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.
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.
Reapers are fucking boring.