Last time, I considered the Main Enneagram to Mass Effect, but with that finished I can back up and start analyzing the story in more detail. For now it is my intention to split the story into seven episodes, as if the whole game were one season of a serialized science fiction show, but keep in mind I’m skipping most of the game’s side quests.
Let’s do this by the numbers, shall we?
The episode (and the game) begins with an introduction to multiple characters, including Commander Shepard. Some of these faces are important to the larger story, others are only seen in this episode, such the turian Spectre Nihlus, and Corporal Jenkins.
As I’ve already gone over in the Main Enneagram, Nihlus is on board the Normandy looking to evaluate Commander Shepard for entry into the Spectres.
Jenkins is an absolute rookie who looks up to Shepard and is almost certainly going to die in this episode.
Once given control of Shepard, you can explore the Normandy’s upper deck and talk to some of the crew members, but your only goal is to meet with Captain Anderson.
Depending on whether or not you talk to the crew, this One can go by in a matter of seconds or a matter of minutes. Taking the time for conversation will carve out some character for Shepard and relay some exposition about the universe. Most notably, the player will learn that humanity has only been aware of aliens and the Citadel Council for twenty years — and that their first encounter was a violent war with the turians. The player is reminded that Nihlus is a turian, establishing an undercurrent of tension aboard the Normandy.
Shepard heads to the debriefing room and meets up with the Spectre, who first behaves in an intimidating manner. Players who have talked to the crew and discerned that humans and turians don’t get along will guess that Nihlus poses a threat, but he soon explains his peacekeeping intentions.
Captain Anderson arrives and further establishes the true Two moment of this episode: the Normandy is visiting Eden Prime, one of humanity’s oldest and most accomplished colonies, where a Prothean Beacon has been unearthed. The player can ask and learn that the Protheans were an especially capable alien species that built the Mass Relays, the Citadel and other fantastic pieces of technology, then mysteriously vanished.
Captain Anderson wants Shepard, escorted by Nihlus, to pick up the Beacon and bring it to the Citadel Council — as opposed to keeping the artifact where it is in the hands of human scientists.
This Two, as you may have guessed, has two levels of importance. On the one level it is a clear-cut “fetch-and-deliver” quest; it’s the big goal of the episode and something for the player to orient themselves with — on a deeper level it symbolizes a core problem of the episode and the game’s universe at large: humans are capable underdogs in the galaxy, and they have a bad history with aliens, but they’re going to have to work together anyway if they have any hope of growing into something greater.
Nihlus, and by extension the Council, is offering an olive branch here by helping Shepard move the Beacon and personally determining whether or not she’s worthy to become humanity’s first Spectre. This isn’t a “problem” Two moment so much as a “solution” Two moment — an unexpected solution to a twenty-year-old problem.
Things are looking good for humanity.
And then this bullshit happens:
Eden Prime is under attack by unknown forces, including that mysterious giant robot squid. (The Reaper, Sovereign.)
This is an obvious Three because Shepard’s mission “just got a lot more complicated,” as Captain Anderson helpfully points out. It is also a visual Three moment — the player will take the image of Sovereign hovering above the city, spreading its arms toward the camera, and associate it with the image of the wounded colonists.
The message is simple: Big Tentacle Robot = Chaos and Death.
The Normandy reaches Eden Prime and drops off two teams: Shepard + Kaiden Alenko and Corporal Jenkins, and Nihlus + nobody. (The turian claims he “moves faster on his own,” and that’s probably true, but it’s important to note his lack of backup will lead him to a sticky end.)
Shepard and her squad land, then some tutorials help the player acclimate to the engine. Jenkins dies.
The tutorial continues: Shepard and Kaiden fight through hostile robots alone, but not for much longer. Soon they run into Ashley Williams, who joins the party roster and answers some questions the player probably has, namely, “What have I even been shooting at?”
Ash isn’t 100% sure, but she thinks their mysterious foes are the geth, a race of sentient robots who rose against their masters, the quarians, 200 years ago. Now they’re on Eden Prime supposedly looking for the Beacon.
Speaking of the Beacon . . .
Ashley takes Shepard to the quarry where the artifact was being kept, but it’s been moved somewhere else. The three soldiers are stumped for a second, then Nihlus radios in and gives them a hint to the Beacon’s new location, reminding the player that he’s still alive and fighting geth nearby.
With a new party member and an adjusted goal, Shepard gets moving again. Not an especially fancy Switch, but it’s good enough for this episode.
The tutorials are winding down now, letting the player experiment with their abilities and squad formation, and the area starts to offer small side quests.
