Full disclosure, I am going to spoil the crap out of the entire Mass Effect franchise to date. If you’re not cool with that, I can totally understand that. Here’s the TL;DR though, I love Mass Effect like some people love Shakespeare. It’s probably the most important piece of art that I have ever experienced.
On the night of September 24th, 2007, I was standing outside of my local game store anxiously awaiting midnight. Halo 3 was literally on the doorstep and I couldn’t wait. It was, without a doubt, my most anticipated game of the year. Behind me in line another fan was reading Drew Karpyshyn’s Mass Effect: Revelation. We struck up a friendly conversation about the book and the game that it was preceding, Mass Effect.
I was peripherally aware of Mass Effect. I had seen the trailers from the game shows and read some of the coverage and I was generally looking forward to it though, at the time, I would have preferred a proper follow up to BioWare’s previous game Knights of the Old Republic. KotOR was my first BioWare game and as such it held a very special place in my heart. I could not possibly conceive of a world in which another game would replace it.
Fast forward a couple months and Mass Effect has released. I’m not standing outside in line waiting for the midnight release, I’m not reading the official tie-in novel, and I’m certainly not playing it. Instead I was playing Call of Duty 4, a great game in its own right. On the opposite side of the spectrum, one of my coworkers at the time was completely enthralled by it. He loved the story, the characters, and the world that the team at BioWare had put together. I was beginning to think that maybe I could like this game.
I received Mass Effect as a gift that Christmas. I didn’t open the game immediately, in fact I didn’t even play it for weeks. I didn’t even like it the first time I played it either. I thought the controls were terrible, the textures looked muddy, and I got lost. Despite all that, I pressed on. There was just something about it that I couldn’t shake. I just knew that it was going to be worth my time.
I soldiered on and I met Ashley Jenkins and I was hit by just how angry she was. She wasn’t just video game angry, that justified righteous anger of someone clearly in the right, but she was human angry. Irrationally angry. Not just at her situation, which was completely FUBAR, but she held that xenophobic anger of someone scared of the world that was being thrust upon them. The developers put all of that information into a two-minute interaction. This was not going to be “just another game,” this was something special.
A moment later we were introduced to the true villain of the series, Sovereign and the Reapers, and the best part was that we didn’t even know it. Turning a corner that was built to draw our attention to the alien craft leaving the planet’s surface, an expert touch of level design, I looked upon something utterly alien. It’s a moment in games that I’m likely never to forget.
By the end of the mission I knew I was hooked. I was now part of an epic in the classical sense, a game in which the fabric of reality was going to change. I knew then that Shepard was destined to die.
Dozens of hours later I had defeated Saren, aided in the destruction of Sovereign, saved the Council, and placed Captain Anderson on the Council as the representative of humanity. I now had to wait 3 years for Mass Effect 2 to release. In that time I got married, moved to Chicago, got my first jobs in the video games industry, and switched to being a PC gamer. Mass Effect 2 was timed perfectly to coincide with a move and I missed the launch window. Again. I would not repeat this mistake.
I burned through Mass Effect 2 like a red giant star through helium. Storming through the Omega-4 Relay without any preparation I lost half of my crew before we even landed, read: crashed, on the Collector Base. I lost a couple more of them before I even got to the final boss and then lost one of my final party members. I was wrecked. I immediately started a new play-through because this was not a world that my Shepard could live in.
It’s at this point that I’d like to take a few moments to talk about what makes Mass Effect so special and important to me: choice. Coming off of Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare implemented the Renegade/Paragon system which, on the surface, mimicked the Light Side/Dark Side mechanics of the previous game. In truth there is certainly some similarity but it’s far more complex than just good and bad. The whole point of the franchise is to present the player with a choice and for them to make the best decision that they can make. There are no right decisions, no wrong decisions, there are just actions and consequences. Renegade and Paragon just represent ways of thinking, attitudes, and patience.
