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.
The Best of 2015
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2015.
TitleWhat’s Inside Skinner’s Box?
What is a skinner box, how does it interact with neurotransmitters, and what does it have to do with shooting people in the face for rare loot?
Starcraft 2: Rush Analysis
I write a program to simulate different strategies in Starcraft 2, to see how they compare.
Blistering Stupidity of Fallout 3
Yeah, this game is a classic. But the story is idiotic, incoherent, thematically confused, and patronizing.
If Star Wars Was Made in 2006?
Imagine if the original Star Wars hadn't appeared in the 1970's, but instead was pitched to studios in 2006. How would that turn out?