Mass Effect Retrospective 46: Kai Leng

By Shamus Posted Thursday May 5, 2016

Filed under: Mass Effect 313 comments

It’s finally time to talk about Kai Leng. Except not. Because first we need to talk about…

Dungeons & Dragons

NERD!
NERD!

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.

And then there’s this guy. Let’s call him JoshNot my friend Josh from our podcast. I’m talking about this Josh.. Josh brings in this character:

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.

GMPC

You don't want to tell me how awesome my character is? Check your dialog wheel, sparky. I don't think you have a choice.
You don't want to tell me how awesome my character is? Check your dialog wheel, sparky. I don't think you have a choice.

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.

No, now it's LAME.
No, now it's LAME.

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…

Thessia

I don't need the element of surprise. I have PLOT ARMOR.
I don't need the element of surprise. I have PLOT ARMOR.

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.

Sorry, TIM. Shepard doesn't have a brain either.
Sorry, TIM. Shepard doesn't have a brain either.

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.

Yes, we know there is only one way this can end. We can see it coming a mile away, because the writer is completely transparent and clumsy and we can see them blatantly cheating their ass off to make it happen.
Yes, we know there is only one way this can end. We can see it coming a mile away, because the writer is completely transparent and clumsy and we can see them blatantly cheating their ass off to make it happen.

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.

It's not just Shepard. The entire squad ends up standing around, holding the wrong weapons, not using their powers, not firing their guns, and basically waiting for their turn as punching bag.
It's not just Shepard. The entire squad ends up standing around, holding the wrong weapons, not using their powers, not firing their guns, and basically waiting for their turn as punching bag.

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.

The writer isn't mocking Shepard. Or the player. It feels like the writer is mocking this entire genre of fiction.
The writer isn't mocking Shepard. Or the player. It feels like the writer is mocking this entire genre of fiction.

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

*FART NOISES*
*FART NOISES*

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.

I never realized how flammable polished stone was.
I never realized how flammable polished stone was.

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.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Not my friend Josh from our podcast. I’m talking about this Josh.

[2] I realize tastes may vary, but I have yet to encounter someone besides the author who didn’t think this character was ridiculous.

[3] A proper plot twist, and not just random unexpected bullshit.

[4] Because he imagined Sovereign would spare him.

[5] Because he was partially indoctrinated.

[6] Yay, character-driven motivations!

[7] Who was 100 meters away and behind cover just a second ago.

[8] Who wasn’t anywhere near her.

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

[11] No, the tiny scene where he walks on-screen and TIM talks to him doesn’t count as being “introduced”.



From The Archives:
 

313 thoughts on “Mass Effect Retrospective 46: Kai Leng

    1. Mephane says:

      This could be misinterpreted. :)

    2. ChrisBChikin says:

      Had a fun thought while reading this: What if the Kai Leng character was replaced with whichever one of Kashley died on Virmire, also resurrected by Cerberus, possibly as a trial run of the process used to bring back Shepard, and mind-controlled or otherwise conditioned (maybe fuelled in part by anger at Shepard leaving them to die) to fight for them?

      Yes, this would be immensely contrived but no more so than Shepard’s own resurrection. It would tie the character into the story since we already know where they came from (we were there) and there’s an existing emotional tie to Shepard as well, confronting someone from their past who they weren’t able to save. The dialogues can have plenty of Paragade options trying to draw Kashley back to the good side with maybes he option for a Saren-style redemption at the end.

      Also, it would be cheaper, given the Kashley character models were already in the game and getting a voice actor you’ve already hired to do a few more lines is going to cost less than hiring a completely new one.

      I’m not saying this would be a good idea; just a better one than what we got.

  1. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Not my friend Josh from our podcast. I'm talking about this Josh.

    Wait,you mean the two arent one and the same?!?!

    1. 4th Dimension says:

      Yeah, because I could totally see Josh deliberately making an OP character simply to troll the others. Only he would have been a bit smarter about concealing his abilities, until time is right AND HE AN CHUCK FELLOW PC OF A BRIDGE and laugh at them. He is fully capable and willing to do the Joker thing and work hard for those couple of hours of looking to be effortlessly superior.

  2. Daimbert says:

    I was waiting for this one, because as I’ve mentioned before Kai Leng didn’t bother me anywhere near as much as he bothers everyone else. And part of the reason, I think, is this:

    . 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.

