A year before Mass Effect came out, The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion gave us the Adoring Fan. Become grand champion of the arena and he follows you around offering backrubs and getting in the way. Everyone hated him. Mass Effect's Conrad Verner seemed like another Adoring Fan, so we were destined to hate him too.
A dweeb with a terrible goatee, he hangs out on the Citadel trying to get your attention. First he wants an autograph, then a photo, then he wants you to recruit him as a Spectre so you can work side by side as equals. That escalated quickly?
Playing the trilogy for the first time, with a couple of years separating ME2 and ME3, I forgot Verner's deal between games. Seeing him return in each one was a shrug emoji kind of situation. When I replayed the series back-to-back a few years later, I didn't finish his quest in ME1 and never saw him again. Only now in 2021, marching through the trilogy a third time in the Legendary Edition, do I finally appreciate Conrad Verner.
Part of Verner's value is that he illustrates your rise. He's impressed the first time you meet, when you're the hero who shot up “a hundred geth”. By the next time you see him you've become a Spectre—a special agent with frankly obscene extrajudicial powers. Verner's clumsy salute and blathering praise make you feel a little puffed up. “This guy who already thought I was hot shit is surprised by what I've managed. Maybe I am pretty great?”
Verner has to push it though, and when he starts trying to talk his way into your crew, enough is enough. I'm not going to let someone even less cool than Kaidan on board, come on. (Sorry, Kaidan.) The renegade option has Shepard threaten Verner at gunpoint, because that's Renegade Shepard's solution to basically everything in the first game. The paragon choice is to talk him down, to remember the wife he's mentioned and explain that he should stay behind for the sake of his family. You need people like him on the home front to remind you what you're fighting for.
Not that this choice matters in Mass Effect 2. Thanks to a bug, both the renegade and paragon flags get set in your save file whichever you choose, and the renegade one takes precedence. That's why in ME2 Verner accuses you of pointing the gun at him no matter what you did, even in the Legendary Edition (though there are mods to fix that).
Between games you spent a year dead for tax purposes, and during that time Verner ignored your advice, bought a replica suit of N7 armor, and has been cosplaying as a videogame hero to fill the gap you left. There's a meta joke about how he wanders around asking random people if they need help, just like you, which in his case ends with him caught up in a conflict over the ownership of a bar. This becomes your problem, like everything else in the dang galaxy, and once again Paragon Shepard tries to talk Verner into going home. (Renegade Shepard shoots him in the foot.)
In Mass Effect 3 Verner's found among the Citadel's dockside refugees. Having heard you were working for Cerberus, he tried to join the organization and was manipulated into being a distraction while they sabotaged some nearby medical stations. Verner's goofed again, though this time at least he realizes it and apologizes. He also apologizes for accusing you of pointing a gun at him that one time, “when you didn't actually do that. I was really stressed out.” (This line is why BioWare didn't bother fixing the save file bug in the Legendary Edition, I guess.)
When Verner asks if there's anything he can do to make up for his mistake, Shepard snarks at him, even if you've been a patient paragon till now. “Conrad, I'm building an ancient prothean dark-energy device to stop the reapers. Can you help with that?”
This is when Verner tells you he wrote his doctoral dissertation on xenotechnology and dark-energy integration.
Across three games, all the time you've known Verner, you never once asked what he does for a living. Turns out he's an expert on alien technology. What follows is an amazing pay-off for this string of sidequests that ropes in other sidequests from just as far back. Verner checks with an academic colleague who has some schematics for ancient tech that might be useful, and that colleague happens to be one of the colonists from Feros in the first game. If you helped that guy retrieve his data back then, he repays the favor now.
It continues with Shepard and Verner coordinating resources back and forth as they make calls and bring up their computer screens. “Oh no,” he says, “the schematics are in an ancient asari dialect!” “Would this collection of asari matriarch collectibles I spent way too long scrounging for in the first game help?” “Why yes, they would! But the schematics are also patented by Elkoss Combine and I don't have a licence.” “No worries, I bought one of those in the first game as well.” “What an amazing coincidence!”
If you've been enough of a completionist to collect everything you need, that hard work is satisfyingly acknowledged here, and Verner finally gets to be useful. You wrap up your conference call, click on him a few more times to hear some bonus metatextual gags, find out that he never actually had a wife but does have a “tasteful” shrine to you, and then wander off to repair the sabotage and complete this silly sidequest.
At which point, Verner reappears. He's spotted the Cerberus agent who tricked him, and shouts, “You're under arrest!” The agent turns, drawing his gun. And then spots a better target: Commander Shepard.
Realizing what's about to happen, Verner slow-motion dives in front of you as the gun goes off, then falls to the floor. You deck the agent, then rush back to where Verner fell. In that moment, kneeling over him, I felt awful for disrespecting Verner. I underestimated him. I even compared him to the Adoring Fan.
But Mass Effect isn't done fucking with you yet. There's one last sidequest from the first game with a pay-off yet to come. If you helped Jenna—a waitress at the Chora's Den strip club secretly working as an informant—she returns out of the blue to explain she saw what was happening and used an old trick she learned from those days to sabotage the agent's gun. Verner lives, and not only that, Jenna's so impressed by his bravery that the two walk off together into an oddball happy ending.
This chain of events has a wild amount of reactivity, so many small decisions from across the series remembered here, almost as if to apologize for that one moment of forgetfulness brought about by a save game bug.
ME3 isn't always great at respecting the decisions you made earlier in the trilogy—if you chose to replace the Citadel Council with humans they're aliens again, and if you chose to have the comically slimy Councillor Udina replaced by Keith David like a sensible person, then Udina's nevertheless back on the Council for reasons you have to look in the Codex to find. And yet, in this one missable sidequest, Verner's story is altered because of everything you've done.
It's a moment where Mass Effect lives up to its promise, the idea that this is your Shepard, with all your choices—even small ones—gaining relevance and significance in the end.
The Mission Complete pop-ups appear and a new war asset is unlocked. Verner's dark energy dissertation helps you build your superweapon and adds to your military strength. Mass Effect has one last gag, though. Next time you check your war assets for the details, you see the reward for perfectly combining everything you needed for this mission, for the work you did stretching across the entire trilogy, is five measly points of military strength.
It's enough to make you consider going back to shoot Conrad Verner in the foot.