Having a strong vision from day one helps avoid that hollow feeling.
By Daniel Wilks 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.