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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

What Mass Effect means to me

I’ve been meaning to write this post ever since I bought Mass Effect 3 on the day it came out back in March. Other, arguably more important, matters interfered, such as finishing school and looking for a teaching position for the fall. I was wildly successful in both endeavours, however, and now I am reaping the benefits by enjoying a restful summer (thus far). One thing I want to do this summer is write some more substantial blog posts. So here are my thoughts on the Mass Effect trilogy of video games and what they mean to me as a gamer, reader, writer, and all-around science-fiction fan.

When I bought my Xbox 360, Mass Effect had just come out, and I kept seeing these intriguing commercials for it on TV. It promised an escape from linear gameplay. It promised to let me take charge of exploring the galaxy in my ship with all my cool alien buddies. My original intention behind purchasing an Xbox 360 was that it might give me something to do on the infrequent occasions when I had friends over—it did not exactly work out that way, although to this day I have only managed to get through Halo 3 while in co-op mode, once with my brother and once with my friend Carly.

Prior to owning an Xbox, all my gaming had been PC-based (with the exception of Pokemon Red and Yellow played on my brother’s borrowed Gameboy Colour, and even this was supplanted when I learned I could just play them on an emulator). In particular, as a Star Trek fan, I had played and loved Activision’s Star Trek: Elite Force and its sequel. These games proved to me that you could make interesting first-person shooters that were not too difficult and had a good story behind them. I loved those games, because they immersed me in the Star Trek universe. Contemporary military shooters, such as Call of Duty, just don’t give me that same thrill. To me, the shooting part of a shooter is there because walking down a corridor between cutscenes would be extremely boring; one could replace shooting with puzzles, as in Portal, and give me the same thrill. Mass Effect, albeit third-person, taps into that same confluence of attributes: great (and not too difficult) gameplay, cool science-fiction setting, and amazing storyline.

I really enjoyed playing Mass Effect. I’m not going to compare it to Halo, that other significant SF gaming franchise, nor will I wade into the debate that Mass Effect is the most important science fiction universe of our generation. All I can say is that for me, personally, Mass Effect is a high point in gaming. That first game was great, but even as I finished it I knew there was a sequel coming, and I knew that Bioware had promised the ultimate reward: I could carry my character and all their decisions over to the next game.

Note: This post contains spoilers for all three games. Read on at your own peril.

Being Commander Shepard

The announcement that one could import one’s Mass Effect character into Mass Effect 2 was huge. The roleplaying portion of the game meant that Mass Effect’s story was a dynamic collection of player choices that had an impact on the state of the galaxy by the end of the game. Now Bioware was telling us that all those choices still mattered even though the game was done; they would affect the outcome of the next game, as well as the one after that. For someone like me who gets so invested in the story and the characters, that was a huge deal. And I did become invested, particularly in the character I had made for myself.

I know that Halo’s protagonist, Master Chief, is renowned for being faceless. He could be anyone behind that helmet, and thus he is everyone. Mass Effect takes the opposite path, allowing players to customize everything about Commander Shepard, from skin tone and appropriately menacing facial scar to the character’s sex. Although the character’s appearance, unlike the options one chooses for Shepard’s origin and player class, does not actually affect the story, it adds that touch of authenticity. Commander Shepard can, within the limitations of the customization routine, look like you. Or not look like you, if that’s what you want.

But changing Shepard’s sex is a much bigger deal. Firstly, having the option to play as male or female means that both men and women are not stuck playing as the default male action hero of a story. Secondly, it does affect how the game plays out. Not only does FemShep, as the female Commander Shepard has become known, have different romance options; the tone of the game becomes different when playing as her (due in part to the fantastic voice acting by Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale). For both of these reasons, as well as a result of the rather dichotomous moral choice system, I played the Mass Effect games through twice: once as a paragon ManShep and once as a renegade FemShep (I am working on my second playthrough of Mass Effect 3 right now).

More important than Shepard’s appearance and background, however, are his or her actions throughout the game. And these are, within the choices made available by the writers, entirely the player’s. You can spare people’s lives or kill them in cold blood. You can dig for as much information as you like or just choose the options that lead to a fight as soon as possible. As the games develop and you level up your character, new opportunities open up to charm or intimidate another character into doing something for you. These choices come with consequences. Granted, the moral choice system has its flaws, particularly in the first game. Yet it’s very interesting: most of the time during my playthroughs I was able to stick with the appropriate choice for my character at the time, but once in a while I would come across a choice where I just couldn’t choose the other option. It didn’t matter that this was a video game; my conscience dictated I had to choose a certain option regardless of whether it corresponded to the alignment I was pursuing with that character.