Then the player’s viewpoint is dragged away from Shepard to follow Nihlus, who’s just encountered an unexpected ally: Saren Arterius, a fellow turian and a veteran Spectre. Believing himself to be safe, Nihlus makes the mistake of dropping his guard and turning his back to Saren, who just screams “totally a bad guy,” even this early in the game. The encounter ends predictably.
In hindsight, I’m not sure I like the way this moment is presented. As I said, the camera leaves Shepard for a minute so the player can witness Saren’s introduction and treachery, then returns to Shepard . . . who has no idea that Nihlus is dead or who Saren is. In fact, while the player is given plenty of opportunities to see Saren, Shepard herself won’t actually meet the turian face-to-face until the last fourth of the game.
I get why Bioware did this. They have ensured Saren’s first appearance is very cinematic. But now there is a discrepancy between what the player knows and what the player character knows. In a movie, the discrepancy wouldn’t be a problem — the audience often knows more than the heroes do — but in the case of a game where the hero’s every action is controlled by the viewer, well, then you can get into trouble.
I won’t harp on it too hard, since the issue is pretty tame in this instance, but it’s still a common problem.
Anyway, the Six mirrors the Three in terms of symbolism, if not in exact circumstances.
We get a re-affirmation of the Three, but also some useful symbolism: last time we saw Sovereign it was reaching for the viewer, but now we see it disengaging, hovering upward from the destruction it has brought and returning to the sky. Better yet, it looks like the Reaper is floating away from Nihlus’ fresh corpse, as if it has just collected his soul.
This is a visual clue to the robot’s true identity, although only players with fantastic memory are likely to see it. (I know I certainly didn’t on my first playthrough.)
Shepard finds Nihlus’ body and is subsequently set upon by a human dockworker who saw Saren’s treachery, so he tells her what the player already knows.
This is a nice moment for roleplaying, I guess, since you can walk Shepard through the dockworker’s explanation at your own pace, but the player just saw the cutscene.
I know I said earlier that I wouldn’t harp on this player/player character-discrepancy, but I don’t think it was smart to divorce Shepard’s knowledge from the player’s knowledge, even if it was just for a few minutes. As it is, I can’t help noticing how convenient it is for Shepard to meet up with a dockworker who just happened to be in the perfect position to witness Nihlus’ murder and hear Saren’s name without being caught. This conversation feels like an opportunity for Shepard to “catch up” with what the player already knows.
Anyway, nitpicking aside, this is a workable Seven moment. Shepard doesn’t make a huge choice, but she does gain some critical information and adjusts her priorities from “get the Beacon” to “get the Beacon and also arrest the dude who stole it and killed my would-be Obi-Wan.”
Following Saren on a tram to the spaceport, Shepard learns he’s set explosive charges and fled, leaving the Beacon behind to be consumed in the blast. The Commander and her squad wipe out the remaining geth and defuse the bombs, then approach the Beacon. Although Nihlus has died, the mission appears to be a success.
You know what happens next, though: one of Shepard’s two squadmates — let’s say, Kaiden — decides to take a closer look at the artifact —
— and unfortunately this activates the Beacon, sucking Kaiden toward it. Shepard comes to his rescue, tossing him aside, but is drawn in herself; the Beacon lifts her into the air and unloads a bizarre, disjointed vision of chaos into her mind, then explodes.
Shepard goes unconscious and the mission is basically a complete failure.
The rest of the episode occurs back on board the Normandy.
Shepard awakens a day or two after the disastrous mission and relates her vision to Captain Anderson, who is accepting of her blunders and offers some backstory on Saren, explaining that he hates humans — yet another tie-in to the mankind VS aliens theme this episode has been developing.
The episode closes with an excellent bit of book-ending:
Back in the One, Shepard was called away from the cockpit to receive a briefing from Captain Anderson. Here in the Nine, after being debriefed by the Captain, she is called back to the cockpit. I like how clean this reversal is.
In fact, I like the whole Enneagram at work here. This is a strong tutorial-woven-into-prologue, something Bioware always seems to manage well.
This post took longer to write than I anticipated and I see no reason why the next ones will be any easier, so this series of mine might turn into something long-term, which is not what I intended. Hopefully I don’t just chicken out and drop these.
Thanks for reading and keep gaming.
LAST — NEXT
Nihlus fan art by Sandara. Screenshot of Eden Prime distress video taken from The Gamer’s Diary. Screenshot of Sovereign over Eden Prime taken from Tumblr. Screenshot of Kaiden looking dopey taken from Honestcake. Screenshot of blond Shepard in med-bay taken from Raziel’s Photobucket.