This week I finished my playthrough of Mass Effect 2, and it was a really successful run. None of my squad died during the final battle, but I did lose Yeoman Kelly Chambers and I watched in horror as she was turned into genetic protein paste in a Collector pod. But even with all the big moments in two and the beginning of three, I can’t stop thinking about the big reveal in Mass Effect 1 and how on a new playthrough, it still works so well.
Obviously, Mass Effect 1 spoilers ahead, if you have never played that game, go read something else. Here is a pretty picture before you go:
Mass Effect 1 very quickly pits you against Saren, a Spectre gone rogue. Saren seems powerful and knows more than you do, which to be fair is pretty standard for villains. Saren attacks a human colony in an absolutely massive ship – a design that nobody has seen before.
The ship has cutting edge weaponry and kinetic barriers, which means Saren doesn’t care if he is outnumbered. The more you play, the more you realise that nobody knows where this ship comes from. Did the Geth build this? Why is the tech so advanced? Surely someone would have spotted a dockyard building something so large and powerful? Or if not, how was something so large missed by everyone’s intelligence agencies?
We learn that this ship is called Sovereign and besides its fearsome armaments and armour, the ship is amplifying Saren’s charismatic sway. We learn that Liara’s mom had joined Saren in the hopes of convincing him away from such an aggressive stance. But she felt that the longer she spent aboard Sovereign near Saren, the harder it was to hang onto what she thought and felt was the correct course of action, and his thinking became her thinking.
Then the game takes you to Virmire, where you work your way through Saren’s compound. In its depths, you find a console that looks different from the ones you have encountered before. As you activate it, the silhouette of Sovereign appears on the screen and everything comes tumbling together as the ship talks to you. Sovereign isn’t a ship. Sovereign is the Reaper.
Before this point, the Reapers are a faceless, formless boogieman. Nobody believes that they exist. Who would believe that some super-advanced machine intelligence exists out there, sleeping for 50,000 years before wiping out advanced civilisations? They have been mentioned several times before. You know they are out there, and Saren wants to prepare the path for their arrival. And almost every time they mention the Reapers, within that scene they mention Sovereign and how advanced and unknown the ship is. The game dangles these two bits of information out right in front of your eyes, daring you to make some sort of connection.
But like clever storytellers, BioWare is dangling a whole lot in front of your eyes the entire time, so you never notice that two of the threads look like maybe they belong together. Not until you TALK to the ship and realise that Saren isn’t in control, Sovereign is. Suddenly the advanced weapons and armour make sense. The energy field the ship gives off isn’t magnifying what Saren feels, it is the Reaper dominating and indoctrinating everything around it, its advanced alien intelligence pressing on our feeble organic brains.
Shortly after discovering this, we confront Saren, after chasing a few steps behind him the whole game. Saren knows full well about the Indoctrination and believes that Sovereign isn’t controlling him, because applying too much control results in reduced higher functions of the brain. Yet we stand in a massive facility where he has been studying Indoctrination and its many effects.
Several big reveals and cinematic moments happen from here on out. A rush after Saren to get the Cipher, learning all we can from Vigil and how the Citadel is a massive Mass Effect Relay and also an elaborate trap. And who can forget that scene of Sovereign descending and latching onto the Presidium Tower like a massive metal hand?
So very often games give us enough clues that the player comes to a conclusion before the heroes do. Stupid heroes make the audience feel smarter, but it does reduce the hero and their team. It wouldn’t make sense in Mass Effect to have this happen, with scientists around you, like Prothean-expert Liara T’Soni. You learn the truth at the same time Shepard does, meaning you process it at the same time they do. Their realisation is ours, helping cement that fantasy that we are Shepard.