Renegade is Riggs from Lethal Weapon or Amos from The Expanse, quick to act, brutally efficient, and sometimes devoid of compassion and empathy. Paragon is Murtaugh and Holden from the same series, thoughtful, circumspect, and full of compassion and empathy. Neither is bad but each is different and unique. They both speak to a character who is willing to do anything to save galactic civilization and will stop at nothing to achieve that goal.
One of the greatest examples of this thinking comes from the final DLC from Mass Effect 2, Arrival. Shepard, with only moments to escape, is presented with a problem. Should Shepard take precious moments to warn the Batarians, who have no love of humans an Earth, of the coming explosion in hopes that some will survive or forgo the warning to ensure escape to help prepare the rest of the galaxy for the coming war? I chose to warn the Batarians. Every. Single. Time. Other Shepards choose not to warn them. I can’t not save people in Mass Effect. My Shepard, guided by my own morality, will always be Paragon because if we don’t try and save everyone then what are we even fighting for?
The series is full of these decisions and it shines when it forces the player to make those decisions with incomplete information or, most divisively, when it gives players complete information like in the finale.
I’m not going to talk about the process leading up to the creation of the finale as it was given to the audience because that’s pointless; we got the game that we got and, in my opinion, it couldn’t have ended any other way. I mentioned earlier that Mass Effect is an epic. One of the conventions of the epic is that the hero dies or leaves because they aren’t meant for that world anymore, they have no place in it. The Hero, Shepard in this instance, is there to change things so that they can never go back to the old normal but are unable to change themselves. From the moment that Shepard touched the Prothean relic on Eden Prime, they were marked for death. I had known that since 2007 and I was happy to see that they had the courage to stick to that decision.
In the finale, Shepard is confronted with three choices, technically four, and is told exactly how they will affect every being in the galaxy. Prior to this point every decision was made with the hope that it would enable the player to win but this one was different. We knew what would happen, there was no ambiguity to how it would all turn out. This decision allowed us, the players, to truly shine. It was our chance to show who our Shepard was, what they stood for, and what was important to them. I chose synthesis. I chose synthesis because all life is important to me and it was important to my Shepard as well. It was because of the capacity for individuals and peoples to get over their differences and come together in times of need that my Shepard had even made it that far. How could I turn my back on the Geth, on EDI? How could I turn a blind eye to the Reapers victims in their own right and not in control of their own actions. My Shepard sacrificed himself(and herself) to save the lives of trillions of sentient beings throughout the galaxy because of their capacity to come together.
I didn’t come to that realization right away, far from it actually. I beat the game quickly and stewed. What had I just seen? It didn’t make immediate sense like I somehow hoped it would, like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings before it did. It was late, around two in the morning, and I ran through the finale again. I chose a different option and was presented with more or less the same ending. It still didn’t make sense to me but I couldn’t let it go either. Anyone who listened to Marooners’ Talk at the time will know that Adam, Chris, and I spent a long time talking about the merits of the game. Every podcast devolved into a discussion of the ending.
Mass Effect 3 was not the strongest game in the franchise, I would never make that argument, but it is still a very good game. In many ways it was an experiment and a gamble. BioWare was testing the waters to see if the video game audience was ready for this style of ending. As a whole, I don’t think we were ready.
I am reminded of the old saying “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” and in many ways that’s true though in Mass Effect’s case I’d say it’s the people. Never before and not since have I come upon such a diverse and wonderful cast of characters in a game. They resonated with me in a way that I can’t fully explain. Every member of the crew just felt real to me which made it all the more difficult as the series progressed. These weren’t just characters but instead they were people with deeply held beliefs and preferences and probably family recipes. They are what made this game for me.
Moving forward with Andromeda on the near horizon I find myself with more questions than I have answers to and that’s a good thing. There hasn’t been a lot of marketing for the game, likely because of the powerhouse month of titles it’s releasing in, so there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding the game. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
For me, Mass Effect was a series about people and choices. It was about picking who and what was most important and what you stood for. It was an epic journey through an unexplored and fully realized galaxy. It was Mass Effect and I cannot explain how happy I am to see it coming back.