At the start of Mars, Kashley joins you and gives you a hard time about working for Cerberus. She or he pouts about not trusting you and traps you in dialogs where all of your answers come off as lame excuses. It’s largely a repeat of the frustrating conversation on Horizon, which is perplexing since lots of people said that was one of the most irritating parts of Mass Effect 2.
Arguments in Fiction
Fiction thrives on conflict. When an author wants a couple of their characters to disagree, they can do it through dialog that reveals their values as a character and allows their personalities to drive the scene, or the writer can just have them gainsay each other in an angry voice. This is very much the latter.
In a character-driven argument, disagreement arises from differing viewpoints. Each person has a different view of the world and they each try to convince the other that their view is correct. We get tension in the story because these viewpoints reveal or highlight the personalities of the participants. It’s drama, but also two-way character development. Good stuff.
But here at the ass-end of Mass Effect, people argue and say mean things because the author needs them to be at odds. One or both parties needs to be an obstinate butthead and ignore what the other is saying. The author effectively hands one of the characters the idiot ball so the argument can take place.
Dialog from my playthrough of the game, just as Ashley and Shepard are entering the Mars installation:
I need a straight answer, Shepard.
Do you know anything about this? What is Cerberus doing here?
What makes you think I know what they're up to?
(This question makes Shepard look dumb. YOU KNOW PERFECTLY WELL WHY SHE'S ASKING THIS. WHY NOT ACT LIKE THE MAIN CHARACTER INSTEAD OF PUSSYFOOTING AROUND?)
You've worked for them. How am I supposed to believe you've cut all ties?
We joined forces to take down the Collectors. That's it.
(Note how he doesn't say why. He doesn't mention that The Alliance refused to help him, or the death toll the Collectors inflicted, or anything else that might help Ashley understand his decision.)
They rebuilt you from scratch. They gave you a ship, resources...
(Let's just set aside the fact that it's not clear how she knows just how extensive Shepard's injuries were or what the revival process looked like. The important thing is that she doesn't articulate why she dislikes Cerberus.)
Let me be clear. I've had no contact with Cerberus since I destroyed the Collector base. And I have no idea why they're here or what they want.
(This is the first worthwhile line in the discussion. It does the important job of telling us what happened after Shepard blew up the Collector base.)
Sorry Shepard, I just...
You wanna hate Cerberus, fine. But I'm done explaining myself to you.
(Why is Shepard defending Cerberus here? Also, this is a dumb line because Shepard has yet to explain himself.)
This conversation is doubly frustrating for people who already hated the working-for-Cerberus plot of Mass Effect 2. Ashley is criticizing you for something you didn’t want to do, and which seemed like a stupid, poorly-justified action to begin with. And you’re forced to disagree with her. Not only that, but you’re forced to disagree with her in the most lame, cowardly, or ineffectual way. Mass Effect 2 gave you reasons why you had to join Cerberus. Sure they were dumb and mostly based on circular logic, but you can’t use those reasons here to convince Ashley. You can gainsay her or pull rank, but you’re not allowed to actually make the case for a position you’re being forced to advocate!
If you told me to create a frustrating and immersion-breaking conversation on purpose, I doubt I could do much better than this. The lengths the writer is willing to go to in an effort to do the wrong thing is almost heroic.
These two people aren’t really arguing. They’re just stating their differing opinions again and again. Here, let me write an example of a real argument:
DIALOG WRITTEN BY SHAMUS
The Collectors had taken thousands of lives, Ashley. Thousands. And the Alliance wouldn't lift a finger. You saw what the Collectors did on Horizon. Would you have stood back and let that happen if you had a way to stop it?
But Cerberus, Shepard? They've probably killed almost as many people as the Collectors. Working with them is treason.
You remember what the Geth did to Eden Prime. To your unit. Would you commit treason to stop that, or would you stay true to the Alliance and let it happen? Because those were my options.
