are not AAA titles), and it’s difficult for the public to swallow experiences that aren’t grounded by some overarching plot.
Consider that Movie Trailers Spoil Their Content Because Fans Want Them To. It’s the same with games. When you have spending money for one major game in the next few months, you’re probably going to buy the one with the most hype or the one you’ve previously invested in with the story. Betraying the customer’s trust through promising a satisfying overarching story but delivering an episodic experience (yet still fun) experience can distance the developer from their fans (which is a big reason why ME3 is so hated).
ME2 gets away with a lot because the plot is so easy to ignore and the character missions are so intertwined with the universe, and the suicide mission is an expertly crafted conclusion to all the work the player put into those character missions. The ending of the game is a satisfying one from a gameplay perspective, even if it doesn’t make any sense from a storytelling one.
Trying to shift their games into wholly episodic missions would leave fans wondering, “Well, what happened to the Reaper threat?!”
I actually hope Andromeda doesn’t go this route, but it looks like it is with the rumors that have cropped up. I like strong overarching stories and I like the universe-building character missions. I want all of it one package.
I actually liked the story in DA2. It was a refreshing change of pace from the traditional “something really evil is going to destroy everything” trope that pretty much every other fantasy type game follows.
I’d argue that the problems with DA2 were:
Reused graphical assets
Too much railroading
The second one didn’t bug me as much as it should have, and I’ve always had a fairly high tolerance for railroad plots (even though I prefer more choice) but the reused cave graphic was infuriating.
DA2 is my favorite of the Dragon age games, but I will readily admit that it is not the best one of them because of those faults (as well as a few story moments that don’t work well). I really wish we got the chance to see what the game could have been if it had even just another year of development time.
DA2’s main plot is MUCH better than ME2’s. There is absolutely nothing wrong with DA2 that another 6-10 months of development time couldn’t have fixed. There’s nothing fundamentally broken about it, it’s just a little experimental and very rushed. ME2, by contrast, is, as Shamus has been pointing out in extended detail, structurally flawed at every level of it’s central story.
DA2 isn’t disjointed and uneven because no one cared, it’s because they had no time – the game was made from start to finish in barely over a year, and it’s got better than 3/4 of the volume of content that it’s predecessor did – which took 7 times as long to make. Frankly it’s amazing it isn’t far more of a mess than it is.
I agree. But as a main plot, it’s massively deficient. It works reasonably well, actually, as a framing plot, except they tried to treat it like a main plot at the very end, and tried to use it as the jumping off plot to the main plot of Inquisition. This is where it goes bad, and I’m not convinced that that is just because of time issues. If they thought that the main plot was critical, then they would have focused on that and left the character stories and your own personal story lackluster. They didn’t. To me, this suggests that the personal and character aspects were what they cared most about, which is why the main plot ended up being lackluster instead.
DA2’s story worked better as a framing story and even as the plot of a second story, but they didn’t stick it, I think in part because they didn’t commit to it as a personal story (the timeframe might have had an impact on this). ME2 committed, in my opinion, to having a plot that served as nothing more than an excuse to engage in character stories, but that meant the plot was even more lackluster. The main reason I think I’m personally bothered more by DA2’s plot than ME2’s is that it’s trivially easy for me to completely ignore ME2’s plot while it’s harder to do that for DA2’s, so I notice DA2’s failings more.
But I stand by the idea that, at the end of the day, the problem with the main plot in both ME2 and DA2 is that, for whatever reason, the main plots were given much less importance and cared about far less than the character and personal plots. Given that, it’s no wonder why they lack the plotting, detail and development that Shamus complains about here, and why the contrast with the more important character plots exists.
EVERY. SINGLE. ENTRY. in this series has been spot on.
I LOVED Mass Effect 1, and absolutely hated 2 and thought 3 was okay, but I was never really able to quantify why. It was especially frustrating because everyone else seemed to think ME2 was so much better and I was wondering what game they were playing. It’s very cathartic to see Shamus’s insight shine light onto what it was about that game that had me so frustrated. It’s part of what made me bookmark this page in the first place (some of my favorite articles of all time are the evisceration of Fable 2, which I loved and hated for the same reason Shamus did but couldn’t define why, and the GTA vs. Saints Row articles).
Thanks Shamus and keep ’em coming!
