Analyzing the Superiority of Mass Effect 1

I’ve started replaying the Mass Effect trilogy, and I’m partway into the second game.  Since game three is still fresh in my mind (and not for a good reason) I am now even more convinced that the first game is the best game of the three.  That led me to try and analyze why, and I realized it was a change made in The Hobbit that answered the question.  I have some problems with The Hobbit, the endless CGI battles became a bore, but the writers, and Jackson made one very smart choice.  They personalized the antagonist in the person of the White Orc that killed Thorin’s father, and that Thorin maimed.  It gave us a pole star, if you will, someone to focus on.

They did that in Mass Effect 1 with Sarin.  Yes, you ultimately discover that Sovereign is behind it all, but you have personal interactions with Sarin.  He mocks you in front of the Council, and makes Shepard seem foolish and delusional.  You know that he and his ship have indoctrinated and ruined Liara’s mother, you confront him again on Virmire, and finally you try to help him find redemption in the end.  It’s powerful and it’s personal.

In my first play through of Mass Effect 2 I found the Collectors mysterious and terrifying, but on this second play through it’s less engaging.  Mostly the game consists of your recruiting the Dirty Dozen for the suicide mission, and then confronting the Collectors when they steal your crew.  That’s a powerful moment, but ultimately they are just faceless.  The designers tried to address that with Harbinger constantly “assuming direct control”, and talking smack to Shepard, but it all seems very arms length.  In fact a friend of mine actually didn’t realize that Harbinger was a Reaper and not just the commander of the Collectors until I pointed that out to him.  That intensified his reaction, but the fact he didn’t see that shows the failure to personalize the villain.

Game three is a scavenger hunt to find shit, and Harbinger is startlingly absent.  I had assumed after game 2 that Harbinger would be that personalized enemy, but you actually never interact with him in any meaningful way.  They tried to make Kai Leng and The Illusive Man be the personalized villains, but that was doomed to failure because from the beginning of the first the designers promised us that the Reapers were the ultimate problem.  They created Harbinger as the stand in for all the Reapers, and then they never developed it as a character or gave players the satisfaction of that be the final confrontation.

Contrast that with Dragon Age: Origins where you know within 30 minutes that you are going to face the Archdemon, and let me tell you, getting up the courage to go out on the roof of the tower for that final battle is an emotional moment in that game.

There are other reasons I think Mass Effect 1 is the superior game of the three.  Some of that is personal to me.  I like to manage my own inventory.  I liked finding, buying and upgrading my team’s armor.  I liked personalizing their weapons and ammo depending up on the situation.  Where I would fault game 1 is in the character interactions.  They became a good deal deeper in the later games.  Your conversations with Garrus in game 2 where you see Shepard’s doubt and vulnerability were great, and the male Shepard/Kaidan romance was one of the best things in game 3.

But back to the main point.  This need for a personified, personalized villain has me looking and evaluating the projects I’m currently writing.  Is Grenier enough of an antagonist in THE EDGE OF DARKNESS?  How about the Wild Card movie?  Do I have a worthy opponent for my young hero?  What about the urban fantasy I have to write in my personae as Phillipa Bornikova?  Who is the ultimate villain of PUBLISH AND PERISH?

I may be doing a bit of tinkering with my outlines, and taking a hard look at how to build to those ending climaxes.


13 Responses to Analyzing the Superiority of Mass Effect 1

  • Georgino says:

    Just a question as you’ve always come across as a well educated and well read person. Have you ever encountered a story where the main antagonist is not an external person but rather more of an internal struggle in the main conflict of the story?

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      I can’t think of one right now. Anybody? I can think of a movie analog — A BEAUTIFUL MIND. I think you’ve got to give your protagonist issues because it’s so easy for heroes to be boring.

