Analysis: Mass Effect 3

In the Grim-Darkness of Mass Effect 3, there was never hope.

One of the most common complain from detractors of the game is that the ending completely breaks from the main theme of the series, namely the idea of ‘hope’ and that ‘your choices matter’. However, perhaps that was the intention of the storywriters all along?

When you play the game for the first time, most of the players will likely feel like a total badass that is like John Connor, Master Chief, and Jean-Luc Picard all rolled into one as you gather more and more allies mission after mission, side quest after side quest. With the expectation of being able to be the hero that saves the day at the end, naturally many of us were shocked at how the ending changes very little no matter what you did previously.

However, after you managed to calm down for a bit, replay the game again slowly, pay close attention to every conversation and read every secondary codex entry. After doing so, you will make the realization that any you just experienced a masterfully done example of The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You.

Lets take a closer look at the actual effect that you actions have on the Reaper War, when you getting the krogans to support the turians, they weren’t there to retake Palaven or even to defend it. They were merely trying to delay he Repaer in order to buy you more time in building the Crucible. Similarly, the quarians and the geth weren’t there to help turn the tide, all they could do was help evaluate civilians and do hit-and-run attacks on the reapers in an attempt to slow them down. Even all the hours (not to mention Bioware points) that you spent on multiplayer were only to buy Crucible engineers more time, not with the expectation of wining the war or even survive.

If Shepard (more importantly, you the player) ever looked at the war assets screen with the green bar filled to the maximum and thought to him/herself ‘I can do this. This war can be won. There is hope’, then he/she was either purely delusional or living in denial. From the very beginning, Admiral Hackett already told you that you cannot win conventionally. And if you have the From Ashes DLC, when Javik reads you for the first time, if you have previously been choosing all the optimistic dialog opinions, he will express his shock and disbelieve at how foolish you are at thinking that you can win this war. During the battle of Earth, you were told that less then 50% of the ground forces even made it to the surface. With the Extended Cut, the Catalyst will outright tell a defiant Shepard that this cycle has already used up most of it’s resources after less then a year at war with the reapers. With this in mind, just how realistic was it that you ever expect your actions of talking down a criminal, rescuing a few hundred civilians, or choosing whether or not to save the residential district or the industrial sector of a colony matters at all?

A paragon Shepard thinks that he/she lives in a story from an old pulp fiction sci-fi (Flash Gordon) or pre-cyberpunk traditional Space Operas (Star Wars), in which the power of friendship and understanding can indeed overcome all obstacles; While a renegade thinks that he/she is the anti-hero badass from an action movie and the leader from a military fiction, in which you must be able to be willing in sacrificing the few for the many or take morally questionable action while others don’t want to get their hands dirty. The one constant thing for both is that you can indeed win against impossible odds if you really work for it.

In reality, they are both wrong, since in the bigger picture, Shepard is not much more important then a random mook. All the previous actions that you have taken have slightly more impact than the background conversation on the Citadel you can over hear, and the hard battles that you fought made slightly more impact than a random mook shooting at enemies at the background. The thing that you fight against is an insane ancient power with incalculable knowledge that can and probably will obliterate everything you know.

With this in mind, you will finally Mass Effect was never about saving the galaxy or wining against the reapers. It was story about the life of Shepard, an absolute speck in the grand design of things that happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Shepard and The Illusive Man: What Kai Leng means in their relationship.

To establish some boundaries, this is written with a playthrough starting with Mass Effect 2 in mind and came from an impression of Cerberus as similar to the IRA, rather than the mad scientists we were actually shown in Mass Effect 1.

This is going to be a bit fanwanky but I believe I've got enough evidence to think that this is actually the storyline they were going for. However, whenever I describe TIM or Kai Leng as lame, imagine them with the flaw I described but 'cool' which is what Bioware were going for. The question is, if The Illusive Man could have had operatives like Kai Leng, why would he devote such a large chunk of his resources bringing Shepard back?

TIM is a Shepard fanboy. It clouds him to everything and occludes rational thought. TIM has always had a Jesus complex and in his own mind he's the saviour of humanity that the Law couldn't understand and forced him into the shadows. He's always wanted people to adore him for it but has persuaded himself that he's genuinely giving up that light to do whats really good for people. Basically he sees himself as sacrificing his soul for the greater good and other people just can't understand that.

