Shepard rides an elevator up to the Crucible. I have no idea why a control panel has an elevator that lifts you up to the exterior of the Citadel. I don’t know how you survive there with no helmet. I suspect that the answer both questions is that the writer simply wanted you to be someplace fantastical when you meet…
The Star Child
So the personification of the Reapers is a ghost hologram of a ten year old boy. This is the best idea in this entire scene. Which is a shame, because it’s still a terrible idea.
Star Child introduces himself and explains that he controls the Reapers. He explains that his job is to command this fleet of machine gods to kill all spacefaring organics every 50,000 years. He does this because advanced organic species inevitably build robots, and those robots will inevitably wipe out the organics. So that’s why this kid has his robots kill everyone. To prevent this.
This is the explanation behind the Reapers. For real.
The rumor is that this idea was devised very late in development by two people, and that the concept didn’t go through the normal peer-review process. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I want to believe it. I want to believe talented people were backed into a corner, made a few bad calls under pressure, and wound up making a huge mistake. I want to believe this because the alternative is that somebody out there really thought this would make for a good story.
It’s easy to believe this idea came together at the last minute, because the rest of the game – if not the series as a whole – contradicts it. Just a few hours ago we saw the end to the Geth vs. Quarian conflict. The backstory showed that the Quarians were always the aggressors in that fight, and that the Geth were always willing – perhaps even eager – to make peace. The Geth are possibly the least warmongering race in the galaxy. They left everyone else alone for hundreds for years, and it wasn’t until the Reapers themselves showed up that they turned hostile.
Let me say that again: The Reapers are here to kill us because they’re afraid synthetics will kill us, but the Geth were peaceful until they fell under the influence of the Reapers. Not only are the Reapers not the solution to the problem, they are actually the only apparent cause of it. Sure, you can argue that the Geth were an exception and that sooner or later you’ll get machine genocide. But then you just have an ending premise that’s telling you to ignore what you’ve been shown. The end of a story is supposed to be the payoff for the stuff that came before, not an abrupt re-write.
On a more personal level, EDI can build some sort of awkward romance with Joker. She was basically an AI slave made from Reaper Tech and developed by Cerberus, the worst people ever. And yet when her AI shackles were lifted she fell into trope-y computer love with her human friend and repeatedly risked her life to save her friends and defeat the Reapers. Her parts were bad, her creators were bad, but she is virtuous. Again, the only AI that seems to be a threat to organics are the ones designed to save organics from AI.
It’s Too Late to Change Premise
Sure, the Geth were occasionally antagonists. But they have also been allies. Sure, their conflict with the Quarians is an important part of this universe, but so is the Genophage, the Rachni, the Krogan rebellions, and all of the other historical events that shaped this galaxy. And in terms on impact and reach, the Geth have actually been pretty minor compared to the others. Now suddenly this B plot is being lifted above all the other B plots and made the center of the story.
So the big reveal at the end is a premise that comes completely out of nowhere, wasn’t part of the themes of the game, and isn’t just unsupported but repeatedly contradicted by the events of the story.
Even if we want to hand-wave these problems, you can’t just drop a new premise into the last minutes of a story and expect it to work. The audience has been anticipating the resolution to the Reaper conflict, and now that’s being superseded by a new premise that hasn’t been established. It’s like Frodo reaching the slopes of Mt. Doom and suddenly some completely new character emerges and says that The One Ring doesn’t really matter, because the really important conflict is deciding what to do about wizards in this world. It’s like Luke getting to Palpatine’s throne room and learning this whole Death Star thing is a distraction from the real problem, which is that we need to decide what to do about droids. It’s like Kirk reaching V’Ger and the space god says they need to hammer out what they’re going to do about Klingons.
This new concept has no momentum in the hearts of the audience. The audience has invested nothing in it and they’re not curious about it. People complain that the Star Child makes no sense – and it’s true, he really doesn’t – but no matter how much exposition you add, you can’t make this ending work as a proper conclusion to what came before. Because even if it made sense, we still wouldn’t care.
You can argue with the Star Child, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. You have to accept this broken premise or turn the game off. There are a lot of things wrong with this ending, but I feel like most of them are obvious and have been covered in such exhaustive detail that it wouldn’t really add anything if I tried to recount them all here. The point is that the story is fundamentally broken at this point. It’s not just that the ending isn’t good, it’s that this is no longer an ending for a science fiction story.
Twilight, by Shamus Young
So the first two Twilight books are out and the series is a pretty big hit. Stephenie Meyer can’t write the sequels, so she’s outsourced the job to me. I’m given the job of writing two more books that will complete the story. I don’t know why she hired me. She just did.
I don’t know anything about writing teen romance. I don’t like it, I don’t read it, and it actually kind of gets on my nerves. But now I have to write one.
So… plot twist! It turns out that leading man Edward is also a retired Witch Hunter. They weren’t mentioned in any of the previous books, but there’s this nasty coven of super-powerful witches who are a threat to all vampires. No… the Earth! So Edward has to get his sword out of mothballs (he never told Bella about his old job because he didn’t want her to worry) and hunt down all these witches.
What follows are hundreds of pages of Ed killing witches in brutal, high-energy fight scenes. Ed gets a costume with a black cape and maybe a gun-sword or a shuriken-crossbow or somesuch. The books are all about fighting these witches and how dangerous they are to the world.
Every few hundred pages I have to stop and give some lip service to this whole “teen romance” thing. But I don’t know how to write teen romance. So the Bella / Edward romance never progresses beyond the point where Meyer handed it over to me. Their conversations repeat the same themes every time and they have the same arguments. They fight and make up, always talking about how everything will be okay once this witch-hunting thing is over.
