Improving Mass Effect's Story [Edited because you're taking this too seriously]

While I wait for someone to give me permission to use something in my F2P article, and while I take a break from finishing up "How to PC," I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk about Mass Effect. I've been playing Jade Empire lately, and it's reminding me how much I used to like Bioware. Gunflame, as usual, created a pretty kickass thread that got me thinking about Bioware in general, and I remembered this post I'd always planned to make, but never did. So here it is.

By the way: seeing as this is a thread discussing story, spoilers are guaranteed. The only Mass Effect 3 spoiler is that Cerberus are bad guys, which you already know.

I like taking things apart and putting them back together again. I find it fun. It's neat to see how story elements work, or how they don't work, and then reassembling them in a way that works. For my own amusement, then, I thought it might be fun to attempt to fix Mass Effect. You see, Mass Effect has got to be one of the most profound disappointments in my entire gaming experience.

I don't disappoint easily: I like a lot of games that I consider to be quite bad, like Fable 3. Mass Effect, though... wow. Yeah. I was really disappointed. See, I liked the first game for two reasons: first, it was marketed with the tagline "explore the galaxy," or something similar, and second, it was a pretty good space opera story. It had a neat mystery, cool reveals, and, for a video game, good characters who actually changed as people based on how you interacted with them. Leaving Mass Effect feeling as though I'd turned Ashley and Garrus into better people is one of the best things I've ever done.

For the people on my friends list back in early 2010, when I finished Mass Effect 2 just days after its release, that might come across as an odd statement. I was, after all, the guy who screamed "GAME OF THE YEAR!" at anyone who would listen, not to mention a good number of people who wouldn't. I was amazed. It was incredible. I loved it.

Then I actually bothered to think, and, like nearly every Michael Bay film I've ever seen, Mass Effect 2 started to fall apart. It blatantly ripped plot elements and set pieces from Star Control to Revelation Space to The Dirty Dozen (yes, there are twelve members, including Shepard, who can be recruited) to Star Trek XI, and its characters were less nuanced--more detailed in their backstories, perhaps, but vastly less interesting as actual people.

Mass Effect 2 wasn't just a mediocre game, it was a bad one.

Before I explain my fix, of course, I'll have to explain a few of Bioware's biggest narrative missteps.

Perhaps the most egregious flaw of the series was Mass Effect 2's main plot. While there are many rules to good writing, some are more important than others, and for sequels/second acts in trilogies, one rule towers above all: THE THREAT MUST BE GREATER THAN OR EQUAL TO THE PREVIOUS THREAT. Fail to do this and you will disappoint your audience. In Spider-Man 2, considered by many to be the greatest comic book movie ever written, the threat of just one supervillain is replaced, not just by a more dangerous villain, but by Peter Parker's self-doubt. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke and his friends find themselves in a whole mess of trouble; by the end, Han's trapped in carbonite, Luke's missing a hand, and the rebels have lost their base on Hoth.

It is... peculiar, then, that Mass Effect 2 makes the villains of its sequel a bunch of random dudes who are really just puppets for the villain we took on in Mass Effect. It's almost insulting.

Still, if that was all Bioware did, I wouldn't have minded. If having a weaker threat than the previous game was all Mass Effect 2 did wrong, I would have considered it a flawed, but interesting game. Bioware, of course, had to take it all a step further: they had to go and make it a mystery.

So. You're fighting these mysterious guys, right? Nobody knows who they are or what they want, only that they're hurting humans. Of course, you could find out everything pretty quickly, right? After all, you are Shepard, the first human spectre--the person who discovered the Reapers. Surely this must be a compl--no. Wait. Instead, Bioware decided to make the mystery fairly obvious, with no serious reveals. They accomplished this by forcing you to work with Cerberus, an organization that no one trusts ("Work for us." "No." "Work for us!" "Alright."), and by having everyone deny that the Reapers existed, despite one having killed millions of people and having humped the Space Capitol Building.

Idiot ball aside, the mystery itself isn't particularly compelling. Apparently, you're supposed to learn that the Collectors are working for the Reapers, but this isn't much of a reveal. Additionally, you're supposed to discover that... um... well, I didn't want to bring it up, because it's too easy, but you're supposed to learn that the Collectors are building a giant robot fetus baby reaper terminator. Why they're building a giant robot fetus baby reaper terminator is never really explained, actually.

So, for the second go-around, you're fighting the lackeys of the main villains, and apparently you're supposed to discover that they are, in fact, the lackeys of the main villains, and that they are building a robot with no explanation whatsoever.

A crappy second act and a crappy mystery.