If anything, I think Shamus has been going a little soft on ME2. I’m with you that 2 is worse than 3. ME3 was a dumb mess of deus ex machina, and I’ll have some very snarly things to say when Shamus gets to the bit about the cloned Rachni queen, but at least ME3 went somewhere narratively. Not somewhere good, granted, but somewhere. ME2 is a nothingburger.
Nice metaphor: A nothingburger that comes with a large selection of delicious sauces and side dishes.
Interestingly, that’s how a lot of fast food places seem to turn a profit. People go for the sauce and sides, not the actual pap meal underneath it all.
Sure, it’s a viable business model, but it’s still crap food.
And now I’m wondering if I can somehow segway this into “But what do they eat?”
The cutscene with the collector bug in the lab is the point that I officially disengaged from caring about Mass Effect. I wasn’t even all that bothered by the main plot beforehand, but that bug reeks of so much handwavium that even my casually interested self stopped giving all fucks.
It strikes me that a single line could have helped, Mordin pointing out that the military units that do the initial sweep aren’t going to see some odd bugs and wonder why they don’t look indigenous, they’re just going to trample them on their way to important shit, hence the ‘ no evidence’ line. Hell, footprints are evidence, you just need to be able to read them, and the team is being gathered so they can bring extraordinary expertise to bear on the problem.
I think one reason it’s so hard for people who liked ME2 to see the writing problems is because the game is often taken as a whole. The major character side quests are woven in in a way that makes it easy to forget that they are optional. This, I believe, results in the “but this part was great” argument. It’s only when you pick it apart to this degree that it really becomes evident how separated the main plot is from the rest of the game.
I completely agree, and I think the Suicide Mission encapsulates this problem. The main story problems continue to the very end of the Suicide Mission. The player is railroaded into making one of two bad decisions at the end. Its maddening. But all that good stuff with your party members means there is a ton of emotional impact in the action, if not the plot, of the Suicide Mission.
So some players come of the finale thinking it was incredible and amazing. That is the last thing they feel about the game and thus plays a big part in their final opinion. Other people get all that too, but they can’t escape all the bad writing and plot holes and whatever and it makes them (or me anyway) feel really conflicted about the game.
Plot holes are like headaches: They relatively minor and don’t have a real impact on the rest of your body, but having one can ruin everything else about your day.
I’m almost positive that Mordin having a seeker drone was an editing mistake, something from an earlier draft that they forgot to revise.
And… I might have said this before, but I was all about hating Cerberus and wanting to return to the Council… in ME2. When ME3 came along, I realized just how fucking boring working for the Alliance really was, and since then, I’ve never minded working for Cerberus in ME2.
Heh, I switched sides in ME2. After I went to the Citadel and talked to the Council, I was so angry about the bad writing (see above) and ungrateful, incompetent Council (I saved you and you saw a Reaper and it all means nothing?!) that I reloaded the game and swore to never go back to the Council again, unless the game forced me to. Thankfully, you can completely ignore these morons and play it as a freelancer working for Cerberus.
I know Shamus doesn’t like that we are working for Cerberus, but I actually started to enjoy working for them. Yeah, they are crazy. Yes, TIM is a d***. But at least they were doing something (fight against the Collectors, research the derelict Reaper, acknowledge the Reaper’s existence). The Council was useless in ME1, in ME2 and even in ME3. The Alliance was annoying in ME1 (remember the Admiral who wants to inspect your ship?) and useless in ME2.
After I gave him the Collector Base I wanted to ask TIM: “What’s our next step?”. When TIM appeared on Mars in ME3 I was at first relieved to hear him. Finally someone who has the will and the means to do something, I thought. And then ME3’s “writing” happened…
I hear you, the general uselessness of the Council is what made a lot of players (myself included) absolutely certain that they were indoctrinated (to an unknown extent) or otherwise manipulated. Some people even speculated that the holograms in 2 implied there was something visibly wrong with them or they have been replaced entirely.
That said my bets are on this being horrible writing relating to the Council rather than good writing aiming to show the Council being useless. I think I’d be happy to go with just something to the effect of “We’re throwing all our resources at looking for solutions to the Reaper threat. Right now we honestly can’t deal with Cerberus and frankly colonies in the Terminus Systems are beyond the Council jurisdiction, those humans have all but seceded from the Alliance. If TIM wants to sponsor your operations there and he believes the missing colonies are somehow related to the Reapers than by all means milk this offer for all it’s worth with our blessing. Worst case scenario you may be able to get some intel on Cerberus that we could use at a later date.” And in case you thought this went all too well Anderson/Udina could in a private conversation point out that this also means they basically delegated you out of sight so they have time to investigate and figure out what their stance on your “back from the dead” status actually is. If they decide they don’t like what they found they may just decide to deal with you while you’re still out of the public eye, or if the public gets a whiff of you they have an option of claiming you faked your death in order to defect to Cerberus. Udina could further use this occasion to point out what “first human Spectre being a traitor” would to the perception of humanity by other Council races.