If the writer wants Shepard to win, then Ashley could then lose the argument with a weak, “I don’t know”. If not, she could reaffirm her loyalty to the Alliance and point how Cerberus is now staging this attack, just proving how foolish it was to work with them. In either case, that’s how you make an argument about something. The player might agree or disagree with Ashley, but at least she would have a viewpoint they could appraise and think about.
This wishy-washy “I can’t trust you” argument in the game is like the Carth dialog in KOTOR, except without the dramatic irony, the personal tragedy, character relevance, angsty backstory, or final payoff. And I should point out that even with all of those things, people still found Carth really annoying.
Let’s Play a Cutscene!
Next we have an obnoxious chase scene. Dr. Coré steals the data and runs off. During the chase she’s invulnerable to your weapons and powers until the very end, when you can kill her with a pistol. Once again I have to remind game developers: Do not make me play through your static cutscenes where my input doesn’t matter and I have no control over the outcome.
“There will come a final moment when the only way to kill her is using weapon fire as she is immune to biotic attacks. If you are playing a biotic make sure you resist the urge to use biotic abilities during the slow motion cut scene and just use the pistol to shoot and finish her off.”
Keep in mind that before this point, she’s been immune to everything. And now she’s going to die to a pistol shot, because that’s how the writer has decided it will go. Poor writer. Those dirty players keep ruining your brilliant cutscenes with dumb bullshit like “gameplay” and “agency”.
Dr. Coré is defeated, but Kashley is critically wounded in the fight. So now you have a broken robot and an injured squad member. So it’s off to the Citadel to put Kashley in the hospital and ask the rest of the galaxy to come save Earth. What follows is over six minutes of cutscene and exposition with no meaningful dialog interactions. The dialog wheel pops up twice, but it’s just a nudge to remind you you’re playing a game. There aren’t any dialogs to explore and your responses don’t matter.
Say Something Nice
I’ve hammered on the failings of Mass Effect 3 for about five weeks now. So let’s stop and say something nice:
I really enjoy Mark Meer’s performance as Shepard this time around. The stiff reading of the first game is gone and male Shepard now feels like a character instead of someone reading me his script newscaster-style.
The Citadel is gorgeous. Really, it’s wonderful. There are green gardens. Animated car traffic. The cities on the arms are finally depicted in a cutscene, giving a really good sense of scale and splendor. The Keepers walk around, the crowds are denser, and in general it feels like a living place. This is the Citadel they obviously wanted to give us in Mass Effect 1, but couldn’t due to budget and technology.
Dr. Chakwas is hereAssuming you didn’t get her killed in Mass Effect 2. Slacker. and her dialog is pretty good. She’s busy with her own life, not orbiting Shepard’s. They even have an excuse / hand wave for why she isn’t in trouble for joining your crew in Mass Effect 2 and why she’s back with the Alliance again. Sure, you can nitpick it, but I’m grateful someone noticed this was a concern and took the time to acknowledge this in dialog.
I’m surprised the writer decided to take Kashley out of the story with a life-threatening injury. Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy these scenes. (Except for the bit where they repeat the go-nowhere Cerberus argument yet again.) This story has some nice character moments and it (finally!) resolves the conflict between Kashley and Shepard. It’s just an odd design choice. The Mass Effect 3 story is already bursting at the seams with too many plot threads in an attempt to make up for the lack of progress in Mass Effect 2. Everything is happening at once, everywhere. And now we’re going to have a side-plot where Kashley is in the hospital for a couple of chapters? I don’t know why they decided to put it in the game, but I’m not going to complain about the chance for some quiet moments, introspection, and character resolution.
It’s nice to have the plot finally cut the player loose. We’re probably a couple of hours into the game, and this is the first time you’re free to walk around somewhere that isn’t a linear battlefield. This is our first chance to soak in some environmental storytelling and get a feel for how the rest of the galaxy is doing. In particular, there’s an Asari in the hospital who has a harrowing story to tellWhich you can only hear through eavesdropping and not direct conversation, sadly.. Having said that, we’re a long way from the flexibility of Mass Effect 1. In the first game, you could walk up to someone and ask them tons of questions. You could ask them in any order, and you could bail whenever you’d had your fill. It wasn’t until this point at the two-hour mark that we finally encounter an optional conversation. The writer so far has very little to say, and when they do decide to engage in some storytelling it’s usually a brute-force linear exposition dump.