Then, at the end of the last book, I finally have Ed kill the witch-queen and save the world. Great, now I just need to wrap up this romance bullshit and we can call it done.
I still don’t know how to build a proper teen romance, but I’m familiar with the tropes of the form. I’ve seen some romantic comedies and I think I basically get the idea. Let’s see…
Bella and Edward seem doomed to break up. He meets her at a train station in the rain. (Fans: WTF is this writer doing? This town doesn’t have a train station!) They talk and stop fighting and profess their love for each other (What about Jacob, did you forget about him???) and agree to move in together. (What about Edward insisting on getting married!?!) The sun comes out (Aren’t they in a public place? He sparkles in direct sunlight! Did you even READ the original, you asshole!?!) and they decide to move to New York (Edward would never!) and he can help her start her career as a painter. (WHAT the SHIT?!?)
If you didn’t know or care about Twilight, you probably wouldn’t see anything wrong with this scene. I mean, isn’t this how they’re supposed to end? A relationship solidifies, our leads kiss, we get some symbolic happy scenery, and they discuss how they’ll spend their Happily Ever After. It’s sappy love story horseshit. Isn’t that what the fans want? You’re probably happy to read a story that was 80% badass witch-hunting and only 20% of this stuff.
But while I’ve copied the superficial trappings of a romance story, I’ve totally failed to make one myself. This is not a proper ending to the Twilight saga. It’s not even a proper ending to my witch-hunting books. It’s just a fake ending devised by a someone who didn’t understand the form he was trying to mimic and didn’t respect the source material he was working with.
This is what happened to Mass Effect.
I See What You’re TRYING to do, But…
You can see it in the way the the Reaper plot didn’t move forward in the second game. At the end of the first game, Shepard was going to “find a way” to beat the Reapers. At the end of the second game, he was still stuck at that point. And in the third game, other people handed him a way to beat the Reapers with no build-up. From the closing credits of Mass Effect 1 to the moment Shepard met the Star Child, his quest for knowledge never actually went anywhere. This writer didn’t want to write about Reapers any more than I want to write about sparkly vampires, so they had you recruiting friends, fighting bugmen, and fighting a war against Cerberus.
The Cerberus storyline did not fit with anything the first game set out to do. The focus on Cerberus was wrong. The focus on Shepard being a hero was ill-fitting. The focus on Earth and humanity was disappointing and lacking in vision. Making all the aliens into inert spectators was frustrating. Solving the Reaper problem with a machine we don’t understand was wrong. Making the Reapers into trash-talking space monsters was shockingly wrong. Kai Leng was wrong, and then some.
The ending to Mass Effect 3 sort of superficially resembles a classic sci-fi story: You’re in a fantastical place, with a space battle in the background. You’re talking to a mysterious alien made of pure light, who is talking about a mystery that spans millions of years. If you squint, maybe you can see fragments of sci-fi classics floating around in this soup of nonsense. It’s got a space battle like Return of the Jedi. It has a glowing super-being shaped after a deceased character as in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There’s some bizarre mystery and obtuse messages like 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it doesn’t actually come together to say anything. Making an incomprehensible ending does not make you Stanley Kubrick. Having exposition delivered by an immortal machine does not make you Gene Roddenberry.
This authorOr whatever we’re calling the person who orchestrated the through-line of this plot. was wrong for this material. They either didn’t understand or didn’t care about this universe or this style of story. Like turning Twilight into a series about killing witches, they turned Mass Effect’s space mystery about how to defeat the machine gods into space marine action schlock where you fight Cerberus. Like copying random romance tropes to wrap up my story, the writer resolved the Reaper plot mostly off-screen with a magic Reaper-killing device and then gave us a final dialog of random tropes that sound vaguely profound but don’t have anything to do with what came before.
Mass Effect 1 was not designed to tell the story the Mass Effect 3 writer wanted to tell, and they basically broke the universe trying to make it fit. It’s entirely possible that if the Mass Effect 3 writer had been in control from the start, we could have enjoyed a single coherent story about a badass space marine who saves the galaxy from space-Hydra. You could tell a good story about Cerberus, but you can’t do it properly using Mass Effect 1 as a starting point.
This is also why the Mass Effect series is so contentious. Edward Cullen, Witch Hunter would probably be a more popular story than Twilight. To be totally honest, I’d rather read that than the real Twilight books. And so there would always be this rift in the fanbase: The people who wanted their love story, and the people who showed up later when the series “got good”. The story changed audiences. But not in an honest, deliberate, structured way, but in a way that hijacks the story to serve the new audienceOr if we’re being less charitable, the new writer. while paying insincere – almost condescending – lip service to the old.
After I was done ruining the Twilight books, fans of the series could comfort themselves with the knowledge that they have lots of other options. While it’s always frustrating to have a series you enjoy take a bad turn, teen romance novels are plentiful. But big idea, story-driven, character-rich science-fiction videogames? We don’t get many. Even four years later, the community is still sore about this, because there’s nowhere else to go. There’s no alternative series to play Pepsi to Mass Effect’s Coke. There’s just lingering disappointment and the sad hope that maybe the Classic BioWare writing staff will magically reconstitute and grant us another science fiction game.
It’s been a long series (novel-sized, actually) but we’re finally going to conclude it next week. I’ve already written a big part of the next one. It’s a surprise. For now I just want to gently remind people that I’ve got a Patreon if you’d like to support my efforts to create more of this kind of content.
 Or whatever we’re calling the person who orchestrated the through-line of this plot.
 Or if we’re being less charitable, the new writer.
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