Then along comes Shepard, Shepard the first human spectre, Shepard the saviour of mankind who stuck to her guns and ploughed on despite no-one believing in her. Willing to do what needs to be done outside of the law and in the end the whole Galaxy worships her as a hero for it. TIM is infatuated with Shepard and projects himself onto her, he believes that they are similar people and equals and he absolutely craves her respect.

So when Shepard dies of course he brings her back (this is where my version will differ from Bioware, who would say that bringing Shepard back was the right decision). A waste of resources? Don't you understand? This is Shepard we're talking about. And TIM believes that because Shepard is like him, if Shepard could just be shown who TIM is and what TIM does, Shepard would come around to his way of thought. TIM believes that Shepard thinks of him as a respected adversary who just happens to be on the other side of the table and if Shepard could just be brought round, then Shepard would think like TIM does and give TIM the respect he needs. 'Mind control chip? NO! -no. You can't do that, we need Shepard as she is. And besides we don't need one, Shepard will li-. It's not necessary Miranda'

When you play ME 2, you'll notice that TIM is constantly explaining things to you, trying to justify his reasoning and he keeps on asking Shepard for Shepard's approval. He doesn't do this with anyone else, because everyone else is a subordinate in his view. And when Shepard makes decisions that go against TIM, TIM seems genuinely impressed. If you save the Quarian TIM tells you it's not what he would have done but seems honestly admiring of Shepard's 'tactics' and strategy. Because he thinks they're similar people making similar decisions and he's deluded enough that he can convince himself that he might have made the same call if the situation had been right.

TIM goes to huge lengths to get Shepard to trust him, he deliberately places people around Shepard who are reasonable and will paint TIM in a light that Shepard might understand (Jacob), he digs up former colleagues, he sends Shepard on missions to see that these things really were rogue cells and if Shepard finds anything bad he goes out of his way to clean things up as quickly as possible.

And then Shepard spits in his face and leaves.

From then on, every conversation between Shepard and TIM in Mass Effect 3 runs like this: 'I hate you' 'You just don't understand Shepard. I'm doing everything for the good of humanity' 'You're a monster.' 'Shepard! You've just got to give me some respect, I can't keep letting you go on like this' And even then, when people ask if Shepard should die 'No, she could still be useful'

And then we have Kai Leng. Kai Leng the Shepard replacement puppet. 'Your time is over [Kai Leng enters the shot]' The Illusive Man is embittered by the idea that Shepard won't work with him and is trying to take this second person, dress him up to look like Shepard and he pretend that he's created a better Shepard, one who actually listens to him and obeys him.

But the point is, TIM can't replace Shepard. And he's not the same as Shepard, he's so twisted he can't actually understand the sort of person Shepard is and what makes her great. And because of that, Kai Leng is flawed and won't be capable of anything close to what Shepard can achieve. TIM can't see that KL is an uncharismatic psychopath who can't inspire the respect and doesn't have the strength of character that Shepard uses in everything she does. KL is a flashy wannabe who, ultimately, is too useless to be able to beat Shepard in a simple fight. He's a reflection of The Illusive Mans flaws and can only ever be a shadow of what Shepard is. He gets some small victories, but every time Shepard lives and TIM says 'don't worry, your time will come, it's Shepard, of course you failed, but one day you will fight and kill her and I will have a Shepard who does exactly what I say and is loyal to me' and then that confrontation comes and Kai Leng straight up dies. Even in his death blow Shepard absolutely humiliates him and beats him down.

.... So that is why Kai Leng exists and why TIM spent all that money bringing back Shepard. The Illusive Man, who installed Reaper tech in his own eyes, deludes himself and is blind to his failings. Petty jealously and the inability to understand what sort of person he really is and what his own real motivations are. A craving for respect and the failure to recognise why it's denied to him, resulting in this sad angry little Shepard doll doomed to failure. And a messy end to both of them.

Just to make things clear, Kai Leng is a useless character that destroys everything he touches, because ultimately, whenever he's in a scene, his poor writing and cutscene superpowers make you wonder what the writers were doing making such a whiny annoying power, instead of the corrupted but interesting ball of hate he should have been. But what he means in terms of TIM's character is fascinating .

It's real shame that they chose Cerberus instead of inventing a new organisation for ME 2 because TIM has a complex relationship with Shepard and his conversation showdown is one of my favourite bits of the series.