Category Archives: Mass Effect

Mass Effect 3: Understanding the Reaper Threat

So, I had an epiphany last night while discussing Mass Effect on Twitter with a few of the awesome people from my round table review session.

Specifically, on the nature of the reapers, and why the claims of the Catalyst… might not be as far fetched as I first believed. Though I firmly believe it is lying to Shepard, I am starting to glimpse the half-truths behind those lies.

Throughout the series, the Reapers make claims such as the following:

“We are your salvation through destruction.”

“We are the ultimate result of evolution.”

“Each of us, a nation.”

“We are eternal.”

“You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”

They claim to bring “order” to the “chaos” of the galaxy. And everywhere they go, they create brainwashed sleeper agents and mindless husks.

Mild spoilers follow:

The Catalyst (a character I am obviously no great fan of, and who I believe may be the reaper known as Harbinger in disguise) claims the reapers’ purpose is to prevent an ‘inevitable’ conflict between organics and synthetics by ‘harvesting’ organic races at the peak of their civilizations and “preserving them in reaper form.”

Now, obviously from the perspective of an organic who’d like to keep his current form, this makes no sense. But maybe it’s not completely crazy. If we pause to think about it for a second. What sort of conditions could give rise to a being with this belief system, however wrong headed and evil it might be?

I’m going to spin a theory about the origins of the “Cycle” in Mass Effect, and about the origin of the series’ ultimate villains.

This theory makes a few assumptions:

1) Indoctrination theory is true… mostly.

2) The Catalyst is telling PART of the truth, as it perceives it, but bending that truth heavily in its favor.

3) It has reasons for those perceptions, but they are still wrong.


We’ve seen how reapers are ‘born’ in Mass Effect 2. A horrifying process that transforms thousands of organics into a single massive synthetic – a reaper.

Imagine for a moment a galaxy many cycles in the past. Say, several million years or more. Perhaps even billions.

A great civilization is at the height of its existence, and gives birth to A.I. Like many sci-fi horror stories, it does not end well. A massive war ensues. By the time it nears its end, no one can remember who launched the first attack. It’s kill or be killed. Synthetic versus organic. Created versus creator.

This massive war goes on for hundreds of years. It is brutal beyond imagination. Whole species are wiped out by the synthetics. And still, it rages on. No end in sight.

Finally, one advanced species – or a small group of them, perhaps a cult of scientists – in what they realize is the twilight of their existence, has a final moment of clarity. The only way to preserve their species in any shape, any form… is to distill the essence of their species into a single massive cybernetic creature. Part organic, part synthetic, eternal, unchanging, and powerful beyond anything their time had ever seen.

And so they do it. They subject themselves deliberately to the process we witness forced on humanity in Mass Effect 2. They create what would be the first “Reaper,” – a name that would be given to them later by the future victims – their species’ last devastating answer to the threat of extinction. They embrace “ascension.” Not all are on board with this plan; many are forced into it unwillingly. But regardless, the process is – beyond all probability – successful.

Imagine for a moment the kind of horror that would motivate a species to embrace a plan like the one we witnessed as their last hope. Imagine the scar that would leave on their collective psyche. If you can comprehend that, even for a moment, you have some idea of how a reaper thinks.

This first reaper destroys the synthetics threaten its former civilization. But it has been unhinged by the process that created it. It sees itself as a godlike entity (and understandably, for what could stand against it?). It believes itself superior.

And yes, it believes that the conflict between organics and synthetics… is inevitable. It sees itself as the solution to this problem – its original mission. But its not a life form any longer. It’s a machine. Unchanging, eternal, yes, but inflexible. Rigid.

It believes that other races must be “uplifted” and become like it to stop the war with the synthetics. It believes that only it is fit to control, and that organics are inherently “chaotic” when left to their own devices. By taking control, it believes it is ‘helping’ – after a fashion. By destroying what makes them unique, what makes them alive. The first husks, the first reaper creatures are born from the remnants of its own species, and soon those of others… eventually leading up to the creation of yet another reaper. And another. And all this time, it continues the war against the synthetics as well, who are ill prepared to deal with something this powerful. Some of them, it bends to its will.

It sets about forcing this process on the remaining advanced civilizations of its time period, perhaps discovering the tricks of Indoctrination along the way. It feels few emotions, save the rage of its creators, and its own sense of pride. Its belief in its own infallibility. It believes that it was born from chaos, and brings order – no, it IS order. It believes that it must take control in order to prevent organics from destroying themselves; that destroying some civilizations is better than allowing them to spawn synthetics that could destroy ALL civilizations.

It is a product of its time. It sees the conflict that spawned it as inevitable, and communicates this same belief to its newly uplifted brethren. It believes that the most worthy races should join it in its ascended state, and that the weaker races should be culled. And it believes, yes, that organics will inevitably create synthetics and lead to the same conflict again.