    I’m kinda used to gimmicks like that. Most boss fights in, for example, the X-Men: Legends/Marvel Ultimate Alliance games end up that way, especially in the later games. So do a lot of JRPG boss fights. So his having some kind of gimmick that lets him do that but that isn’t permanent — because you CAN eventually take them down — didn’t bother me that much. (Also, doesn’t he get covering fire from the gunship there, too? I seem to remember getting killed that way once). And I also don’t really mind the trick used to have him get away because at least it’s something that a) was already there and b) I couldn’t have dealt with. Yeah, losing sucks, but if I have to lose, losing because they shot the floor out from under me is something that I couldn’t have planned for in advance. The most annoying part is how broken Shepard seems after this fight, when there wasn’t really anything I could have done about it, but that’s easily explained more as a sign of depression over losing the thing that Shepard hoped would win the war. It’s been a rough past little while, so a little irrational despondency is to be expected.

    But another big part of this for me, I think, and it applies to the ending as well, is that both myself as player and myself as character refused to accept the words of others over what I myself knew or believed. So, Kai Leng is built up as this great and wonderful villain … and both the player and the character thought of him as a poser. He’s such a great antagonist that … his big plan was stopped by a dying assassin, and he managed to kill him before fleeing in failure. Ooooh, big man! Just warning Miranda that he’s on her trail lets her find a way to ensure that he doesn’t kill her, whereas if _I_ wanted to kill Miranda I might even let her know that I’m coming to make it more sporting (it’s not like Shepard hasn’t done that to OTHER antagonists in the series). Here, he wins not by beating me, but by using a gunship against me, while carefully keeping it out of reach for most of the battle because, hey, I’ve taken them out, too. And at the end, he tries to kill me with a sneak attack that I anticipated which let me finish him off in a way that makes ME really, really badass.

    As seen in the vids at the Cerberus base, Kai Leng is supposed to be TIM’s replacement for me. But I’m a hero, a bloody icon. Kai Leng is a poser. And for me the entire game is just Kai Leng proving EXACTLY that. He has good PR, but compared to me he’s a bug on the windshield … irritating until I can find the time to wipe it off.

    So that’s why I didn’t mind him, because even if the writer wanted me to think more of him that I did, I just can’t take him that seriously, either as a player or as a character.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      I'm kinda used to gimmicks like that.

      Its not the gimmick itself thats the problem,its that its in the wrong game.I play a lot of fantasy,so magic is nothing new to me.Fireballs being hurled at me is a common thing Im used to.But if I saw someone throwing a fireball in call of duty,Id be like “Da fuck?This is bullshit!”.

      1. Mike S. says:

        Mass Effect biotic and tech powers are effectively the same sort of magical attack with a different justification. (Mordin can even basically throw fireballs, and so can Shepard with the right build.) Kai Leng having some sort of heavier-than-usual shield is less of a stretch of the setting than, say, the ammo powers, and less of a stretch of physics than the assorted cold attacks.

        (Didn’t Benezia have basically the same thing in ME1?)

        1. guy says:

          The ammo powers don’t stretch the setting in any way whatsoever. They’re a clear alternate mechanic for the swappable ammo mods of the first game, which functioned by altering the internal bullet manufacturing systems of the guns.

          1. Mike S. says:

            So why can you only put armor piercing ammunition in your guns when Garrus is nearby? Does he have use his thumbprint to unlock the mod before you put it on your gun? :-)

            (Never mind how Liara contrives to put a charge of warp on each sliver of metal as it’s shaved off the block.)

            1. guy says:

              Actually I think that is the in-universe explaination. Fabrication pattern DRM is why you need to buy stuff and not just have your omnitool make everything for you in ME1.

              1. Mike S. says:

                Fiat DRM, ruat cà¦lum!

              2. Decius says:

                The pattern for an omnitool that doesn’t need patterns is too expensive? Or do Certified Genuine Omnitools all refuse to use open-source patterns, and nobody can bootstrap a single pirate omnitool?

                1. guy says:

                  I think the Fabrication Rights Management (that is what the codex actually calls it) is built into the pattern itself and cracking it or reverse-engineering a physical object is not a trivial endeavor, and an omnitool without patterns to use is a very expensive paperweight because rather than having a database of instructions on how to fabricate a wide variety of objects it does not.