Those choices have consequences to the outcome of the game and to the survival of Shepard and the other characters. I think it’s this aspect of the roleplaying mechanic, even more than the free-roaming and copious but optional side quests, that makes Mass Effect so compelling.

The Ripple Effect

Earlier I spoke about becoming invested in Shepard, but I also became invested in most of the major characters. From the action-adventure, shooter side of the game the characters represent different classes you can bring along to the party: some of them have lots of tech abilities, others are powerful biotics, and others are soldiers. But they are more than squad members; they receive their own backstories (with “loyalty” missions that explore those backstories a big part of Mass Effect 2) and have personalities that affect how Shepard relates to them. Some are romance options, others sources of potential conflict.

As with real people, each player’s involvement with a character will differ. I became particularly attached to Tali and Mordin. Both are somewhat awkward and eccentric, even for their own species. Tali had an adorable, sweet nature, and I jumped at the chance to romance her in Mass Effect 2. In Mordin, with his reclusiveness and his adamant focus on science belied by glimpses of a strong moral core, I saw myself. Mordin’s death in Mass Effect 3 devastated me to the point of tears. I had played that mission so carefully, precisely because I was worried he would be on the chopping block … and still they took him away from me. I was angry, then disappointed, then despairing … I was grieving for a video game character.

And there was always that lingering doubt in the back of my mind, “Was there anything I could have done differently to save him?” (In this case the answer was no, because I saved Wrex on Virmire in Mass Effect. In my second playthrough with Wreav as Krogan leader, I managed to get to a decision node where Mordin lives if you fake the genophage cure. I’m trying to ignore the fact that I have deceived an entire species of bloodthirsty mercenaries to save one favourite Salarian.) My choices shaped the outcome of the game in the sense that they influenced the overall story; they also influenced the fate of every character. As I grew to care for those characters, making choices necessarily became about more than mashing the proper button. Empathy demanded I think critically and carefully about what I was about to do.

Mordin’s death affected me so strongly, and I keep coming back to it when I talk about my experience with Mass Effect. The death of main characters was a part of the game from the beginning, with Mass Effect forcing you to choose between whether to send Ashley Williams or Kaidan Alenko to their deaths. However, it’s the cumulative experience of playing the sequels that made those deaths really mean something. I had spent almost all of Mass Effect 2 with Mordin, including the loyalty mission in which we learned more about his involvement with the genocidal krogan genophage. So I was excited to have a mission with him in Mass Effect 3—and devastated when that mission was his last.

Continuity, Big and Small

The continuation of one’s Shepard character as well as the grander storyline across three games cements Mass Effect’s place as one of the best-told video game series of all time. It is a story that embraces the best of its medium—player participation. However, the continuity of Mass Effect is more than just a common story arc. It’s also about the little things.

The galaxy is a big place, and all three games allow the player to visit planets that are secondary to the main plot. These side quest missions are completely optional, although they often provided equipment and experience points that helped level up a character, and of course, they extended the time one could spend enjoying the game! Many side quests involved memorable characters who went on to reappear in larger roles in the sequels. For example, Nassana Dantius, a ruthless asari, gives Shepard an assignment in the first game. She becomes an important antagonist in Mass Effect 2. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the notorious Conrad Verner. A self-appointed (and very annoying) Shepard fanboy in Mass Effect, he evolves considerably for a minor character in the sequels (if he survives his encounters with Shepard, that is), with the potential to contribute a useful bonus in Mass Effect 3.

The worldbuilding of the Mass Effect universe, from the eponymous technology that every species uses to the diversity of species one encounters, is staggering. The ending of the trilogy remains controversial (and I confess, I was somewhat disappointed, even after the expanded ending provided via DLC). Yet, overall, the story arc is interesting. I would have read the Mass Effect series if it had been a novel … getting to play it is icing on the cake. Beyond these attributes, however, I think it’s the attention to detail in the continuity between games that really elevates Mass Effect as a franchise. It demonstrates that game developers can create sequels as more than a way of getting money from fans by delivering their next fix. And it makes the time and energy those fans invest in each game mean something. (This, of course, is why the ending is so disappointing to some.)

The End

I initially didn’t want to discuss the ending of Mass Effect 3 in this post. In a way, I suppose it’s good I procrastinated in writing this, because now I feel that I should discuss the ending, as well as my opinion on the idea of Bioware’s “artistic integrity”.

The ending of Mass Effect 3 offers the player three choices (technically four in the new version) in how to deal with the Reapers. The thesis underlying this decision is that synthetic life inevitably rises up against and destroys its creators; the Reapers were an attempt to prevent the total destruction of organic life by ensuring a diverse sample of it would survive in an endless cycle. The events of the series culminate in the breaking of this cycle, and so the player must choose a new path.

