by Ben Fitzgerald and Terry Randolph
The First Taste
I can still remember the first time I played Mass Effect. It was in 2011. The final installment in the trilogy hadn’t been released yet, and it was long enough ago that the cinematic graphics still looked really fresh. I mean, we’re talking five years difference, so they didn’t look dated like they do now. And man, I mean, man. It was game over. I was hooked. My red-headed Shepherd was a fiery Valkyrie, a paragon – a heroine in the truest sense of the word. I poured over 30 hours into that game, and after it was all said and done, I immediately went back and did it again.
I was staying with my friend Chris, and Terry was there too. I really have no idea what they were up to, because all I did was play Mass Effect a second time. I’m sure I actually did spend some time with them, but I was a man possessed. Man, I actually felt really bad, because when I moved away from Portland (I was detouring to my hometown of Sacramento before hitting the road down to Arizona), I accidentally left my old roommate Seth’s copy of Mass Effect in my Xbox 360. So I felt horrible. I bought him a new copy though, so it wasn’t the end of the world.
Actually, the first time I played Mass Effect was around November of 2008, both my first year of college and the one year I didn’t have my consoles readily available to play games. My girlfriend and I were talking about Thanksgiving plans back home when I noticed her roommate booting up his Xbox 360. She was pulled away by a phone call, and that left me time to watch him play through the first 30 minutes of the game. Watching the gameplay, I knew I’d be hooked into the game. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until a year later I was able to buy the game and experience it on my own.
However, when I was able to get the game, I could not put it down. I was hooked in and fully immersed into the experience. Mass Effect had characters I genuinely cared about, an exceptional multi-layered story paired with insanely fun gameplay. My first playthrough was easily around 60 hours and I knew for a fact I didn’t get to experience everything the game had to offer. Playing it a second time I explored every nook and cranny I could within the game and capped a 75 hour run. Here’s the thing that Mass Effect gets right; it’s a full-on experience and not just a game. That’s what made both playthroughs an exceptional time.
Decisions That Mattered
Mass Effect is a game I’ve made several different, difficult decisions that were consistently met with questioning the impact they would have. Even when I’d made my choices and had to live with them, I’d constantly question how things would have changed had I made a different choice. This was how I approached everything in every playthrough, and that’s what made this game genuinely stand out for me. At the time the first game released, the concept of decisions making an impact was revolutionary. Sure, it wasn’t a new concept, other games had done this before, but the way each decision impacted the story was far more significant than anything seen before. More importantly, no singular choice felt like the absolute right one – each had their fair share of pros and cons depending on the perspective applied to making the choice. The decisions also heavily affected the relationships between Shepherd and his crewmates, affecting everything from the optional discussions on the ship to their dialogue during missions. Essentially, there wasn’t a “Black and White” approach to the decision like majority of the games at the time, it was as grey and complicated as normal life.
One of the core ideas of Mass Effect, something that made it such a big leap forward from a lot of games past, was this idea that your decisions mattered, and they could shape the galaxy. It wasn’t an entirely new approach; BioWare had long experimented with the nuances of player choice and the effect they have on the story that gets told. This was there to a degree in Baldur’s Gate, and even more so in Knights of the Old Republic. Star Wars was actually the perfect setting to work out the kinks, because Star Wars has always been about black and white, good vs. evil, fighting the Dark Side of the Force.
Well, towards the end of Mass Effect, you have a showdown with your krogan ally, Urdnot Wrex. The enemy has discovered a cure for the genophage, and Wrex isn’t sure anymore whose side he should be on. As Commander Shepard, you have two choices: you can talk him down or you can gun him down. (It’s possible to have Ashley [Kaidan?] murder him too.) Obviously, I didn’t kill Wrex the first time I played the game; I was a proper paragon paladin. But Marcus Shepard was a lot more ruthless than Andrea Shepard. He didn’t have the time or the patience to mince words with a krogan. So I shot him dead.
Now, for most people, this is just something you do in a video game. But me? I was haunted by what I had done. I felt guilty for days, and I had trouble sleeping. My real-life conscience was bothering me because I gunned down a friend who I could have reasoned with. That is some powerful storytelling.
Characters Drive The Game
More than anything, the cast and crew of every Mass Effect game was the make or break of the series for me. This was especially important for Mass Effect because of the amount of world building it had to do while creating a compelling story, and it succeeded. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about every alien species and their cultural practices, speech patterns and characteristics. Each species felt unique in their approach to conversations, combat, and social situations. Having to keep in mind what I’ve already learned about the species while continually learning more about them made approaching dialogue options fun. For example, my two favorite characters in Mass Effect were Urdnot Wrex and Garrus Vakarian and are completely different in every aspect.
