Monday, September 27, 2010

Antagonists: Mass Effect

Mass Effect was a bold step in RPG production, a new setting, a new style, an adoption of FPS mechanics into an RPG, a highly cinematic experience with a fully voiced protagonist. The game wasn't perfect, but it certainly made a big impact on the gaming scene. I also felt it offered a fairly interesting antagonist to the player, and one worthy of discussion.  So here's a plot spoiler and a long post warning before I dive into an overview...

Mass Effect puts you in the role of Commander Shepard, an elite space soldier. The game starts off with a trial mission to become a Spectre (SPECial Tactics and REconnaisance) - a select group of individuals operating for the good of the (multi-species) galaxy. The aim of the mission is simple: retrieve a Prothean Beacon. This is a device from an ancient space travelling race (the Protheans) who has provided much of the technology for the advancement of all races in the galaxy.

However, this simple mission goes wrong when your Spectre ally and new mentor Nihilius is assassinated by another Spectre named Saren as he attempts to destroy a human colony on the planet of Eden Prime. Even worse, the beacon is destroyed, but not before it caused Shepard to have visions of death and the destruction of all life in the galaxy.  In light of this, Shepard's petition to join the Spectres is denied, and without proof, Saren is free to do as he pleases. Undeterred, Shepard finds evidence of Saren's wrongdoing. He is stricken of his spectre status, and Shepard is given a place among the spectres with the explicit purpose of hunting him and his army of sentient machines (known as Geth).

Whoops, I think you broke it.

Through a series of missions, Shepard discovers that the visions from the beacon are a warning of an ancient race called the Reapers, who will destroy all life in the galaxy. The key to their return is something called "The Conduit", which Saren is searching for. Shepard must track leads in order to find Saren and the location of The Conduit, overcoming the dangers of his allies.

Shepard eventually travels to the planet Virmire, where it is revealed that Saren's ship, Sovereign, is itself a Reaper! The Reapers are giant sentient machines with technology far beyond anything else in the galaxy. Worse still, its presence takes over the mind of people, bending them to its will. Shepard speaks with the machine, who turns back to attack the planet.  Shepard and Saren fight, and Saren declares he is trying to save life by allying with Sovereign.

Saren and Geth on Virmire

Shepard eventually tracks Saren to the planet Ilos, to discover that The Conduit is a secret means to gain access to the central point of the galaxy, a giant structure known as The Citadel. The Citadel is actually the means for the Reapers to return, and Sovereign's role is to signal for the Reapers to attack. However, the Protheans altered the Citadel so that this signal could not be sent. Sovereign must attack The Citadel and send the signal manually, but needs Saren's assistance in order to do so. Shepard fights to the control room of the Citadel to find and confront Saren. Saren dies, but is possessed by Sovereign through cybernetic implants that were helping control Saren's mind and actions. This weakens Sovereign's shields and allows the Reaper to be destroyed by the human space fleet, saving the galaxy from the Reaper threat... for the time being.

So we have a fairly epic plot about saving the galaxy from an ancient evil, and we're again put in the position of having two antagonists.  We have Saren, whom the players comes to dislike from their early interactions and Saren's hatred of Shepard and humans in general. Saren is presented quite deliberately as a villain and an obnoxious character to provide the player with extra impetus for hunting him down. It happens not only through direct interaction, but also the tale of your Captain, who previously suffered as a result of Saren's actions.

Saren in full obnoxious hologram glory

After this initial flurry Saren is joined by the threat of the Reapers, who will return because of his actions. The main quest lines revolve around following Saren's footsteps and trying to discover the same information he is seeking. The game attemps to reinforce Saren as the threat multiple times through your interactions with his henchmen during these quests.  There are vague allusions to Saren controlling the minds of those onboard Sovereign, and then even after they leave the ship.

Yet Saren still feels a little distant in these interactions. He's off somewhere, doing something, but we're not sure what. Then we get the message to head to Saren's base on Virmire... but he's not there either.  At least not until after we speak with Sovereign through a terminal and discover it is a Reaper. Virmire is one of the highlights of the game for many reasons: The great interaction with Sovereign, being forced to abandon one of your squadmates to die, and a confrontation with Saren.

No amount of plot armor is going to save them from that

Interactions help to make a good antagonist. It's good to know your enemy and a little about the motives behind their actions. Saren proves to be distant for quite some time, but when you finally confront him, you get to face a foe deluded that he can save people by allying with the Reapers. He still hates humans and murdered civilians, but he thinks he will save others by helping Sovereign.

This is pushed again when you meet him for the final battle, as he repeats his claims of trying to save lives. However, here it is actually possible to convince Saren that he himself has become brainwashed (or indoctrinated, if you wish to use the lore terminology) by Sovereign to blindly obey its every command. If you do so, Saren will commit suicide in an attempt to stop Sovereign's plans. I felt this was a very nice roleplaying touch, as it showed that the villain still possessed some essence of virtue. He displayed regret that he had allowed himself to become Sovereign's tool, and left a slight doubt about his true character and which of his actions were at Sovereign's behest.

