D20: Building a believable mythology, or “The problem with the Reapers”

Mass Effect 3

By on August 12, 2013 at 12:30 pm

WARNING: Spoilers for the Mass Effect trilogy follow.

As has been made abundantly clear by my numerous columns centred around the games, I’m immensely fond of the Mass Effect trilogy. I unashamedly love the games and the characters that inhabit it. Whilst I wasn’t spurred into a cupcake baking internet frenzy by the ending, I did find it a little disappointing — but not for the reasons that were claimed by the majority of those who complained about the ending. I thought the final choices were fine, by and large.

What I had a problem with was how the mythology surrounding the invasion of life-destroying, sentient machine bugs was left awkwardly resolved, as though the mythology had not been set until the final line of the trilogy was written.

The Mass Effect games are triumphs when it comes to plotting and character-building (both with the player character and the NPCs) and the writers gave most of the worlds and areas visited and excellent sense of the immediate history, but the overall mythology of the Reapers came across as vague at best.

In the first game they appeared to be wiping out sentient organics when they reached a certain technological threshold. They also appeared to be aligned with the Geth. The motivations of the Reapers were well obfuscated simply by stating that it was not something our minds could comprehend. The Reapers were alien and terrifying, a force of nature or act of god rather than giant sentient machine cockroaches.

Come the second game, the Reapers are using an organic servitor race to liquify humans and turn them into a giant Terminator/Reaper hybrid. This seems to point to the idea, supposedly tossed around by BioWare, that the Reapers were actually human civilisations who had sacrificed individuality to keep balance in a universe that human interaction would fracture.

Finally the third game introduces the idea of the universal purge of sentient beings to maintain a balance between synthetic and organic lifeforms. It works as a culmination of the story but is a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion after all of the interesting ideas that were brought up before.

I also wanted to punch the glowy space child in the face, but that’s my reaction to most deus ex machina characters.

Compare that fractured and seemingly unfinished-until-the-last-second mythology to that of something like the Fallout series. There is a deep mythology and history behind everything that goes on in the games, and even if a great deal of it is never openly seen and only referenced in passing, if at all, it lend the games a uniquely cohesive sense of place and continuity.

As evidenced in the Fallout bibles — compendiums of time-lines, answers, facts, secrets and ideas that went into the Fallout games as written by Chris Avellone — there is a wealth of history buried only slightly beneath the wasteland. There are reasons for every vault being where they are and having the history that they do, there is a detailed timeline of how the war that ended civilisation was tipped off, explaining why the world is in the state it is and why technology and culture has stagnated at a certain point. There is a history to the evolution of the ghouls and attendant psychology. That are reasons why only some of the wildlife mutated and why they finished in their current forms.

Only part of this world building and mythology is openly seen, but the effects of its construction are apparent in how “realistic”, for want of a better word, the games feel.

Mass Effect doesn’t suffer overmuch from having a slightly fractured mythology, but when compared to something as structured as the Fallout series, it’s hard not to sit back and wonder what could have been if the ultimate motivation of the Reapers had been set in stone for the developers from day one.     

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32 comments (Leave your own)

I find this to be true of all fiction. My favourite example is Stargate SG-1.

Stargate has a rather limited set of “rules and boundaries” technology has, so they always find a way out of the situation or someone comes back from the dead always with a deus ex machina approach.

This (at least for me) removes all sense of tension. The real kicker was on the final movie I guessed the ending only 10 minutes into the movie, my housemate shrugged it off only to be upset because I nailed it right on the head.


I have to agree.

I did not expect sun shine and rainbows for the ending. Of course there was going to a massive cost, and depending on my choices what that cost was. I expected an ending worthy of everything leading up to it.

What I got was not. Then they salted me with a “BUY MOAR DLCS!” text box.

So disgusted I have not even attempted to finish it again since.

They also diverged away from Karpyshyn’s original idea about dark matter to the whole, ‘yo, we gonna make giant robots to kill you so you don’t make giant robots that kill you’ idea.

So disappointing to see such a spectacular master weave of narrative (video game wise) to see the finished cloth and realise it was nothing but.

The god child… just… yeah…


Like many movies, they sort of missed the point towards the end – things are often more compelling because of what you DON’T know about them, rather than what you DO know.

The ‘big reveal’ (and especially The Starchild Incident TM) really blew this bigtime. They tried to come up with something comprehensive and put a bow on everything, but in the process they made the player think, well, great, the last 200 hours I spent killing stuff and travelling the stars were because of some moderately illogical ‘regeneration’ thing I really have no interest in.