Urdnot Wrex is a krogan, a species who finds value in combat and conquest, loves to be on the frontlines in war, and loyal to his crewmates but places far more importance on finding a cure to the disease that made his species infertile, Genophage. Conversations with him range from being short, terse dialogue averaging two words to actual discussion of battle tactics and strategy. More importantly, Wrex tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve and is very brash in conversational approach. Garrus Vakarian, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. Garrus is a turian, a species that prioritizes discipline, strategy and efficiency in combat. Their conversations are full of observations and far more in depth, which is exemplified in conversations with Garrus. However, Garrus is oftentimes quiet and reserved, keeping his emotions in check unless something weighs heavily on him.
The distinguishing traits between species makes the conversations occurring interesting and immersive, and also helped made the loading screens much more tolerable. While I could go on and on about this, it’s something I think best experienced.
We kill a lot of things in Mass Effect, but my favorite memories are actually the times I spend with my friends, or even the encounters I have with others I meet: pirates, renegades, outcasts – broken men and women who don’t know where they’re going. My meeting with Corporal Toombs always stuck with me: a poor bastard with PTSD, subjected to cruel, inhuman experiments by Cerberus. I can still hear his haunted plea for justice.
Like Terry, I really like Garrus. We don’t get his whole story in the first game, but by the end of the trilogy, I really feel like he becomes Shepherd’s best friend. He comes the closest to feeling like Shepherd’s equal, and I feel like they have some genuine friendship moments. I also appreciate Garrus’ inner conflict. There is a streak of ruthlessness in him that makes him dynamic and compelling; a willingness to bend the rules for justice or revenge.
Tali is also pretty great. When we first meet her, she’s a late adolescent/young adult on a pilgrimage who gets caught up in something way over her head. She’s awkward and nerdy and tech-centric, and even though we never see her face, she’s a dynamic, interesting and lovable character. Tali is the only character other than Garrus who accompanies Shepherd through all three games, so we get to watch the dynamic of their relationship evolve, and it is really a lot of fun. She was also my favorite character to romance, but we’ll get to that later.
Although they are only secondary or even tertiary characters, I love the engineers Ken Donnelly and Gabby Daniels. Their banter back and forth is hilarious and endearing. Although both military officers, neither of them are warriors, and together they are one of the most human aspects of the game.
Finding Love in Deep Space
I think the romance element of Mass Effect is one of their best innovations. Sure, some of the scenes are kind of clumsy, but the element of romance in video games hadn’t really been explored much in American games before Mass Effect. (Japan was way ahead of us, but not always in a good way.) What I really thought was cool was the way your relationship could develop over the course of two or three games. I can’t think of a single game before this that really tried something like that and pulled it off so well. I think this is especially true of Tali. You can’t romance her in the first game at all, and in the second game her interest in you feels a lot more genuine than with other characters. Despite being a quarian, Tali’Zorah vas Normandy seemed far more human to me than either Miranda or Jack.
Which brings me to the point that some of the romances are less convincing than others. I mean, it’s really hard to imagine a rational man being interested in Jack romantically. Seriously, the lady is deranged. What kind of man would be genuinely interested in a sociopath? Even at his most calculated and cold-blooded moments, Commander Shepard is never insane.
I also remember Terry gave me a hard time when Liara showed up in my quarters during the first game. What did you call me, an alien lover? Well, Terry, I could do a lot worse than a cute blue alien. Besides, Ashley becomes super awkward in Mass Effect 3, so I definitely made the right choice!
While I can’t say I completely agree with Ben on this one, I think the romantic build up within Mass Effect was well done in comparison to other games at this time. The dialogue choices between Shepherd and his harem…I mean love interests…felt like natural conversations between two people mutually interested in each other but uncertain of pulling the trigger. Seeing the how the potential love interests reacted to the dialogues choices players would make in response to their questions made players care about what they said. These moments were oftentimes intimate and significant, and when the payoff happened, it felt like it was natural.
Also I’ll go on record and eat my words — I chose Liara as well.
The Volus Is Suffocating!
Terry suggested that we talk about how effective BioWare was in creating a game in which atmosphere plays such a heavy role in many ways. The horrible joke was my idea, and I’m not sorry. (If you don’t understand the joke, you should reread the journal entry on the Volus.)