        2. IFS says:

          He didn’t say ‘if someone threw a fireball in ME’ he said ‘if someone threw a fireball in call of duty’ (although to be fair I think a fireball flinging wizard wouldn’t be too out of place in the zombie modes in CoD).

        3. Daemian Lucifer says:

          See,I never said me2 powers dont feel off.In me1,yeah biotics and tech are basically magic,but the justification made it ok.And without me1,the ammo powers are just as ok in me2 and me3.But all three together,the whole ammo business is jarring.

    2. Coming_Second says:

      This feels like you’re over-thinking a character who is just ruddy terrible. He is Shepard’s replacement, and you do eventually overcome him in a way which should be bad-ass. However all of his beats convey that the writer thinks Kai Leng is incredibly awesome and frightening, a mirror darkly that is supposed to cast doubt on Shepard’s own ways and means. The fact he comes across as an embarrassing and annoying poser is simply the product of incredibly clumsy writing and stage-setting.

      All of his scenes build up to that final confrontation in Tim’s base. If the game had made you genuinely hate him, stabbing the prick and gritting out the name of someone he’s killed should be incredibly cathartic. Instead I wanted my Shepard to laugh and say “You really were pathetic, son. That e-mail? Those goggles? Holy crap, are you fifteen?”

      1. Daimbert says:

        This feels like you're over-thinking a character who is just ruddy terrible.

        Hey, I’M not the one who wrote a self-professed 4000 words on him [grin].

        This was pretty much my reaction throughout the game, though: Kai Leng is a poser that a lot of people think is a lot tougher than he really is. The comments here are my attempts to figure out why I didn’t react to him the same way most other people seem to. So it’s not that my overthinking is aimed at saving a poorly written character — which he is — but is aimed at figuring out, in the game context, both myself as player and character have the opposite reaction to that than most people. And for me, it’s because based on the writing and how it was pulled off, my impression of him in-universe is as a poser; people THINK he’s tough and cool, and HE thinks he’s tough and cool, but based on what happens he really, really isn’t. Yes, that’s not what the WRITER probably wanted me to think, but that’s not how it comes across in-universe and I refuse to be bound by what the writer WANTED to do over what they, well, actually DID.

        I feel the same way about the ending. The writer might have wanted the Star Child to express something deep and meaningful and TRUE, but when it tells me its reason for the Reapings all I as player and character can think is “Yeah, you’re just kinda screwed up, aren’t ya?”. And yes, that’s EXACTLY what my reaction was in the game when it gave me its reason.

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          but is aimed at figuring out, in the game context, both myself as player and character have the opposite reaction to that than most people.

          Its simple:Different people have different tolerances.Thats why some people got yanked out of it immediately in the beginning of me2,some during me2,some only in me3,and some only at the ending of me3.

        2. Coming_Second says:

          I think we’re more or less agreeing here. You’re arguing it from a personal perspective of why Leng didn’t figure much to you, whilst Shamus is delving meticulously into why he’s a ridiculous character – you (and I) both agree that regardless of how he impacts he’s terrible. That for some players he didn’t register at all doesn’t redeem him.

          The problem with author intent is redolent throughout ME3. Leng looks, says and does so many ridiculous things that you’re constantly wondering if in fact the author intended him to be this utter, mincing chump who is supposed to highlight how much more competent Shepard is. But nothing in ME2/ME3 allows you to credit Bioware with subtlety or slyness. What is seen has to be taken at face value, which is that they genuinely thought that with Kai Leng they were delivering an awesome, super cool dragon.

          1. Daimbert says:

            I think that Kai Leng was done poorly for the clear intent of the writer. I also think that a lot of the “I hate him!” comes from interpreting him in the light of what the writer wanted as opposed to how he really comes across in-game; we all agree that Kai Leng is not as impressive as presented, but for me that just meant that I think of him AS that, while others are rather holding him up and reacting to him as a failed super cool dragon.

            I’m not even going to say that those others are wrong [grin]. But this mostly explains why my reaction to him — and the game — isn’t the same as that of others, beyond mere tolerances.

            1. arisian says:

              Honestly, I think the issue here is not that people believe the writer about Kai Leng, so much as they understand what the writer wanted them to believe. When people say “I hate Kai Leng,” what they mean is “I hate the writer.” For all the reasons Shamus layed out, the writing here is terrible; this makes people upset.