So Council acknowledges the Reaper threat and lets you know they’re devoting resources to it, they’re also shown to plan on several levels in a way that lets them take the maximum advantage of the situation at the same time giving you reasons why you’d want to work with (or take advantage of) Cerberus and the human councillor (whichever) can be shown to be politically savvy. But no, Sovereign was both a Geth creation and at the same time Saren’s ship that Saren convinced the Geth was a Reaper*.
*I just rewatched one variation of the Council encounter on youtube to check something for this post and they state these two things within a minute of each other.
Good idea. That sounds much better than what we got and it could build up an interesting conflict: Do we prefer the Council or TIM? After all, both are just using us…
The Council is probably Indoctrinated, but unfortunately the game never really explores this explanation of their vehement distrust of anything related to the Reapers:
1. The council chamber in ME1 is shaped like a Reaper. This isn’t really “evidence” for anything, but why take time to shape the map in a way that has an obvious parallel to the games’ main villains?
2. The Citadel is a Reaper construction, confirmed by Vigil and Sovereign. There’s a near-zero chance that the Reapers built a massive station meant to be the seat of power in the galaxy without a few backdoor mechanisms in play.
3. Slow Indoctrination leaves the subject completely free of will, it will just subtly manipulate the subject into thinking certain things. The Reapers don’t want their political thralls to be useless, they just want them to deny the Reapers exist, which gives them a massive advantage when trying to invade.
I wish the Council had explained themselves better in the second game, too. My version of the dialogue would go something like this:
Council: “The media is convinced the Geth are the real threat, and we have to respond to our citizen’s demands. The Geth are a menace that have to be contained. And, we’ve still not fully recovered from Saren’s attack, the safety of the core systems must take priority over chasing leads in the Terminus.”
Shepard: “The Geth were just tools for the Reapers, surely you can see that they don’t have the capability of building a ship on the size and scale of Sovereign! Also, the media think the Geth are a threat because that was what you told them following the attack. If you convince people of the greater threat, they can work to stopping it rather than living in the dark.”
Council: “There is no evidence to suggest that Sovereign wasn’t a prototype, requiring resources and time too great to reproduce efficiently. As far as we can tell, the threat of your ‘Reapers’ died with their capital ship.”
Shepard: “The Prothean extinction suggests otherwise. Look at the ruins scattered throughout the galaxy. Tell me that looks like a peaceful exile.”
Council: “The Prothean disappearance is a mystery shrouded in mismatched facts and fancy since before the dawn of humanity’s major religions. Your addition to it is not unique, and lacks the time and resources to verify scientifically.”
Shepard: “And the Collectors? They’re not just boogeymen, they’re real. We have video proof. They’re abducting people for some unknown purpose.”
Council: “Containment is the best strategy. We don’t want public panic over a new galactic threat, especially so recently after Saren’s betrayal. It was chaos following the attack on the Citadel, which is partially why so many people have chosen to fled the Terminus systems that you claim are now in danger. People can leave Council space if they wish, but they do it knowing they no longer receive our aid. These are local problems, even if what you say about the Collectors is true.”
Shepard: “BAH! Fine! You clearly don’t want to help.”
Coming in years later to say that this thread is once again another way the story could have been improved for not that much effort, just a handful of new lines in a game full of voice acted dialogue. It’s genuinely distressing how many flaws in Mass Effect 2 could be improved by sometimes a single line, and no one ever thought about it, including myself from all the times I played and enjoyed that game.
Also, human colonies wanting Independence could have provided a political throughline the same way humanity wanting a seat at the table was the backdrop for ME1. That hypothetical line from the Council about jurisdiction makes me remember how Scotland has basically been threatening to secede from the United Kingdom and rejoin the European Union as a fully sovereign state, and imagining what it would be like if the independent frontier colonies tried to do that to the Alliance.