There are three elements in which atmosphere really comes into play:
- 1. The literal atmosphere.
I know that not everyone enjoyed the Mako segments of the first game, but one thing I really appreciated was that they used the opportunity to portray planets with hostile, punishing and even deadly environments requiring space suits and/or a Mako at all times. I like this because, in the second and third games, we spend most of our time planetside on fertile, green worlds or hostile war zones. When we see Tuchanka, we learn that the planet was poisoned by nuclear war the Krogan inflicted on each other. I almost wish the game had taken the environment a step further, requiring all non-Krogan to wear breath masks to be able to breath the air Krogans had adapted to. That would have been a nice touch.
- 2. The environmental atmosphere
Mass Effect excels at ambient dialogue. Whenever I carry on about the Citadel (Tuchanka, Omega, Noveria, Illium), I always stopped to listen to what people in the background have to say. And there’s a lot. Banter runs the gamut from a bachelor party thrown for a salarian to a volus discussing unethical business practices (both on Illium, I believe). I appreciate the amount of effort that went into writing these dialogues, as they flesh out the world and make it feel like a real place. I also appreciated the various ways characters could respond to some of this banter throughout the games.
The absolute cake is when we hear a gunnery chief yelling at a couple of recruits in the port on the Citadel in Mass Effect 2. His lecture is golden.
3. The psychological atmosphere
Each of the games in the trilogy has a different atmosphere. The first game is full of hope and confidence. Shepard never once doubts that he will stop Saren and uncover the truth behind the Reapers. Mass Effect 2 is painted with defiance. A former Alliance military officer, pronounced dead two years prior, gathers and leads a ragtag group of followers on a suicide mission and then gives the finger to the terrorist he was working for. And Mass Effect 3 is built on despair. No matter what you do, the Illusive Man and his lackeys are always one step ahead of you. No matter how many battles you win, more are being lost to the Reapers.
I think the atmosphere is best summed up in a conversation with the batarian Balak. When you first meet Balak in Mass Effect, he is the leader of a group of terrorists. When he puts a gun to your head in Mass Effect 3, he is the highest ranking member in the Hegemony – the rest of them are dead. The galaxy is fighting a war it cannot win, and this has a powerful, atmospheric effect on the whole game.
To be frank, atmosphere has always been a huge aspect of what makes a game for me. There can be stellar graphics, a gripping story, witty script full of fleshed out characters and universe….but if the atmosphere can’t match what the other aspects are bringing, then the game falls flat. Sometimes a mechanic or aspect of the game can be at a level where it makes up for atmosphere, but this hardly ever happens. Games like Mass Effect and Dead Space do a phenomenal job of building up the atmosphere around the players to create an immersive, affecting experience. It’s a distinct difference between playing a game versus enjoying an experience.
Mass Effect confidently created atmosphere that swept players in the moment they started the series. Every tiny detail of the game felt defined and had a purpose; to create a living, breathing world around the players to explore. Cultural distinctions between species ranging from speech patterns to choice of dress, or the monolithic like sci-fi architecture, or the synth heavy music, everything was focused and centralized around generating something experienced, not played. Even more important, and something Ben points out, is that each game sets its own distinctive tone from one another without betraying the overall experience.
Lastly, and the most important part of atmosphere I think is often underappreciated but necessary, is story beats and pacing. Having the nice variation between dramatic, intense moments to lighthearted conversations that feel true to the characters creates a sense of familiarity. Like Ben points out, Mass Effect excels at creating natural, organic dialogue that knew how to match the tone of the moment. The awareness of the writers’ understanding of the importance of pacing, story beats, and tone really solidified the Mass Effect experience.
That Controversial, Controversial Ending
Do we really have to talk about this? It’s pretty much choose the blue, green, red pill. If you play the extended version, you have the fourth majestical option of choosing none of the options and defiantly shoot at the person pulling the strings. This is where Mass Effect falls flat — it’s betrayal to crafting a personal story and relegating all the decisions into three decisions. The series’ ending was so disappointing, it was the first time I set down a controller and genuinely told myself “Never Again”. I’ve wanted to pick up the series again, but knowing what awaits makes the replayability of the series plummet for me.
