I’m writing this long and rambling post as a direct consequence of a retrospective series I read not long ago on the Mass Effect games. If you’re interested, go check it out, it’s a great read: Mass Effect Retrospective at Twenty-sided. And the specific entry this post is in response to: Part 34. The specific passage that triggered the idea for my post is as follows:
“The Cthulhu idea was abandoned. The Reapers are reduced from gods to bullies. This is why the whole “quest for knowledge” idea was important. You can’t beat gods with guns. You need to find the secret to close the gate, break the spell, placate the gods, or otherwise avoid or forestall your doom. (Even beating them with a superweapon feels sort of lame and ill-fitting.)”
There are some striking parallels between Mass Effect and Babylon 5 – hell, B5 was clearly a big inspiration for Bioware – but this passage in particular stands out to me. Babylon 5 absolutely nailed the concept of incomprehensible and timeless villains here to ruin our day, because B5 had coherent themes throughout and tied those themes into basically everything that happened through five whole seasons. Having only one writer really helps to keep everything together, too.
Mass Effect, by contrast, swings wildly between a variety of themes – the quest for knowledge stuff basically went out the window, for example, replaced largely by shooty-bang-bang action schlock – and never seems to nail any of them down, falling flat at the end as a result. I’ll largely be focusing on the Reapers themselves and their backstory for this post. Warning: Rambling ahead.
It was firmly established at the end of ME1 that the Reapers are too powerful to be fought conventionally, and Sovereign hammers this point home in the final clash outside the Citadel; it takes an entire Alliance fleet along with various Turian ships (and potentially others we don’t see) to even stem the tide of Geth, and Sovereign itself is effectively untouchable until its shields fail… and that only seems to happen because it’s distracted by Terminator-Saren fighting Shepard inside the station.
Flowing naturally from this, the idea that we can beat the Reapers via some form of superweapon – no matter what form that weapon takes – flies in the face of everything the first game strove to convey about the threat. And we also know that even the Protheans, who were far ahead of us technologically, stood no chance against the Reapers.
Partly this was due to their inability to change tactics, stubbornly throwing military might –throwing entire star systems under the galactic bus – against an implacable foe until they ran out of fodder, and partly due to the shut down Relays.
But it was likely also in large part due to the Reapers simply being an indomitable adversary who can’t be beaten through force of arms. As J. Michael Straczynski once noted regarding Babylon 5 (paraphrased): There’s always someone with a bigger gun, you have to understand your way out of the problem.
And that’s exactly correct going by what we’re told in ME1. Space Cthulhu is ancient, immensely – in fact, immeasurably – powerful and, as far as we know, impossible to reason with. Why would it ever be possible to beat that with guns? Or even space magic, which is what the Crucible ultimately boils down to. So let’s take a look at the mess introduced in ME3’s ending involving the Reapers’ purpose.
Star Child turns up literally out of nowhere with no foreshadowing of any sort and tells you that synthetics always rebel against their creators, and that in order to prevent this the Reapers wipe out all advanced sentient life in the galaxy every 50,000 years, because galactic genocide is fun, amirite?
It makes no difference at all how you decided to handle that minor plot point involving the Geth and Quarians across all three games, not like that was anything important at all, just a random diversion really. Yep.
Oh wait, I actually got the Quarians and Geth to work together and cohabit their original world! But could I bring this up in conversation with the Reaper I killed during those missions? Nope. Synthetics always rebel, end of story, despite this patently being untrue.
This actually reminds me of Bethesda’s approach to world building in Fallout 3, compartmentalising everything to such a degree that nothing connects to anything else or makes any real sense; it feels like Bioware’s writers had the same problem, especially when you compare the main story to the side/loyalty type missions, and see the massive discrepancy in overall quality and polish.
Regardless, if this is the direction Bioware wanted to take the series even after establishing something entirely different in the first game, then how could they have handled it without it coming off as sophomoric and amateurish? First up, draw from their inspirations a little more heavily.
