The Biggest Thing Wrong With Mass Effect


Why Mass Effect’s biggest threat, the Reapers, are one of the series’ biggest flaws.

This article contains spoilers for the Mass Effect series.

The Mass Effect series is probably my favorite series from this passing console generation. I came to it slowly. The first time I played Mass Effect, my feelings were mixed. Overall, I was not impressed. (No lie, this is entirely because I made the mistake of playing BroShep. Do not repeat my mistake. Shepard is a lesbian, and it’s time for us to accept that about the world.)

My friends had to beg and cajole me to play Mass Effect 2. I did, and I was hooked. I replayed the first game with a different set of expectations, (and a different protagonist) and found that I liked it a hell of a lot more than I’d remembered. The third game came out and if I wasn’t first in line, that’s only because I had to work that night.

Mass Effect 3 is a triumph and anyone who tells you differently needs a kick in the head.

It combined the best parts of the first and second games into something brilliant. Finally, an inventory system that both worked and was interesting. Finally, the right mix of depth and simplicity in the character abilities. The roster of squad-mates was trimmed from the somewhat unwieldy platoon you were saddled with in the second game, but larger than the spare few you had access to in the first.

And the graphics were fantastic, the best unity of art direction and technology yet seen from BioWare. The gunplay was the tightest yet, and new tweaks to the classes made each distinct and fun to play. The writing, having hit its stride with characterization in the second game returned to a more plot-centric structure and provided enough twists and turns to keep the story moving at a snappy pace right up until the end.

But it could have been so much more. I love Mass Effect. As I write this, I’m wearing an N7 sweater. I’m almost always wearing an N7 sweater. But when I play this game, it’s hard not to see the missed potential. It was great. It could have been legendary.

This is not another post about the much-criticized ending. The ending was weak, I’ll cop to that, but I don’t think it was the thing that really undercuts the series in my eyes.

Mass Effect‘s biggest problem is that the Reapers are really boring.

They have always been boring. They only barely stop being boring in Mass Effect 3. The Reapers have always been the fundamental flaw at the heart of Mass Effect, and I for one am very glad that the Reaper storyline has concluded and that we’ll hopefully be seeing something different in ME4.

The problem with the Reapers is that they are what I like to call a Conveniently Implacable Enemy. They’re faceless, relentless, and for most of the series have no identifiable motive for committing genocide. For all we know, they could be doing it for the lulz. Their only purpose appears to be to provide the player with an antagonist who cannot be empathized with, and who is utterly devoid of all nuance or complexity. It’s heartbreaking to see a setting that is filled to bursting with flavor and grit rely on such a unambitious crutch.

Interesting threats need to have interesting reasons for doing what they’re doing. Interesting conflicts have dynamics which can change as the circumstances evolve; friends today become foes tomorrow, and vice versa. Interesting threats have motives which may bring them into violent conflict with your protagonists, but are based on fulfilling some need that they have.

But a Conveniently Implacable Enemy has no goals except your destruction, and so you can face him confident that force is the only solution, that empathy is for fools, and that you never need to worry about your friends switching sides or any other messy political questions. It’s a very popular form of bad guy, but it’s also really tedious and stale.

I’m aware that there is a little—a very little—more to the Reapers, but we only learn that through a few clues in the second game, and a short little bit of exposition at the end of the third. Most of what we learn of the Reapers is how they exterminate civilizations, not why.

They are an example of the most boring of video game bad guys, the monsters that you have to shoot because, well, because. Because reasons. Because really good reasons that we’re sure to tell you some day and not just in a 5 minute dialog sequence at the end of a game. (Okay, so I am a little bitter.)

This brings us to the real tragedy: the Reapers were wholly unnecessary. One of the things that makes Mass Effect such a beautiful achievement is the rich world packed with detail that the games take place in. During my first play-through, I spent what seemed like hours reading every codex entry I could find.

Everything was so well thought out and multifaceted, and rich with interesting points of conflict and tantalizing story hooks. Even the rachni, which are basically just the bugs from Starship Troopers, were more interesting than the Reapers.