              Granted, a high tolerance for anime-bullshit can be very helpful in getting through ME3, but the point is that you shouldn’t need a tolerance for anime-bullshit in this genre. If it were a JRPG, this would be par for the course (though still drivel from a writing standpoint). My first reaction to the ending was less instantly rage-filled than it might have been because I’ve watched a lot of anime with disappointing “colored lights” endings. That doesn’t mean the ending wasn’t bad, it just means that some people are more used to dissapointment. If your defense of a work is, “you need to have lower expectations,” you’re probably in trouble ;)

          2. Alex says:

            “Leng looks, says and does so many ridiculous things that you're constantly wondering if in fact the author intended him to be this utter, mincing chump who is supposed to highlight how much more competent Shepard is.”

            Shepard is not a person who needs to suffer fools, because Shepard is a heavily armed special forces operative with a license to kill. If Bioware intended for Kai Leng to be the chump he is, they would have let the player core him with their choice of mass driver the moment he started showboating.

            1. Trix2000 says:

              I couldn’t help but think of one of the Thessia scene starting as usual, with Kai walking down the aisle. Then he opens his mouth and starts speaking…

              …only for Shepard and crew to open fire immediately on him, with the follow-up: “What did you expect? That we were just going to sit here and listen to your drivel?”

              1. Richard says:

                If I recall correctly, I did core his head with one or two sniper rifle rounds the moment he appeared, but nothing happened because of cutscene rules.

                That really annoyed me. In-universe my sniper rifle should have straight-up murdered him pretty much the first time we met as his shield wasn’t up, yet it didn’t even knock his goggles off.

              2. SPCTRE says:

                That would be a great Renegade Interrupt kind of moment.

        3. Axehurdle says:

          Basically what you’re doing is reading parody into the writing. You can see Kai Leng as laughable because he gets all the cool one liners and bad ass camera shots that we all know he doesn’t deserve. Which when done on purpose is good comedy. The issue of course is that the writer wasn’t writing his character to be satirical so for a lot of people, who didn’t read that humor into the character, it just comes off as annoying.

          1. Daimbert says:

            No, I’m actually just describing my actual reactions as I played the game. There was no real analysis (although I did know stuff about this beforehand, because unlike many people I laugh at spoilers, sometimes literally [grin]) that led me to my feelings about Kai Leng, other than about the scene with Thane, and even THAT was mostly just my reaction. The analysis part is reading this analysis and determining why the interpretation of others is so different.

            I know what the writer intended. I know that they failed. But for me, in-universe, how they failed ended up making Kai Leng a poser. And I’m okay with that [grin].

        4. Syal says:

          The comments here are my attempts to figure out why I didn't react to him the same way most other people seem to.

          Does it have anything to do with this?

          Because dammit I’m posting it somewhere.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2Qa2J4j3_8

        5. Kian says:

          The problem is that while as a player you may feel that way (and I do too), you’re never allowed to express it in-game. You can never roll your eyes at him, or tell your teammates “What a push-over! TIM’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel now.” In-game, your character is impressed by this clown, and so are all your character’s friends.

          1. Daimbert says:

            One of the things that made me love Knights of the Old Republic was when you meet Malak and he gives you the big reveal, and when he asks “Doesn’t this make you angry?” I replied “No” … even though it did. Then later I gave it to the other companions over that being kept a secret from me.

            So I’m perfectly okay with the game presenting things one way while my character, in their head, really thinks otherwise [grin].

            That being said, I didn’t find my character all that gushing over Kai Leng most of the time, so I could ignore/forget that.

            1. guy says:

              This is why I like the KOTOR/NWN model of having things like:

              1. No I don’t.
              2.[Lie]No I don’t.

              It’s a clear method of having the character say something they don’t actually mean and have the player and (if mechanically relevant later) the game itself know that the character doesn’t mean it.

              1. Daimbert says:

                My main issue with that was that it tied the model too much into in-game representations, which limits the interpretation of the player of how that happened … especially in cases or for options that they left out. Having the game recognize whether or not you lied can limit your interactions later in the game, and often those consequences assumed what your intent was, which to me defeats the purpose of doing it.

                1. Trix2000 says:

                  That assumes the two choices actually differ in execution, which often they don’t. The important thing then isn’t the results of the choice but what sort of agency/options the player feels like they have.

                  Even if it ultimately has no effect on the proceedings, just being able to decide if your statement is a lie or not is a form of roleplaying for the player. It allows the player to decide for themselves what their character really thinks without having to mess with narrative branching, leaving both the player and writer happy.

