Friday, February 5, 2010

Mass Effect 1's Saren: A Better Villain Before the Book "Revelation"

In honor of the recently released Mass Effect 2 (which I HIGHLY recommend you obtain right this second if you've played ME1, and if you haven't played ME1, I HIGHLY recommend you obtain ME2 right the second that you finish playing ME1, which is even MORE highly recommended that you get right this second. Wrap your mind around that if you can), I thought I'd do a rant on ME1. Of course, this is an odd honor, for this rant is going to be about an aspect that I didn't like about it, but, y'know, whatever.

Mass Effect 1 was a terrific RPG. New, different, and exceptionally created, it had good characters and a terrific plot that took place in an epic sci-fi setting, that wonderful kind of science fiction creation that not only gives you a great story immediately, but has the heart, the creativity, the imagination, the depth, and the scope that just begs to be expanded on. I hadn't gotten so fired up and interested in the vast creative potential of a science fiction setting since seeing the original Star Wars movies.

Bioware, the company that created Mass Effect, seemed to have a good idea of the potential of their creation. In addition to the game, two books were published about events occurring before and after ME1--the first book, Revelation, by Drew Karpyshyn, who is also one of the major writers behind the Mass Effect games, set several of the plot elements of ME1 into motion, while the second book, Ascension, by the same author, set up a side-story after ME1's events that (so far) has only minimal ties to the games' main plots. Now that ME2 is out, Bioware's got some more stuff hitting the markets to further expand its sci-fi thriller's depth--a comic book series, I think, along with another book or 2. I'm not sure, but I know I'll be checking them all out later, being the fanboy who is commercially easily-led that I am.

In general, a good idea--the Star Wars universe is at its very best, after all, in many of the published fanfiction by authors like Timothy Zahn, who expand the ideas and concepts of the Star Wars movies until a universe of exceeding depth and complexity has been formed from their contributions to it over the past few decades.* And in practice, a lot of the expanding that the Mass Effect books do is good stuff--gives you some more perspective on the Cerberus group from the games, a more detailed look on the past history of David Anderson (important bloke from the game), and so on. Aside from the stupid final part of the Revelation book which drops all the subtle foreshadowing of the game's events that the book had been doing so well until then and bonking you on the noggin clumsily with its plot set-ups ("OKAY IN CASE YOU DIDN'T GET IT SOMEHOW THIS IS THE BIG IMPORTANT THING HERE DO YOU SEE IT HERE HERE HERE LOOK"), I think the books accomplish what they're trying to do quite adequately.

Save for one significant problem: Saren. The antagonist (though not main villain) of Mass Effect 1, Saren in the game is a fairly good villain--I wouldn't call him great, but he's a cut above the standard RPG villain fair. Spoilers ahead, although I can't imagine many people who haven't played ME1 are going to bother to read this.

1. Saren has depth--as a Specter, Saren's goal ultimately is to protect galactic peace. When he encounters Sovereign and learns of the threat of the Reapers, Saren concludes that there is simply no possible way for the united people of the galaxy to resist the Reapers and win--a reasonable conclusion, given that the Reapers have systematically destroyed cultures in the past of equitable size and better technology in the past. He hopes that by serving the Reaper vanguard Sovereign, he can prove that the people of the galaxy can be useful to the Reapers if kept alive, thus preventing galaxy-wide genocide and saving trillions, maybe quadrillions of lives. He's weighed his options, and against such hopeless odds of victory, he feels that the way to protect the galaxy's people is to sacrifice their physical and mental freedom to save their lives.

2. Saren is a good opposite to the protagonist, Shepard--at least, if we assume that Shepard is a Paragon, and not a Renegade.*** Saren is willing to give up freedom to preserve life; Shepard will fight to the death to protect self-determination. Saren wants to play it safe and appease the superior force to save life; Shepard understands that the life without freedom is meaningless to have and will risk it all to protect its worth. Saren's morality can only see the big picture; Shepard's morality sees the small acts of heroism, courage, generosity, and unity that the big picture must be made from.

Basically, Saren in Mass Effect 1 is clearly the game's villain, but as that obvious villain, Saren has a good deal of depth and subtlety to make him both interesting and a good contrast to the game's protagonist.

The thing is, though, the book Revelation, which chronicles an adventure a couple decades before ME1 begins that prominently involves Saren, paints a very different picture of this character. Book-Saren has absolutely none of the elegant depth that made him more than just a sci-fi Snidely Whiplash. He's brutal, relentless, and without a conscience--he'll not only sacrifice innocents to meet his objectives without a second thought, he'll go out of his way to do so. Saren in the books is a deadly jerk who kills civilians indiscriminately and often. His job as a Spectre just gives him the excuse and the authority to murder anyone and everyone.

Saren from the game and Saren from the book both have an "ends justify the means" philosophy in what they do, but that's more or less where the similarity between them ends. Game-Saren pursues his twisted goal of saving the galaxy with unwavering purpose, taking whatever steps are necessary to achieve that goal--killing those who pose a threat, lying to those he can manipulate, and generally being a jerk--but a jerk with a plan. Book-Saren just goes out of his way to kill, his actions and demeanor suggesting that his work and goals take second place to his desire to end lives.

I mean, take this one scene from the book. To try to track down his quarry for his mission, Saren interrogates a hospitalized woman who may have information he needs. She's in a real bad way, having barely survived a building's exploding right next to her, so to get his information, Saren forces her awake--a dick thing to do, given that she's in excruciating pain from her injuries. This much rings true for the game's Saren--he'd have no qualms about doing such a thing in order to accomplish his goals. But then, when Saren's gotten all he can out of her, he doesn't give her the injection that can put her back to sleep and potentially save her life. He actually takes a moment to personally watch her die from his inaction, and then, when she dies, gives her the injection to cover up what he's done. There's no reason given for this, nothing he can possibly gain from it; he just does it because he's that much of a bastard.

This clumsily evil, spiteful, and murderous villain does not fit the image at all that the game gives us--that of a misguided villain who, although contemptible, at least has a purpose he strives for that he believes is noble. Book-Saren, in fact, actually creates a semi-plot hole--not only does he lessen the worth of the overall character of Saren, but he also creates the question of how such a brutish fiend wound up becoming a misguided villain. I mean, it just seems unlikely that a cruel, psychotic murderer who found Sovereign and found out about the Reapers' threat to the galaxy would say to himself, "Gee, up until now I've given every indication of having no interest in anything beyond killing people...but now that I've found something that could kill everyone everywhere, I think I'll attempt to save as many lives as possible from it!"

I suppose there are ways to explain it away--Sovereign's Indoctrination affecting Saren and causing him to change his mind, perhaps, but I can't see what Sovereign's motive would be in that, and the game implies that Sovereign's influence over Saren is minimal since Saren remains strong and efficient--but overall, Mass Effect 1's Saren was a far better villain before Revelation further developed (or perhaps "devolved" is a better term) him.

* Well, actually, the Star Wars universe is also at its best in the Knights of the Old Republic RPG series, too, but that distracts from the point I'm trying to make.**

** The small KotOR series, incidentally, got its start from Bioware--the Mass Effect folks. These people kick ASS!

*** Although it would still work fairly well--Renegade Shepard values power and dominion over all races, so Saren's still the logical antagonist, because the dominion over all life that he wants to give to the Reapers is the same dominion that Shepard wants for him/herself.

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