I’ve always believed that a story is only as good as its antagonist. Heroes are cool and all, but they serve no purpose unless they are faced with a legitimate threat. Weak bad guys kill a story’s suspense and leave us underwhelmed by the hero’s victory. Oh, you defeated The Goldfish? The supervillain who can’t remember his plan the next day? Great work.
Luke Skywalker is nothing without a wheezing juggernaut to oppose him. The Borg gave us some of the best episodes in Star Trek history until Voyager ruined them. Gul Dukat elevated Deep Space Nine beyond its peers. Battlestar Galactica might have had killer robots, but the true enemy was our own nature – slow to forgive, adapt, and change. The Wire painted our true enemy as the system itself; the very institutions we created to maintain our society.
A story is only as good as its antagonist.
Mass Effect showed us two powerful villains before beautifully pulling the rug from underneath us. The first time we see Saren Arterius, he murders a fellow Spectre. Saren is aided and advised by Matriarch Benezia, possessor of centuries of wisdom, immense biotic power, and impractical attire. The entire first game is spent pursuing Saren and Benezia to stop them from handing the universe over to the Reapers.
By the end of the game, however, we discover that both had sympathetic reasons for their actions. Saren is trying to prove to the Reapers that the Council races are too useful to harvest. Benezia joined Saren to steer him back onto a better path. As it turned out, their minds weren’t strong enough to resist the Reapers’ indoctrination.
The Reapers themselves prove to be worthy adversaries for the franchise. We catch only a glimpse of the Reapers in Mass Effect. Their martial prowess is showcased in the game’s climactic battle, where several Council fleets are needed to bring down just one Reaper.
We are also treated to a terrifying conversation with Sovereign, chief spokesReaper. Shepard tries to pry a motive out of Sovereign, but is regarded with bemusement, condescension and outright dismissiveness. To Sovereign, the player is less an adversary than an irrelevance. I suppose heroes stop being even inconveniences after harvesting them near-infinite number of times.
Unfortunately, Mass Effect 2’s antagonists are not as sympathetic or as interesting. Commander Shepard spends most of the game fighting the Collectors, a stock enigmatic race helping the Reapers. They were fine, but nothing about them popped or sizzled. And it was hard not to groan when the Collector General’s threatened to “show us true power” or “destroy us” or something equally blasé.
Of course, the Reapers were pulling their strings the entire time. By directing the actions of the Collectors, the Reapers could remove their biggest threats and clear the way for their invasion. That makes for a far more interesting approach – I certainly loved it with the Dominion on Deep Space Nine – but maybe the Reapers could have found less clichéd delegates.
Mass Effect 3 finally delivers the promised Reaper invasion. Holy crap, it delivers. The Reapers immediately and believably lay siege to every advanced civilization in the universe. Video games have made me feel a lot of things, but hopeless has never been one of them. I have never felt as doomed as I felt playing Mass Effect 3. The Reapers were inevitability itself. I don’t know how to defeat inevitability, although it turned out to be giant alliances and talking to some kid.
To make matters worse, the Reapers also have the ability to indoctrinate and corrupt those they capture, meaning you spend Mass Effect 3 fighting against deformed versions of your allies. It’s creepy as hell.
And if that wasn’t enough, you also have to deal with Cerberus and the Illusive Man. In a beautiful callback to Mass Effect, the Illusive Man falls victim to indoctrination while trying to defeat the Reapers. Although the Illusive Man correctly estimated the Reaper threat, he overestimated himself.
Commander Shepard is an effective hero because we can make him the hero we want him to be. If we want a classic hero, we can do that. If we want an anti-hero, we can do that. We can make him brutal and vicious or wise and compassionate.
We don’t have same ability with Mass Effect’s villains, so it is a good thing they delivered the goods. If I spent three games defeating Dr. Goldfish, I doubt I’d be writing all these posts.