"He just doesn't seem like himself anymore!"

Another interesting point is that Sovereign is the true threat as the catalyst for the return of the Reapers, yet its true identity is hidden from us for most of the game. However, if you replay the game, there are hints given along the way that suggest and support this. Yet it serves as part of the greater threat of the Reapers that we learn more about as the game progresses, and one that the player becomes driven to defeat. Perhaps the desire to stop the Reapers is an even greater driving force than Saren, which makes Sovereign's reveal more powerful. However, it is not Sovereign itself that makes the finale meaningful, it's the threat of the complete and utter destruction of the entire galaxy. This is only moments away if Shepard does not win, and that is what makes the climatic battle with Sovereign a triumph. Saving the galaxy might be a somewhat common story, but the presentation means that the player is completely engaged to achieve it.

Bye bye, Sovereign

The antagonists of Mass Effect are a little distant and removed from the player for much of the game, yet due to some key interactions they play out as powerful and effective enemies within the game's climax. Saren in particular could perhaps have done with a little more exposure to drive the player towards his defeat, but the overarching threat of the Reapers means this is not entirely necessary. The sense of victory after the final fight is still up there with the best games around.


  1. I wasn't a huge fan of ME1 and I don't remember much of the details.

    I also appreciated that you could talk with Saren near the end. But as far as Saren as a villain goes... Almost all my "respect" or fear for him completely went away in that scene fairly early on where he speaks with the blue chick (was it one of the companion's mother I think?). Things aren't going according to his plans and he throws a temper tantrum.

    I kinda see what they were going for there but in my eyes he was just acting... well, like a baby really. Had a really hard time taking him seriously after that. So yeah, even the smallest scene can have a huge impact on how you perceive things...

  2. I loved Mass Effect, but never really understood the Saren tantrum scene. My friend says it might be foreshadowing the Reaper control, but it's still kinda out there. Otherwise Saren was awesome...

    (Especially after reading Revelation. Saren was a jerk long before Sovereign came along, but he always believed he was doing what was best for the galaxy. His biggest flaws before Sovereign were his brutal tactics and hatred of humans. Somehow, he still managed to get things done whenever humans stayed out of the picture.)

    I really liked the ending scene where Shepard can make Saren go all Fai Dan suicide on us. It shows that, even with his prejudices and flaws, Saren was trying to do what he thought was best.

  3. I have to agree on Saren's tantrum scene undermining his credibility. I can't help but feel that scene was probably created earlier in the development process when they felt they were going to take a slightly different with the plot development. It's pretty much the only scene in the game where we are not getting Shepard's perspective or Shepard isn't involved in any form.

    It hurts Saren's character development because it shows him acting somewhat like a child, but more importantly the presentation of its narrative that feels out of place. In fact, Eden Prime's presentation as a whole suffers from a little bit of "the villain's diary syndrome". Contrary to the presentation of the narrative throughout the rest of the game, we get three snippets of Saren's actions where Shepard has no direct involvement: Nihlius' assassination, Saren ordering the destruction of Eden Prime, and his tantrum scene with Benezia.

    I might be wrong, but to me it feels like Eden prime was created early during the development process. It feels like they were originally planning on doing occasional grabs back to Saren to show his progress or current situation, and these snippets were setting the scene to allow that to happen. Then the writers decided that it would be more suspenseful if that didn't happen, but at that point in time there wasn't time/money/other resources to rewrite/re-record Eden Prime's presentation to deliver the appropriate plot points in a better fashion.

    Of course, that's based on nothing apart from my own gut feeling and the impression of the game's narrative style.

  4. My opinion of Mass Effect is that its antagonists are actually pretty weak compared to most other games out there. After defeating Saren, it was more or less a so-what situation, and being given the choice to convince him to do the right thing is a bit pointless as his character wasn't developed at all through the entire game. If he was given more development during the game beyond Anderson's dealings with him, he may have been a more interesting character, but Saren was just a 2D cookie cutout.

    In a similar fashion, Mass Effect 2 fell in a similar rut where the Collectors were nothing more than a lifeless enemy saying the same 3 lines over and over again -.- And you hardly ever fought them to boot.

  5. Fair point. On reflection, perhaps I made it sound like I liked the antagonists as characters more than I actually do. I agree that in terms of their development, Saren in particular needs more work to make him a more multi-dimensional character. Sovereign doesn't need that, because it would totally destroy the mystery of the Reapers and its dismissive attitude. It's not necessarily the development of the antagonists themselves that make the final battle(s) work.

    The antagonists as characters don't deliver the real impact, it's more the situation that you're placed into and what their your defeat would represent that gives the impetus for your desire to win. Your interaction with Sovereign on Virmire had one heck of a punch in my opinion as you're presented with the truth of your true enemy. (Plus Sovereign's voice sounds fantastically cold and commanding on a nice sound system)

    As for ME2... yeah, I'll deal with it in a later post, but I completely agree with your short assessment.