Mass Effect 3’s Leviathan: Losing the Fear of the Unknown

Every year or so, during a dry release spell, I find myself drawn back to the old favourites. You could call it my gaming comfort food. And there is no series out there more “entire pack of chocolate hobnobs” than the Mass Effect Trilogy. When I start a new Mass Effect run, I tend to fall down into a bit of a void of time and attention. I have such huge admiration for these handful of games, even more so since Andromeda came out.

And subsequently killed the franchise off.

My current session found me going back to the Mass Effect 3 DLCs, pieces of content I didn’t have a hugely clear memory of in comparison to the rest of the game. Specifically, I want to get into Leviathan; the first piece of post release story DLC for Mass Effect 3. At the time, I remember being amazed at this additional story that added a new, powerful and mysterious race into the equation that could level the playing field against the Reapers.

Today, I feel like the inclusion of Leviathan does nothing but devalue the entire lore experience around it.

I’ll be clear, I am approaching this from a lore and storytelling perspective. As a piece of gameplay, Leviathan is a fine addition. But as someone deeply invested in Mass Effect as a setting and fictional universe, Leviathan is incredibly questionale as an addition, not just to this piece of storytelling, but in science fiction in general. It makes the storytelling sin of explaining a villain that didn’t need to be explained.

The story of Levaithan follows a mystery concerning unknown creature sightings, somthing that had somehow killed a lone Reaper scout hundreds of years before. After a few hitches, Shepard and the crew uncover the creature that is Leviathan. Along with the creature’s size and scale, it had the ability to indoctrinate and control individuals, much like Reapers themselves. The idea is thrown around that the Leviathan could be a Reaper gone rogue, The reality is somthing much different.

What is revealed as a result of this story is hugely impactful for the Mass Effect lore. It recontextualizes the status quo and raises a lot of concerns about a potential future after the Reapers. The ending to Mass Effect 3 was already divisive, but with this new “apex race” able to indoctrinate the entire known galaxy when the Reapers are defeated, it feels like Shepard and his army are just trading one war for another.

With the nature of the expansion being a piece of optional side content, the Leviathans never have a major impact on the game after the DLC is over. Which feels anticlimactic considering what a staggering revelation their existence should actually be. But the ending to the Mass Effect Trilogy is a whole other kettle of fish I’m not going to get into right now.

It’s not the topic I wanted to focus on. Looking back at Leviathan now, through more mature eyes, the actual “reward” for purchasing and finishing the DLC was a pretty extensive lore dump from the creature as to the nature, origin and goals of the Reaper menace. It’s basically a monologue that Shepard has very little impact on, after the big cuttlefish is done talking and Shepard heads back for the surface, I found myself pondering what I had actually gained from this new information.

I feel the Reapers are one of the most effective antagonists in all of video games. Appearing right at the beginning of the first Mass Effect, it wasn’t until towards the end of the game that we realised the true threat they posed. And the true scale of their destructive force wasn’t really understood until the opening scene of the third game.

They’re vast in size and they’re indiscriminately destructive. The goal of Commander Shepard throughout most of the trilogy is never to understand the Reapers, only to stop them. The characters who all seem interested in understanding the Reapers are generally portrayed as villainous, often doing so to further their own means.

This never works out for them though as the Reapers always turn out to be too huge, too incomprehensible to even begin to understand, let alone control. Even the Geth, the machine race who could probably understand them best say even they can’t even begin to understand the single, gargantuan thought of a Reaper. They never give a reason, they never feel the need to explain themselves, they just want to destroy us.

The Reapers aren’t even treading new ground or anything, they’re part of a well worn science fiction trope. One we’ve seen in movies for years. Look at The Thing, Sphere, The Abyss and even Event Horizon. Different kinds of movies that deal with something unknown force, something we can’t understand. It’s because we can’t comprehend the meaning or logic behind the actions something causes that we’re so fearful of it. Revealing a backstory for the Reapers gives us something to grab onto, a piece of something familiar.

They were created, they have a purpose. If we can understand their purpose, we can use that against them somehow. Even suck as small piece of familiarity can give a small degree of comfort when thinking about them. All it does in this context is make the enemy “less”. When we can use logic to give reason to their actions. Rather than them being rampant, unknowable forces of destruction. Other franchises have lessened themselves by giving too much information about themselves. For example, did we really need Prometheus and Alien: Covenant to give us a backstory and origin for the Xenomorph creature? Hell no.

The unknown is always scarier than something we can comprehend, something you can touch and fight against. It is part of the reason people kicked up such a stink about Mass Effect 3’s actual ending. It too spent the player’s final moments with the game dumping some exposition as to the purpose and reason behind the Reapers. Only not as extensive.

It was vague information, but information all the same. It never bothered me as much in this context because it was the very ending of the game, moments before an end was put to the Reaper threat. It felt like the appropriate time to give some amount of that information, but even so they were spoken about with some degree of faux mysticism. Like there was some unknown higher power guiding their actions. Another science fiction trope.

In the end, knowing this information doesn’t take away from the impact the Reapers have on me as a terrifying antagonist in one of my favourite game series ever. Leviathan just feels like the writers using the excuse that the game was technically over at this point to dump their lore bible out on the table and give everyone the information in black & white, information I probably would have been happier without.

Seriously though, the entire galaxy are thralls to the Leviathans after the ending of Mass Effect 3, what’s actually stopping them.

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