I recall being completely blown away by the first Mass Effect back in 2007, a rare occurrence for me. I didn’t normally buy games new, but given Bioware’s impressive take on the lauded Knights of the Old Republic series, I was willing to make an exception—this one felt special. At the time, Mass Effect was quite intriguing but had not yet gained a foothold as a solid piece of science fiction lore. That however changed very quickly.
When Bioware first announced their new sci-fi saga, I was honestly a bit worried about leaving the comfort and familiarity of the Star Wars universe. I didn’t know what to expect to find without lightsabers and the Force at my side… As luck (and talent) would have it, Bioware was able to promptly capture our attention with a compelling storyline and expansive universe to explore—and more importantly—connect with.
Bioware knew that while a triple-A franchise like Star Wars brought gamers in for KOTOR, it was actually the character studies their previous games focused on that would keep fans coming back for more. Players had choices in how the game played out—who their character was. We chose the dialogue; we lived with consequences. To be honest, I very well could have written an identical article about the first time I was immersed into KOTOR; sitting at my older brother’s apartment at 3:30AM, I was shocked—“Fuuuu…. what do you mean, I’m Revan!?”
But this wasn’t Star Wars. This was something fresh and new, and most importantly—nearly limitless in its potential. Mass Effect was able to push the boundaries like never before with its choose-your-own path storytelling, personalized character relationships, and even romantic entanglements. The characters felt real and unforgettable (I mean, is it even possible to dislike Garrus Vakarian?), the story was interesting and lengthy, and your choices would seal the fate of the galaxy and your companions.
Needless to say, I was hooked immediately and was more than willing to part ways with my money (and time) to follow up on the sequels Mass Effect 2 & 3, and all of their respective DLC packs as they became available.
Mass Effect’s story centers around Shepard, an Alliance soldier who’s been through tough times but is a standout candidate for becoming the first human Spectre due to his outstanding leadership abilities and military skills as well as Commander of the SSV Normandy, a state-of-the-art battleship for stealth operations. Humans are the new kids on the intergalactic block and are still seen by many of the established races as second-class citizens. They have not made significant contributions to galactic society thus far and yet have advanced much more quickly than most space-faring races at making themselves noticed.
Spectres are elite, military-trained agents who are chosen by the Citadel Council to serve as proxies with tremendous authority to keep order and galactic stability where slow decision-making and politics may be impossible or simply complicate the situation further. Humanity would very much like to become part of this exclusive club, as it further legitimizes and places trust in their existence amongst their established peers, like the Asari, Turians, and Salarians that currently sit on the Citadel Council.
“Spectres are not trained, but chosen. Individuals forged in the fire of service and battle—those whose actions elevate them above the rank and file.”
Nihlus, a Turian Spectre, is assigned by the Council to observe Shepard to consider his candidacy into the Spectre ranks, and while on board Normandy for the first time, it is revealed to Shepard that a Prothean beacon was discovered on the planet Eden Prime. Protheans are a civilization long extinct, who’s technology holds colossal scientific and historic value to the galaxy. Before their arrival to Eden Prime an emergency transmission comes through, showing Alliance military personnel requesting emergency backup while in being attacked by unknown forces—with a massive ship looming near the surface of the planet.
Once on the surface, Nihlus runs off ahead to the spaceport and is subsequently murdered by a rogue Spectre agent Saren, who is secretly working for the Reapers, a highly-advanced race of synthetic-organic machines who have returned to the galaxy to wipe out organic life with no consequence. Saren approaches the beacon, now relocated to the spaceport in an effort to steal it, and is suddenly lifted up off the ground, seemingly connecting with the beacon itself.
After battling their way to the main dig site and encountering Human Husks (reanimated corpses), Shepard, Kaidan Alenko, and a soldier who survived the blitz on Eden Prime—Ashley Williams—find that the beacon has been moved to the spaceport and then fight their way through swarms of Geth, a race of networked artificially intelligent units, and find that Nihlus was shot in the back. There they find the colony is also rigged with explosives and fight to disarm the bombs to protect both the colony and the beacon, which could be the only clue as to why this conflict has violently erupted.