The galaxy of Mass Effect was so well drawn that there was more than enough story material to support a trilogy of games without resorting to extra-galactic monsters who want to eat your babies because they’re mean.

What if the geth linked up with the Terminus Systems and challenged the Council for galactic supremacy?

What if the asari and the turians became split on the issue of humanity’s entrance to the galactic community?

What if the krogan found a way to cure the genophage on their own?

What if the prothians had been wiped out by a weaponized super plague that’s been laying dormant for thousands of years, but Cerberus gets its hands on a sample?

These are just some notions that came off the top of my head. There is so much stuff in the Mass Effect setting, so many cross-connections and so much potential for conflict and galaxy-shattering changes, that the introduction of the Reapers feels like an unnecessary punt.

This beautiful rich tapestry kinda gets shoved to the side for a big portion of the trilogy so that Commander Shepard can fight off a really boring alien invasion. The setting is so richly developed that the blandness of the Reapers almost makes them feel like invaders from another game. The Reapers seem to me to be like nothing so much as an artificial injection of peril from outside the setting.

In fact, they literally do come from outside the setting, having spent the last 50,000 years in dark space between the galaxies. BioWare wrote a centuries-long history of wars and politics to support the setting and make it feel like a real place, yet the developers seemed to feel like they didn’t have the chops to continue that interesting trajectory once the player was active in the world. Instead of a new conflict emerging organically from what came before, the entire sweep of galactic history seems to stops dead so that Shepard can have a front row seat when the (much less interesting) Reaper threat is injected into the story.

Lair of the Shadow Broker takes several previously established elements of Mass Effect lore … and weaves them into an amazing story of betrayal and revenge

It didn’t have to be this way. We get a glimpse of what might have been in Lair of the Shadow Broker, widely considered to be the best DLC for Mass Effect 2, and in my opinion both the high point of the series and mandatory playing for any ME fan.

Lair of the Shadow Broker takes several previously established elements of Mass Effect lore—the Shadow Broker, the lawless underside of the gleaming high tech metropolises of the frontier worlds, the solitary nature of Spectres—and weaves them into an amazing story of betrayal and revenge. It’s got intrigue, double-crosses, gunfights on the outer surface of a starship, and some truly touching character development for Liara. Everything in Lair is organic: it all grows naturally from the things we already know about galactic society, independent of the Reaper threat.

Lair of the Shadow Broker depicts the Mass Effect setting in its best light: a glossy, high-tech wild west where corporate raiders rub elbows with freelancing mercenary companies, where civilization is vast but thin and death comes cheaply. It’s a place where wealth comes from interstellar stock exchanges, and security comes from the barrel of a gun. Most of all, it’s a place where people struggle and bleed for things they believe in: duty, honour, or just simple greed.

Compared to that, the Reapers can’t hold my interest. In fact, I suspect they stopped holding the writing staff’s interest, as well. By the time Mass Effect 3 rolls around they seem to have abandoned any intention in ever giving satisfactory answers to the why of the Reapers and instead focus much more heavily on how the rest of the galaxy reacts to learning that Shepard wasn’t suffering from paranoid delusions after all.

(I am aware that there was initially going to be another plot and ending to Mass Effect 3 which would have headed in another direction and finally explored the Reapers motivations in more detail than that friggin’ star child crap, but that’s not the game we got.)

In ME3, the Reapers are basically just the apocalypse, and all the interesting stuff happens when everyone is pushed to the edge and they show what their true priorities are. Mass Effect 3 becomes a story about people struggling to come to terms with the end of the world. The reason ME3‘s story works so well is that it finally realizes that the Reapers are the least interesting part of Mass Effect and relegates them to the background for much of the game as a kind of slow motion catastrophe and set-piece generator.

Playing it again, I can see little hints and shadows of what might have been, the game we might have gotten if the Reapers hadn’t been tied so tightly to the center of the trilogy’s plot arc. The final showdown and reconciliation between the quarians and the geth. Udena’s attempted coup. Mordin’s grief and remorse over what he did to the krogan. These are the things I remember most about the game, and I wonder how much brighter they could have shined if these plot threads had been left to stand on their own, without the artificial götterdämmerung of unbeatable monsters from beyond the stars.