You could meet peasants in this proposed ME2 who express the whole range of opinions from “Humans need to stick together and resist foreign meddling, stay loyal to the Alliance.” to “I’d rather deal with aliens then an Earth stranglehold, let’s ask the Council to help us.” To New Vegas-style Full Independents. And of course via making a few classic BioWare binary choices you could nudge the situation one way or another while fighting the Collectors and hunting for knowledge on the Reapers. Now that would be an expansion on the first games themes of whether we should work with aliens or look out for our own interests in a way that isn’t necessarily coded Paragon or Renegade, since you can make different arguments for either.
Which of course is a bunch of reasons that that would never have been done.
Heh, the admiral to inspect the ship. I submitted to “Bioware Confession” on that topic on Tumblr about how Shepard was not an engineer who made the ship (let alone decide to get the ship) so the admiral being upset at Shepard made no sense.
Naturally, a few replies pointed out how wrong I was. I guess admirals do act like 5th graders when they break up with their significant other.
The Bioware Confessions are…an interesting place, to be sure.
My headcanon for full-on Renegade Shep is that he was a covert agent for Cerberus even before ME1. He intervened in the Cerberus experiments to clean up any evidence that might expose other projects and to save any data possible, and warned them of Admiral Kahoku’s investigation so that Cerberus could kill him before he learned too much.
He romanced Ashley in hopes of turning her to the cause and when she turned out to be so unreasonably opposed to Cerberus he gave up on her for a relationship with Miranda. Which is lucky because she and Morinth are the only two survivors of the Omega-4 mission. But Miranda never learns that Shepard is an even higher-level Cerberus agent than she is. Dude is committed to his cover.
TIM resurrected Shepard because Shepard has been the greatest agent for human ascension in the modern era, contriving to get the Council killed during Sovereign’s attack on the Citadel and hopefully having them replaced by humans or at least human-sympathizers. He’s genuinely confused by TIM’s actions on Mars but he thinks it’s some kind of long con, so he continues his covert role and plays along as if he were opposed to Cerberus, not realizing until later in ME3 that TIM has been compromised in some way.
Those little snippets of colonist dialogue are better than anything in the main plot of ME2 or ME3.
That’s not really saying much, but I thought it needed to be said.
I think you have an error in there:
“This is why I keep referring to the Mass Effect 2 writer as a single person. It's clear they aren't…”
That sentence fragment made sense to me, though it seems like it should be followed by a ‘but’ rather than an ‘and.’
He’s deliberately treating the writing team as a single person, even though it’s obviously it’s a writing team, because if we treated them as a team it would become a witch hunt of “which individual is responsible for the garbage bits”.
Wait, no witch hunt? Then what am I going to do with this pitchfork that I specifically bought for this series?
I want a sledgehammer that has “BECAUSE I SAID SO!” embossed on the face.
I think what’s uncanny about that crying closeup is that it tries to combine realistic tears with hollywood ‘pretty crying.’ Or maybe the facial animation engine just couldn’t cut it but they didn’t want to spend the resources bringing it up to snuff.
Just a note: Under “The citadel”, third paragraph, first line should probably “that the council” instead of “the the council”. Also I love reading these. They are so well thought through and really highlight Mass Effects problems very well.
Third paragraph in the Joe Colonist section: “It this had been Mass Effect 1” needs an “If”
And Uwe Boll should be the ‘principal’ director rather than the ‘principle’ one. (It always takes me at least three goes to get those the right way round…)
We NEED fanart of Mordin in a wizard’s hat! (10 more internets if it’s Rincewind’s) :)
There’s definitely a tonal shift whenever the main plot missions come around. The world building dialogue is cut down to a minimum, there are virtually no minor characters anywhere (seriously, even during the suicide mission, EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THE COLONISTS YOU CAME TO SAVE IS ALREADY DEAD!), and the rhythm of the dialogue seems to have exactly two modes: dry exposition, and action movie one-liners. It’s a less extreme version of what happened with MGSV vs the rest of the series, someone on the editing team went crazy about cutting down the excess dialogue, and took the good stuff away with them.
Oh silly Shamus, there’s no need to give the colonists any personality. You’re saving humans. Don’t you understand that human lives are at stake? You’re human, right? You should care about them because they’re the same species you are in a galaxy full of aliens!