(And unsurprisingly, it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. The reapers use synthetics in their crusade, turning them against their creators at times, manipulating organic and synthetic alike in their new purpose. We hear of this from Javik; it happened in his cycle, and this does not surprise us because the reapers used the heretic geth in the same fashion.)

And so begins the Cycle. The new breed of reapers set up the Mass Relays, the citadel, and allow civilizations to develop until they reach their height, then they arrive and destroy them, or – if they are found ‘worthy,’ – they force them to ‘ascend,’ creating new reapers to aid in their work. At first they are stealthy – they sweep in undetected, out of – perhaps – a last remaining sense of self preservation.

As their numbers grow, cycle after cycle, they become bolder. The last several cycles have all resulted in long, dragged out wars, during which the “Crucible” (whatever it really is) was devised and expanded on by the brightest races before the reapers destroyed or converted them.

The problem: the reapers logic is flawed, because it does not see the value of free will, of independent thought. It sees those aspects of organic life as problems to be solved – because it assumes that the same patterns will always repeat themselves in the chaos. At first, it sees its course as the lesser of two evils. Eventually, it sees it as the only correct course. The “solution.” It ignores the values of diversity, seeing them as problems as well.

Essentially, the reapers are a product of the environment that spawned that first reaper. But because they lose what made them ‘alive’ in favor of becoming eternal machines, they are inflexible. They are unable to consider the horrifying possibility that they might be wrong. They are motivated to preserve themselves and create more like themselves, and they are motivated to control and devour in an effort to strengthen their forces. And, as they begin to see themselves as the superior beings, they desire other creatures to see them in the same way – part of the Indoctrination process creates a sense of “superstitious awe” in some of the victims.

After that… it was simply a matter of spending a few hundred thousand years perfecting their PR campaign to the point that they fell for it themselves.

They are selfish. They are inflexible. Eternal, perhaps, but stagnant. They are domineering, with a pathological NEED for control. They are the Reapers.

(And just for the record: in MY version of events, that first reaper was Harbinger. We needed more Harbinger in ME3…)

To be clear: the reapers are wrong. Horribly, hideously wrong. But not as incomprehensible as they’d have us believe. To say I understand them is not to say I agree with their reasoning. To agree with them is to submit to indoctrination, and like Shepard, I must fight.

And the reapers MUST be destroyed if the cycle is to truly end. Any alternative presented is merely a distraction. Which leads us to the choice presented at the end of Mass Effect 3 – a choice the Indoctrination Theory would tell us is more than it appears, and simultaneously not an honest one… because the result you choose is a reflection only of whether you believe the lie you’re told.

Saren believed the Reapers could bring unity between organics and synthetics (synthesis). But organics combined with reaper technology merely create husks; they are not superior by any stretch of the imagination, except by the reaper’s definition. As tools to control, they are superior. Saren was wrong.

The Illusive Man believed that destroying the reapers would be wrong; that by controlling them, he could help humanity evolve and achieve perfection. The problem is, the reapers define perfection as themselves. The human reaper we faced in ME2 is where that line of thinking leads. He was also wrong.

Shepard has always known how the conflict with the reapers must end. The galaxy must be allowed to evolve and grow on its own, without the interference of the reaper threat.

The cycle must end.

But in the meantime, I need to finish these calibrations.


Mass Effect 3: What Does All This Mean For Gaming?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ending to Mass Effect 3. In fact, I’ve been able to think of little else. For the next week after completing it I was unable to sleep properly. Granted, about three of those days were because I’m a design student and had a lot of projects due, but part of it was definitely that ending.

That bleak, seemingly universe shattering ending.

Spoilers, obviously, but I’ll try to keep them minor.

There have been a LOT of very insightful posts on the BSN about why the ending is frustrating – posts about violating the reader/writer contract, posts about the definition of tragedy and why Mass Effect isn’t one until it abruptly ends like one in the last ten minutes, posts about the emotional connection we have with the characters and the universe…

I have a gut feeling about why the ending might be the way it is, and I’d like to share it here. But before I do, just a reminder: this blog is protected by trained owlbears, and they eat rude comments and produce sarcasm.

Sombody better give a hoot!

Do they really? I don't know, I'm not a cryptozoologist.

Anyway, on to my thoughts.

Essentially, my thought is that the problems with the ending feel very strongly of a phrase that I have come to loath as a comic book fan (and a regular viewer of Atop the Fourth Wall).

That phrase is: Editorial Mandate.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with that phrase and all its loathsome implications, editorial mandate is what happens when editors take it upon themselves to dictate the course of a story instead of, you know, doing their own job and letting the writers write.

Often it results in extraordinary levels of character derailment, world breaking changes, and large amounts of handwaving or A Wizard Did It. Or, in the case of the most loathsome Marvel offender, “it’s magic; we don’t have to explain it.”