Asking the Council for Help
This scene is so silly it’s almost a farce. Shepard goes to the Galactic Council to ask for fleets to help liberate Earth. Everyone is being invaded by Reapers, and Shepard’s argument is that everyone should abandon their homeworlds and help Earth because Earth has it the worst? This is after we’ve already had a couple of conversations where Shepard himself admits that we can’t win this with conventional warfare. He’s asking for something which he has already stated can’t solve the problem, which is distracting him from the more important job of finding an actual solution to the problem, and which the other races have no reason to give him.
You could make the case that Shepard is thinking backwards and what we really need is some sort of planetary triage: Since Earth is bearing the brunt of the attack, Earth is clearly a lost cause. Therefore the Alliance should give up their unsalvageable homeworld and help defend one of the other, stronger worlds. Maybe the Alliance should go save Thessia, since it has more people, more advanced technology, and more infrastructure. While it’s still just as doomed as the rest of the galaxy, it’s slightly less closer to its doom that Earth and therefore a better place to spend our limited resources.
Or maybe Shepard could take up the position that we should help Earth because 98% of humanity lives there. The other species have spread out and could survive losing their homeworld, but the Human newcomers don’t have that luxury.
That would be an interesting debate, but the game isn’t interested in exploring those ideas, because – like I’ve said before – this writer has no idea how to make an argument about something. Again, people just mindlessly gainsay each other instead of having a proper debate. Shepard swaggers in, asks for something completely outrageous, and then says the council is “blind” because they refuse to help him. Shepard’s view of the Reapers seems to change from scene to scene and I’m not even sure if the writer themselves had any idea what he was thinking. Shepard, you know you can’t beat the Reapers with fleets. So why are you demanding people give you fleets that you KNOW they can’t spare?
Still, this does seem in keeping with the tropes of the Mass Effect universe where Shepard brazenly demands absurd things Council and then he (or Udina) insinuates the council is racist for refusing. It’s dumb, but at least it’s… consistently dumb?
It doesn’t matter anyway. Everyone in the room has forgotten, but the galaxy is screwed. Deciding where the fleets go is simply picking which planet will receive the wreckage of the fleets. There’s nothing to be gained. If any of these people were rational they would be discussing contingency plans, escape, or hiding. The Protheans managed to hide from the Reapers, so we know it’s a semi-viable strategy.
This scene might work better if it telegraphed that these leaders were overwhelmed, out of their depth, lost, or going through the stages of grief. If we got the sense that these politicians had no head for warfare and no understanding of the scale of the threat, then we could maybe hand-wave some of their foolishnessAlthough not Shepard’s. Shepard, of all people, really should know better. in this scene. Instead everyone seems level-headed and calm as they make terrible plans that can only hasten their doom. It’s like a group of people with no food arguing over which one of them gets the toaster. The player is forced to sit through a cutscene where they make no decisions and make no meaningful input, where their character is railroaded into being an obstinate jerk, and which doesn’t advance the player’s goals.
 Assuming you didn’t get her killed in Mass Effect 2. Slacker.
 Which you can only hear through eavesdropping and not direct conversation, sadly.
 Although not Shepard’s. Shepard, of all people, really should know better.
Fixing Match 3
For one of the most popular casual games in existence, Match 3 is actually really broken. Until one developer fixed it.
Final Fantasy X
A game about the ghost of an underwater football player who travels through time to save the world from a tick that controls kaiju satan. Really.
Bethesda’s Launcher is Everything You Expect
From the company that brought us Fallout 76 comes a storefront / Steam competitor. It's a work of perfect awfulness. This is a monument to un-usability and anti-features.
Deus Ex and The Treachery of Labels
Deus Ex Mankind Divided was a clumsy, tone-deaf allegory that thought it was clever, and it managed to annoy people of all political stripes.
The plot of this game isn't just dumb, it's actively hostile to the player. This game hates you and thinks you are stupid.