The options are:

  • Unite organic and synthetic life throughout the galaxy, apparently on a molecular level. I’m given to understand that this ending is available only if one’s “galactic readiness rating” in the game was high enough. It is also the ending that, while the most poignant in one sense, makes the least sense from a scientific perspective.
  • Destroy the Reapers. This eliminates the immediate threat but opens the possibility that the next time a synthetic threat arises in the galaxy, it will annihilate all organic life rather than just the technologically-advanced species. The expanded version offers some hope that we might learn, as a galactic civilization, from our mistakes. Maybe.
  • Control the Reapers. Shepard merges consciousness with the collective consciousness of the Reapers, seizing control of them and sending them back into the void between galaxies. This comes with the same potential threat as the previous option, and as a result, the original version of the endings made the first option (synthesis) seem like the “best”. After watching the expanded explanations and conclusions for all three endings, however, I actually like this one the best.

(You can find all three endings, both the original and expanded versions, on YouTube—I won’t link to any particular video in case it decides to disappear into the ether after I’ve published this post. Say what you will about whether the expanded versions improved the ending, I have to commend Bioware for the amount of thought and work that went into designing and implementing them.)

The intense backlash against the original ending led to many fans calling for Bioware to change it. My initial reaction to this reaction was a strong “hell no”, much for the same reasons that many people articulated: Bioware had a right to its artistic integrity. Authors don’t go changing the ending of a book after its publication to conform to audience expectations. To change the ending of a video game seemed just as perverse to me.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I came to realize I was committing the same sin I scoff at in other people: I was treating one literary medium like another, when in reality they are very different. Print books are nothing like digital books, and novels are quite different from video games. They are all stories, but the same rules do not necessarily apply. So maybe I was wrong to treat a video game as something sacred and inviolable.

Doyce Testerman’s essay, “Mass Effect, Tolkien, and Your Bullshit Artistic Process” makes some interesting points about the idea of not changing the ending because it’s art. (It also has a scathing condemnation of the ending created by reframing the entire situation in terms of Lord of the Rings, so check it out.) Doyce’s point is that all art undergoes revision as a result of feedback during its creation, and that video games as art should be subject to the same revision. The implied premise here, I think, is that video game players are not merely the audience of a work but also co-creators—this could not be more true than in the case of Mass Effect, for all the reasons I’ve outlined above. If we are co-creators, we deserve a voice in the artistic process, including the right to call something bad and expect change as a result. (This is distinct from the role of audience–critics, who can call something bad as a judgement of quality but who do not expect that product to change, although they may hope their criticism influences future products.)

Then Bioware came out with the DLC expanded ending. And I was unimpressed. True, it expanded the description of each choice before one makes it. But its main contribution was 5 extra minutes or so of narration that explained how Shepard’s choice affected the entire galaxy. While this is better than nothing, it still doesn’t tell us what happens to all of Shepard’s squad members and friends. And it’s little more than a bandaid on a much more intrinsic problem with the ending, as articulated by Doyce and others.

So the ending of Mass Effect 3 (and thus of the series, I guess), sucks. But I’m not all that angry about it. Yes, the ending let me down, but that doesn’t change the objective fact that I had days of entertainment prior to this as a result of the combined three games. And it won’t stop me from enjoying those games as I play them again, despite knowing what is coming. Its ending is poor, but the story of Mass Effect remains strong.

The Legacy of Mass Effect

I can say without exaggeration that Mass Effect changed the way I experience video games. It proves beyond any doubt that video games can be art, and video games can tell great stories. It provides more than hours of shooter entertainment or roleplaying fantasy; it is a highly emotionally-charged experience that, from beginning to end, requires the player to make careful choices and invest in characters and situations. Over the course of three games, Mass Effect did what a movie tries to do in two hours and a novel in 300 pages: it made me care, and care deeply, about what was going to happen to the people around me. The difference in quality between Mass Effect and most video games is analogous to the difference between War and Peace and a beach read. Except I don’t get to shoot people in the face while reading Tolstoy. So, you know, bonus.

Now that the ride is over, I suspect I will replay all three games several times in the next few years, depending on what my Xbox situation is like after I move to England. Bioware made it clear that the franchise was always intended to be a trilogy, and while there will be more DLC for the third game, Shepard won’t be appearing in a Mass Effect 4—which is as it should be. It goes along with that whole art thing: all good creations have their time. Hopefully Bioware—or other developers—will release more excellent games that I will enjoy. And until then, I’ll just keep playing Mass Effect.

Because it means something.