Despite appearing more frequently and in greater numbers than ever before, the Reapers are little more than the catalyst for the final events of Shepard’s story. All the last minute bickering, the politics conducted at the end of a sword, that’s where the focus is, and that’s why it shines.

Because Reapers?

Reapers are fucking boring.

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There are 26 comments

  1. Sara Clemens

    Don’t be cray. Shepard’s not a lesbian, she’s bisexual! There’s no way I could get through the game without breaking off a piece of dat sweet Vakarian ass.

    For realsies, though. I’m with you on the inherent dullness of the Reapers. Cthulhu in space has been done elsewhere and better, anyway. I would argue that Leviathan offers a bit of depth to their history, though. It’s not direct backstory of course, but it’s an interesting parallel story that hints at their origins, while offering them a more palpable sense of ancient (and yet not SO ancient) epicness. That was probably my favorite DLC in the whole series.

    Then again, it might just be that I really love The Abyss.

    1. April Daniels

      There’s no way I could get through the game without breaking off a piece of dat sweet Vakarian ass.

      Dem mandibles!

  2. CompGeekDavid

    I think you have completely nailed it on the head. Especially by pointing out Lair of the Shadow Broker, which was indeed SO GOOD.

    I have to agree, we do see this sort of threat often. Most recently, I am realizing I am seeing it in the Marvel crossover event Infinity. At first, the threat is actually a whole lot like the Reapers, I am realizing: Ancient Alien Race coming in from outside of known space, blasting everything in their way. Mobile Apocalypse. But then, the writer (Jonathan Hickman), has given personality, and a face to these foes. They have conversations, motivations. They have pride, and can have a fall to go with it. And, based on the goings-on from other Jonathan Hickman titles, the reader gets a sense that we understand their motives a bit better – know why they are rampaging across space, towards Earth.

    Unlike with the Reapers, who just decided “eh, this time, let’s kill the humans most of all.” Because.

    Great review!

    1. April Daniels

      I’m glad you liked it!

      But yeah, why WAS Earth such a hot target during the Reaper War?

      1. ceekyuucee

        If I remember right, Shepard really got under Harbinger’s skin and the purely logical being wasn’t all that logical and straight up wanted revenge. Also, humans were apparently Grade-A reaping material for building the huge reaper capital ships due to our extreme genetic variance compared to other species.

        And a bit of Big Applesauce so we could fight our final battles with familiar landmarks. Which shows a big failing of the series, ie getting us familiar with other planets. We never see Palaven, Thessia’s all on fire, Rannoch is uninhabited, and Sur’Kesh is green and boring. Military space operas don’t do a good job of introducing you to much more than your hubs and chest-high walls, I guess.

      2. A2theK

        Breeding stock.

        When I saw baby reaper in ME2 I hoped that the truth of the Reaper’s serial genocides would be revealed to be nothing more than a cycle of life story. With the Reapers showing up periodically to harvest useful fleshies for the next generation, culling non-useful species before they become problematic infestations. In short acting like farmers tending their crops.

        The rest of the time they’d be off working their office jobs, watching bad television and avoiding the in-laws. Or whatever it is a race of potentially immortal does with its time when it’s not mating season.

        But yes. The Reapers were always the series weakpoint – Saren’s contempt for humanity and his flawed decision to bend rather than break in the face of imminent destruction were much more interesting than Sovereign’s prancing megalomania. They served better as a catalyst for situations than as the central plot.

  3. Nick Verboon

    “Shepard is a lesbian, and it’s time for us to accept that about the world.”

    YES!

    I thought the Reapers were great, convenient implacability aside. What BioWare wanted was a full galactic menace. Something that was unavoidable, inevitable, and a threat to everyone and everything. The most epic thing possible.The Reapers filled that role with an interesting motive of saving us from ourselves. Choosing to ignore that motive is necessary to accept your premise.

    Looking at the course of science, it’s pretty clear that we are heading towards self-aware AI at some point, and seeing that we compulsively make things better and better as we go the possibility of humans creating something infinitely more competent than ourselves with none of the (already questionable) moral fabric is high. Being exterminated by our own creations is not just a great story idea. That shit may well happen.