On a less sarcastic note I’m pretty sure that this kind of thinking really did contribute to the lack of depth far as colonists are concerned. Which, now that I think about it, is somewhat interesting in the context of the games brushing against (I dare not call it tackling) the subject of sci-fi racism…
I’m still amazed that the writers apparently bought into this idea of assumed empathy.
In the real world, people don’t usually care if humans are dying just 1000 miles away. And yet, we are expected to behave differently?
Shepard signed up for the Earth Alliance military, whose entire raison d’etre is to defend humans in faraway places. Three of the starting missions in ME1 are given weight by being attacks on human colonies. This isn’t a novel concern for Shepard.
Shepard doesn’t matter.
The player needs to feel emphatic for the colonists.
But we are NOT Shepard. We’re the players. Surely the protagonist of the story cares about those people, but we as the audience need a palpable reason to do so in order to enjoy the story. And “the protagonists cares” is NOT a reason at all, let alone a good one.
This is one of the biggest problems with the whole mass effect series(yes,even the first one,though its mitigated thoroughly in that one):Shepard is her own character,yet an empty brick at the same time.BIoware tries to give us this empty vessel we can inhabit,but at the same time they try to flesh out a character of their own that we can pilot.Ultimately,they fail at both.
I guess the idea that thousands of people disappearing or dying is a bad thing that I’d want to prevent, as a supersoldier who’d risked everything to save the galaxy, wasn’t something that I needed much persuading about. YMMV.
But then, during my brief stint playing City of Heroes I couldn’t walk through a park without stopping muggings, even though I didn’t have a quest to do it and it was fundamentally a Sisyphean waste of time. And there not only wasn’t the game offering me a reason to do it, it wasn’t even intended that I do so (except early on in some “stop four muggings” starter quest).
(Certainly there was nothing comparable to the crew conversations about family on threatened worlds and that heartrending email post-Horizon we get in ME2.)
I think it’s more a question of engagement than motivation. Saving those colonists is an easily understandable motivation in the abstract, but the game doesn’t do a very good job of engaging the player more directly.
Take your City of Heroes example. I did the same thing you did, and for the same reasons. As you noted, it didn’t provide any in-game benefits after the first few levels and if anything it consumed time that could have been used on more technically productive activities. But there was someone right there who was calling for help and you could do something about it, so you stepped in even though it didn’t give you any reward other than seeing an innocent left at least momentarily better off.
It probably wouldn’t have been as emotionally compelling if the game offered you the chance to do an unrelated mission and at the end you learned that thanks to your efforts there was a few less mugging in Hero City that day, even if the end result was the same.
The colonist disappearances in ME2 lack that more visceral connection, especially early on. Until Horizon, you don’t even see a colonist beyond a blurry shot of Collectors taking pods away (other than Veetor, anyway). When you do finally interact with a colonist, that person treats you with contempt. I’m not saying assholes should be left to die, but it’s like the game is going out of its way to block the very assumed empathy it’s banking on as a motivator.
And at the end of the game, you get the satisfaction of avenging the dead colonists and keeping more from being taken in the future, but only after watching the last of the captured colonists you hoped to rescue melt before your eyes. Hadn’t thought about that particular aspect before, but that’s kind of a bummer.
OTOH, that’s a terrifying moment that makes you desperate to rescue the rest of the Normandy crew (even if you’re not actually doing anything since it’s a cutscene). Maybe having some moments like that shown earlier wouldn’t have made players feel like they were at such a remove from the people they were ostensibly intended to help.
RPGs have been historically terrible about rescue plots going back to the paper&pencil D&D module days. My wife is still bitter about one where she thought she was going to rescue a paladin, and the module’s author clearly thought players would rather have an already-dead paladin’s stuff.
Game designers, if you send me to save someone, I should usually at least have a chance to save them. Occasional reminders that the world sometimes sucks are fine, but if it’s the rule, I’m going to be less eager to ride to the rescue again.
In Mass Effect 1, you usually do sub missions as a result of a distress call. I think there is literally ONE distress call in the entire game where everyone is NOT already dead (or it’s not a trap) when you get there. And they get attacked while you’re there, leaving the option open to all be dead by the time you’re done.
This isnt anything new.Movies have been doing this for a long LOOOOOONG time.OMG,new york is being exploded!Care about this city you have heard about audience!Care about them!!
Slight error in the article: you write “a real writer” while, of course, you mean “another writer, interested in making game writing his career”. Claiming you’re not a real writer when you’ve published two novels (I recently reread the Witch Watch and it’s still great, if you were wondering) and make a living writing articles, while typically Shamus, is not really a fair stylistic choice anymore. I think most here would agree you’ve long earned the moniker “writer” – or “great writer”, even.