  • Mizar says:

    “Crime and punishment” by Dostoevsky would be quite relevant, I think… Hello. Sorry for barging in your thread like that. I came across your blog by chance when looking for something completely different and before I knew it I spent an hour reading various entries. I am also a ME fan (or used to be before ME3 came out). The vibrant universe and the characters created by Bioware used to be my very own secret hideaway from the humdrum of everyday life. I do agree with you wholeheartedly that ME1 is the best in the series. If I could erase the second part of ME3 from my memory, I’d have loved to reply it again. The part I miss most is exploration. It was unforgettable staring at those seemingly infinite vistas and starry skies of alien worlds. It gave the game its sense of epic scale and wonder. Priceless.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      No, please, barge away. If you’ve been wandering about you’ve probably seen how many of my posts were directed at the disaster of Mass Effect 3. That truly broke my heart because it could have been the greatest game ever created, and it was functionally destroyed through arrogance and incompetence.

      The only reason I can reply is because I’ve written my own ending story. It’s almost done and I’m going to start posting in sections here on the website under writing. Probably right after Xmas.

      Completely agree about the exploration. I loved the Mako, and I really suck at flying the Hammerhead. They also did something really smart on those planet drops because you could run across things that weren’t actually on the map, and it felt like an Easter Egg hunt. I realized a couple of nights ago that I missed finding the Prothean ruin that shows you early man and is triggered by the gift from the Sha’ira. I had this sense of


      and I wanted to go back and try to fix that.

      Because of the epic fail I think Dragon Age: Origins holds the top spot as best game ever. Yeah, I know the combat was clunky, but that’s not why I play. I’m a writer. I want them to tell me a story.

  • Mizar says:

    I am looking forward to reading your ending story. I had to dream up my own endings to fill the void left behind by the original game.

    Merry Xmas.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      I don’t actually do a retcon on the idiot/evil Star Child. I let that stand, but I give us a more Dragon Age ending where you actually get to see the aftermath and interact with your companions. In these games there should always be an opportunity for player character survival, and a self-sacrifice ending it that’s how you view your character and their journey. Real options, not this color coded nonsense. I also found the blue and green endings to be horrifying, in particular the synthesis which the designers apparently thought was the “best” ending. It creeped me out beyond belief. It’s clear that Shepard survives in the red ending. I wanted that option, but the “and then you kill all the Geth and EDI seemed as stupid as the Star Child’s reasoning for why this murderous cycle has gone on and on. “Organics and synthetics cannot co-exist.” Really? Seems to me an alliance of organics and synthetics is out there kicking your Reaper asses.

      Ironically, this story was meant to be a comedic romp, a story of wedding spinning out of control. Maybe because I’m a drama writer it didn’t exactly go that way. I found myself thinking about issues of PTSD, and survivor’s guilt. There are some light moments, but it’s fairly serious. It’s also fairly romantic. I tend to do that. 🙂

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    Oh, and Merry Xmas to you, Mizar. I made a nice breakfast, gave the cats and the dog Xmas treats. Later I will go to the barn, and make my stallion, Vento a hot bran mash filled with apples and carrots. But right now I need to write. Holiday? Writers don’t need no stinking holidays. 🙂

  • Mizar says:

    Hope that despite being busy, you still had an enjoyable Xmas. Actually, I love working between Xmas and New Year – I can get loads of things done without interruptions. The joy of an open plan office! They say it improves my productivity…
    I am on the same page with you here. I like a bit of drama in my games…:) I would be happy if we were offered a variety of endings by means of text boxes – a Dragon Age: Origins style. Although given the choice I would have loved to see Tali on Rannoch clutching the stone Shepard had given her, or Liara playing with a little blue girl in a park on Thessia, or Wrex settling a new colony world named after Mordin and so on. I want to see those short post ending stories of happiness and sorrow. They don’t need to be overly long, 30 seconds per character is all it takes to give the player some sense of achievement and closure. Subtle differences could be introduced through small variations in dialogue and substitution of actors depending on Shepard’s background and actions. Ah, what could have been! Instead, having created a believable and scientifically sound fictional universe (more or less), where every natural phenomenon and astronomical object was explained to death in the Codex, the BioWare writers decided to blew it up with… the space magic?!!! I could never understand the reasoning behind the whole Crucible plot, if there is any to be found at all. It killed my enjoyment of the game entirely.

