The Mass Effect trilogy is for me the gaming equivalent of the original Star Wars films. Sure, the first one was pretty good. The second was excellent. The third? Well, it had its problems, but was entertaining enough.
As it turns out, two of the three Mass Effect games had one very big problem: their choice of primary villains.
Today we discuss the sapient constructs known as 'Reapers' and why positioning them as the main antagonists in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 was one of the greatest mistakes of game narrative design. I'm a big believer in offering solutions alongside criticisms, so we'll also cover alternative villains who were tragically overlooked.
It should go without saying:
The Reapers aren't 'bad' villains in terms of their design.
Mind control, FTL capabilities, weaponry that would give even the most conservative military minds wet dreams for a decade... I believe it is clear to us all that the Reapers are awesome. However, they're also unrelatable. Reapers are Cthulhu-inspired world destroyers, bent on the cyclical harvesting of galactic civilisations seemingly because it is their only goal. It's hard to take that personally.
Mass Effect recognised this, choosing to put the Reapers' motives and origins out of reach from the narrative. As players may remember, a conversation with an ancient Prothean virtual intelligence program, Vigil, concluded a line of questioning with, "In the end, what does it matter? Your survival depends on stopping [the Reapers], not in understanding them." (06:26 in the below video)
In fact this whole conversation is Mass Effect at the peak of its narrative greatness, because it isn't attempting to make the Reapers fathomable. Quite the opposite: it's suggested that this super-powerful race of beings are driven by desires and goals we cannot comprehend.
More importantly, the story starts off by pitting us against Saren Arterius, a villain whose immediate goals we could comprehend. Saren hates humans. He wants our colonies destroyed. He wants our character, Commander Shepard, to fail in their candidacy for the SpecTRE task force.
We know that technically the Reaper called Sovereign is influencing Saren's actions throughout the entire story arc, but the point is that Saren is the guy on the ground. He gets things done while Sovereign floats around looking all grim, alien and menacing.
Saren kills his colleague Nihilus, dozens of human colonists and Alliance personnel on Eden Prime; he oversees an attack on the colony at Feros; funds genetic research on Noveria to bring back the deadly Rachni race; cures the Krogan 'genophage' in an attempt to breed an army; and he forces a situation where Shepard has to leave a crew mate to die.
Even in the minutes leading up to the end of the game he's the antagonist leading a ground assault against the Citadel. Sovereign proves itself a palpable threat in the battle, shredding capital ships with single blasts from its cannons, but make no mistake - it's playing second fiddle to Saren's cold and determined rogue soldier.
Saren's servitude to a larger, more powerful being isn't what's important; he believes his actions are of his own choosing and that, by serving Sovereign willingly, he is convincing the Reapers that organics are worth saving. He also shows that he is conflicted about his choices. That makes him interesting as a primary villain and it bulks up the Reapers as a threat we should take seriously.
So, if Mass Effect got its villains right, by casting Saren and Sovereign in primary and secondary antagonist roles respectively, how did Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 get their villains wrong?
Short answer: by making the Reapers the central antagonists. It's like trying to give character to a hurricane, or a volcano, or a nuclear warhead.
Mass Effect 2 has one of the strongest openings I've seen in videogames. The ship you've came to know and love, the people on it, the crew, even Commander Shepard - it all gets torn to pieces by an unidentified alien vessel. Meanwhile, human colonies are being abducted by an unknown threat in the distant corners of the galaxy.
We wait in anticipation for the antagonist to reveal themselves, only to discover these 'Collectors' are under the control - or at least the influence - of the Reapers. They have no character, no individual leader we can focus on or relate to. They are simply tools, used and discarded by their Reaper masters.
Things only get blander in Mass Effect 3 when the Reapers themselves show up on Earth's doorstep in all their high-powered, homogeneous glory.
There's no nuance among Reapers or their Collector servants. Vague hints of a good primary antagonist bubble up to the surface with Harbinger, the Reaper that's supposedly the biggest and eldest of its kind, but all poor Harbinger gets in Mass Effect 2 are some threatening lines of dialogue, while in Mass Effect 3 its presence is reduced to a single codex entry.
Oh, and it blows you up towards the end of the game. No words. Just actions. Honestly, that could have been performed by any Reaper and had the same level of impact.
Just to be clear: I'm not saying the Reapers aren't good as an overarching galactic threat. What I am saying is that having a massive threat looming over the galaxy is not the same as having someone who's willing - or crazy - enough to push the big red button, sit back and watch it burn with a smile on their face.
What alternatives to the Reapers would I have preferred subsequent games in the Mass Effect trilogy to have as their primary antagonists? How about this guy:
Martin Sheen's Illusive Man, the Donald Trump of the Mass Effect universe, has all the qualities we look for in our best villains. He's driven, charismatic, has goals we can understand, is willing to play dirty if it means getting what he wants and leads an organisation bent on galactic domination.
Cerberus had real potential as a group Shepard would have to take down. Their human supremacist ideology, heavy funding and bureaucratic power gave many a Mass Effect 2 player cause to think Cerberus was the real enemy. Sadly this never came to fruition in the narrative. Instead we got further glimpses of Reaper motivation and technological horror.
Lo and behold, in Mass Effect 3 Cerberus were cast as antagonists, except by this point the Reapers had taken centre stage, leaving Cerberus troops and their Commander, Kai "Cover Me While I Recharge!" Leng, as a distracting sideshow.
If it had been the other way around and Cerberus were cast as the primary threat, Kai Leng would have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his commitment to Cerberus, spout its political ideology, get under Shepard's skin and generally make life unpleasant, while the tapped power of Reaper tech would be abundant for us to see. The Illusive Man would have had a significantly larger role in the story, too, offering a sophisticated foil to Leng's brutality as Shepard attempted to thwart these villains and save the galactic community (including the Alliance) from the militant organisation.
What can game writing teams learn from these mistakes?
Going back to my earlier Star Wars comparison, we can look upon Kai Leng and the Illusive Man as Mass Effect's equivalent to Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, and the Reapers as the Dark Side.
Power in and of itself is not what makes a good primary villain because it's a force without focus. A primary villain should channel power and give it meaning audiences can instantly understand. We should never be in a position where the power behind villains needs to be explained in its entirety and made relatable or beatable, because it's a battle writers can't win.
Not even by personifying that power in the form of a small child the hero couldn't save.