One of the things that makes Mass Effect interesting is its mix-and-match approach to genre. Science fiction (as well as the action RPG format) holds the whole thing together, but other genre are allowed to come in and beef up the game’s stock of ideas, and this mission is the first example of that. The Normandy docks at the Citadel (in a stunning shot where the station emerges from a nebula cloud), and Anderson takes Shepard and the rest of the ground team from Eden Prime to meet with the Council and try and convince them Saren is a traitor, only to find that a shaky eyewitness account and their word isn’t enough against Saren, and so they have to set out to find hard evidence. A loose cannon cop who plays by his own rules; the useless, bitter, drunk just barely staying on the force that nevertheless provides vital clues; a crime boss that runs his little empire out of his shady nightclub. These are all cliches of the Cop Show genre that make their appearance. Even more than that, the story is actually structured very much like a TV cop show too, to the point where I wonder if it was deliberate. Your basic procedurals like Law & Order, CSI, and NCIS certainly aren’t dramas, but they aren’t really mysteries either. We don’t have a big question hanging over an episode that’s slowly contextualised with clues like an Agatha Christie novel; it’s more like our team of heroes finds a bunch of information, and they follow that to the next bunch of information, and then to the next, and so on until the Dirtbag Of The Week is arrested/killed. Someone is killed at [location], [location] has [quirks] that reveal [forensic evidence] which leads the investigators to [weirdo] which leads to [different forensic evidence] which means [weirdo] was lying, so on and so forth for forty minutes, and every detective spends every scene riffing on their Quirks.
(I’ve moved in with my Dad, which means I’ve seen a lot of NCIS: New Orleans)
“Expose Saren” works on the same logic, but it works a lot better. Partially this is because some of the Quirks include robots, which objectively make all stories better, but it’s also because this is revealing parts of the setting and characters that will become extremely relevant to the rest of the story. That Useless Bitter Drunk is one of the first humans to work in C-Sec, aka Citadel Security, aka the Citadel police, and he’s managed to hold onto his job because firing one of the first humans allowed to serve the Citadel would be a PR disaster. Humans coming into the galactic spotlight is very recent history, as far back in Mass Effect history as the election of Bill Clinton is to us here in 2018, recent enough for young people to have grown up under it and older people to be a Part Of History to them. On most cop shows, an idea will wander through a single episode and never be referenced again; here, the ideas are developing and will be developed further.
The idea introduced that gets the most screentime is the Council, and right from the beginning they serve one purpose: to act as the Stupid Chief to which Shepard will declare she Gets Results. In this case, Shepard is actually closer to the Jor-El, the scientist desperately trying to warn everyone of an oncoming disaster (see Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day), and in fact reaches all the way back to Greek Mythology to Cassandra, trying to tell the world the truth only to find it rejected. In this case, it mostly works because, from the Council’s perspective, there simply isn’t enough hard evidence to believe that a) Saren is a traitor and b) he’s trying to bring about the Reapers to end galactic civilisation (and in fact, I consider this part a continuation of the slight creakiness of the plot as Shepard jumps straight to “Saren is evil and the Reapers are coming” based on practically nothing). This is a (politically neutral) fantasy of being righteously angry about something that doesn’t make it’s Chief unnecessarily Stupid, just wrong.
(Next to them, we have Ambassador Udina, the human representative on the Citadel, who is much closer to the Stupid Chief in personality but is more accurately a professional bureaucrat than a Chief)
It also helps that this story introduces new characters and develops some of the old. If Mass Effect can have its weaknesses summed up in one word, it would be dryness; characters tend to have inauspicious introductions. Poor old Kaiden Alenko gets the worst of this, not even really getting an introduction at all, just hanging about everyone else, and given that his main traits are stability and a laidback amicability, it risks him fading into the background, especially this early on. Ash is a little luckier, being both the sole survivor of her unit on Eden Prime and having a certain abrasiveness to her that makes her notable if not likable (she repeatedly moans about politics and politicians, for example). It’s the aliens you pick up that come out a little luckier.
