The finale of Horizon has Shepard’s team repairing the colony’s anti-air guns while under assault from the Collectors. The guns were a gift from the Alliance, but they weren’t working. Once EDI completes a calibration / hotfix, they give the Collector ship a pounding until the Collectors retreat.
After each main story mission, we head back to holograph land to talk to The Illusive Man. These conversations have a lot in common with the Kashley conversation earlier: The other person talks nonsense, your dialog choices aren’t fair, and when you choose one Shepard says something different anyway.
A Talk with TIM
Last week I said the Kashley conversation was a disaster and you could find problems with almost every line of dialog. The same is true here. So let’s do that. Here is an except of the post-mission debrief with The Illusive Man:
Shepard. Good work on Horizon. Hopefully the Collectors will think twice before attacking another colony.
But you can't ask about any of that. This isn't a plot hole. It's just that if the player is trying to think about the problem of "how do we stop the Collectors?" from an in-character perspective, it's probably going to frustrate them that the most important and effective element doesn't even come up in conversation.
It's not a victory. We interrupted the Collectors but they still abducted half the colony.
That's better than an entire colony, and more than we've accomplished since the abductions began. The Collectors will be more careful now, but I think we can find another way to lure them in.
Shepard: (Exploratory dialog on the left side of dialog wheel.)
I wondered if you had something to do with that attack. [Kashley] said the Alliance got a tip about me and Cerberus.
I released a few carefully disguised rumors that you might be alive, and working for Cerberus.
TIM is saying he released a carefully disguised rumor of facts that are common knowledge, and that rumor changed the behavior of both the Alliance and the Collectors.
I see. What were you trying to prove?
I suspected the Collectors were looking for you, or people connected to you. Now I know for certain. It was a risk, but I couldn't just wait for them to take another colony. You understand.
Not only does the Collector reasoning not make the slightest damn sense, but TIM was able to predict their moon logic and counter with crazy assumptions of his own.
He knew that if he released a "cleverly disguised" rumor to the Alliance that the Collectors would intercept it, and that they would believe it, and that they would alter their plans in response to it. And he was right: The Collectors did do all those things.
Also, if the Collectors were here to abduct Kashley then why didn't they, you know, abduct Kashley? They nabbed half the colony but they couldn't find the only person wearing pink Alliance armor? Was this part of TIM's plan, too?
We have to make sure they don't abduct anyone else.
I want the Collectors stopped for that very reason.
It’s like Shepard and TIM are interspersing lines from two different scripts. The Collectors are looking for Shepard, or people connected to him? Why? How would that help their cause? What would make TIM think that? How would this attack prove it? Couldn’t this attack just be the result of the Collectors continuing to do what they’ve been doing? Is the game suggesting that TIM releasing a rumor that Shepard was alive somehow caused the Collectors to attack the colony where Kashley was stationed? If TIM hadn’t released those rumors, would the Collectors have left Horizon alone?
This conversation doesn’t flow, it doesn’t feel like these two people are talking to each other, and you can’t follow-up on strange ideas that are just thrown out there without comment. The only way to make this work is to ignore the characters and make a beeline for authorial intent. You can see what the author is trying to say, even if the characters aren’t making sense in-universe.
Not Plot Holes, Character Holes
I know I have to keep saying this, but I am not complaining about plot holes. I am complaining about fundamentally broken characters and dialog. When I pick apart plots like this, some people think I’m throwing down some sort of challenge: “If you can invent some fan-theory or find a codex entry to hand-wave this, then the complaints Shamus makes are invalid!” Some people take the position that everything is fine, as long as there’s some room for us to patch over it in our heads. But these problems can’t be solved with fanfictionThe other major defense: Mass Effect 1 made the same mistake on a small scale, so you can’t criticize Mass Effect 2 for repeatedly making the same mistake on a massive scale.. If a scene forces you to invent new information to make it work, then the scene has already failed. The problem is that this entire sequence is just hopelessly muddled and everyone seems to be able to read the minds of everyone else. This dialog doesn’t work.
I am once again reminded of the Thieves Guild Quests from Skyrim, where author tries to do this complex “web of lies” plot and the whole thing falls apart because nobody’s behavior makes any sense in terms of their stated goals. In that story, the player acquires a book and then goes through a long process to confirm its authenticity. The player then presents that book to the guild as proof of some misdeeds. But the guild doesn’t trust the player and didn’t go through all those steps to authenticate the book. Yet they believe it anyway. The writer wasn’t thinking about these other characters and what information they might have. They were just chaining stock quests together.
The result is characters that don’t feel real. They don’t have worldviews and you can’t wonder about what they might be thinking at any given moment, because they don’t have working simulated minds as devised by a careful author. They just do whatever the story requires to drag us to the next scene.
When this happens in movies we usually talk about it in terms of characters “reading the script”. They seem to behave contrary to the information that ought to be available to them, and nobody else in the story seems to find this odd. While a lot of characters in this game seem to suffer from having “read the script”, TIM is by far the worst. TIM is barely even a character. I know he supposedly has this awesome spy network. But being a good spy doesn’t begin to explain these strange leaps of logic he’s making, and they certainly don’t explain Shepard’s understated reaction.