                  I mean, that sort of flexibility was a lot of what I think the Paragade system was built on in the first place, though arguably the execution on that isn’t the best sometimes. While occasionally those options had big consequences (like saving the council or not), most of them were just variants in dialog which had little greater impact… but to a player it lets them decide which type of Shepard they want to be at any given time. That’s surprisingly powerful, which you can see in how much people ended up talking about their Paragon/Renegade playthroughs and choices.

                2. George Monet says:

                  Daimbert, I have no idea how you are unable to see the open and obvious problem with Kai Leng.

                  Kai Leng is the writer taking a dump and then rubbing the player’s face in it. That is all Kai Leng is. If you think he is something else then you are wrong. Simple as that.

    3. MichaelGC says:

      Aye – I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I recall barely noticing (F)KL when I first played the game. It was only after some time that he began to stand as symbol, somehow, for everything wrong the game and with BioWare’s approach during that time.

      Which only goes to show that whether it comes to you immediately, or if it grows & develops over time, there are many many ways to hate Kai Leng… ;D

      1. Zekiel says:

        My experience too. I found Kai Leng a bit annoying in the game. The Mandated Plot Failure at Thessia didn’t actually bother me that much – I managed to look past the stupid way it happened and embraced Shepard’s mandated depressive slump since it fit pretty well with how I was roleplaying my character.

        But on reflection I can totally see why everyone hates Kai Leng. And now I hate him too.

        1. Richard H. says:

          I didn’t mind the mandated plot failure, because, well, I’m used to that. (If there isn’t a tvtropes entry for “hero collects all the things the bad guy needs in one convenient spot,” there should be.) That particular boss fight was annoying and not terribly fun, though, which really pissed me off.

          Later, I got to learn that the character was a clown in every piece of official material involving him.

          1. guy says:

            MacGuffin Delivery Service.

    4. guy says:

      I play JRPGs too. My problem is that it’s just completely out of genre for Mass Effect to implement it in this way. I’ve never heard anyone complaining about the bossfight on Jack’s recruitment mission, where the warden raises an impenetrable forcefield from a series of projectors and you have to destroy all of them to render him vulnerable, because that does fit the setting despite being a standard bossfight gimmick I first recall encountering in the Warcraft 3 demo.

      1. Syal says:

        Yeah, JRPGs can get away with solving problems via you just being cooler than your opponent. Sci-fi, not so much.

    5. Steve C says:

      I'm also kinda used to gimmicks like that but my tolerance for them has gone way down over the years. As the graphic fidelity has increased, it just doesn’t work anymore for me. When over-the-top villains do their over-the-top thing it is like putting the hammy acting from silent movies into a modern IMAX movie. It just doesn’t work. It can still work as a parody but that’s it.

      It’s the reason why I cannot play JRPGs, nor any Konami game. It’s also why I like anime but never watch it. That sort of crap is just too prevalent. It is interesting how it can still work in games that have dialed the graphics way back like modern indie games.

  3. Daemian Lucifer says:

    And not by saying something clever, or interesting, or even tactically useful, but by asking a stupid question. “What do you want?”

    To be fair,its on par with everything else shepard has been saying from the beginning of the game(“We fight or we die!”).Shepard may have been an empty brick at first,but in me3 she is finally characterized.As an idiot,yes,but at least thats A characterization.Something is better than nothing,right?

  4. Daemian Lucifer says:

    He was trying to survive, and he arrogantly thought he could put one over on Space-Cthulhu.

    Technically,he did.If you look at his mistakes as a deliberate last ditch attempt to combat indoctrination,saren is the main reason the galaxy was made aware of sovereign and was prepared enough to barely secure a victory.

    1. Chris says:

      Absolutely, and it’s that sort of detail and depth that makes ME1 so great.

    2. Taellosse says:

      It’s impossible to prove one way or the other, of course, but I don’t think Saren was making those mistakes consciously or deliberately.

      Indoctrination is also characterized as causing irreparable damage to the mind of the subject. It’s subtler in someone being indoctrinated slowly like Saren, but it still happens – in the end you’ve still got a gibbering moron, it just takes longer. I think Saren’s mistakes were a combination of his usual arrogance and the creeping deficiency introduced by his indoctrination.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        I dont see them as the product of indoctrination simply because sovereign didnt try to rectify them.If it knew indoctrination could lead to such sloppiness,it would probably involve itself a bit more personally with what saren was doing.Which is why I believe sarens mistakes were,most probably unconscious,a warning to the rest of the galaxy.Sarens last dredges of loyalty and defiance.