Yes, I’m still upset about that DON’TYOUDAREJUDGEME. Ahem.

One of the problems with editorial mandate is that it often forces writers to write against their own storytelling instincts and more often than not, they really, really, REALLY don’t want to. “We need you to kill off X,” and so on. Or, in this case, maybe, just maybe (I have no proof of any of this mind you), “We want you to blow up the Mass Relays.”

It also often results in stories that are poorly written, because the writer has no real investment or ownership of the forced course of the story; he just phones it in. This happens in comics, and when it does it becomes pretty easy to pick it out from the contrast with the rest of the writers work.

See: the Ending.

Now, can I prove this? No, of course not. Heck, I’m still trying to decide if I think the ending was a giant hallucination that was intended by the writers to show Shepard fighting indoctrination (and indoctrinate US, the players, in real time). But assume for a moment that the endings were meant to be taken at face value (doubtful).

In all endings, the Mass Relays are destroyed*. The Normandy runs away from the fight*, crash lands on a garden planet*, and (improbably), characters who couldn’t possibly have been on the Normandy get out*. And in somewhere between 2 and 3 endings, Shepard dies*.

*Well, maybe.

Assuming any of that actually happens, it must have been mandated to happen. Which is INCREDIBLY annoying in an RPG that centers on player choice, because honestly, we didn’t realize we were being railroaded.

Now, the problem with all this is one little spoilery fact.

If you take the Destroy All Synthetics ending and have enough preparation, Shepard lives. Probably.

There’s a little problem with this, though.

If the weird little godling was to be believed, the Destroy ending would have killed Shepard, because, and I quote, “even you are part synthetic.” Ugh, now I have to wash out my mouth with bleach because I quoted that horrible plot contrivance. Give me a moment.


This is worse than Lost. And we were promised it wouldn’t be like Lost.

So if the god child lied about that… what else did he lie about?

And this is the part I find most annoying. Because we don’t know. And if the ending were left as is, we’d have no way of knowing. And since for most of us, the goal wasn’t so much “destroy the reapers,” as it was, “save the galaxy we’re emotionally invested in,” having an ending that refuses to answer the important questions AND fails to provide emotional resolution… well, for lack of a better word, sucks.

I was promised answers and resolution. Not a giant mind screw.

I want to believe it was all a lie… but at the same time, I don’t, because if it is, that is an incredibly mean thing to do to your players.

Now, I asked the question in the title: what does this mean for gaming?


A movement has been going on to get the ending changed. This movement, Retake Mass Effect, raised over $80000 for Child’s Play, and now supports a new charity drive, Full Paragon. There has been an amazing level of love for Mass Effect shown, and Retake Mass Effect has done a great job of keeping it (mostly) positive.

The basic thrust of the argument is this: we were not given the endings we were promised. We want BioWare to make them and provide the series with an ending it actually deserves.

Over 60000 players have voted in at least one poll, with something like 97% of them wanting the ending changed in some fashion. If this is a ‘vocal minority,’ it’s a statistically significant one.

There have been some arguing that if Retake gets the ending changed, it will “set a bad precedent.” Actually, it wouldn’t set any precedent – games have changed their endings before. What would set a bad precedent is if the fans just rolled over and took whatever a game company makes without complaint, even if it’s not what we wanted or were promised. That sets a bad precedent for capitalism.

There have also been a lot of smear pieces written by review sites like IGN, Gamasutra, and Kotaku (who apparently has writers on both sides of the issue and is chasing page views). None of these sites included the ending in their review of the game. None of them bothered doing any research on what the disgruntled gamers disliked about the ending. None of them are worth the server space they’re taking up, apparently – too busy publishing fluff opinion pieces instead of communicating the facts. Just my opinion, but hey, this is my blog. If you didn’t want my opinion, you’re in the wrong place.

Yes, I see the irony of that statement. Remember the owlbears, smartypants.

Forbes, meanwhile, has been overwhelmingly supportive of the movement (as well as well researched and insightful), and GameFront wrote an article that proved they’d done their research. Guess which one looks more important?

We have learned that we cannot trust the majority of paid reviewers, and we must instead look to our peers – our fellow gamers – and to ourselves for honest reviews.

(And yes, Angry Joe counts. The man speaks the truth. Angrily.)

And we have seen that BioWare takes us seriously. If not, there would have been no statement – even if that statement was worded oddly and could be taken as marginalizing the movement.

We were promised an announcement in April. What form that announcement will take, we have yet to see. But there is hope. Hope for awesomeness. Hope for Mass Effect.

I should go.