Obviously the game is trying to establish that TIM is extremely sketchy and willing to put human lives at risk to further his goals, but the game has already (and probably accidentally) done a pretty good job of selling the notion that it’s completely bonkers to be working for / with Cerberus, which is why most players don’t want to work for him in the first place. This entire conversation boils down to: “Surprise! This thing you thought was a stupid idea is actually a really stupid idea! BUT YOU HAVE TO KEEP DOING IT ANYWAY.” It’s why people get mad at the writer instead of the villain. TIM isn’t a character. He’s a plot device with a nice chair and a three-packs-a-day habit.
This conversation draws attention to the frustrating railroading and rubs the player’s nose in it, while not supporting or explaining the odd ideas it introduces.
The Collector “Trap”
So the Collectors park their ship someplace and power down to play possum. They send out a bogus message, making it sound like a Turian patrol disabled the Collector ship. TIM interceptsTIM’s dialog sort of makes it sound like “intercepting” a message prevents the intended recipient from getting it? That’s not how transmissions work, but whatever. You could blame this on the dialog being vague and hand-wavy. this message, recognizes it as fake, but then reports it to Shepard as if it were real. He’s concerned that if Shepard knows that he’s walking into a trap, then he’ll somehow telegraph that he knows. And then the Collectors will know that he knows, which will make Shepard’s raid… less useful somehow?
This is a setup that requires everyone to have read the script ahead of time.
Did you know that TIM had broken the Turian codes, that he would be listening in on their broadcasts, and that he would specifically dispatch Shepard as soon as he heard your fake report? Was that a guess?
What if someone else shows up that isn’t Shepard? Shepard doesn’t own the only spaceship in the galaxy. What if the Turians hear the fake message? What if they send a bunch of ships? What if Shepard decides not to board you, but instead just starts shooting while you’re powered-down and helpless?
What if Shepard has one of those drive-core nukes like the kind he used to destroy the Virmire facility, and he just dumps that in your cargo bay and flies off? Actually, how stupid would Shepard have to be to leave his spaceship and personally board yours? Why would you ever expect this to work?
And considering that Shepard walked into the trap ignorant, how completely incompetent are you? Are we supposed to take you seriously as a villain?
This plan requires the Collectors to correctly anticipate how the Turians, Cerberus, and Shepard will react.
Actually, why don’t you shoot the Collector ship before you board it? Or destroy it outright? Or dump a bomb in their cargo bay?
I’m not saying Shepard should do these things. I’m saying it would be nice if we had a little conversation where Shepard discussed options, expectations, and contingencies. It would make him feel more like a leader and less like a mook who just does whatever TIM tells him.
What could Shepard possibly do that would telegraph that he knows he’s walking into a trap? He’s approaching the ship of his supposed nemesis. These guys already killed him and blew up his ship once. Which means you should expect him to be cautious to the point of paranoia this time. What additional caution could he take that would qualify as “too much caution” to the Collectors?
If this guy is such a superhuman that he’s worth bringing back from the dead, then isn’t it worth trusting him to be able to do his job?
Moreover, shouldn’t the survival of the Normandy 2, Shepard, and Shepard’s precious team take priority over a single mission? Why not simply blast the collector ship to cripple it for real, and then board it?
What if the Collectors just fly away with Shepard the moment he steps on board? Sure, he’s a “hero, a bloody icon”, but he’s not going to personally conquer the entire ship on foot.
You are puerile adolescent fiction,
Everyone Read the Script. Nobody Agrees on What it Said.
So Cerberus sends Shepard into this known trap without telling him it’s a trap. I can’t even tell if the writer is trying to say this was a necessary risk or not. I mean, it doesn’t make sense, but that doesn’t mean the writer understands that. So now we don’t know how to interpret this scene. Is TIM doing an “ends justify the means” by forcing Shepard into taking big risks for a big payoff? Or is the writer trying to show that TIM is a crazy idiot?
What story is the author trying to tell in this game?
- Cerberus has ruthless methods, but they really do want to help humanity. (Until they get indoctrinated in Mass Effect 3, anyway.)
- Cerberus is a bunch of evil stooges that are hated by all decent folk, but Shepard uses them to accomplish his goals.
- Cerberus is totally evil and dupes Shepard into helping them by pretending to care about colonies.
- Cerberus is a circus of idiocy and evil, and Shepard is a rube. They work at cross purposes and somehow manage to help human colonies anyway.
At various points in the story, you could make the case for any of these. But the author won’t just commit to one. When TIM basically admits that he’s doing something nefarious and Shepard replies with “I see”, is that because he’s actually convinced Shepard that this was the right thing to do, or is that because Shepard is biding his time until the moment he can backstab TIM? Does TIM think he’s persuaded Shepard? Does he care?
They put Cerberus at the center of this story, and then they failed to give Cerberus proper motivation, characterization, or framework within the world. What few things we do know about them are contradicted by the other things we know about them. It’s like a version of Star Wars where the story doesn’t make it clear if the Empire is evil, or if the rebellion is just trying to overthrow a legitimate and popular government.
The writer wants to take this details-heavy space opera of worldbuilding and structured rules and turn it into a broad action adventure. I get it. Fine. But broad action adventure requires clarity, and this story doesn’t even know what it wants to be about.
We’ll finish up this mission in the next entry.
 I didn't mention it before, but nobody was sure Mordin was ready until after TIM began the mission.
 The other major defense: Mass Effect 1 made the same mistake on a small scale, so you can’t criticize Mass Effect 2 for repeatedly making the same mistake on a massive scale.
 TIM’s dialog sort of makes it sound like “intercepting” a message prevents the intended recipient from getting it? That’s not how transmissions work, but whatever. You could blame this on the dialog being vague and hand-wavy.
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