It’s finally time to talk about Kai Leng. Except not. Because first we need to talk about…
Dungeons & Dragons
Imagine you’re going to play one of those nerdy tabletop games with your friends. The group has a kind of grounded, low-key approach to worldbuilding. The world is basically “middle-ages Europe”-ish with a very understated dash of magic. Rather than invent new characters for my hypothetical game, let’s just borrow a few. The players around the table have the following characters:
Boromir: A son of nobility but not royalty, he’s a stalwart man who trusts more in arms than in magic. His mind is often on his troubled homeland.
Frodo: A gentle idealist. He hates violence, but understands the necessity of it. He’s reluctant to draw blood, but also curiously wise and forward-thinking for a halfling.
Gimli: Dwarf. Proud. Practical. Loyal. Simple.
Xantar Shadowwalker: A reincarnation of an elven god that was slain by an army ten thousand years ago. He’s a half-elf with a clockwork robo-arm. He carries a glowing samurai sword, wears a Zoro mask and a black cape, and has glowing white eyes. Xantar doesn’t have a fixed personality, but seems to jump from being a swaggering sarcastic joker, to a gravel-voiced agent of vengeance, to an unflappable gentleman, depending on whatever will make the biggest scene.
Some people will complain that he clashes “thematically” with the setting. And he does. Others will worry about his character being overpowered. And he probably is. But that’s not really the problem with Xantar. The problem is that Josh is trying to make him the main character. Xantar is so outlandish that he will stand out in every scene. He’s screaming for attention, and the other characters look like extras when they stand next to him.
The other players are here for a cooperative and symbiotic experience. They want to work together to make an interesting story about their adventuring party. Josh is here for a competitive and parasitic experience. He sees the other players as people to play audience to his one-man show of attention-whore badassery.
Josh is fundamentally a problem player in this particular group. Unless his real-life charisma is so astounding that people don’t mind mind playing his sidekicks and passively watching his antics for hours at a time, then he’s a social vampire and he’s going to suck the life out of the game. Good D&D games – and even a few friendships – have been ended because of selfish assholes like Josh, who entertain themselves by magnifying their own glory at the expense of others.
Now imagine Josh isn’t just a player. Imagine Josh is running the game. Everyone still has to play grounded characters like Boromir and Frodo, but Josh designs the villains using the same self-indulgent approach he used to design Xantar.
That’s how you end up with Kai Leng.
This Trope even has a name: GMPC.
This is a load of bullshit. You don’t know the first thing about Call of Cthulhu and you sure as Hell have no idea how to run a role-playing game if you think our idea of a good time is being your pet character’s FUCKING ENTOURAGE!
Al Bruno III, from the Binder of Shame.
Kai Leng is not the only offender when it comes to GMPCs. He’s simply the worst example of an ongoing problem: A self-indulgent writer run amok.
If you look, you can find other instances of the writer making colorful antagonists for their own gratification. Aria is a strutting diva who gets flashy camera angles and gets to proclaim, “I AM Omega!” She has no reason to star in the nightclub scenes, except the writer liked the design and wanted to play Aria and they wanted you to participate by watching and playing the part of the dumb mook she’s got wrapped around her finger. That would be fine as a sort of “flavor text” kind of character, except that your paragon / renegade responses have been re-mapped to “moron” and “bootlick”. You’re not allowed to decide how you feel about Aria, because the writer says you think she’s awesome.
Likewise, The Illusive Man is a chain-smoking shadow master with glowing robot eyes who sits in front of a dramatic backdrop. The Star Child is a glowing god that controls all the Reapers gets to smugly Know Everything while his robots ravage the Earth in the background. These people don’t actually have clever things to say, and in fact a lot of their dialog is shallow and dumb when it isn’t just clichés copied from better stories. But when they’re on stage the world revolves around them, because they have character designs that overshadow everyone else and the cinematographer is on their side to give them all the dramatic cuts and close-ups they need. When these characters are around the storyteller treats them like the protagonist and relegates Shepard to the role of their impotent sidekick / whipping dog. It would be bad enough if the writer simply made Shepard an inert observer of this show, but then they co-opt your dialog wheel and force you to participate.