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    Had a great holiday. I got to work a lot rather than prep to cook for the hoard, cook for the hoard, clean up after the hoard. I have put the final polish on the Mass Effect story. Had a brainstorm yesterday that just had to go it. I’m writing a big dramatic scene that sets up the “run to the credits” in the third Edge book, and I’m doing some restructure on the Wild Card movie. It’s all good. I really do need to get to that proposal for my space opera series.

    Anyway, back to my Mass Effect obsession. Yes, I wanted to see Shepard get to interact with the people who had meant so much to him for the past 3 years. I got that in my story which is why I can look on the game with some equanimity now. I didn’t mind the crucible, but I wanted that mucking big fleet and all my efforts to bring unity between the races to fu*king matter. And there really needed to be a final confrontation with Harbinger.

    The fans, with the indoctrination theory, had really given Bioware a graceful way out of this mess, but pride and arrogance wouldn’t permit them to do it. And probably EA looking at the bottom line. I really hope people are punishing them by not buying all these DLC’s. They should not be rewarded for giving us crap and telling us it was caviar.

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    As I’ve written in other blog posts. The only way people would have been willing to accept the crucible and the F**king Star Child is if they had been set up way back in game one. You just can’t ring in a new antagonist ten pages from the end of a book or ten minutes from the end of a movie or a game. You’ve got to play fair with your reader/viewer/player.

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    And I’m still so annoyed that my act of mercy — sparing the Rachni Queen had zero effect. And all the scanning for minerals — no effect. Creating this massive alliance — no effect. Well I suppose the EMS score did affect what happened to Earth, but again that just felt like magic. If the big red flare killed Reapers and destroyed Relays why didn’t it wipe out everybody and everything? The end just made no damn sense.

    Also, did it strike you as odd that it’s Shepard who orders the fleet to attack rather than Hackett. It really should have been Hackett. Or Hackett should have given the honor to Shepard.

    And why didn’t they do Shepard’s trial? I was so excited at that prospect. Apparently they planned to then decided a court battle wouldn’t be interesting or exciting. I wanted to scream — “Dudes, call me. I wrote The Measure of a Man. You bet your ass a courtroom drama is exciting.”

    Ah well, I’ll quit bitching and go fight Collectors.

    • Mizar says:

      Yes, the chain of command in ME3 is a bit blurry. In the first game, Hackett gives the order to save the Council or to hold back based on Shepard’s feedback and not the other way around.

      A courtroom drama where Shepard has to defend himself/herself would be so cool. The Quarian trial worked quite well, therefore I half expected something similar in ME3, like sending the Virmire survivor and Liara to find evidence exonerating Shepard’s actions. And there is a potential for some drama if Shepard cheated on any of them. Also if the developers were so desperate to introduce James to the crew, that would be a great opportunity to do so. At the moment, James is wasting Zaeed’s oxygen supply on my Normandy. And don’t get me started about Allers….

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    I liked James well enough, but gruff old, Zaeed is terrific, and I wanted him back on the ship. I also missed having a Krogan aboard in ME3.

    As I’ve written about elsewhere I found Arrival to be deeply disturbing. Partly because there is only one outcome, but they also cheated. They made it a Batarian colony. It should have been a human colony so the choice is even more gut wrenching. And disturbing is an understatement. I actually had a nightmare about it.

    What disturbed me even more was reading some tweets from players who treated that as nothing. “So what did you do today, Shepard?” (Stretching, casual) “Not too much. Destroyed a Batarian colony, stopped the Reapers.” I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the display of callousness disturbed me.

    The NRA blaming video games for gun violence is just nuts, but I hope people are careful and don’t allow themselves to become hardened and callous. Which is why I think they’re ought to be consequences if you’re just a bastard through the entire game. I seem to be incapable of playing renegade. I do a few renegade actions, but some of the choices are rather vile.

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