“Mass Effect” (2009): Why Fans Hated Kai Leng

Updated on February 2, 2020
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Ash has an embarrassingly deep love of all things Mass Effect. Her favorite is the original first game.

A Kai Leng wallpaper.
A Kai Leng wallpaper. | Source

Kai Leng is one of the antagonists in Mass Effect 3, the third and final installment of the original Mass Effect trilogy.

Once Shepard goes rogue from Cerberus, the Illusive Man hires Kai Leng to be the puppet Shepard refused to be. He buys Kai Leng’s unflinching loyalty by fixing the man’s legs, which were shot out by Anderson during a comic book side story.

A lot of fans really hate Kai Leng, and they have very good reason to. I realize you’re supposed to hate the antagonist, but for the right reasons. You’re supposed to hate the antagonist because they’ve been properly depicted as evil, cruel, and a real threat to the protagonist. But fans wound up hating Kai Leng for all the wrong reasons.

Here’s why.

He’s a Comic Book Character

Kai Leng as he appeared in "Foundation."
Kai Leng as he appeared in "Foundation." | Source

A lot of fans (myself included) hate it when side content characters are brought into the game. Not everyone wants to spend extra cash buying comics and novels related to the video games just to have the full story. In fact, most people just want to play the game and not have to wonder who this whacky new character is. And it’s especially annoying when the character keeps making allusions to the content they’re from, and you didn’t buy, read, or watch said content, so you’re just more confused.

Attention EA: People generally don’t like being confused.

It’s all right if a character from extra content has a small role, but when a character from extra content has a big role (such as being one of the main antagonists or a follower), and the only way to fully understand them as a character lies outside the content you bought . . .that’s annoying.

It also makes you feel like you’re being milked for every coin. “Buy this comic or be confused when you play the game!” It’s shady business tactics. (Because, EA, it’s possible to make a profit without tricking, baiting, or ripping people off.)

Also, it’s just bad writing to introduce a brand new character toward the end of a story, especially a character that’s so vastly important as an antagonist. The writers did this twice with Kai Leng and James Vega, two characters from side content who interact with Shepard a great deal, and yet, you wouldn’t fully understand them without having read or seen their side content.

Vega as he appeared in "Mass Effect 3."
Vega as he appeared in "Mass Effect 3." | Source

Granted, Vega’s content was free from what I remember. But for people who still didn’t bother to look at it, not having his full story when going into Mass Effect 3 was a tad annoying.

And you meet him without any explanation. He just appears as Shepard’s bodyguard, follows her around the hall, and you’re left to wonder, “Who the heck is this????”

It was the same with Kai Leng for people who didn’t read his introduction in the comics. So one reason Kai Leng is hated is that he’s a comic book character who only comic readers know and was introduced late in the games without any real explanation for the video game audience.

Another good reason?

Kai Leng was Badly Written

Kai Leng "killing cereal" in the comics.
Kai Leng "killing cereal" in the comics. | Source

I’ve seen people say that Kai Leng was not badly written and that he was supposed to be a childish, annoying asshole.

Well, when people complain about Kai Leng being badly written, we are not talking about his (obnoxious) personality. We are talking about the fact that the plot had to tie itself into a pretzel just to make him able to stand against Shepard. In other words, the lore contradicted itself to make Kai Leng a threat. This is bad writing.

How did the lore contradict itself? Read on.

Gunships as they appeared in "Mass Effect 2."
Gunships as they appeared in "Mass Effect 2." | Source

Remember back in Mass Effect 2 when Shepard was a badass who walked through gunfire and shot gunships down from the sky? Mass Effect 3 gives Shepard amnesia, and she completely forgets that she is 1) impervious to a great deal of gunfire thanks to Cerberus upgrades that made her skin pretty much bulletproof and 2) can shoot gunships down with a simple heavy weapon.

The writers were so desperate to make Kai Leng a badass and a threat that they rewrote the lore and crippled Shepard to make him seem stronger. Good writing could have achieved this without contradicting previously established lore or crippling the main character (I don’t mean crippling her in a literal sense but in a . . . literal sense).

Traynor smugly winning chess.
Traynor smugly winning chess. | Source

Another good example of this in Mass Effect 3 would be the scene with Traynor.