It couldn't be any worse, right?

...sorry to disappoint.

See, not only is this a second act and a mystery, it's also a "getting the team together" story, like the aforementioned Dirty Dozen. Now, there are three important elements of a team story--you can't have one without them: you need the first act, where the team gets together, the second act, where the team coalesces into a team, and the third act where, as a team, they take on their final challenge. Often, these teams will go through Tuckman's stages of group development. Take, for instance, The Avengers. In the first act, they form: the team gets together based around the goal of stopping Loki. Then they storm--fighting amongst themselves. While the second act is ideal for the norming process, The Avengers norm in their third act--coming together as a team. Lastly, they perform--they beat the bad guys.

The Dirty Dozen has this. The Guns of Navarone has this. The Magnificent Seven has this. Every good heist and team movie ever has this.

Mass Effect 2 does not.

Now, Mass Effect 2 has the part where you get the team together, and it's got the part where they perform, but it doesn't have the part where they become a team. Sure, you can say "well, they're a bunch of badasses, so they wouldn't ever really become a team," but if that were true, they all should have died. After all, the game constantly tells you how dangerous the mission is. For a team not to ever work together is just poor writing. They live on the same ship; they should be interacting with each other.

So we've got a story that's a weak second act, wrapped around a poorly-written mystery, built around a team that never actually becomes a team.

That's terrible.

On top of that, you've got Mass Effect 3, which turns Cerberus back into evil bad guys again, has some random bullshit "uh yeah, so... um... somehow what we're doing is helping people somehow?" and the infamous terrible ending.

Basically, the games don't work well together.

If I were given the power to go back in time and fix Mass Effect, how would I do it?

Alright: we know the plot beats of the overarching story involve dealing with the reapers and the collectors. We know that it involves a transformation of Cerberus from seeming good guys to bad guys. We know it involves changing the perception of humans in the galaxy as a whole.

In addition, we know that Cerberus are a bunch of humans who place humanity first and foremost, we know that the story covers the relationship that the Normandy's crew has with each other, and we know that the story involves exploring the galaxy. We can also assume that each game should, reasonably, be an improvement on the last.

Improving Mass Effect, then, is pretty simple:

In Mass Effect, the galactic community at large doesn't respect humanity all that much; you had originally been turned down for the job of a Spectre by the Council, so Cerberus hires you, since they see you as someone worth using (not to mention very anti-Council). Your job is to find out what's been hitting human colonies, since the Council doesn't seem interested (this is why you were brought before the council to begin with--Anderson had hoped that a human problem might warrant at least a human Spectre).

Ultimately, you discover that a race of robots--the Geth--have been converting humans (who were the least well-defended, on account of being the newest addition to the intergalactic community, and, as a result, live on the fringes of populated space) into biomatter for some kind of god robot they've been constructing. You attempt to kill the robot, but ultimately, it escapes, when aided by a council Spectre.

Your team forms in this game, but they're still not a team. They're basically just badasses you've recruited to work for you--nothing more.

In Mass Effect 2, Cerberus would start freaking you out, so you go rogue (meaning that the series actually gives you more places to go than in the first game--enhancing the "explore the galaxy" theme the series was originally advertised as having) with your team, take the fight to Saren, ultimately prove humanity's legitimacy, and face down Cerberus. The game ends with the Reaper attacking the Citadel and summoning the rest of the Reapers (bypassing that stupid "why did the reapers come if the Citadel attack was foiled?" bit) while the player kills Saren.

One thing you learn through the course of the game is that the Geth weren't just building the Reaper of their own accord--something from beyond the galaxy had been influencing them. Perhaps it was the thing that caused the Geth to rebel in the first place (after all, one of Mass Effect's major themes is that AI is absolutely, definitely evil--something that Mass Effect 2 and 3 retcon with... less than satisfying results).

This is where your team starts to become a team--actually working with each other after conflicting.

Mass Effect 3, of course, is all about how you deal with the Reapers, discover why they exist (to perfect themselves by adapting the traits of the dominant galactic races; they assumed humanity was the dominant race because humanity appeared, to them, to have the broadest reach in the galaxy), and ultimately defeat them. The Illusive Man, having survived the dismantling of Cerberus, maneuvers himself into a place of power within the restructured galaxy, setting himself up as an antagonist for possible future games. It's not all bad, though. Humanity's got a place on the council, and you've finally made Spectre status. New horizons await. Get out there--you've got a galaxy to explore.

Is it the perfect plan? No. It's something I've toyed with for a year or two, but never really bothered to write down. Now it is time to go home and go to bed, because I am absolutely exhausted. Seeya starside.