SPOILERS FOR THE MASS EFFECT TRILOGY FOLLOW
What I’m about to say has been said before, but I want to expound on it a little more. But let me preface this first. The Mass Effect trilogy is one of my favorite video game series of all time (OF ALL TIME). The universe Bioware created drew me in and I spent countless hours reading codex entries to learn about the various races, technologies, locations, etc. I severely enjoyed the story and remember agonizing over various choices the series confronted you with. I don’t claim to know how to make a good video game. If someone were to challenge me to make a better game, my first step would be to google “how is video game formed”. That being said, I am asserting the Mass Effect trilogy would have been better if the story for the games was rearranged. It should have gone 2, 1, 3.
Why don’t you listen to our remix of “Uncharted Worlds” from Mass Effect while reading this:
Alright, better. For those who don’t know or if you need a refresher, let’s recap the barebones story elements from each game.
Mass Effect 1: Shepard (the protagonist) is sent to the planet Eden Prime to secure a Prothean (the extinct advanced species) beacon. He arrives and fights off an attack and when he encounters the beacon, he is ensnared by it and has a vision of a devastating galactic attack which ended the last civilization. The beacon breaks, Shepard being the only one who saw the vision. Shepard soon discovers Saren (bad guy) was behind the attack and is actually in service to the Reapers (super bad guys). Shepard learns the Reapers reap galactic civilization about every 50,000 years. The Council (galactic government) doesn’t believe Shepard about the Reapers. Hijinks ensue and Shepard defeats Saren and prevents the Reapers from returning (for now).
Mass Effect 2: Shepard dies. He is resurrected by Cerberus (shady group) to investigate humans being kidnapped from outer colonies since the Council doesn’t seem to care. Shepard encounters the Collectors (bad guys) and figures out they are responsible. He also learns they are actually old Protheans who are being controlled by the Reapers. Hijinks ensue and Shepard goes to the center of the galaxy to confront the Collectors and stop them. He discovers the Reapers are harvesting humans for biological engineering. Shepard defeats the Collectors. The Reapers are still coming.
Mass Effect 3: The Reapers arrive and start reaping. Hijinks ensue and Shepard stops them (3 flavors available: red, blue and green). Also, it turns out the leader of Cerberus was being manipulated by the Reapers.
The Problem of the Stakes:
Let’s start by talking about the overall narrative stakes through the games. The whole story of the first game points towards a final showdown (Hackett: Hit it with everything we’ve got. so cool) with Saren and a space battle with Sovereign (a Reaper). If Sovereign has his way and Shepard doesn’t stop him, the entirety of the Reaper forces will begin the invasion and reaping of the galaxy right in the middle of everybody’s business. Shepard defeating Saren and Sovereign means galactic destruction is stopped for at least a time. Then we get to the second game. Yeah, things start out balls to the wall but once the story gets going about the Collectors, the whole thing feels like just a huge side quest. Sure we learn a little bit about the Reapers by the end of it, but the stakes during ME2 never reach the level that they did in ME1. We went from preventing galactic annihilation to squashing a nuisance, essentially.
Mass Effect 1 stands up pretty well as a story on it’s own. We have exposition, rising action (stakes), a climax, and resolution. The challenge in chronicled stories is having each volume contain all those elements individually, but also for the overarching narrative to have the same elements continuously to bind them into one cohesive story. The exposition and the stakes in ME2 are decidedly lower than in ME1, and that takes the momentum out of the overall story.
But what if? Imagine if ME1 started with the threat of the Collectors instead of Sovereign. Immediately a more mysterious atmosphere is created and the story can flow more naturally. Shepard has to investigate the Collectors and find out why they’re kidnapping humans. As he does so, he can uncover evidence that suggests the Collectors are not the true enemy. He learns they’re actually working for the Reapers who are preparing to invade and destroy. ME1 could conclude with the defeat of the Collectors, but with the looming (and higher stakes) threat of the Reapers to come. When it’s structured like this, the stakes increase from ME1 to ME2. The individual stories are neatly arranged, and the complete story has rising action from game to game.
The Problem of the Exposition:
By the end of the first game, with a few notable exceptions, the player knows pretty much everything they need to know about the Mass Effect universe. Shepard even gets to chit chat with a Reaper to help figure out what’s going on. There is very little heavy lifting exposition that ME2 has to do. Sure the player has to meet a few new characters and get some trivia about some of the races and locations. The situation at large is still the same:
Going back to the first mission on Eden Prime: who are the enemies you encounter? Humans turned in to Reaper zombies. The player learns in the first mission that the bad guys can make humans into zombies. That’s a huge piece of exposition: the bad guys are able to control people. Imagine if that was held back until ME2. Shepard is going around fighting normal Krogan, humans, Geth, Collectors, whatever in ME1. Then after learning about the Reapers, things take a dark turn when all of a sudden a bunch of Reaper zombies attack, human and otherwise. Again, we get more exposition: we learn about some abilities the Reapers have, and the stakes are raised. Not only can the Reapers destroy, they can also control. I’m not saying they should try to recreate the most memorable scene in Halo 1, but revealing this element of the universe right from the start establishes it as normal. Had it been held back until later, it could have been used as a bit of exposition that darkens the mood and escalates the stakes.
