The climactic suicide mission in Mass Effect 2 is a love letter to the game’s characters, even as it kills them off.
Bioware’s sequels don’t follow the usual path of video game sequels. Rather than going “bigger, better, and more badass” and upping the stakes, both Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 2 lower the stakes of the story, and all the attention that would normally have gone into crafting action scenes goes into crafting characters instead. Bioware’s sequels are inherently character driven, more so than their predecessors, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the climax of Mass Effect 2. The suicide mission is a love letter to the game’s characters, even as it kills them off.
(Of course, the climax of Dragon Age II also focuses on the characters, but for this post I’m just going to focus on Mass Effect because I recently played it again so it’s fresh in my mind. It’s been a few months since I last saw Hawke.).
The first Mass Effect ended with a big space battle between a Reaper and the whole Alliance army. Lasers are flying everywhere, ships are blowing up left and right; it’s a grand spectacle. But there’s not much emotional weight to the spectacle. You don’t know the people on those ships, you don’t have a connection with them. The most important choice that you have to make is whether to sacrifice the Council in order to guarantee the Reaper’s destruction. These Council members are at least characters that we know, but they’re not sympathetic characters; the way they’re presented in the story, the Council is almost as much of an antagonist as Saren. Your willingness to kill them really comes down to what you think of political leaders in general. Are they worth saving merely because they’re political leaders? For all of the death and destruction going on, you/Shepard have very little at stake.
Contrast that with the end of Mass Effect 2, in which a small team of hand-picked men, women, and aliens attack a Collector base. The stakes are far lower. Heck, you’re not even fighting the big bad Reapers; this is essentially a climactic battle against henchmen. There are far fewer lives at stake, but those characters that can die are characters that you have a personal connection with. Every explosion, every bullet, every typical beat of an action scene carries an extra layer of tension because the only people that can die are characters that we care about. The entire suicide mission is built to exploit your love of these characters, giving the battle a personal stake that was missing from the first game.
What’s most impressive about this mission is how it kills people. A while back I wrote about how making character deaths the result of choices rather than timing/skill-based set pieces makes the ending very predictable because “If I have even a vague sense of what to do, it’s easy to keep everyone alive” (Nick Dinicola, "The Least Suicidal Suicide Mission Ever", PopMatters, 8 October 2010). But the advantage of this kind of structure (that I only realized after purposefully trying to game the system to kill certain characters) is that by limiting player involvement Bioware can control every detail of a character’s death scene and construct dramatic moments that don’t portray any other characters in a negative light. This means no amount of player incompetence reflects badly Shepard or her team. Shepard seems no less capable a leader despite me killing half her team.
For example, the first major decision that you have to make is who to send into the heating vents to hack a door. You’re told the vents are dangerous, that this job is a suicide mission (within a suicide mission no less, it’s doubly suicidal!), but this hype is just a red herring. In reality, you will always save the person that you send into the vents. Their possible death is actually determined by who leads the second fire team. If you make a “bad” decision and trigger the death scene, the vent specialist dies by getting a rocket to the face. This death has nothing to do with the vent itself or who is leading the fire team; it’s just a random act of war. Mechanically, my choices led to this death, but narratively, it was random. Each death scene plays out like this, with each death being narratively unrelated to the specific choice that I made that triggered the death, thereby ridding Shepard of any and all possible culpability.
Also, by having each character die within a cut scene and not during real-time gameplay, Bioware can give each character a dramatic send off. Only one gets any kind of last words of goodbye, but all get a short moment of mourning from the team. Given the opportunity, an impatient player might skip this moment of mourning or even the death itself, running past the dying character in a rush to get to the end of the mission. Such actions would portray Shepard as a leader that doesn’t care about her team and would prevent the dying character from having his, her, or its big moment. The whole suicide mission is structured to pay respects to each character, first by giving them their own death scene and then by forcing you to watch that death.
I still wish the suicide mission had more replay value, but in retrospect, the way that Bioware handles things fits with the rest of the game’s strong focus on the supporting characters. It’s worth remembering that Mass Effect 2 is just as much about them as it is about you/Shepard.
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