In Mass Effect, the Reapers are absolute killing machines. Waaaaaaah, they cry, telling you just how killy they really are — and presumably that they’re going to be killy at you, too. These killy-killy machines are specifically designed, we’re told, to erase all life capable of using Twitter from the galaxy.
But when placed against a lone, bipedal mammal, that Reaper — again, made solely to disintegrate those Tweeting digits of yours — can’t quite manage it in a series that spends a fair amount of its run time imparting the message: big robots, killy-killy bad-bad.
In Mass Effect 3, then, this giant insect-fish machine towers before you, going wah absolutely all over the place as it fires the world’s biggest laser pen at your tiny human face. It’s a spectacle designed to make you feel like the legendary legend you really are. You go mano a mano with the most dangerous thing in the universe — and win.
On paper, it sounds wicked — the stuff of three-minute trailers with ominous fades and obnoxiously arbitrary horn noises.
On-screen, though, it just feels weird — like Mr. Reaper is having performance anxiety and he’s accidentally missing the bowl. He peppers you with his suspiciously slow, suspiciously impotent laser beam as you’re stuck on some rocky plateau. In retaliation, your targeting laser marks its weak point to summon boom boom from a fleet in orbit.
This bit’s a little dicey, too. A hyper-advanced AI does absolutely nothing to compensate for the fact you’re punching it in the face every time it fires at you. And only after getting punched enough times does it use its potato-powered intellect to move closer to your dead-end plateau for the unmissable killing blow.
But it’s still one of the trilogy’s coolest moments, and certainly one of its most radical. Here, BioWare takes out a fat loan from the bank of Disbelief Suspension Inc. — but like all loans, it comes with an eventual cost: the Reapers just don’t feel all that killy killy anymore. The trilogy’s 11th hour effectively turns that genocidal hotness into a lukewarm culling. That all-consuming threat from beyond the stars can’t quite kill a dude who’s stuck on a bit of rock in the middle of nowhere.
But BioWare, the crafty sods, get away with it. It just about works.
And it’s all thanks to the universe they’ve crafted, one made with such care and attention that it can withstand the undermining of its very premise because the rest of it’s just so bloody good. BioWare’s world-building nouse — which led to the development of characters with actual character — is a buffer in this one moment, giving the Canadian developer space to have some fun in the narrative sandbox it created, and bring you along for the ride.
BioWare knows exactly what they’re doing there, too. The wah-wah robot in question is the runt of the Reaper litter and is dealt a near-knockout kick to the face before proceedings begin. Like a child who knows they should eat their veggies before an ice-cream dessert, BioWare chugs that broccoli to prepare for the gleeful, sugary onslaught to come. In doing so, they earn our permission to go totally bonkers because it’s just so cool: look, we’ve done pretty alright so far, so just let us have this one ‘cos it’s just really, really awesome.
But the problem of the hero facing down a supposedly unbeatable baddie is as old as storytelling itself. We need to be a total badass — but we need the enemy to be more badass so we can feel even more badass when we inevitably out-badass them. With that mandate, BioWare does a half-decent job of making the encounter at least vaguely convincing. That broccoli — the damaged baby Reaper — is a cheeky wink that tells us to just roll with it.
It’s ludicrous in-universe, but completely logical outside of it. The Reapers are almost conceptual in the world of Mass Effect — so little time do you spend actually fighting them. Adding this cool-but-calamitous scene fulfills a promise BioWare made on day one: that you’ll fight those evil space robots when they finally arrive.
It works in the moment, then. And it’s lucky we’re in the endgame when it happens — we’re too far in to really care that our creator-gods just undermined the very premise of a gazillion-dollar trilogy. But that hidden cost eventually arrives, not days, weeks or months later — but years, when those evil space robots just don’t quite elicit a sense of dread the way they used to. Memories of facing those evil space machines come with a Reaper-sized asterisk that maybe, just maybe, those giant wah-wah robots aren’t that scary or that powerful after all.
That loan comes due, too, in Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. Sovereign, Harbinger — figureheads for that giant robot space army — lack the presence they once had. That one scene on that dead-end plateau haunts every word they say, making you question whether or not their plan to kill an entire galaxy of would-be Tweeters with giant laser beams was really the biggest-brained move after all.
The Reapers are the cornerstone of the original Mass Effect trilogy — so it’s difficult to understate just how risky this scene is. Without that looming threat, everything loses meaning and it all falls apart.
Except it doesn’t — just about. BioWare’s ability to dance barefoot on that razor’s edge and step off with a relatively minor narrative blemish is a testament to the strength of the worldbuilding bricks laid over the course of dozens of hours prior.
And they’re certainly not the only ones who manage it. Kojima and company pulled this off years prior with far less narrative real estate upon which to generate that player investment. We bought into Metal Gear’s Shadow Moses in mere hours — which later sold us on a dude with a boom-boom stick almost singlehandedly canceling the world’s greatest nuclear superweapon.
The point, then: that video games might truly be the only medium that has the capacity to really make this stuff stick. That developers should feel emboldened to be big, brash, and stupid in the most schlocky way possible — not only to show what the industry can do technologically but to show that it has the storytelling talent to actually make it work.
And because when it’s done well, it’s really bloody fun.
And whether you think these moments — in their glorious absurdity — are super-cool or world-destroyingly stupid, this particular boxing match with a giant robot just about works because it trades on the trust earned by BioWare. And it reminds us that one of the trilogy’s weirdest scenes works because Mass Effect is truly one of video games’ greatest stories.
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