WriteRight, and Patreon would agree:
It’s a fair point. Edited the post.
Speaking of that, is someone from the Patreon team among the fans here? Also, congratulations. :)
I keep making this (probably annoying to the other commenters) point that I thought of Patreon before Patreon existed (I know I know, the idea is 1% and I was nowhere near being able to execute on the 99% and a bunch of people had the same idea but my version was almost exactly like Patreons and unlike the other people who tried it so it felt good to know that I had the idea right). But I just wanted someone to make it, me or someone else. And you were one of the people I had in mind when I thought of it. To see it made, then to see you join and benefit from it, and then to see you featured like this, its kind of special for me.
If the writing of Mass Effect 2 (done in Edmonton, Ontario) was anything like the writing done for SW:TOR (in Austin, TX – where I worked), it’s an entire team that works on it and the individual quest stories are divvied up among the various writers. The main story line may have been more of a group effort that was done in conjunction with each writer’s individual assignments. That would be one explanation for why it’s more disjointed and messy.
Also, I would play the HELL out of the game “Mass Effect: Upscale Curio Shop Selling Erotic Asari Soap Carvings in the Presidium”!
Correct me if Im wrong,but when stuff is done like that,shouldnt there be some editor in chief that reads ALL the things that everyone has written so that they can spot and rectify any inconsistencies?
I believe that is the task of the “Lead Writer” and/or “Creative Director.” In the former case, the job was being passed like a hot potato between Drew Karpyshyn (the ME1 lead), who was mostly working on SW:TOR at the time, and Mac Walters (the sole lead on ME3). In the latter case, that was Casey Hudson for the entire trilogy.
Worth noting that it is widely rumored that Mac Walters and Casey Hudson are solely responsible for the original ME3 ending – that they banged it out together in Hudson’s office near the last possible minute in the development cycle and refused to allow the rest of the writing team to weigh in on it at all. If true, and those two were the ones responsible for quality control on the writing of ME2 (and had primary responsibility for the central plot line), I think what we got is hardly surprising.
I believe The Final Hours of Mass Effect 3 basically say it was one person with the others mostly being in the dark. That is at least officials enough to be on Origin. A sort of rough outline for the ending that was put in the book is where the “lots of speculation from everyone” meme came from.
I think this was from Mac Walters according to the book.
One issue may be that the main quest has a certain length it needs to fill, notes to hit and all manner of nonsense that side quests are more free from. That makes it easier to produce quality content.
That would be Edmonton, ALBERTA.
Shamus, once finished you should compile all these entries into a book and sell it / submit it as a thesis to a university for a major degree.
It might need a rewrite to work as an academic paper. But book? Yeah I’d agree. Its what Ryan North did with his blog series about the Back to the Future novelization. And frankly he was more just making jokes. It was funny but not as substantial.
Though in his case I bought the book because the blog was poorly organized and frustrating for an archive binge. Still, it would be nice to have a Shamus Blog series readily available on my Kindle Fire.
Also: I believe a guy published a book which was an indepth look at Spec Ops: The Line.
I observe that in Mass Effect 1, you literally can’t order a drink from the bartender in the Citadel Embassies. (“What’ve you got?” “Information, mostly…”)
They lampshade this pretty thoroughly in Mass Effect 2 with the Dark Star bartender on the Citadel.
“Information? I serve drinks! You want information, check the news. Why do humans always ask me that?”
While we are talking about Bioware. Jade Empire is currently free. It’s on “On the house” list for Origin. (This announcement was for that 3 guys who haven’t got it yet despite frequenting this site).
I have Jade Empire on Steam, GOG and Origin. Still haven’t played it. Damn these sales and offers!
Actually the whole council thing and working for cerberus is even worse.Even after showing you how dumb the council is,and how forced you are to work for cerberus,you still get small chances here and there to undermine cerberus.Various pieces of data that you can send to someone for money,or keep them for yourself to use against them later on.The worst thing,however,is that no matter what you do with all that data…nothing happens.Tim doesnt care about it,the council doesnt care about it,your crew doesnt care about it.You can be 100% pro cerberus,send all the data their way,be a good soldier,then do a complete 180 in the end and tell tim to go fuck himself.Or do the exact opposite of that,and it wont change things one single bit.