Much like the Matrix, actually – what’s cool is the characters and their endeavours within the rules of the universe, not the rules themselves (which in the Matrix are particularly stupid).

I really regret that they didn’t go with:

1. The Reapers are basically just huge impassive bastards who don’t want anyone else to get to their level, so they periodically wipe organic life out (much more plausible than their “we’re doing you all a big favour”).

2. Shep was indoctrinated, or partially indoctrinated.

3. Shep’s unique characteristics meant that she was able to break the indoctrination or turn it back on the reapers, breaking the galaxy out of their hold once and for all.

The best reaper bits of the game involved them being vastly beyond human scale and comprehension – they should have kept this going, not tried to explain every detail about them.


PS – the ending to Fringe also comes to mind. Amazing series, but really terrible ending because they tried to explain everything neatly and it just didn’t/couldn’t add up.



Fringe just went downhill after season 1 IMO when they deviated from the ‘Monster of the week’ method and tried to create a series-wide metaplot. Last season especially was barely recognizable to how the show started =(

I still like to believe in the ME indoctrination theory until Mass Effect 4 comes along and tells me otherwise.


stoibs: Fringe just went downhill after season 1 IMO

Straight dope there


What I had a problem with was how the mythology surrounding the invasion of life-destroying, sentient machine bugs was left awkwardly resolved, as though the mythology had not been set until the final line of the trilogy was written.

That was my attitude from the word go. Bioware clearly had no idea who the Reapers were or what their purpose was until the very end when they couldn’t ignore it any longer. Too many writers do this, put all this effort into creating a mystery without knowing where that mystery is going to go themselves, you have to be lucky for it to not blow up in your face when you finally make a revelation that ends up contradicting half the mysteries you created for it.

It’s why the revelation of the Reapers existence and the twist that Saren was actually their unknowing slave was so well done. Bioware knew this was going to happen and could plot around it properly creating that mystery and ultimately revealing the satisfying and surprising plot twist. We didn’t get that with the Reapers ultimate goals because Bioware themselves didn’t know what they were and thus couldn’t properly plot around them giving us proper breadcrumbs and building a proper, consistent mystery along the way.


I didn’t mind the endings to ME3 but I was disappointed the ‘dark matter” storyline was completely dropped after ME2.

I was expecting something along the lines of the Reapers periodically wiping out sentient species once they begin to use mass effect tech en masse (pun not intended) because of the technological effect on the universe. The argument can exist why they would leave all this mass effect technology around for the new species but they mentioned it in the first two games – make everyone dependent on the tech and the Citadel, then take it away leaving systems isolated.


Personally I think ME3 is a great example of what happens when you fire the original writer from the previous two games and basically get a storyline by committee as a result. It’s a load of shit tbh. The best storyline was that brought up by fans, generally known as indoctrination theory, which the ME devs got shitty about because the fans had made something more interesting out of the failed components of their screw up.

I was so looking forward to ME3, that the disappointment in the writing of it was such a massive turn off. Being honest the gameplay was never ME’s strong point, it was the storyline and character development. The gameplay was just your average cover shooter in Unreal Engine…


It also frustrated me that they seemed to get weaker as the games went along. In the first game there was this shock, awe and futility I felt when I met Sovereign in ME1; that there could be a being of such power, who could puppet so many creatures, and cause so much damage (he single-handedly trashed Eden Prime in a matter of hours) was one of those “oh crap” moments to me, and yet in ME3 you have time to stride on out of Earth, and then cruise around the galaxy at your own pace while they seem only to have the power to tread on things and have rave parties with their lasers.
A lot of others things bothered me about ME3, but sticking to lore and Reaper stuff, their slow effort to destroy all sentient life takes the cake.


Agree with most comments here. I didn’t think the ending was THAT bad albeit I only played ME 3 the first time after the extended cut was released.

I’ve always stated my biggest gripe was how your choices ultimately had little effect on the ending. But also in terms of mythology I thought this whole ‘organics vs synthetics’ theme was introduced too little too late. It played such a big role in ME3 but I barely heard a whisper of it in the first two games.



He wasn’t fired, he quit to work on his own personal projects so if you to blame someone for the ME1/2 writer not writing ME3 then blame said writer.

Also Indoctrination theory was terrible, it contradicted not only common Mass Effect facts but it even contradicted itself on many occasions. The Indoctrination Theory is a clear example of why the ME3 writers should be ashamed of themselves in that fans would go so far as to believe so strong in such a terrible theory to desperately explain the mess of ME3.


