Mass Effect, Alien Design and the Unknowable Other

As mentioned in the intro post, this is one of my pet topics so hold onto your hats, kids. Please note: Later I say that I am about to spend a paragraph spoiling the original Mass Effect trilogy. This did not end up being the case. As of writing this edit, I’m about 1,000 words into that particular rant, so if you don’t want the original Mass Effect trilogy spoiled, it may be best to skip this post altogether.

 

One of the things I absolutely love about speculative fiction is getting to tackle different perspectives and experiences of the world. And not just different experiences as in ‘different upbringing and culture’, but ‘different scope of perception’ level. Give me Alistair Reynolds stories of humans who have uploaded their consciousness into clouds of nanobots floating in the solar system, with incredibly processing capacity but incredibly slow data transfer times. Give me Cathrynne M Valente stories where people dream of becoming trains. Give me Robin Hobb’s ships made from dragons whose personalities are composites of those who have died on their wooden boards.

Give me Mass Effect’s Reapers, who are huge and immortal synthetic lifeforms carrying out their directives across epochs and eons.

Or rather, don’t. Because Mass Effect’s Reapers were one of the things I found most disappointing about the series.

At least, they were in the third game. In the first two, they were pretty great, as far as the plot goes. They were a good enemy, they fit the scope of the game, they provided a believable threat, and they were internally consistent.

None of that changed, when we got to Mass Effect 3. But then they tried to explain them.

Mass Effect 3 was the Big Ending, and they needed to provide answers to some of the questions that had been building up for the entire series. Spoilers for the original Mass Effect trilogy to follow in the next couple of paragraphs. And by spoilers I mean I’m talking about the endings to both the second game and the third game, so definitely skip this bit if you haven’t played them and don’t want to know what’s going to happen in them.

The ending of Mass Effect 2 reveals part of the secret of the Reapers – that Reapers are created from organic lifeforms. The final boss is against a giant metal human skeleton, which is revealed to be created from the people that the Collectors are stealing. This is a look into how the Reapers ‘reproduce’. It’s a big turning point for the game, and as someone who didn’t play the trilogy until long after the third one had come out, it was a great ending to lead into the final part of the trilogy.

Side note – the second two Mass Effect games worked much better as parts of an overarching series together, honestly. They had a much more cohesive approach to the themes (especially the synthetic vs. organic debate), and the plots flowed pretty well into each other.

However, the ending of Mass Effect 2 did really set up the expectation that Mass Effect 3 would reveal more about the Reapers, where they come from, and why they do what they do. Honestly, that was always something I think the players would have expected, since the Reapers are a mystery, and part of the enjoyment of narrative is the mysteries being revealed (or figured out by an astute consumer). But having the Reapers’ reproductive process revealed was a confirmation – the developers were saying ‘yes, we do know how the Reapers work, and we’re willing to share that information’.

But the trick with the Reapers is that their position in the story is as the Alien Other – an Unknowable Force For Destruction. And their entire story, scope and character reactions and plot, was based around the Reapers being a threat that the galaxy and its governments were not prepared for. But part of creating that scope and that tone for the series is othering the Reapers. Fighting the Reapers, for 90% of the series, is like fighting a tsunami or a hurricane. You can plan, you can prepare, but most of the time you’re honestly better off just trying to survive and making a plan for picking up the pieces afterwards.

(Actually that sounds like an amazing game. I would play the HECK out of a game that revolved around trying to find a way to hide and run from the Reapers and save as much of the galactic civilisation as possible. Can we get that game? I want that game.)

This is where Mass Effect shoots itself in the foot. Because in order to get the ending to the third game that we’d been building up to (the Reapers are defeated and the galaxy is “saved”, inasmuch as the actual endings we’re given constitute ‘saving’ the galaxy, but that’s a topic for a different post), the Reapers needed to be fallible, and in order to answer the expectations set up in previous games, we needed to learn more about them. That’s one of the trickiest things to do with the ‘other’ in a story, because as soon as the other is explained, unless you’re extremely careful, it is no longer the other. Explaining these things brings them into the realm of the familiar, and that’s death to your carefully-crafted tone.

Now, I don’t think that these things were necessarily entirely death for the series – the point of the Reapers, after all, was sort of the Quarian/Geth conflict given a supercharger and a shot of adrenaline. In the end, while the ending had other problems (again, a discussion either for another blog post or possibly best left in 2012), it was at least in keeping with the themes that Mass Effects 2 and 3 had been building up to. But in the end, the Reapers ended up feeling disappointing, because once they’d been explained, and once there was a way to defeat them, they became, essentially, a larger form of the Geth. Thematically and narratively fine, but it really didn’t uphold the tone, and it definitely didn’t allow them to maintain their status as Alien Other.

Now, to finally, finally move on to Mass Effect: Andromeda. In true Mass Effect fashion, it starts with two threats: a mundane, human threat, in this case, the Archon and his forces, and builds up to a larger, multi-game threat, which is decidedly not mundane – in this case, the Remnant and the society that created them and created the Scourge. I like this from a pacing perspective, by the way – it means there’s a good arc for the individual game, and a good arc for the overarching series. This is the only reason I forgave the addition of Azog the Defiler in the first Hobbit movie – a movie that long desperately needed its own arc as well as the overarching plot arc, and despite the other reasons I was sincerely disappointed in those movies (BEORN NO), that was one change that I think was justified.

Of course, this is only the first game in however many they choose to release for the Andromeda series, so they’re still at the ‘building mystique’ phase for the Remnant and the Meridian, so I can’t exactly compare their treatment of the Other in this series yet. It remains to be seen how they’ll treat the Remnant once they start revealing more about them. But this time, what with all the scientists studying the Remnant, the fact that the game focuses more on these advances being technological in nature, with a creator and a purpose, they seem to be angling more for the feel of the Protheans than the Reapers. If they continue in that vein, I’d expect that the problems of the sudden change of tone won’t happen here – they’re already setting up for the Meridian to be comprehensible, and for the Scourge to have a solution that only requires advanced enough technology.

No, it won’t be an Alien Other like the Reapers were, but at this point, I’m actually OK with that. As much as I love the Great Unknowable and exploring beings who truly cannot be understood, I think that a story like the Mass Effect series – much more an adventure romp – doesn’t really support the Alien Other as a villain. I’d much prefer a breathtaking mystery with a well-crafted answer, if that’ll preserve the tone of the series.

One of these days I’d like to write more about writing the Unknowable Other in stories, but honestly it’s a tricky thing to do and I’m not sure I’ve even gotten the hang of it yet. One day I’ll write that blog post. And on that day, you will know that I will never again write a story without a character or entity like that, so be ready for that.

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