My personal favorite bit of exposition in ME2 is learning about the Geth through Legion. As it turns out, this works just fine when the story is rearranged. The Geth can remain alien and mysterious in ME1, and the player learns about the Reapers, another facet comes to light with the reveal of the Geth schism. For those who don’t know, the Geth are an AI/robot/synthetic race and some of them believe the Reapers are quasi-deities they should imitate. Other Geth think they should find their own path. The fact that the Geth remain mysterious through the entirety of ME1 isn’t problematic. But learning about the Geth in tandem with learning about the Reapers could have served each other.
Other Narrative Strains:
In its written form, the original trilogy has more than a couple narrative strains than would have been alleviated by a restructure. Consider Shepard’s relationship with the Council in ME1 (the Council is the government for most of the civilized galaxy). In the first mission of the game, Shepard receives the vision from the beacon that the Reapers are coming and they destroyed the Protheans the last time they were here. He tells the Council about the vision, and guess what, they’re skeptical. And although it’s fun dismissing the Council’s concerns renegade-style, I have to say Shepard is being a bit unreasonable. I even have to agree with Saren when he calls BS on Shepard and his dream testimony. There’s no way that would fly in any legitimate hearing. Once Shepard does provide evidence to the Council that Saren is a bad guy, the Council grants Spectre status to Shepard to apprehend him. As a Spectre, Shepard is essentially above the law and works directly for the Council. He continues to pester them about the Reapers and they ignore him. Put yourself in the Council’s shoes for a second. You’re in charge of the entire galaxy and this human (humans are the new kids on the galactic block) won’t shut up about his crazy vision. What? Like you’re going to put the whole galaxy on a war footing, disrupting trillions of lives because one guy says so? No way. Shepards constant insistence is narratively weak and the player doesn’t actually believe Council is being ridiculous. The Council’s reluctance to take the Reapers seriously does give Shepard motivation for looking to other groups like Cerberus, but it needn’t be that way. Instead, by introducing the Collectors as the bad guys in ME1, it’s believable that the Council wouldn’t necessarily want to expend a lot of resources rescuing humans. This is not an existential threat. They could make Shepard a Spectre for the purpose of investigating and stopping the kidnappings to placate him and the humans, but their reluctance to seriously help could fuel the conflict between the Council and Shepard. In fact, Shepard (especially renegade Shepard) may start to believe the Council is dragging ass because of prejudice against humanity. He may get so resentful that he turns to another organization for help: Cerberus.
No matter what path Shepard chose in ME1, in ME2 he is working with Cerberus. Cerberus is the “Humanity First” organization, even at the expense of the other races. They give him a new ship, crew, and other resources. If the player is playing as paragon/nice-guy Shepard, his alignment with Cerberus never seems to fit quite right. The story as written is Shepard has to work with Cerberus in ME2 because the Council still doesn’t believe the Reapers are a threat, but Cerberus does. Also Cerberus resurrected Shepard, so he kind of owes them I guess? The whole arrangement is shaky. It’s just not believable that the Council isn’t taking the Reapers seriously at this point; Sovereign just made a huge mess up the Council’s home office, the Citadel. Their disbelief is unbelievable (they say it was just the Geth), and Shepard working with Cerberus doesn’t sit well. Again, let’s reorder the story: if at the end of ME1 Shepard returns from the Collector base with evidence that there’s Reapers and they’re like really bad, it’s plausible that the Council can continue denying the Reapers are a big deal. It’s just evidence from far away about things they’ve never seen, rather than space plywood on their space windows blocking their space views. There’s no denying that. Whether or not Shepard should be working with Cerberus in ME2 is debatable, but the reordering makes it a little more plausible.
Just a quick aside: for all the internet calling Ashley a space nazi, when Shepard actually does join the space nazis in ME2 she calls him out on it directly and to his face. Doesn’t matter if they were romantic or not; she’s not impressed and doesn’t care about Shepard’s justifications. There I said it. Another structural problem though: once Shepard leaves Cerberus in ME3, if you’ve got a paragon Shepard Ashley is totally sorry she snapped at Shepard and is ready to forgive him. I’m not a licensed therapist, but it comes across as bi-polar. It’s much more believable when she curses Shepard with her dying breath for being Cerberus. I’ve got this dream scenario where at the end of ME2 you have to decide take the Normandy (or Normandy 2 whatever) to Cerberus (renegade) or the Alliance (paragon) and ME3 has separate experiences for this narrative fork. With a narrative restructure, the rising stakes could give Ashley an reason in ME3 to realize and accept what renegade Shepard realized a while ago: Cerberus is the only group taking this seriously. She’s been busting her butt her whole career to serve with honor, trying overcome the stigma of being her father’s daughter (he is the only human to have surrendered to another race). She has to forsake it all to join with an organization she hates. Tragic.
Alright we’re crossing into 2000 words and if I haven’t convinced you yet then I’m probably not going to. ME1 as written is great, but I think lowering the stakes with just the Collectors could have elevated the whole trilogy without costing anything to the first entry.
I should go.