Aside from being a great hero and a genetically enhanced super soldier, Shepard is famous for being a great tactician. And yet, she is completely dumbed down into a moron so that Traynor can look smart by beating her in a game of chess.

Traynor could have beat Shepard without the writers dumbing Shepard down. It was just bad writing. Mass Effect 3, while a good game, was riddled with it. To me, it’s largely the reason why I prefer the first game. While the first Mass Effect had crappy combat, at least the writing was sound.

I’m starting to think all the best video game writers were quietly murdered once EA bought their companies. Because what is going on here?

The fact that he was well-written (and powerful without depowering Shepard) is what made Saren such a compelling character and a worthy nemesis.

Saren on Virmire in the first "Mass Effect."
Saren on Virmire in the first "Mass Effect." | Source

In the first Mass Effect, Saren was presented as Shepard’s equal in combat. He was an older, more experienced spectre who was always one step ahead of her. Whenever she had to fight him throughout, it was always from cover, because that’s how powerful he was. (Barring the ending when he was possessed by Sovereign, of course.)

Like Kai Leng, Saren had strong shields and couldn’t be shot during his villainous monologue. This was a good example of plot armor being used in a correct manner. Why? Because Saren’s shields and his fighting style didn’t contradict the previously establish lore, nor did it require Shepard to be crippled in order for it to make sense.

Shepard doesn’t magically forget how to fight or lose her abilities when Saren appears. She still manages to fight him one-on-one and comes close to defeating him in a manner that makes sense for her established abilities. She remains as strong and powerful, but because Saren isn’t supposed to be defeated at that point in the story, plot armor protects him from it in a way that makes sense.

This is called good writing.

Kai Leng Fights Thane

By sharp contrast, whenever Kai Leng appears on the screen, Shepard forgets how to fight.

Honestly, there was nothing so frustrating as the scene where Thane fights Kai Leng. Instead of helping, Shepard and her team just stand there and watch as Thane is stabbed to death with a sword.

The scene makes no sense. Why didn’t any of them shoot at Kai Leng when he reappeared? I don’t buy that they were worried about accidentally shooting Thane. Especially since Thane and Kai Leng were so far apart from each other they had to run at each other before the moment where Thane is stabbed.

It was a poorly written scene.

It would have made more sense for Shepard and her team to be incapacitated somehow. The writers could have come up with anything. Maybe Kai Leng threw a smoke bomb (those were used over and over by Cerberus, why not?) or used some kind of technology that froze Shepard and her team in place. But because he didn’t know Thane was nearby, Thane wasn’t hit, and then there’s a fight between them while Shepard and the others are frozen and forced to watch. During the fight, Thane breaks Kai Leng’s doohickey, and Shepard and her team are released, but not before Thane is stabbed.

That would have been pretty awesome, actually. And it would have made more sense than Shepard and two other people with guns just f****** standing there.

He was Just Disappointing

Kei Leng as he appeared on Thessia.
Kei Leng as he appeared on Thessia. | Source

On top of everything else – being a comic book character and the lore unraveling just to make him seem strong – Kai Leng was just disappointing. His dialogue was dumb. He never really did anything interesting or clever. He never did anything to make me like him as a character (not a person). What he did on Thessia with crumbling the floor was kinda cool, but then he ruined it with that teenage banter.

I heard that in the original leaked script, Kai Leng was going to disguise himself to infiltrate the Citadel and screw over Shepard. That would have been cool. But because the script was leaked, the writers decided that this meant they had to change everything – Why? Who cares if it was leaked??? – and Kai Leng and Thane were both dumbed down during the Citadel Coup.

So Kai Leng was never properly utilized as a character. He was just crap.

He was supposed to be crap to a certain degree. That was the whole point of him: he wanted to be a badass like Shepard but he was really just an obnoxious tool. And I mean that literally: he was a minion being used by the bad guys – Cerberus and the Reapers – the entire time. So he wasn’t even a villain in his own right.

To be fair, Saren and the Illusive Man were minions of the Reapers, they just didn’t’ realize it until it was too late. Kai Leng was aware of his minion-hood from the start. He was a minion who wanted desperately to be a supervillain. (This could have been an interesting character arc had they actually bothered trying to give him depth.)