“But Shamus! It’s not fair to compare a scripted Videogame to a tabletop game!”
You’re right. This is unfair. It’s unfair because what the Mass Effect 3 writer has done is actually far more offensive than just sidelining the player character for a “more interesting” character controlled by the author. In a tabletop game, the GM doesn’t presume to dictate how your character behaves. Sure, as the god of this world the GM can make their villain effectively omnipotent and omniscient, but at least you’re still allowed to play your character according to the rules. Here in Mass Effect 3, not only has the author made a self-indulgent Mary Sue for you to fight, they presume to make your character act like an idiot in cutscenes in order to amplify the glory of their pet character.
In your first encounter with Kai Leng, Shepard says, “It’s over, pal!” when his team surrounds Leng. It’s really strange. Shepard says it spontaneously with no player input, and it doesn’t sound like a very Shepard-ish thing to say. (Really? Shepard is going to call someone “pal”? Why is my space marine suddenly talking like a 1950’s gumshoe?) It’s kind of lame. Kai Leng responds with a smirk, “No. Now it’s fun.” And suddenly Shepard’s dumb line makes sense. Shepard is not talking to characterize Shepard, he’s setting up “cool” one-liners for the writer’s pet villain.
I’m not saying that characters aren’t allowed to be impressive. Sure, there’s a time and place for dramatic antagonists. But Kai and company aren’t designed with the needs of the story in mind, they’re designed to gratify their author. They look like characters designed to be above this nerdy pedestrian Star Trek bullshit around them.
Anyway. Let’s get back to…
Kai Leng struts in. He’s not afraid of your three-person squad, because he is the writer and the writer has given himself multiple layers of plot armor.
Shepard knows this guy is with Cerberus, and he already ruined Shepard’s day when Cerberus invaded the Citadel. The player has no reason not to start shooting. But instead of simply attacking to protect what is now THE MOST IMPORTANT ARTIFACT IN THE GALAXY, cutscene Shepard strikes up a conversation. And not by saying something clever, or interesting, or even tactically useful, but by asking a stupid question. “What do you want?”
Kai Leng puts Shepard in a conference call with TIM.
Compare this scene to the exchange on Virmire, which I talked about way back in part 10 of this series. Both scenes have very similar goals. We need the bad guys to make their goals clear. (Saren wants to serve the Reapers to save himself. TIM wants to control the Reapers.) We need to raise the stakes by taking something away from the heroes. (Kashley / The Prothean VI.) We need the player to lose a fight.
But the Saren fight was a pretty good encounter by the standards of second-act mandated player loss, and this scene on Thessia is one of the most irritating sequences of the entire franchise. Let’s look at why:
There’s no reason to strike up a conversation with Kai. The writer has done nothing to intrigue us, and in fact his character design is extremely off-puttingI realize tastes may vary, but I have yet to encounter someone besides the author who didn’t think this character was ridiculous.. It’s like having Sephiroth visit the starship Enterprise. Furthermore, He’s not the leader of Cerberus. He has nothing to offer us. He’s just dumb muscle. We have more important things to do.
You can make a forced conversation work if you give the audience something they want. If there’s a big emotional reveal, or a character enters the turning point of their arc, or you hit them with a plot twistA proper plot twist, and not just random unexpected bullshit. then they’ll hold still while the revelation plays out.
In Mass Effect 1, the game had us encounter Saren right after learning about what indoctrination was and how it worked. We were getting the chance to see Saren in light of this new information. Moreover, in that conversation we learned about his motivations. We could see why he thought he was serving SovereignBecause he imagined Sovereign would spare him. and we could also see why he was really serving SovereignBecause he was partially indoctrinated. and so his already-developed character was given additional depth.
In contrast, Kai and TIM have nothing new to say to us here. Kai waves his sword around and does ninja flips, and TIM simply repeats the same points he already made back on Mars. TIM once again tries to sell Shepard on the idea of controlling the Reapers. I guess he’s read the script and knows that the Catalyst will offer us that option at the end, because nothing in the story (aside from TIM himself) has suggested that this might be possible.