This has actually been biowares mo for a long time.If you look back at the original neverwinter nights,youll get the same exact thing:Stupid main story,great henchmen stories.Heck,one might even argue that the original baldurs gate was like that,with a bland cliche main story,but great characters you meet along the way.
The only baffling thing with this(and arguably dragon age)is that its the original that was good,while its the sequel that screwed things up,when its usually the other way around with them.
The original Neverwinter Nights campaign is a bit of an odd beast. The Neverwinter Nights engine was designed to support co-op play and, I contend, so was the original campaign. That’s why, for example, so many of the quest journal entries begin with phrases like “Adventurers have” or “Adventurers are” rather than “You have” or “Your Character is”. So one reason that the campaign’s story is so simple–as opposed, I maintain, to stupid–is that it has to be robust enough to survive the actions of an entire party of PCs.
They did do one thing that kind of worked that momentarily made me connect with the colonists and feel fear and dread for the Collectors. When the swarm first arrives and paralyzes everyone and those bugs land on people. I felt that. I felt dread for the bad guy and fear on behalf of the helpless victims.
But when I got down to the planet I wanted the game to let me reassure them instead of treating them like props. If I was frozen on the ground, I’d want the only mobile humans present to offer me reassurance that they’re coming back for me.
Though only if the game actually let you do it. If it made those reassurances automatically false, that would have been awful.
True. Although I think it is odd that the Collector bugs can apparently penetrate Ashley’s armor. Really? A rather small insect can penetrate armor made to withstand bullet hits? That doesn’t seem possible. Maybe if the stinger is really, really, really sharp?
It just seemed to me that if Ashley had her helmet on she should’ve been immune to the bugs stinging and paralyzing her. So, why do we even need an antidote to protect ourselves? Why not just wear armor and a helmet? After all, not all of us go into combat half naked – looking at you, Jack.
[Jack generates bug-impenetrable biotic bubble, looks smugly at Miranda.]
In a world with tech as Star Treky as Mass Effect’s, I’m inclined to allow it, especially when it’s the product of the species with a massive technological advantage, designed as a planetary invasion weapon. Focusing lots of PSI on a nano-sized surface point, exuding exotic solvent combos around and through the stinger, finding joints and gaskets that are too small and concealed for a bullet to plausibly hit, etc.
Of course, once it’s established that the Reapers have this population-immobilizing weapon, it raises the question of why it didn’t use it in ME1 (“We landed on Eden Prime and were immediately immobilized. Then the bombs destroyed the colony. Got me who did it.”) or ME3. But if we start getting into Reaper tactics we’ll be here all day.
(E.g., what exactly is the purpose of all the shambling zombies? For the species you want to destroy, orbital bombardment with cleanup by indoctrinated sapients should do it, especially once you shut down the relay network and defeat the resistance in detail. For the ones you want to convert into a Reaper you need troops, but there’s not really a lot productive that mindless husks are adding to that effort. Scions or Banshees I can see, but basic husks?)
But then why does the bug not sting Mording trough the rubber/glas when it’s in the isolation box?
Eh, it’s not even worth discussing…
Maybe it did. I wouldn’t put it past Mordin to risk getting immobilized a few times while working out the countermeasure.
See I hated the Council for their refusal to take the Reaper threat seriously and for looking down on humans (or at least that’s the vibe I was getting) in the first game. I was actually happy to work for a proactive organization that was unencumbered by red tape and political necessities.
After I joined Cerberus I kept hoping that we’d find out they’re not actually as evil as everyone thinks or that I could somehow wrest control of the organization from TIM and set them on a new path.
I have to say that this article series has brought this site to new horizons ;-)
Boo! Hiss! :P
You do get a neat insight into the missing colonists if you’re like me and obsessively listen to all of the ambient crew conversations. A good amount of the Normandy’s crew has family that has been or is taken by the collectors throughout the process of the game. It’s probably pretty easy to miss them, especially since one of the ongoing crew conversations is in the bunk room where there’s literally no reason to go.
…you mean there are people who don’t obsessively walk through every room in the ship between missions?
(Which, of course, means you get Garrus dismissing you with talk about calibrations about a million times.)
I figure they came up with the core structure of the game (ie. hire your squad members and perform their loyalty missions) first, then did whatever it took to shoehorn that into the existing world.