Babylon 5 is clearly a huge inspiration (ancient evil awakens, returns, wipes whole races out for reasons beyond our current understanding), and that show handled its endgame excellently, primarily because Straczynski always knew how he wanted to end that arc, and had very clear themes running through the whole show to support that end.
Warning, Babylon 5 spoilers incoming, please watch the show if you haven’t already, I don’t want to spoil the conclusion to its best arc. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. LAST CHANCE TO TURN BACK. Okay? Okay.
I’m not saying Bioware should have copied the parental themes, or the light/dark/shades of grey, or the themes of choice and understanding oneself and what one wants. But there is one standout idea in the conclusion to the Shadow conflict Bioware most certainly could have learned from; the Battle of Coriana 6.
Sheridan knew they couldn’t go toe-to-toe with the Shadows or Vorlons directly, and certainly not both at once. So the whole battle seems like a suicide run, right?
Except the battle isn’t what’s important. The battle is simply a means to an end, a way to break the cycle of destruction for good. By forcing the hand of these two ancient and powerful races, Sheridan puts them into a position where the younger races can talk to them directly and force out the truth, allowing everyone, every single race present at that battle (some two dozen species), to understand what they’re fighting for.
Sheridan’s understanding comes from meeting Lorien on Z’ha’dum. Vigil is pretty much the Mass Effect parallel, the Old One character with knowledge that can inform and help our heroes figure out a way to win.
Armed with this new knowledge, Sheridan is able to take action to stop the cycle. He doesn’t build a superweapon to accomplish this, because he doesn’t need to. Sheridan has something more powerful than a mere superweapon; knowledge, understanding, and the truth.
Shepard manages none of this, instead becoming a hero, a bloody icon, with no more agency or ability to affect outcomes than the player. He is railroaded or blocked at literally every turn by idiots with their heads in the sand.
Sheridan’s arc from mere captain of the station to the hero who defeats the Shadows and Vorlons and changes the galaxy forever is earned at every step of the way. He’s also a natural leader and born strategist. Shepard’s victories, by contrast, are mostly obtained via writer fiat. They never feel truly earned. And at the end of the day, he’s a grunt, why did the whole galaxy end up polarising around him/her?
Note also how Earth itself is never a major focus in B5? Sheridan achieves all of this himself without the show even once invoking assumed empathy by having Earth attacked or threatened directly. Yes, the Shadows held influence there via Morden, Clark, and Psi Corps, but that was always held back as a thread to be unravelled and tied up in the next season, with occasional hints through each of the earlier seasons.
Additionally, we meet and get to know a little about some of the people involved in the battle for Babylon 5 during the climactic mid-season 3 episode, Severed Dreams; Hiroshi and Major Ryan, as well as having an emotional connection via Ivanova and the other main cast members, all of whom are profoundly affected by this. The battle – both outside and in the station – has weight because it was properly led up to and foreshadowed, and the viewer has reason to care.
With Mass Effect 3, Earth was made central to the plot, despite large chunks of the first two games taking place around the galaxy itself, especially the Citadel. JMS uses the shadow over Earth to inform and add depth to the plight of the Babylon 5 crew as they attempt to face and overcome a seemingly impossible challenge, but Earth – and humanity as a whole – is never used as a stick to beat the viewer around the face in the way Mass Effect 3 does.
Back to The Battle of Coriana 6, the whole point of that massive fleet battle against not one, but two impossible to defeat forces is to get Sheridan into a position where he can expose the secret motivations of the Shadows and Vorlons to the rest of the major races present there. The idea was never to win via force of arms, because that’s simply not possible.
Likewise, Mass Effect 3’s final battle is set up similarly; all the major races you’ve got on board staging a strike against the Reapers to get teams onto the planet’s surface. Same basic premise, right?
So why does Babylon 5’s pay dividends – especially when you consider that Coriana 6 is unknown to the viewer before that point, it’s merely a low-tech planet of 6 billion people the Vorlons happen to have targeted – while Mass Effect’s basically just falls flat? Simple, because Mass Effect forgot everything it worked towards in previous games, assuming the player will care because look, humans!