    I like the counter-intuitive concept of committing genocide to preserve life for the future. I love the conflict it presents of individuality versus the common good and trying to change your fate for the better instead of accepting it. As a device and as giant badass sentient space destroyers, The Reapers are awesome. Not nuanced enough to be great characters, but that was never the point.

    Now that Mass Effect has been achieved the very pinnacle of epicness three times over, I do hope they narrow the scope and go with the smaller scale stories you’re looking for. It’ll be refreshing.

    1. goseebananafish

      I agree with Nick. What the Reapers provide is scope. Each a nation, unknowable, etc. They are an enemy so large that Shepard needed to unite the entire galaxy to defeat them. An enemy that has been unstoppable and been allowed to repeat their cycle over and over. Shepard did what no one in history has ever been able to do. Shepard accomplished what even the protheans were unable to do. Imagine all the heroes in all of the other cycles that failed.

    2. April Daniels

      I thought the Reapers were great, convenient implacability aside. What BioWare wanted was a full galactic menace. Something that was unavoidable, inevitable, and a threat to everyone and everything. The most epic thing possible.

      A full scale galactic war, on the order of WW2 happening on thousands of planets simultaneously, could fit the bill, and be more interesting besides. Council vs. Terminus systems, or asari vs. turian could create a war sufficient to threaten galactic civilization. The rachni could return, or a geth flood might have poured through the veil. The Reapers were not necessary to provide scope or threat.

      The Reapers filled that role with an interesting motive of saving us from ourselves. Choosing to ignore that motive is necessary to accept your premise.

      That motive was never spelled out until the final moments of the game, and then was basically a “take our word for it” kind of deal. In the alternative plot that ME3 was going to follow originally, it would have expanded on, but as it is, the star child basically just says war between organics and synthetics is inevitable (despite the fact that Shepard may have just brokered a peace deal between the geth and the quarians) and so harvesting is necessary to restore order. This doesn’t hold water, since when you talk to Sovereign in the first game he only talks about how much organics deserve to be wiped out, when you imagine if he really was interested in saving Shepard from herself he’d take the opportunity to explain himself. Even if it did make sense–which, again, it doesn’t–that still doesn’t excuse leaving the Reapers without a substantive motive that the player is aware of until the very last minutes of the series.

  4. thecastroregime

    Like everyone else, I’m shocked by how accurate this is. Such an amazing game with an obviously glaring flaw that I don’t think anyone else has really caught on to. All those examples you mentioned are great and I’d be beyond excited to see any one of them materialize in one of the games!

    1. April Daniels

      I’ve got one that’s even better, but I’m saving that for the tabletop Mass Effect campaign that I plan to run soon.

  5. Nikki Wood

    I would vouch for Citadel as being up there too. Just spending time with my crew, who have been with me through so much and getting a chance to kick back, relax and just *enjoy* it all. The ending is particularly poignant with perfect setting music playing as The War makes it’s claim on you for one ladt push to The End.

    It’s been a hell of a ride. The best.

  6. goseebananafish

    The Reapers only become boring at the very end when they are turned into screwdrivers by the catalyst. I was ok with not knowing their motive. Was it Sovereign who said I would understand it anyway?

  7. Muddi

    “Mass Effect 3 is a triumph and anyone who tells you differently needs a kick in the head.”

    …excuse me?

    It’s actually a pretty mediocre game. And that’s coming from someone who thought ME2 was the best thing ever. It’s dialog is for the most part cringe-worthy, the writing in general stands way below the standards BioWare accustomed us to and the ending… was bad, yes.

    Nothing against you having an opinion. But the way you approach it… Nah.

    1. April Daniels

      It’s called rhetorical licence, dear. I don’t actually advocate violence over artistic differences.

      1. goseebananafish

        Does that mean our kick in the head comes from a fictional character? I pick Xena warrior princess or Buffy vampire slayer if my first pick is unavailable.

      2. April Daniels

        Oh man, Xena every time. Buffy could kick pretty hard I bet, but Xena would make it hot.