After successfully disarming the explosives, Shepard calls to the Normandy’s pilot, Joker, on the status of the mission. During this, Ashley steps just a bit too close the beacon while investigating it. Shepard pushes Ashley out of the way to save her and is instead, lifted up from the ground himself, where he is then projected brutal and horrific images of a violent war against synthetic beings—the war of the Protheans versus the Reapers. The beacon then suddenly self destructs, throwing Shepard to the ground unconscious…
It’s now up to you to stop Saren and the Reapers.
Does this unit have a soul?
The ability to customize Commander Shepard’s gender and overall appearance was paramount to making the game feel like your own. This was a fantastic game play component not possible in most science fiction mediums, that is, to make the main character be whoever you’d like. This is surely just one of the elements that made the massive legions of fans fall in love with the games. Not so surprisingly though, it wasn’t necessarily the way your character looked that made them personal—but the actions and difficult decisions you are forced to make during the course of the game—choosing who lives and dies, rallying those with little hope, choosing to be an aggressor or compassionate, or some combination of both as the situation presented itself.
When you choose a Paragon (generally good-natured) action you feel all warm and fuzzy, if not occasionally awkward; when you choose to go Renegade (generally terse and/or ill-mannered), you play bad cop when needed in the story and a complete and utter asshole at worst (spoiler alert: I can’t fathom that people actually chose to murder Mordin Solus in Mass Effect 3.) I generally chose the Paragon route through a majority of the games, with the sometimes appropriately, sometimes awkwardly placed Renegade action (I don’t handle “gotcha” video interviews very well apparently). Shepard’s appearance can change as he/she goes more from one to the other, with Renegade giving a much more weathered, grizzly look (see: Dark side-esque), though it’s worthy to note you can be completely evil and opt for a preventative surgery to avoid looking like you went through a Thresher Maw.
I’ve personally only played as a male Shepard throughout the series (as taking things a step further with Garrus was never on my personal list of priorities) though the game does provide pathways for romantic relationships independent of species and sexual orientation—which is great to see—since I’d hope a galaxy full of various space-faring civilizations should be over that particular issue, and shows that the developers didn’t want to limit Shepard’s interactions too much with other NPCs. While a romantic relationship seems like a pretty minor necessity given the massive scale the plot presents, it definitely helps you connect to the people around Shepard in a much more personal way and form strong bonds that, for good reason, can make decision-making more strained in the future. But quite honestly what space opera would be complete without a tasteful romantic relationship either way? It’s practically a necessity to fit that mold. (Though you can, if desired, also sleep with a majority of your crew in the series mostly devoid of love, if that’s how you roll.)
The strength of the entire Mass Effect series is its strong reliance on this personalized storytelling and the extremely compelling and unique characters you meet and interact with throughout Shepard’s journey.
A Whole New World
Mass Effect nails it when designing the ME world. The places have history and you get the sense of permanence the Citadel brings with it, which just gets greater as the story unfolds before you. While the “Shepard saves the day” plot is the basis of the entire series, most of the situations you are dropped into feel compelling and unique. ME2 & ME3 really expanded on the idea of unique interactions, and worked hard to try to eliminate the occasionally repetitive tasks and missions seen in exploring planets with the Mako in ME1. You’re allowed to explore and find a ton of hidden little gems throughout the each of the games—even some things (and someones) that are only there if you make a certain choice at an earlier point in the game or the game prior. Shepard enjoys sticking his/her nose in other people’s business, but if there’s anyone that will do the job right, it’s him/her; even the simplest of errands, Shepard is glad to help.
It feels familiar because it is our world, emulated through the lens of science fiction. It’s much better here though because you get to do it all on a spaceship!
Mass Effect 2’s loyalty missions were arguably among the best parts of the series, at least for me. While some were certainly stronger than others, I recall being particularly focused on that of the assassin Thane Krios; listening to stories of his past when he’d tell them as well as hearing about his disease that would ultimately take his life. Thane feels real—he has a conscience, he is spiritual. Or the Illusive Man, sitting in an empty room with nothing but a projector screen full of sun while teeming with stress, concealed behind a single cigarette—pure cool. Is he good, is he bad? What exactly are his intentions?
I can sit here and write up similar descriptions for all of the other character interactions, but the point is that the smallest details can often make the biggest impact in while playing games like this. Every main NPC feels like an individual whose experiences have shaped the person they had become. Through the distinctive loyalty missions and private conversations you have with them all throughout the games, you get to know each of them as you would a friend; and quite honestly you start to see them that way yourself. Even the game’s necessary limits on the conversations you can have with Garrus have become beloved sayings for most fans—“Can it wait for a bit? I’m in the middle of some calibrations.”
