I am constantly perplexed by villains.
As a fan of high-action fantasy and space opera, I demand villains that can operate on a grand scale — that can deliver conflict and challenge appropriate to my delusions of grandeur. However, as a slave to coherence and consistency, I demand villains whose motivations and actions can plausibly produce that level of challenge and conflict.
Now, I reject the notion that dumb action and plausible characters are mutually exclusive, as Hollywood and the AAA industry often seem to think. By all means, it’s a balance that’s hard to strike, but I think there’s rarely been as glorious a failure than the monstrous, enigmatic Reapers of the Mass Effect trilogy.
The Reapers are Coming
Even when I first played Mass Effect, I wanted to call bullshit on the conversation you have with Sovereign on the planet Virmine — where you finally come face to face with Saren’s dreadnought and discover that it is the true big bad. It has a gravelly Darth Vader-style voice and makes bold, prophetic assertions with absolute confidence.
Oof, am I right?
The problems arise when the game allows you to question Sovereign about its origins and motivations. It reveals a galactic cycle of harvesting, where every 50,000 years the Reapers trundle back in and hoover up everything that’s capable of space flight. Naturally, you ask: why?
Its answer is where it all breaks. It says “you are incapable of comprehending our motives”.
I hesistate to call it laziness, but it is definitely a cheap trick. If you haven’t written a motivation yet, then don’t give the player the chance to question it at all — don’t draw attention to the hole in your plot outline! It’s brought into sharp focus by how loquacious Sovereign is about what the Reapers do, before descending into meaningless bluster when you ask why…
But what reason would an immortal and (supposedly) superior machine have to bluster? Is it actually insecure and feeling threatened by the little organics? (Notwithstanding the fact that it could have nuked you from orbit at any time during this exchange.)
Mass Effect 2 explores some of the why and things get worse. In the climax, you discover that all the abducted humans are being used to… build a new Reaper. I call bullshit on this because Sovereign said I couldn’t comprehend their motives — but I can comprehend reproduction! Maybe I don’t agree with their need to liquify billions of people to do it, or the precise mechanics of how billions of liquified humans turn into a robot, but I can get the concept.
I can even comprehend Harbinger’s bold claim that being absorbed into a Reaper is in fact a form of ascension, as the essence of the absorbed race is immortalised and preserved for all eternity as part of that perfect mind and body. I don’t agree with any chain of reasoning that leads to that point, but I can comprehend it. Sovereign’s words definitely smell like bullshit now.
Okay, fine, so the Reapers are shit at shit-talking. Fine. Now let’s look at how they behave, because, once you know that Reapers think they’re preserving the species they absorb, their actions in the games start to look really interesting.
See, if each Reaper is completely unique, and is utterly irreplacable, and is perhaps part of some grand cosmic design beyond mere reproduction, then it stands to reason that the Reapers could never countenance one being destroyed. The loss would not just be of an individual, but the genetic catalogue of an entire species that was preserved in this single body. The disruption to the cosmic design of such a loss would be awful, so it’s no wonder the Reapers are giant warships with insane shields, armour and ridiculous lasers. They are floating archives.
So when Sovereign attacks the Citadel at the end of Mass Effect, it is clearly hella desperate. This is a last ditch attempt to bring in the cavalry, to summon the rest of the Old Gods and pop out a baby. It fails in its gambit and is utterly destroyed, which should be a dreadful tragedy from the Reapers’ perspective.
Except… In the Arrival DLC pack for Mass Effect 2, it is revealed that, since the Citadel could not be opened, the rest of the Reapers started walking — flying back to the galaxy the long, slow way. According to the games’ timeline, when Sovereign attacked they were about 2 years away.
Which makes Sovereign’s actions suddenly seem odd. Why would it put itself at such huge risk when it could simply wait two years? To an immortal machine that has a 50,000 year lifecycle, that’s basically nothing. Sure, brainwash some servants and do your best to get them in the back door, but don’t put yourself in the firing line. Sovereign’s death isn’t just a tragedy, it’s a completely avoidable one.
Perhaps the climax could have left Sovereign in the shadows, deterred but not defeated, to let the sequels escalate more naturally — from killing servants Saren and the Geth, to finding and killing Sovereign, to killing all Reapers at last.
(The very first time I played Mass Effect, I expected the climactic decision to save the Council to enable Sovereign to escape — so obviously I sacrificed the Council, because Sovereign is a much bigger threat. When I later discovered that Sovereign dies in both eventualities, with nothing changing except that more of the Alliance fleet dies, I started saving the Council for political expediency in the sequels.)
Okay, Mass Effects 1 and 2 play this fairly straight — both Sovereign and Harbinger act through intermediaries. It’s Mass Effect 3 during the full invasion where this self-preservation instinct is thrown out the window, and things get squiffy.
Early in the game you’re sent to rescue Garrus from a moon, and as you stumble around on foot you’re treated to collossal Reapers striding around the horizon, utterly obliterating everythig in their path. Well, of course they would obliterate everything — they’re nigh-invulnerable skyscrapers with impossibly powerful beams, an army of Space Godzillas.
Except… this level revolves around a base camp composed entirely of footsoldiers and one-person fightercraft. The game delivers intensity with constant husk attacks against this outpost, sending rivers of footsoldiers equivalent to you and your pals, but this makes no sense when the Reaper standing right over there could wipe out this little camp with a single laser blast. Yes, it’s hella cool to have skyscraper-sized robots ripping worlds to shreds in the background, but you simply cannot have those ignoring command posts that their entire purpose here is to destroy.
However, if the Reapers were still reluctant to put themselves at risk, and therefore needed to rely on those more fallible servitors and footsoldiers that are manufactured on-scene… Suddenly this mission structure makes sense. Presumably the rate at which Reapers can convert or produce husks is faster than people can reproduce, and a full Reaper might still do an orbital strike every now and then, so the odds would still be massively against you — but they wouldn’t be impossible odds which can only be subverted by your enemies ignoring obvious opportunities to strike.
I get the feeling that the reproductive aspect of the Reapers’ motivations wasn’t the original intended angle, and was something swapped into Mass Effect 2 along with so many other hard-turn plot devices and tone-shifts. The hand-wavy bits of dialogue in the first game must have been left to keep their options open while the bigger narrative arcs were still undecided. It’s just a shame that the end result came down on the wrong side of mysterious and grand and ended up dramatic-but-nonsensical instead.
To be fair, the balance between plausible motivation and epic scale is a balance I continue to struggle with in my own work, so I have little right to rag on more successful writers than myself for it. Even so, the villain of any conflict-driven game is the lynchpin upon which everything rests — without a viable antagonist, there’s no reason for anything else and whatever you layer on top falls apart. Foundations are critical, and so often this is where the mega-budget blockbusters, which I do prize for their production values and quality of gameplay, fall apart.