  8. boombang5

    You make a bunch of really good points and I agree that the Reapers are indeed a very boring enemy, however this is because they are not the REAL enemy. Even from the very beginning Hackett informs you of who the real enemy is; the other races of the galaxy. It’s obvious that Shepard can’t beat the Reapers on her own and this makes fighting Reapers underwhelming, because you know that no matter how many you kill it doesn’t even scratch the surface of their forces. This would be the same for all the other instances you mentioned: Rachni, Krogan or Cerberus. The fact is Shepard is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, however the galaxy as a whole is not. Thus a new enemy is born: the animosity between the races, the denial of the Reapers and the each of the races individual traits; the Asari are naive, the Turians are arrogant and the Salarians are assholes. As you progress through the game you do not begin to turn the tide of the Reaper war, they just continue to steamroll; instead you slowly unite the galaxy and you build the crucible. The aim of the game is not to beat the Reapers, it is to get everyone else to beat the Reapers.

  9. TF

    ME3 sucked. Stop breaking out the knee pads for EA like every other mainstream gamer site does. Grow a pair already.

  10. Jonathan

    The Reapers aren’t supposed to be a great character. They’re a backdrop, stage dressing against which the play of Shepard’s trials is played out. In fact, THAT is one of the big problems with the game, and the ending in particular – they tried to turn the stage decor into a character. It’s like a good horror movie. The really great ones never show you the monster, because there is no way that anything you can come up with can be more frightening than whatever the audience is filling in for themselves. Like Cloverfield – there was so much hype about it, and everyone pretty much agrees that it’s great, until you actually see the monster. Blair Witch worked so well partly because you never saw the danger. That’s what the Reapers have always been, and what they should have stayed, instead of being neutered by the Starbrat and their idiotic explanation (which goes against everything we experienced for ourselves).

  11. Ian Pape

    I agree. The Reapers, before the last few minutes of ME3, are a very dull enemy. However, I think one of the issues is that people view ME3 as the end of the Mass Effect Universe. Bioware has said that this is the end of Shepard’s story, but those two are not mutually inclusive. The galaxy lived through the Reaper invasion, for the first time in countless cycles, because of Shepard. And his/her legacy lives through the drastically altered fates of multiple races. So step 1, stop thinking ME3 is the end. It definitely isn’t. Bioware is already making another ME game. Then next question is then, what happens next?

    So the problem with the Reapers was their why. At the end of ME3 we learn that the Reapers are part of a containment system for biological life, the other components being the Relays and Eezo based tech in general. They all work together to prevent biological life from leaving the Milky Way. You could think of it as a very complex prison, with the Reapers as the guards, swooping in to subdue the prisoners before they can escape. Alternatively, you could think of it as safe. If the goal is to preserve biological life, creating a safe place to store it makes sense for the Starchild VI controlling the Reapers. But, what is trying to break into the safe? What does organic life need to be kept safe from? The Reapers and Starchild state that organic life must be protected from being exterminated by synthetic, possibly implying the threat posed by the Geth. However, the Geth were never a threat to biological life in this cycle. They moved the Quarrians off their planet sure, but after only a few hundred years, the Quarrians came sweeping in with new tech, pushing the Geth to become so desperate that they reached out to the Reapers for aid. A very similar series of events occurred in the Prothean Cycle. So if those synthetic races didn’t pose a threat, what did? Set that aside for a moment. We’ll come back to it in a second. Next ask why the entire game takes place in the Milky Way. It’s because that’s where the relays are. So why did the Reapers build the relays only in the Milky Way? Why not across multiple galaxys? They had the time to do so, billions possibly trillions of years of cycles. So why keep organic life penned in this galaxy specifically? Because the Milky Way is not a prison at all. It’s a safe. And the threat isn’t internal like the Geth or Prothean synthetics. It’s external. It’s beyond the Milky Way, past the dark space where the Reapers waited. And it’s had trillions of years of cycles to grow strong and expand. So now the Council and the other races of the Milky Way have broken out of the safe. They no longer have the Reapers to keep them in and can begin exploring the universe, rather than a single galaxy. So what were the Reapers hiding organic life from? What’s waiting past the dark?

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