It all started when I was watching this Mass Effect 3 episode of the game commentary show “Spoiler Warning”, and one of the hosts, Josh, mentioned that Cerberus can “still manage to succeed despite being terrible at everything”. (He says it at about the 2:00 minute mark):
Hmmm. Is there any other organization you can think of that still succeeds, despite making lots of bad decisions and being widely despised? An organization which, when seemingly being beaten, simply uses its seemingly-inexhaustible resources to take the advantage?
It goes deeper than that, though. Think back to the beginning of Mass Effect 2, when Commander Shepard “dies”, but then gets brought back to life by Cerberus to work for them. It’s vaguely hinted that maybe Shepard isn’t quite the same after this; and many of his/her old allies resent him/her working with the sinister outfit.
This is analogous to what happened to the Mass Effect series, and even BioWare itself: Electronic Arts took it over and it isn’t the same afterward. The old Mass Effect–a streamlined RPG with character-building mechanics and wonky combat– ‘died’, and under the care of EA was reborn as a slick, third-person action game with dialogue choices. The change in the feel of the gameplay from ME1 to ME2 really is significant.
The thing is, it all seems like a boon at first to Shepard. To go from seemingly being killed by the Reapers to being brought back with all kinds of resources and advanced equipment at his/her disposal, a new crew and ship more powerful than before–it seems like the whole Cerberus organization has really been the best thing that ever happened to the good Commander.
When you first start playing Mass Effect 2, it feels awesome. My reaction was “Hey! Those goofy fighting mechanics have been fixed! I can aim now! Cover isn’t sticky like before! Excellent!” It feels way more accessible than Mass Effect did. Much more marketable to the average gamer, more able to compete with Gears of War and suchlike.
It’s only as they dig deeper into the hideous plots of the Reapers and Collectors that slowly things start to feel a little wrong. Why is Cerberus so ruthless? Why is the Illusive Man so willing to deceive Shepard to achieve his own ends? Why does everyone seem to hate Cerberus so much? As Shepard continues gathering the assorted adventurers for the assault on the Collector base, there is a growing sense of unease about Cerberus and their goals. But still, there’s little choice but to accept working with them.
As you go on through Mass Effect 2, you start to wonder about why things don’t make sense. Like “Why did these Collectors get introduced anyway, when we had a perfectly adequate antagonist in the Reapers? Is it just to make it easier to have a squad-based shooting game that the CoD/GoW crowd can play?” Or: “Why is there all this DLC that you need to buy to get the full experience? Why not put that on the disk?” And biggest of all: “why does this story make so much less sense than the previous game’s?” Still, we can accept some concessions to the typical gaming market–there’s little choice but to accept it.
As Shepard goes along, it becomes clear that while the whole Cerberus operation looks great on the surface, there is some very dark stuff going on beneath the surface. This is perhaps illustrated best by Cerberus poster-girl Miranda Lawson: genetically-engineered to be stunningly beautiful, but if you learn her backstory instead of looking at her backside, you realize just how twisted her creator is.
Mass Effect 2 is beautiful: gone are the awkward texture loading scenes and weird graphical glitches of the first one. It’s so good-looking it takes you a little bit of time to notice bizarre story decisions and strange retcons applied to the lore–like how the weapons used to simply cool down, but now require “thermal clips”–an obvious excuse to make it more of an action game and less of an RPG.
By the end of Mass Effect 2, or at the latest the beginning of Mass Effect 3, the dark side of Cerberus has become so evident that Shepard has to sever ties with them. Nevertheless, over the course of ME 3, they keep intruding and disrupting the fight against the Reapers, even overshadowing them sometimes. Shepard often has to drop fighting the Reapers to go deal with Cerberus’s antics. It becomes obvious by the end that they are indoctrinated, and are working, perhaps unwittingly, for the Reapers. The final enemy of the game who can stop Shepard is not actually “Marauder Shields”, but the Illusive Man himself, unless Shepard is quick on the draw.
Even before Mass Effect 3 was released, there was controversy about certain decisions, from the day-one downloadable Prothean team member to the inclusion of multi-player mode in what had been a single-player adventure to the Kinect integration, there were many elements seemingly designed to make the most money rather than to tell the best story. The player had to drop focusing on their grand, spacefaring adventure to go play multi-player or iOS games or whatever was needed to get more war assets. And of course, there was also just a tiny little bit of controversy about the ending. Even apart from its most obvious flaws, there was also its final exhortation to buy more DLC. It left a bad taste in some players’ mouths.
So, if you read this far, you probably either think that I’m right or else that I’m insane, but amusingly so. Either way, you probably want to know if I think the people writing the game ever even considered this interpretation. The answer?
Absolutely not. There’s no reason they would. Obviously they wouldn’t consider this. It’s just an amusing coincidence I thought was interesting. It’s surprising how well it all fits–or at least, can appear to fit when you do some creative textual interpretation. I’m not the only one to notice this, either; while working on this post, I found a thread on IGN discussing the same idea. Probably others have thought of it, too.
And here’s the final twist: as I said in my Mass Effect 3 ending review, I ultimately ended up going with the control ending–the decision the Illusive Man was for all along. I personally think this is the best ending, and, by virtue of rejecting the “Indoctrination Theory”, I think the “Extended Cut” DLC backs me up on this. So, as Shepard says, “the Illusive Man was right after all.”
And you know what? So was EA. I mean, sure, some things could have been done better, and other things ought not to have been done at all, but in the end EA and BioWare combined to make a really fun game. I could whine that their choices ruined it, but I’d be lying. The point of games is to have fun, and I had fun with Mass Effect.