Biotics: A Different Kind of “Magic” System

So, Biotics is an example of the kind of thing that makes Mass Effect (unlike Star Wars) a true Sci-fi setting. Which is to say, despite the pseudo-magical/psionic nature of the abilities, they are firmly rooted in pseudo science and techno-babble. In a way that doesn’t make you want to pull out your own hair. (%*&@ you, midi-cholorians. I’m ignoring you forever except to tell you to go die in a fire.)

Biotics are the ability in living organisms to create mass-effect fields and manipulate the physical world. This allows them to move objects, selectively manipulate mass and gravity, destroy objects, or create barriers.

The Asari are the only species which is naturally biotic (though not all of them choose to develop their gifts). Biotics of any other race are the result of exposure to Element Zero in the womb, which does NOT always have beneficial results.

Case example: in humans, 9 in 10 exposures result in a best case scenario of nothing, and occasionally causing birth defects or cancer. Only about 1 in 10 children come through with any kind of useful biotic potential, and they have to be fitted with implants that augment their nervous signals to run current through the element zero in their system and trigger the effects. Muscle memory is a key component of these effects, hence the gesturing (“physical mnemonics”).

Training is long and difficult. And the result? Somehow more awesome than most other “magic in space” variations. Tragic backstory? Check. Techno-babble? Check. Fails to piss off Star Wars fans? Check. Establishes the user as “special?” Check.

Amusingly enough, the mass effect fields created by element zero are also used for everything from interstellar travel to artificial gravity to completely replacing gunpowder, that last one making the biotic essentially a living gun in a way that “fire and forget” spellcasters can’t even approach. 😛

It also doesn’t take much tweaking to fit into a grittier medieval fantasy setting…

I Got My Mass Effect In Your Mutants & Masterminds

Just a few preliminary thoughts before I really get going on this idea:

  1. Characters should be built to about PL 6. Possibly as high as 8. The reason being that I want them to feel “superior” what with the powered armor and whatnot, but I want them armed with basically standard firearms out of the core book. Most of which (not counting the rocket launcher and whatnot) are about Damage Rank 5. So that said, most characters are likely going to be SLIGHTLY shifted toward accuracy on their Accuracy/Damage tradeoffs. At least with ranged attacks.
  2. Everyone involved is new to the system, so I want to make the character generation portion of the game as simple and streamlined as possible. This most likely means either pre-generated characters (IE, Archetypes) or putting together a set of genre related templates. Either way, I need to cover the following bases: Adept, Sentinel, Engineer, Infiltrator, Soldier, Vanguard.
  3. Powers come from three basic sources: Training (combat related powers, anything that lets a person use guns in an atypical way, things like variable descriptor for bullets), Biotics (telekinesis, “mass effect fields”, gravity manipulation and similar, and occasionally things like mind control) Tech (advanced hacking, combat drones, holographic manipulation, cloaking, etc). There may be some overlap between areas, IE, I’m not opposed to the idea of finding a way to use biotics to do stealth just because it doesn’t appear in the source material.
  4. The Archetypes/Templates: Adapt is pure Biotic, Sentinel is Biotic/Tech, Vanguard is Biotic/Combat, Engineer is pure Tech, Infiltrator is Tech/Combat, and Soldier is pure Combat, where in this case Combat means “guns,” as opposed to the combat portions of the game.
  5. Cover is the most important thing in Mass Effect, and I’m going to work to make it important in this game session, too. Partly this will be about encounter design, and partly it will be about giving the bad guys lots of automatic weapons. Bottom line, by the time I’m done I need to REALLY know the rules for cover and automatic weapons and make the players PAY when they don’t bother with cover. 😛
  6. I’m still deciding what to do about alien races. Hm. Each one should get a write-up here, though, and some thoughts about how I’d handle each.

Useful Link & Collected Research

Okay, I’ve been away a long time and I’m already frustrated by how many of my posts start out with “I’ve been away a long time.” I’m out of town at my Grandmother’s house helping her with my two younger cousins.

It’s kind of complicated and this isn’t the place for the whole story. So back to the RPG stuff.

I was doing some reading on my favorite website, TVTropes (TIME SINK AHOY) and found the following link:

Role-Playing Games Terms

Useful stuff when trying to explain the general concept of “RPG” to a new player, so I think I’ll be keeping this one.

And because I’ll be needing these for my upcoming stab at a sci-fi game session (as mentioned last post), I’ll be keeping them here. I’ll be toying with ideas for how I can approach this best, most likely using the Mutants and Masterminds system. Templates? Templates will probably be a good idea… and the addition of one or two optional rules will not hurt. Much.

I’ll most likely be running whatever it is somewhere from PL 5 to 8 and keeping the Hero point count fairly low to make the combats a little tougher.

I’ll either need templates for the major races or I’ll need to just have everyone play human for simplicity sake… mainly because only two of us (counting me) are familiar enough with the setting to know anything about them. Unless someone else has advice about that; it might be a silly concern.

Eh. That’s enough musing for now. I’ll get back to this when I have time.