We can tell this is going to end in a fight. In Mass Effect 1, the two sides didn’t start talking until they’d taken cover and traded a few shots. They were taking a break from the fight to see if they could talk their way through. Here in Mass Effect 3, Shepard and company are just stupidly standing around in the open, making them seem impotent and short-sighted. Do they really think Cerberus is just going to give up and go home? Why don’t we start shooting? Why don’t we take up defensive positions? Why don’t we secure the VI? Why is my team standing around like a bunch of numskulls?
We could understand Saren’s point of view, even if we didn’t agree with it. He was trying to survive, and he arrogantlyYay, character-driven motivations! thought he could put one over on Space-Cthulhu. We can’t understand TIM’s point of view because we’re not allowed to ask about it. Where is he getting this idea of controlling the Reapers? Is this something he came up with himself, or is it from the copy of the Crucible plans he’s looked at, or is this just another blind assumption on his part due to indoctrination? We can’t ask him what he’d do with the Reapers, or how he thinks it will work, or where he got the idea, or how he plans to achieve it. He just shouts “Think of the possibilities!” If the game actually defined his end goal and how he means to achieve it, then we would have something to think about in this scene, as opposed to just waiting until we’re allowed to make meaningful input again.
As I’ve said before: The Illusive Man is a disaster of a character. Sometimes he’s hyper-competent, and sometimes he’s a blithering idiot. Sometimes the story pretends (through our friends) that Cerberus is serving humanity, and sometimes they’re just mass-murdering terrorist dingbats. And here is where all of those sloppy contradictions come back to bite the writer. Maybe TIM’s plan is a pipe dream, like Saren’s. Or maybe it’s just audacious, like taking over the Collector base. We can’t tell what the writer is trying to say, and we’re not allowed to ask.
Shepard is railroaded into disagreeing with TIM, and yet he isn’t allowed to make any intelligent arguments. Shepard continues to moralize or threaten, but never says anything incisive or persuasive, and he certainly never articulates anything approaching a solid argument. Even when TIM says stupid, contradictory stuff, Shepard doesn’t call him on it. Instead, Shepard’s arguments are simply emotional appeals.
The exchange ends with some taunting from the writer. TIM tells Kai to take the Prothean VI, and both of them do the swaggering villain thing where they act like the hero is powerless. Taunting is a dangerous thing for a villain to do in a game. If the player likes the villain, it can intensify the rivalry. But if they don’t, it instantly creates animosity towards the writer. The player is already aware that the writer is omnipotent within their own story, and it’s generally considered bad form to rub the player’s nose in it. And it’s really bad form if the writer seems to be reveling in that power. Suddenly this isn’t about Shepard vs. Kai Leng, but Player vs. writer.
The writer doesn’t want you interrupting their swaggering avatar, so they just point the camera at the bad guy. Because in the writer’s mind, people can’t take action if they’re not on the screen. The fight can’t start until Kai Leng allows it, and he has some sweet ninja poses he wants to show you first.
Of course, the writer doesn’t want to be caught doing anything lame and stupid like shooting a gun or hiding behind cover. That’s for losers. So Kai Leng fights with a sword and when his shields are low he drops into another ninja pose. In the open. While you shoot your gun at him from behind cover.
Once you drain his shields three times, you win. And by “win” I mean the writer takes control away from you again and makes you lose. Kai grabs LiaraWho was 100 meters away and behind cover just a second ago. and throws her into your third teammateWho wasn’t anywhere near her. and they both fly out of frame. As far as the writer is concerned, this means they have traveled to another dimension and can no longer contribute to the fight. Kai orders his gunship to level the templeWhich is apparently built over a featureless, bottomless chasm. In the middle of a vast city on one of the most densely populated planets in the galaxy. Because the rules of time, space, civil engineering, and real estate are less important than this writer’s constant need for self-gratification.. Cracks open up in the floor. Shepard falls on his ass and drops his gun into the abyss, then falls in after it for good measure.