Everyone talking about the original ME1 writer should probably read his comments here:



“I find it funny that fans end up hearing a couple things they like about it and in their minds they add in all the details they specifically want,” he explained. “It’s like vapourware – vapourware is always perfect, anytime someone talks about the new greatest game. It’s perfect until it comes out. I’m a little weary about going into too much detail because, whatever we came up with, it probably wouldn’t be what people want it to be.”


My problem with ME:

Overly Earth Patrioticism that becomes more and more rampant as the series go on. Most noticeable in ME3 trailers about how Earth is the centre of the Universe apparently.

Then the Reapers going from being these beings straight from the Cthulhu Mythos IN SPACE! whose plan is to shutdown the Citadel and all forms of travel between Civilisations suddenly stops doing that because…. I don’t know. Just blow up the Citadel Reapers if you can’t use your plot virus anymore.

Bonus points for each Reaper going to a different planet because they’re THAT confident in technological superiority when the Normandy has already been shown to be capable of killing one. The whole third game is just stupid. I could forgive ME2 for being an excuse plot to delay the arrival of the Reapers, but ME3 was just bad. ‘Oh hey we’re the dumb Salarians and we don’t want the Krogan coming back from the genophage despite the fact that the reapers are raping our planet right now, oh well!’

Seriously? That was one of the dumbest things I have ever witnessed. It’d be like an anti-gun lobbyist NOT shooting a serial killer with their family tied up, it’s just flat-out retarded.

Oh and that rubber-banding chase with the robot that flat-out disregarded my vanguard charging at it and instead sped off at Superman speeds. Jesus Christ. Is that what the series seriously had to come down to?

Oh, and we can’t forget the Eden Prime beacon being dropped after the first game.

Any ideas Drew could’ve thrown at there would’ve been better. As a sci-fi fan I would’ve preferred SOME kind of logical reason behind it, especially the dark energy one. At least then they could’ve had organics willingly sacrifice themselves so that another cycle may go on. BUT, being a AAA game they can’t exactly go that far into the spectrum of non-conventional endings.

Hell, even having humans end up ascending to a higher plane of existence to join the Reapers or something. ANYTHING!


Tim Colwill,

I read that and am still of the opinion they they gave up on it too quickly.



I’m going to do it again, it’s become a habit.

but +1 to everything here. Every single thing you’ve put in here I had issues with too. Well put mate.

My biggest, hugest gripe was that the story pushes you 100% of the time to “Your one goal is to destroy the reapers. They Must DIE!” which I can get behind. Then come the time for the grand choice, destroying them was the renegade thing to do. Wait what? Then there was the middle option. I hated that option, I spit on it. Where the FUCK did it come from? Out of the blue, never was it hinted at, just there it was, like a regurgitated hairball.



My understanding from a cutscene between the Salarian Dalatrass and Shepard was that the Krogan problem started when they unleashed the Krogan on the Rachni without considering the consequences. And the Salarians didn’t want to make the same mistake with the Krogan and Reapers.

Mind you each time I’ve played ME3 (three times so far), I’ve thought “fuck you” to the Salarians and cured the genophage each time.


Building believable mythology requires two things: respect for the world you create and respect the people you welcome into it. I think the problem of the ending of ME3 is a problem in both counts. Yes, it did feel a little made-up-as-we-go and the ending cascaded phenomenally in this regard in the last 15 minutes. I’d say that while there is nothing wrong with the ending in terms of fiction, it just wasn’t appropriate one little bit. As a gamer, I felt like the mythology had been disrespected (if I may use that term).

Writers need to respect what they create and the people they capture with it. Art does not sit in silence, it is only art because it has an audience.



My understanding from a cutscene between the Salarian Dalatrass and Shepard was that the Krogan problem started when they unleashed the Krogan on the Rachni without considering the consequences. And the Salarians didn’t want to make the same mistake with the Krogan and Reapers.

Mind you each time I’ve played ME3 (three times so far), I’ve thought “fuck you” to the Salarians and cured the genophage each time.

Yeah I love me some Krogans. All day, everyday, Hyundai.


Man o man,

Yes the issue with me3 was its disregard for its self created mythos. The shepard kills sovereign in me1, you kill the human half reaper in me2, so you have levels in badass there but in me3 you get denied a big fight. That was my disappointment in the game. At least in the fallout series the bad guys difficulty is always on par with how their mythos, supermutants are always hard to kill, deathclaws are near impossible. ME failed because no matter what you do, even tho you took out sov and the baby reaper terminator in three its all for naught.

Man I would pay cash to have an option to take out that reaper at the end of three. I mean, its why you put the team together in the first place right?

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