However, I’d argue three things: 1) that while the choose-your-own-story approach the series took was innovative, the series was always predetermined to fail to live up to expectations and 2) it was the various story elements of Mass Effect 3 that made the ending feel as bad as it did, not just the outcome, and 3) Casey Hudson shouldn’t have meddled with the story. The first point I argue is simple: while it was nice to see how each choice made would affect the major game changing decisions, there’s no way Mass Effect 3 could come up with enough variating endings to feel personal or unique. Sooner or later, the genuine illusion of choice was going to have to fizzle into limited choices, and whether or not people agree with me, I think people knew this would have to happen. There are ways to overcome the lack of options, like finding some way to examine all the choices the player has made leading up to that point, but Mass Effect 3 never did that.
My second point is this: by the time Mass Effect 3 arrived, a lot of the complexities introduced in the first two games seemed simplified or reduced. The biggest, glaring example of this would be the power of the Reapers. Whereas in Mass Effect they were formidable, sentient, and terribly powerful, Mass Effect 3 had them feeling more like pests you had to swat away. They didn’t have the same weight, and while they did do some heavy damage in game, it didn’t carry the same weight or significance to me. Also, the Deus Ex Machina trope of a machine to end them all really killed it for me. It was too…convenient.
I think my second point suffers from the third point: Casey Hudson got too involved in the project. While I understand he was the one who had the initial vision for the series, I think his choice in forcing the ending down players throats completely took away from their experience. The themes he wanted to explore could have been explored in much more tasteful ways. Admittedly, when I first saw that Drew Karpyshyn was completely taken away from the series by Mass Effect 3 I was worried.
I could go on and on, but essentially I think my argument has to end like this; the culmination of everything built up by the first two entries felt let down by the overall quality of the third game. While it’s easier to complain about the ending, the major problem lies more in the build up leading up to that moment.
This is why I wanted to talk about this, Terry! I know that my opinion is wildly unpopular, but honestly, I didn’t really have a big problem with the ending of Mass Effect 3.
First, a caveat: I didn’t play ME:3 until 2015, and I had heard that Mass Effect had a terrible ending that some people described as “just different colors.” A friend told me about the Extended Cut and I downloaded it before even I even considered finishing the game. So maybe these color my perspective a little bit. But even if they do, the ending still doesn’t bother me too much.
A lot of what Terry says is true: there was no way the game was going to end with as much sophistication as the first two games demanded. And yes, Mass Effect 3 felt overly simplified compared to the previous two entries. I felt like there should have been a third choice between paragon or renegade dialogue during conversations, just like the first two games, and I thought that the dramatic paragon/renegade actions that were so critical in Mass Effect 2 were underemployed in the third game.
But like Terry said, there was no way this game would be capable of incorporating as many endings as the fans felt were appropriate. However, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with any of the three endings. I will admit that I don’t consider any of them to be ideal. One ending requires the destruction of all synthetic life, which I find unethical after reuniting the geth with the quarians. A second forcibly subjects all organic and synthetic life to symbiosis, which I find unethical because I haven’t the right to make that decision for billions of lives. The third entails the subjugation of the Reapers, which has a certain poetic justice to it. Personally, I prefer this ending, because it puts an end to the Reapers’ destructive agenda and restores balance to the galaxy. I certainly don’t think than any of these would have been my first choice.
But why should fiction have an ideal ending? I kinda like that I’m uncomfortable with the way it all ends, and how could I not be? Shepard has been fighting a war that’s over his head from the very beginning. The idea that humankind could somehow find a way to end the war in a way that is perfectly suited to their interests is a little arrogant.
(On a side note, I agree with the sentiment sometimes voiced by turians, batarians and volus that humans receive too many favors too quickly. Even the ending, which boils down to a dramatic fight to save Earth, is almost irritatingly human-centric. There is a certain vibe throughout the game that tends to favor human interests over those of aliens, particularly when a human voice is speaking. I appreciated that Shepard does not necessarily share this sentiment at all times, because the whole “The galaxy is holding humans back” riff got old fast.)
Because video games are so much more interactive than other forms of entertainment, there is often this idea – especially prevalent in RPGs – that the player is going to have a major impact on the outcome, which is in conflict with the basic rule of fiction that requires a fixed ending. Video games present a certain degree of freedom not present in books or television, but they still have their limits. I’m certainly not saying that Mass Effect’s ending was without flaws, but I don’t think it deserves the rancor that it has received. Simply put, fiction requires a straight line, and the action has to end somewhere. In the end, there can only be two possible outcomes: the Reapers are destroyed or the Reapers prevail. There are only so many ways you can nuance that ending.