Kai is only a couple of steps away, but he’s strutting confidently. The crumbling floor doesn’t apply to him. He’s not worried about falling in because he’s the writer and he made that abyss just for you. You can cling to the ledge just long enough to see his dramatic exit and listen to his one-liners. You don’t get any dialog, because the writer doesn’t want to hear your voice while he’s busy jerking off in your face. Loser.
Instead of giving us an interesting villain, the writer gives us a bland villain and tries to make up the difference with a crazy costume. And since the writer doesn’t have the talent or vision to make the villain seem impressive with wit or clever plans, they drag Shepard down with lame dialog and cutscene incompetence until the villain looks impressive in comparison.
“How can I have my super-cool bad guy escape this impossible situation? I’ll have Shepard fall down and shit his pants and cry!”
Like I said during Mass Effect 1:
[…]cutscene fights are a fragile point where the movie-story is crudely attached to the game-story, and the designer needs to be scrupulously careful about what happens during these encounters. The bigger the villain's victory, the more carefully their actions need to be portrayed, because the player is going to resent when control is stolen from them. Their player character needs to take actions that are acceptable to them, the villain needs to do things that obey the established rules, and the whole thing should have some sort of emotional payoff to justify (to the player) the loss of their input.
To sum up: You’re forced to talk when you’d rather fight. The talking simply repeats what you’ve already heard before. Then you’re forced to disagree when you’d rather ask for more information. But your disagreements are forced to be childish instead of pragmatic. You’re forced to continue talking when you can see that they won’t make any difference and it doesn’t matter what you say. The conversation ends with the writer taunting the player about how much power he has over them. Then there’s a fight where the writer flagrantly breaks the rules of the world, simply because they want their self-serving avatar to look “cool”. And then in the end, Shepard is beaten not by clever plans, but by cutscene incompetence, dumb luck, and by the writer ignoring the abilities of Shepard and his team.
Once again, this conversation isn’t in the service of the story or entertaining the player. It’s in service of the writer. He’s grabbed the controller out of the player’s hands and shouted, “MY TURN!” Because Shepard isn’t the main character. He’s the audience. Or maybe a prop. He doesn’t matter.
“Shamus, it’s not fair to say Kai Leng becomes the main character. He’s still the antagonist, and the antagonist can’t be the main character. Aren’t you just being salty because YOU selfishly want to always be at the center of the universe?”
The closest analog to Kai Leng is a slasher movie villain like Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger. They’re the signature characters. They get the cool camera angles, the cool one-linersMore so in the case of Freddy than Jason, but you get the idea. You could probably put the original Terminator into this category as well., the wild costumes, impressive musical cues, and they exist in a world where everyone else is a boring peasant. They get to be unstoppable badasses for most of the story, and even at the end they get to die the death of a badass. If you want to kill them you have to overkill them, because they’re Just That Tough. Even in defeat, they don’t ever suffer from regret or humiliation.
That’s fine if you’re supposed to be writing a story about a supernatural killing machine who slaughters his way through a cast of disposable, mostly-unlikable sacrificial lambs and treats them like his playthings, but in a sci-fi story about Commander Shepard finding a way to stop the Reapers, introducing this author-serving side-villain halfway through the final installment is maximally wrong.
It’s bad enough to prop up your villain by making the player character into a boring dunce, but it would be less painful if this was done in service of an interesting villain. The problem is that…
Kai Leng is All Costume
What drives Kai? Why did he join up with Cerberus? What does he value? What’s the big ideological difference that puts him and Shepard at odds? Nothing. He’s just another indoctrinated loony who can go anywhere in the universe at will, simply by jumping into the scene from just off-camera.
The whole point of Kai Leng is to give Shepard an adversary to oppose. Except, this game is already overflowing with adversaries. Cerberus is seriously crowding out the Reapers as Top Villain, and we have The Illusive Man running that show. We have Admiral Han’Gerrel and the Salarian Dalatrass acting as people who oppose him politically. There is not enough room in this crowded story to meaningfully introduce, build up, confront, and resolve yet another bad guy.