Your team’s loyalty is paramount, especially in the final “suicide” mission in Mass Effect 2, where your attention to each character’s specializations and abilities is tested to the max. Choosing the wrong member to lead a team can be fatal if ill-chosen. You [Shepard] must direct your squad to victory using your best tactical judgment with every changing circumstances; it’s great (stressful) fun when you’re in the moment and you must rely upon each of your friends’ strengths to help get a perfect assault on the Collector base.
Bioware designed it this way for a reason—you want a perfect game? Then ideally, Shepard would aid them all in their personal affairs and vendettas to help strengthen the single people who are part of the larger team, posed to face the overwhelming force that is the Reapers.
“Anyone who fights us is either stupid or on Saren’s payroll. Killing the latter is business. Killing the former is a favor to the universe.” — Wrex
Politics, warfare, sexuality, friendship, right & wrong, impossible decisions, as well as the minor squabbles of everyday life living next to other people; it’s all accounted for. It feels familiar because it is our world, emulated through the lens of science fiction. It’s much better here though because you get to do it all on a spaceship!
In fact, the SSV Normandy is probably one the strongest “characters” in the game, even though it’s simply the vessel in which you travel on (which might be devastating at certain points in the series, just sayin’). So much happens and is decided upon on this ship, that it begins to feel like home. Running around the ship on conversational errands, you get quite comfortable with the artificial hum of the engines. You can customize your personal quarters to some regard in each game, with each getting more and more options; collecting ship models, choosing the right music for the mood, the ever-easy-to-forget-to-feed, fish, and other small trinkets along the way—including a human Husk’s living head, which is kind of fucked up when you think about it. You explore and resolve conflicts all around the galaxy on the Normandy and it most definitely saves your ass more than once, of course with much help of it’s sarcastic pilot, Joker. It eventually even has its own personality, as you’ll see in the later two games.
The Normandy will no doubt be up there on the same level as the likes of the Millennium Falcon or the Galactica once you finish this series, and deservedly so. It’s sleek, slim, and good-looking, and reminded me of my unrequited love for the USS Defiant in the past.
Not only does Mass Effect now have a massive following in the gaming world, but also among both amateur and pro artists alike who have used ME’s incredibly dynamic characters and environments to create a fantastic variety of work.
Ranging from dark, serious & dramatic works like the ones seen below by Eddy-Shinjuku or the series by Patryk Olejniczak, to the laughably ridiculous comic strips chock full of self-referential game humor, to the type of content expected of any good fandom, the Rule 34 stuff—I mean c’mon, this is the internet after all. But aside from all of that the one thing that shines through regardless of medium and tone is that people love this universe. And how could you not?
Here’s an interesting selection of just some of the artwork that has been done in ME’s honor:
I’m Commander Shepard & this is my favorite…
Even with its flaws, the Mass Effect series blew up and continues to harbor a massive hoard of loyal fans, comics, art, merchandise, and best of all—the ability to capture one’s attention and provide commentary on the entire realm of classic science-fiction topics of interest; war and its effects on the soldiers who fight them, questioning authority in the face of severe criticism, death, friendship, racism and xenophobia on a galactic scale, altruism, and perhaps most importantly—the ability to show how one’s one actions directly effect others and the outcomes to stressful situations.
Mass Effect has successfully mashed together all of the best parts of both the Star Trek and Star Wars universes (not to mention many other big-time sci-fi franchises) and combined it with enough imagination to make it feel completely new and most importantly, comlpetely unique among its peers. Because that’s what the real treat of playing Mass Effect is — it is what you make it.
If you enjoyed this article, please be sure to check out these insightful (and better written) articles regarding Mass Effect and some of the themes mentioned:
- Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation (Pop Bioethics)
- Mass Effect: The Definitive Space Opera of Our Time (Dudley Storey)
- The simple lesson I learned from 369 hours of Mass Effect (Ars Technica)
- Mass Effect 3’s combat helped support narrative themes (Polygon)
- Mass Effect developers reminisce about the trilogy, the ending and the fans (Polygon)
I should go.