        1. Taellosse says:

          Well, it’s clear that Sovereign was toweringly, fantastically arrogant (in ME1, this was implied to be a racial trait. Harbinger sort of acts the same way in ME2, except for his bizarre obsession with Shepard as an individual. There’s a brief conversation with one of the mini-Reapers in ME3 that has the same sort of tone, so it’s presumed that was the intention, even if it wasn’t executed with equal skill across the whole series). The implication I got was that he adopted the approach of telling Saren to make something happen (find the location of the Conduit, get inside the Citadel, and unlock the controls so Sovereign can summon the other Reapers), and then not bothering to keep up on something as petty and trivial as how Saren chose to go about it. It’s entirely possible that Sovereign just wasn’t paying that much attention. He certainly gives the impression in the conversation on Virmire that he’s not all that worried about this particular plan succeeding – even if it fails, he’s supremely confident of the Reapers’ eventual victory, and he adopts the perspective that they’ve got the time to wait – to him, even the millennial perspective of the Asari and older Krogan is an eyeblink.

          1. Daemian Lucifer says:

            Not quite.Sovereign does present itself as arogant and uncaring about meager races,but its still well aware of its limitations,careful,meticulous and patient.It worked on assembling the geth,getting saren and benezia,and a bunch of other things for quite a long time.Sovereign may be even sincere in its arrogance,but its not stupid or careless.It lost due to a fluke more than anything else.

  5. Calliope says:

    Kai Leng is great. He’s a greasy-haired pimple-faced nerd with his own Hanzo-steel katana and mind-controlled sexy Phantom posse running around pretending he’s a hero by killing dying assassins and unarmed politicians. His final character beat, of course, is blubbering and crying while Shepard takes him down to size. That tie-in novel stuff about eating cereal and pissing in plant pots is even funnier.

    He’s also an image of what Shepard would have ended up as if he’d lost Mass Effect 2 and stayed with Cerberus, so that’s important too.

    I don’t think it’s necessary to mis-characterise the game to make your points. Shepard doesn’t fire on Kai Leng because they’re blinded and outgunned by the gunship. TIM knows a lot about the Reapers because he has the remaining tech from the Collector base. Shepard doesn’t say anything during the temple collapse because, you know, they’re busy trying not to die (it certainly beats Saren holding Shepard out over the edge of the AA tower and not dropping them). I’m sure you could find a quote for Anderson instead of a hyperbolic paraphrase. You get the idea.

    1. Shamus says:

      “”Shepard doesn't fire on Kai Leng because they're blinded and outgunned by the gunship. ”

      Shepard says no such thing. He doesn’t make any motion to his squad or say what he’s thinking, which would go a long way to fixing this.

      “TIM knows a lot about the Reapers because he has the remaining tech from the Collector base.”

      Again, that would have been a great thing to throw in this conversation. It would have helped justify ME2. TIM could say what he thought he could do, and where he got the idea, and why he wanted to do it.

      “Shepard doesn't say anything during the temple collapse because, you know, they're busy trying not to die”

      Right. The point is that the writer made you powerless and incompetent and mocked you for it.

      “I'm sure you could find a quote for Anderson instead of a hyperbolic paraphrase. ”

      I could. But this made my point in fewer words.

      1. Daimbert says:

        Shepard says no such thing. He doesn't make any motion to his squad or say what he's thinking, which would go a long way to fixing this.

        There’s a gunship up there that has you in firing range that ISN’T currently shooting at you, and Kai Leng is walking towards you totally unprepared for combat. I’m not sure I’d trust any squadmates in combat that might think “Hey, now’d be a really good time to start a firefight!” [grin].

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          Why not?We already fought a gunship before.One more wouldnt be a problem.

        2. Shamus says:

          Either he should shoot or take cover. No matter how you look at it, standing in the open and talking is stupid.

          Shepard has defeated two gunships by now (Garrus recruitment, Samara recruitment, both in ME2) and both of those took place at closer range than this. A gunship isn’t insurmountable. Well, until this fight, because the writer says so.

          1. Daimbert says:

            I did think that he should have taken cover, but I don’t find that egreg