In Mass Effect 1, Saren is introduced during the tutorial. We learn his name, we see he works for the council, we see him betray a fellow Spectre, we see he commands the Geth, and we learn that he’s interested in the beacon. We learn his goals, we meet his allies, we visit his base, and we hear about his history with Anderson. He’s part of the story all the way until the end, and his death happens at the very climax of the story. By that point, the player will probably respect him as an adversary, and they may even pity him. Heck, if you spend your paragade points right, you can even redeem him.
Kai Leng isn’t even introducedNo, the tiny scene where he walks on-screen and TIM talks to him doesn’t count as being “introduced”. until the second act, he dies at the start of the third, and he does nothing to build up or underscore the themes of this game. He has no relationship with Shepard and no connection with the story aside from being someone you fight. Despite his outlandish and attention-grabbing character design, he has nothing interesting to say.
After the first fight with Kai Leng, Anderson phones up. As soon as Shepard mentions “an assassin”, Anderson says (paraphrase) “Holy shit it must be Kai Leng! Watch out for him, he’s a total badass!”
It’s like the writer looked at Mass Effect 1 and noticed that Anderson and Saren had a history, so they tried to do the same thing here. But Anderson has an interesting story to tell about Saren that ties into his character, his past, the Spectres, and acts as a payoff / reveal for things said during the Council meeting. It also contributes to the Turian / Human animosity that’s been simmering since the First Contact War. Saren fits within the world, and his backstory supports and even highlights the galactic politics currently playing out around you.
The guy playing with the Kai Leng puppet – who I’ve been charitably calling the writer – has missed the point entirely. Aside from the fact that he’s Yet Another Human in a story overflowing with them, there are no interesting stories like this about Kai. There’s just Anderson telling you how evil and dangerous he is. The writer has a sock puppet on each hand, and the left one is telling you how cool the right one is. You do get a bit of backstory, but that comes from an audiolog you find just before you fight him for the last time, and it isn’t even interesting or connected. The writer decided to make his character look like Nightwing, and they pretty much ran out of ideas after that point.
Kai Leng isn’t needed in this story. And even if he was, he wouldn’t work as a foil for Shepard because he isn’t given enough screen time to develop as a character. He’s another of the writer’s self-gratifying playthings. The writer – who is supposed to be making an entertainment product for the audience – has instead chosen to entertain himself at their expense.
Everybody makes a big deal about the ending to this game. Yes, it sucks. But Kai Leng’s presence in this story is grotesque, infantile, and self-indulgent. It’s shocking that this character design was even proposed, much less modeled, written, voice acted, scripted, and put into a real AAA videogame. He’s the antithesis of the BioWare style of storytelling. He doesn’t fit in this universe, this genre of videogame, or this genre of fiction.
I’d rather sit through the ending a dozen times than watch one Kai Leng cutscene again.
 I realize tastes may vary, but I have yet to encounter someone besides the author who didn’t think this character was ridiculous.
 A proper plot twist, and not just random unexpected bullshit.
 Because he imagined Sovereign would spare him.
 Because he was partially indoctrinated.
 Yay, character-driven motivations!
 Who was 100 meters away and behind cover just a second ago.
 Who wasn’t anywhere near her.
 Which is apparently built over a featureless, bottomless chasm. In the middle of a vast city on one of the most densely populated planets in the galaxy. Because the rules of time, space, civil engineering, and real estate are less important than this writer’s constant need for self-gratification.
 More so in the case of Freddy than Jason, but you get the idea. You could probably put the original Terminator into this category as well.
 No, the tiny scene where he walks on-screen and TIM talks to him doesn’t count as being “introduced”.
How I Plan To Rule This Dumb Industry
Here is how I'd conquer the game-publishing business. (Hint: NOT by copying EA, 2K, Activision, Take-Two, or Ubisoft.)
Shamus Plays LOTRO
As someone who loves Tolkein lore and despises silly MMO quests, this game left me deeply conflicted.
Fixing Match 3
For one of the most popular casual games in existence, Match 3 is actually really broken. Until one developer fixed it.
Starcraft 2: Rush Analysis
I write a program to simulate different strategies in Starcraft 2, to see how they compare.
A programming project where I set out to make a gigantic and complex world from simple data.