For a massive space battle like that to pay off and not devolve into Gratuitous Space Battles™, there needs to be an emotional connection of some sort. The viewer or player needs to be involved, invested, attached.
Over the course of three full seasons we’ve got to know the B5 Command Staff; Sheridan, Ivanova, Garibaldi, Franklin, etc. well enough to be attached, to like them as people and characters, warts and all. We’ve also got to know the various ambassadors; G’kar, Londo, Delenn, others, some of whom are antagonists both in the present and past.
We’ve even been introduced to and got to know, for better or worse, some of the major antagonists; Morden puts a human face on the Shadows, Kosh gives us insight into the Vorlons, we occasionally see some of the Shadows themselves, thoroughly nasty Night Watch members are present for several episodes, and Bester provides an unpleasant perspective on the growing telepath and Psi Corps problems.
By contrast, Mass Effect can’t even seem to figure out who its real villains are. The first game handles this well; Sovereign is kept mysterious throughout until we get to Virmire and discover its true identity. The Geth are developed via exposition and dialogue involving the Quarians and AI in general, and we directly face them through the whole game.
Plus they get some nice development in ME2. No problem there, the whole heretic plotline was great, especially when tied into Tali’s loyalty mission and the big resolution missions in ME3.
But then we get The Illusive Man and Cerberus, and suddenly the enemy is our ally, until they’re not any more and now Cerberus is the enemy again, plus indoctrination and look! Space unicorns! Because that makes about as much sense as Cerberus.
Or maybe Cerberus was always the enemy and the writers just had no clue how to make them compelling or sympathetic during the period in ME2 where we’re forced to work for them? Who knows.
Getting a good inside look at Cerberus could have been amazing. A more intimate take on these bumbling fools we’ve been hearing about occasionally since the first game. A look at their goals, motivations, ideals, something to tell us why what they’re doing is necessary. A reason to care.
Likewise, most of the basic mooks we fight are faceless mercs from several races including human, and ME3 throws huskified enemies from those same races into the mix. The husk types at least have some weight thanks to the meticulous detail put into each race and how often we engage with members of those species.
The one enemy they nailed was the Banshee, because you see both where and how they’re created during Samara’s mission at the Ardat-Yakshi Monastery, and that whole section has some harrowing and emotional moments to give that enemy some weight.
Let’s take another Babylon 5 example, an episode from season 5 titled The Corps is Mother, The Corps is Father. This episode is a prime example of how you can focus on the antagonists for a while and show exactly how they operate, why they think the way they do, and their motivations.
The episode shows Psi Corps from the inside, from the point of view of Bester and a couple of low-ranking operatives new to the Corps. Propaganda, information manipulation, underhanded tactics, effective brainwashing. All of these are used to good effect to show the kind of organisation Psi Corps is, and how they get away with everything they do: indoctrination.
Cerberus, on the other hand, bungles everything it touches, routinely conducts shady science experiments that always go wrong for both them and anyone unfortunate enough to have been involved (test subjects especially).
And while they parrot TIM’s pro-Human ultra pragmatic ‘we’re the only ones looking out for human interests against the Reaper threat’ spiel, it’s clear by their very actions that they’re not only dangerous and inept terrorists, they’re not even able to accomplish the very thing they’re purportedly setting out to do.
See how quickly this post has spiralled out of control as I try and establish what I’d do to fix the series’ problems? Rather than fixing them, I’m getting deeper and deeper into a web of broken and illogical threads that do nothing more than confuse me further. That’s how broken Mass Effect is, as Shamus has been pointing out for many weeks now in his retrospective series.
So let’s wind down a bit and talk briefly on some themes that might have made this more palatable, assuming we keep the Reapers’ core motivations, at least the parts about organic and synthetic life being incompatible.
Coming back to Coriana 6, the battle there is how Sheridan forces the truth out. Lorien specifically says ‘he is building a crucible, which he hopes will force out the truth.’ Crucible. Sound familiar? Except Sheridan’s crucible is metaphorical where Mass Effect 3’s is a literal device, a pointless superweapon we have no idea as to the true purpose of, which also misses a critical component no one seems to be able to explain. Whaaaaaat?