You first meet Garrus Vakarian as Shepard heads in to meet the Council for the first time, as he’s desperately trying to buy time to extend his C-Sec investigation – Saren being a Spectre makes it hard to investigate him, much to Garru’s vexation when he can feel something is up with the guy (“Like you humans say, I feel it in my gut.”). After the meeting, Kaiden gets the idea to use Garrus to investigate Saren further; technically, you don’t actually have to use him, with the story branching out in multiple ways, but I prefer to work my way through in what makes the best story, and seeing Garrus rescue a hostage with a well-placed headshot is much cooler than tracking down accountants. Your reaction to Garrus’ headshot is a rare case of the game laying out a character’s story close to their first action; either it was totally boss, or it was a stupid move that put the hostage at risk, the second of which startles Garrus for a second. Garrus is a brilliant extension of the game’s morality, in that he becomes a kind of student to you; he’s more of a wannabe Results Getter, someone who genuinely wants to do good but isn’t sure how to go about it, and he really responds to Shepard’s clarity, whether she makes Paragon choices and teaches him restraint and to value relationships and the lives of the innocent, or teaches him the Renegade path and to bring down the righteous hammer of justice on the bad guys (really, the difference between Paragon and Renegade is the former stresses preserving life and the latter stresses punishing evil).
Wrex is really the only character to actually get an entrance worthy of his character, either threatening the owner of the shady nightclub (by the proxy of his bouncers), or acting stand-offish with some C-Sec officers. Wrex is a krogan, a species that takes all of the tough warrior stereotypes of the Klingons and amps them way the fuck up. They look like humanoid dinosaurs, they’re ridiculously tough (one of the gameplay elements is that krogan enemies not only heal, they actually revive the first time you knock their health down), and they prize pure ownage above everything (the Codex has an almost Douglas Adams joke when it observes that, before the krogan invented gunpowder, “eaten by predators” was the #1 cause of death, and afterwards, it was “death by gunshot”). Wrex is all of that, but right from the start he already hints at more; there are actually two separate ways he can reveal his character to you. If you decide to pick him up before heading to the nightclub, after you get the information you want, he kills the nightclub owner without warning, explaining he had a contract on the guy (without him, Shepard can either let him go or kill him out of justice herself). If you don’t, he approaches you afterward, explains he had a hit on the nightclub owner, pays you for doing his job for him, and asks to join up. Wrex is, in many ways, the perfect krogan. Krogans respect strength and power – there’s a running idea through krogan stories in the series that the worst insult an enemy can have is to be ignored, and to tell them they’re not worth fighting. Wrex takes that morality as far as it can go, even when it inconveniences him, and he’s already showing that.
Finally, there’s Tali. In your investigation, you discover a quarian has information linking Saren to the Geth, and in trying to sell it to the Shadow Broker, she ended up chased by Saren’s men. Quarians are kind of like Klingon in that they’re completely unrelated in any way – they’re in the time-honoured speculative fiction tradition riffing on real races or nations, with quarians being Space Romani. The fictional jumping off point is that they created the Geth, went through the Geth Uprising, and have been wandering the stars in the Migrant Fleet for three centuries, making their living by wandering through space looking for work. Our quarian is on her Pilgrimage, a rite of passage into adulthood where she goes out into the galaxy on her own, looks for something of value, and brings it back to the fleet, which is how she got caught up in all of this; she joins you out of a desire to do good on a grand scale.
Of course, through all of this, you get the chance to characterise your Shepard. The cop show structure of this plot, something that actually prevents the revelation of character in those procedurals, actually allows the revelation of your character’s Quirks – the way she reacts to Garrus’ headshot, or Harkin drunkenly hitting on her, or how she acts when the Council formally inducts her into the Spectres (I chose polite grace over “About fuckin’ time”). It’s almost a lesson in constructing character in a literary sense by reducing it to its simplest; even without consequence, it’s still about asking ‘how would this specific person react to this specific situation?’. When Shepard is given the Normandy to help her with her new job as a Spectre, the game allows you to make up an Inspiring Speech, and there’s very much a sense of forging your own path and deciding what kind of ship captain you’re going to be (favourite detail: deciding whether or not to honour Captain Anderson’s sacrifice).
- The game has pacing issues and sometimes fights against the restraint of following a single person’s viewpoint – see all those cuts away from Shep’s POV – but I really like how they break up the story well with what would be B-plots in TV shows via sidequests. My favourite is when reporter Emily Wong approaches you to find evidence of corruption, and extra layer on what you’re already doing. It also allows your more opportunities to characterise Shep with ethical dilemmas; the husband of a soldier killed on Eden Prime approaches you over the Alliance holding his wife’s body, and you have the problem of either respecting the wishes of the family of a dead person, or keeping the body to learn more about Geth weaponry (thus, saving more lives in the future). Interestingly, that’s not a Paragon/Renegade choice; you can pick either way, and the choice comes down to how you convince each side to give up.
- There are already loads of mysteries hanging over the story that really add a sense of intrigue and wonder to the proceedings. There’s the Shadow Broker, a mysterious and never-seen entity that buys and sells information, and there’s a theory that he or she is actually a collective hiding under one name. But I also love the keepers, the mysterious insectoid guardians of the Citadel, who silently maintain the station.