Exactly this. The main story is just a housing for what they were obviously going for – in depth stories about the characters. They contorted in all kinds of ways to fit that goal.
And to be fair, the characters are really good (well, I’m sure everyone has their favourites and those they thought were lame), and something I’ve noticed on starting my own trilogy re-play (damn you Shamus!) is that the characters in ME2 somehow retro-actively make ME1 better. Your companions in ME1 are a little bit lifeless, and knowing how they progress in ME2 – for myself anyway – I sort of looked back on ME1 with rose coloured glasses.
This article made me wonder, how might the Horizon mission have played out if the Normandy got there before the Collectors?
TIM gets some rough intel on the Collector Ship’s location, enough to suggest Horizon is the next likely colony to be hit. Shepard gets there, gets to know the colonists, has a dramatic encounter with Kashley while helping to set up defenses, maybe even assigns the current team members to specific roles as a teaser for the Omega-4 mission.
And it’s not enough. Jack’s and Miranda’s biotic fields are barely enough to hold back the seeker swarms but the team’s stuck in place behind them. Maybe a team member or two get killed – a sacrificial lamb ala Jenkins from ME1, plus another regular recruited member if you did poorly selecting their tasks.
Mordin gets a swarmer sample and is able to devise protection similar to what he created for the Horizon mission we got. It’s only enough to allow the team to emerge from the biotic barriers as the Collectors pull back and the swarmers are dissipating. They inflict some damage and get the GARDIAN lasers on-line but most of the colony is taken anyway (maybe including Kashley).
In addition to establishing the colonists as an actual presence in the story, we’ve underlined the dangerous nature of the Omega-4 mission. Shepard’s team had the home field advantage and time to prepare the battlefield and still lost. How bad will it be trying to beard the Collectors on their home turf?
But we’ve learned some of the thing we need for the mission. We need another tech specialist like Tali to develop better defenses on the fly. We need more powerful biotics to provide protection. We need a heavy hitter like an assassin to take down Command-and-Control elements like Harbinger-possessed drones.
And the team needs to resolve its personal issues now that they all realize how unlikely their survival is. Garrus admits he wasn’t fighting as effectively as he could have because he kept thinking he was going to die on Horizon while Sidonus walked away without paying for his crimes, Jacob was distracted wondering his father was killed by some strange aliens on some unknown world like he might have at the colony, etc.
Paragon Shepard realizes that if he’s going to ask the team to sacrifice themselves he owes them the chance to put their affairs in order. Renegade Shepard realizes the team has to get their shit squared away so their heads stay in the game.
The subsequent mission on the Collector Ship is where you see some of the captives reduced to gray goo-slurry (instead of seeing it only at the very end). Maybe some of the team members not directly following Shepard deeper into the ship stow some of the pods on the shuttle. You get the satisfaction of saving some people you knew but also a taste of the horrible consequences of passing time – every moment you delay another person is being melted down to serve your enemy’s as-yet-unknown purpose. But if you go too soon, you fail and don’t save anyone.
That would give some extra weight to the decision whether or not to dive into the relay right after the Collectors hit the Normandy. Miranda and Jacob present their respective options as Shepard flashes back to the dead team member on Horizon and the disintegrating colonist, the two exemplars of the potential downfall of either decision.
Yep. This is a very dangerous type of half-assing something. Some games also have the same duality, where one part is excellent and another part is utter trash. Devs will think the players will care about some parts and not the others.
Which completely backfired in my case, since I really didn’t care about some stupid daddy issues and other loyalty missions. (Still can’t understand why the hell is Garrus NOT LOYAL?) I did all of them, I just didn’t care much and so whatever good was in them didn’t distract me enough.
I wanted to go find the reapers and see what they are up to, learn more about them, essentially care about the actual plot of the game, or the plot that should have been. Instead the game provided me with this incredible garbage, and then killed it with stupid COD-like shooting mechanics (even replaced the interesting Geth from ME1 with generic bipedal baddies) which made even the interesting parts of the sidequests boring and contrived.
Late to the party, but regarding Mordin having that seeker; when you meet Veetor, he refers to the swarm being “machines, like tiny insects”. If we take this as being fact, and add in that Veetor also took various scans of them, it stands to reason that Mordin simply used Veetor’s scan data to build that seeker. That said, however, this absolutely should have been brought up in dialogue at some point, rather than have Mordin seemingly magically having it out of nowhere for that one cutscene.
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