MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE MASS EFFECT FRANCHISE BELOW, SPECIFICALLY MASS EFFECT 1, 2 AND 3.
In “Missed Potential,” I plan to talk about parts of games that don’t live up to their potential. I’ll try to break down why I think they’re incoherent or weak and discuss some possible ways they could be better. I’ll do my best to consider all possible effects of any changes but, as one person and not a team of designers, I’m sure I won’t think of everything. In particular, I’ll focus on things that aren’t in tune with the core themes or systems of the discussed game.
While this particular piece is a little blunt, I don’t plan to tear apart games. As always, I try to focus on bettering the medium that we all enjoy so much. This is about examining weaknesses in order to better the next project as a creator, or to better understand it as a consumer.
Let’s talk about one of the dumbest parts of Mass Effect 2: the Human Reaper.
Let’s start off by establishing some of the basic facts about Reapers. A Reaper is “billions of organic minds, uploaded and conjoined within immortal machine bodies.” Reapers hibernate in dark space as organic civilizations from the Milky Way Galaxy grow and prosper. Organic beings find technology, such as the mass relays and the Citadel, and think that the artifacts are byproducts of the civilization that came before them.
The mass relays and the Citadel are actually Reaper technology. By leaving such powerful, society-defining feats of science, organic civilizations develop along paths pre-defined by Reapers. It comes to define their interstellar travel and relationships with other species. The Citadel often functions as the seat of the galactic government.
This is all so the Reapers can live up to their namesake and harvest organic civilizations. Every 50,000 or so years, the Reapers jump to the Citadel, which is actually a large mass relay. Since the Citadel functions as the center of the galaxy’s civilization, organics find themselves without a government. The Reapers shut down the mass relays to cut off interstellar travel. Then they jump from system to system, harvesting organic life. When they leave, nothing remains. No evidence of their existence. Rinse and repeat every cycle.
Each time an organic civilization is harvested, it is “uploaded and conjoined” within one of the aforementioned machines, creating a Reaper. This has happened to every civilization since the dawn of the Reapers.
After finding the Collector Base on the other side of the Omega 4 Relay at the end of Mass Effect 2, the crew of the Normandy discovers the true reason for the colonist abductions that drive the game’s main plot: to create a Human-Reaper. Shepard finds the Human-Reaper larvae and successfully guns it down.
I was quick to call this one of the dumbest parts of the entire game but that’s a little unfair. After all, this a game that thought it was a good idea to kill the protagonist at the beginning and immediately bring him back to life five minutes later (see: Rule of Cool). Instead, I think this is one of the biggest examples of missed potential in the entire series.
Keep in mind that the above conversation with Legion, which confirms a truth behind the Reapers and the vanished civilizations, only comes after the final mission. The Human-Reaper and the subsequent expository dialogue explain why organics are harvested. This isn’t entirely awful but the current structure and placement of the reveal lessen the impact. Instead, it furthers one of the weaknesses of Mass Effect 2 and 3, with their focus on humanity as the special savior of the entire galaxy.
Little before the Collector Base foreshadows the fate of the previous harvests. It’s even harder to understand why this Reaper looks so much like its respective race, while every other Reaper looks the same. An explanation is that the larvae is the “core” of the Reaper in the center of the outer cuttlefish shell we’re all familiar with. This still misses greater opportunities.
In Mass Effect, we only see Sovereign. As far as we know by the end of the game, the other Reapers could look like anything. It was safe to assume that was the case but let’s say that in Mass Effect 2, the player sees different Reapers throughout the game. Maybe paintings on walls from the final holdouts of previous societies or even images throughout the Collector ship, much like how Shepard first meets Sovereign on Virmire. Since creating so many different designs is understandably difficult, there are a couple of ways they could tackle this.
One option is to show multiple different Reapers with slight variations between them. The basic cuttlefish design is shared between all Reapers with variations based on their respective harvested organics to differentiate them. The other option is to double down on effort and create a few extremely distinct Reapers. Sovereign and Harbinger would have vastly different designs and any others that the player sees would need to be visibly different, but obviously still a Reaper, either through its design or less clever exposition.
Now Mass Effect 2 has a greater sense of mystery. With some clever dialogue, the player can be nudged into wondering why each Reaper looks different, especially since mass production makes more sense for synthetic beings.
Finding the Human-Reaper in the Collector Base then reveals the true purpose of the harvest cycles. More importantly, it’s discovered in an organic fashion through one of the core ideas of Mass Effect: exploration. While humanity is special enough to inspire a Reaper, it’s now less heavy handed. Humans are only as special as every other species that came before them and it can be assumed that the other species in the galaxy were equally as susceptible to abductions. Humans could have simply been chosen by chance.
It also further drives home how despicable and appalling the Reapers are. Each one is the final, pure essence of an entire galactic civilization. Eons of a people’s history, culture and knowledge, all melted down and reduced to pure synthetic calculation. Reaper reproduction is a horrifying thing. They literally flourish in death.
In true Mass Effect brilliance, this better complicates Shepard’s previous actions. Killing Sovereign wasn’t solely destroying a Reaper. It was the eradication of the last evidence of the species within. All of their culture, history, science, gone.
The same with the Human-Reaper. All of the abducted colonists die another death with it. Framed properly, this complicates the Reapers without making them sympathetic. This plot thread could have developed into a better ending for the franchise, or at least a more complex end to the Reaper issue than the literal deus ex machina we received. One of the original ideas for the ending seems to tease this too, where organics are harvested to research a solution to the inevitable entropic death of the universe
The final cinematic after the conversation with the Illusive Man is now even more oppressive. Countless Reapers are shown flying toward the galaxy. Each and every one is a species that came before. One that ascended into brilliant galactic dominance yet one that still fell to the Reapers’ synthetic onslaught. So many failed before the current species. How can Shepard hope to win?
Mass Effect 2 contains moments of absolute brilliance, like Legion and Mordin’s loyalty missions and the Lovecraftian dread inside the derelict Reaper. Much of it is a mess of poorly executed ideas. Some are so close it’s almost painful. With a bit more thought and careful structure, the Human-Reaper becomes one of the highlights of the game. If not, at least it goes from being a goofy, misplaced final boss into something more coherently relevant with the rest of the franchise.