All that is fine and dandy. Kai Leng was crap and he was supposed to be. Okay. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

The Illusive Man as he appeared in "Mass Effect 2."
The Illusive Man as he appeared in "Mass Effect 2." | Source

I would rather have an enemy who is worthy of my time and not an obnoxious brat who sends me taunting adolescent emails after killing my friends. Saren was a worthy adversary. The Illusive Man was a worthy adversary. Vasir was a worthy adversary. Hell, even the Reapers were worthy adversaries, despite the bad ending of the trilogy.

But Kai Leng? He was just an adversary. He was a poorly written clown. And like most of the characters in Mass Effect 3 (James Vega, Diana Allers), he was just a waste of space that could have been occupied by a more interesting character.

I recall some fans were disappointed because they thought – after seeing promotional material – that Kai Leng was the resurrected Virmire Survivor. That would have been so awesome. Instead, we got this sorry wannabe anime character who spends the game sticking his tongue out at Shepard and calling her names.

I think things worked out this way because by the time Mass Effect 3 came out, the original writers for the first Mass Effect were pretty much gone. Other people had taken the reigns, and it showed. It showed in the lore and in the changes of the characters and their personalities – For example, Anderson, the Geth, Kaidan, and Ashley. (The constant switching of writers and the degradation of the lore in my favorite classic rpgs is one good reason I stopped buying Dragon Age games. After “Inquisition,” I just can’t take anymore.)

Artwork of Anderson from "Mass Effect 3."
Artwork of Anderson from "Mass Effect 3." | Source

Anderson went from a squeaky-clean, naive, goody-toe-shoes hero to a cursing, swearing jarhead. The difference is subtle since he’s a background character, but it’s there.

The Geth, once perfectly content to be robots, suddenly want to be more like organics – rather than just having their sentience recognized as before.

Kaidan goes from being straight to bisexual. No, he wasn’t bi in the first game. Originally, all the love interests were going to be bisexual so that the player could romance whoever they wanted, but Bioware was afraid of Fox News (lol), so they chickened out.

I’m saying this as a lesbian and as a writer: I don’t believe they should have made Kaidan bisexual. They should have stayed true to his character and simply have introduced Cortez and left it at that.

An image of Cortez (aka Steve).
An image of Cortez (aka Steve). | Source

Cortez is an awesome character and wound up being one of my favorites from Mass Effect 3. Even if you’re playing a character who doesn’t romance him, Cortez still has a pretty cool friendship with Shepard.

The only thing I didn’t like about him was the fact that he lost his husband so recently and yet Shepard is ready to jump his bones. There were other ways they could have introduced his sexuality rather than having him harp about his dead husband all the time. They could have simply had him flirt with male Shepard – in a respectful way, obviously. I guess they were trying to avoid upsetting homophobic male gamers, who flip out when gay male pixels show an interest in their non-existent video game character but can’t make the connection that this is how women feel when they harass us.

Kaidan as he appeared in "Mass Effect 3."
Kaidan as he appeared in "Mass Effect 3." | Source

Not to go off on a tangent (too late), but I think that’s the difference between Kaidan and Cortez.

I believe Kaidan was deliberately written to be an intrusive, boundary-crossing asshole. As I said in my article about why I hate Kaidan, Kaidan is all over Shepard for the course of three games and will not back off, especially if Shepard is a woman.

By Mass Effect 3, he is now harassing male Shepard as well .I think it’s just presented as part of his personality to be . . . Well, a dick.

By contrast, Cortez isn’t like that at all. He’s not pushy or intrusive, just hopeful. And if Shepard turns him down, he’s sad about it (which is okay), but he takes “no” for an answer and doesn’t continue to pursing Shepard (unlike Kaidan, who stalks Shepard for three games if she’s a woman).

In other words, Cortez respects Shepard and Kaidan doesn’t.

No gunships this time.
No gunships this time. | Source

Anyway. The point is that a lot of the writing changed because the writers had changed by Mass Effect 3. This led to such crap as Kaidan becoming more annoying, promotional characters we didn’t need (again, Allers), and the abomination that was Kai Leng.

Probably the only good thing about Kai Leng was getting to stab him with a Renegade interrupt.

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