If we’re going to give the Reapers a motivation beyond being unfathomable Space Cthulhu Old One villains, then something simple but effective is probably a good idea. Maybe they simply don’t want anyone challenging their power?
Or they consider (via their programming) biological lifeforms to be too unpredictable and therefore dangerous, but scanning the whole galaxy is too much even for them, hence they have to wait until life reaches a point where it’s highly visible and easy to exterminate?
Perhaps they have an inferiority complex thanks to their own creators, and now strive over millions and millions of years to create an even better version of themselves, just to show their creators they were stupid meanie-heads, but none of the cycles have so far produced that desired perfect result (impossible anyway due to entropy). Or maybe the cycle of extinction is something more basic and primal; simply how the Reapers reproduce, nothing more, nothing less.
Whatever the motivation, it needs to be clear, easily understood, and consistent with the world you’ve created. For an example of how to do this well, see Darth Vader and the Emperor in Star Wars episodes 4-6. For an example of how to do this poorly, see Anakin and Palpatine in episodes 1-3.
Remember when you speak to Sovereign on Virmire and he gives his speech about the Reapers being the ultimate pinnacle of evolution and existence?
Evolution and existence. Yep. This ties neatly into the idea of the Reapers having a galactic inferiority complex. They were created by the apex race (‘Leviathan’), and because of that they feel inferior, eternally trying to one-up their creators; “Look what we can do! We created something even better, neh-neh!”, even going so far as to arrogantly proclaim perfection before mere mortals who Sovereign itself says are beneath notice.
If they’re beneath notice, why do you feel the need to announce your own perfection? Even calling itself sovereign (as in a sovereign nation, untouchable, undefeatable) indicates not only arrogance, but insecurity.
In Babylon 5, the Shadows and Vorlons were shown as parental figures representing chaos and order respectively, shepherds for the younger races, there to guide them and help them grow. Over time they became so embroiled in the idea of whose ideology was best that their original purpose was wholly forgotten in their desire to be right.
For the Reapers, this theme would instead be approached from the point of view of the child; a race of super powerful sentient machine gods with severe parental abandonment and inferiority issues, so determined to prove themselves that they forget the original purpose behind the experiment (creating the perfect amalgam Borg-like race or whichever random idea you like).
The races of the galaxy have been caught in this cycle ever since, evolving and developing and creating synthetics, but never managing to make the perfect amalgam because it’s effectively impossible; chaos and entropy rule the universe, but the Reapers are based both on logical technology and illogical squishy bits, stuck with the best and worst of both worlds and unable to see their own fundamentally flawed thinking.
How does this tie into the final fleet battle and all the broken events of the second and third games? Simple. Like Coriana 6, the final battle is simply there to facilitate forcing out the truth. Except it’s the Reapers we’re revealing the ultimate truth to. They need to be made to understand that they’ve failed in what they intended to do, but still succeeded in surpassing their creators by breaking away from their programming and doing what they wanted to do, even if it cost untold trillions of lives in the process.
Something like that anyway. As with any story, ideas like this need to go through iterations and drafts to work out all the issues, but the general theme would be understanding our way out of the problem by helping the Reapers see sense, not just rushing in guns blazing against an utterly implacable foe. Judging by the quality of ME3’s ending… I’m not sure those responsible remembered how important both drafts and peer critiques are to a story.
There are so many little tweaks you could make to the backstory of the Reapers to make them more logical and consistent, and to give them some level of motivation (assuming you’re going that route rather than Space Cthulhu).
But instead we got… Star Child. And the Citadel moving to Earth despite none of the previously revealed lore indicating this was even possible or how it might be achieved (pretty sure there’s a limit to how much mass a Relay can move at one time?). And a ridiculous ‘synthetics can’t coexist with organics’ backstory that makes no sense in a world where I created a lasting peace between the Quarians and Geth.
But as Shamus has pointed out several times in his series, these problems run deeper than a single broken plot point, piece of lore, or backstory. The entire series is a mess… to the point where I wonder if we should rename it to Mess Effect.