The Mass Effect video game series has been another source of guilt for me. The original Mass Effect came out during the brief console golden age of 2007 to 2009 when AAA (industry term for huge, top-tier) game developers and publishers started taking risks on a whole gaggle of fresh intellectual properties that fueled the creation of big-budget games, and these games are the same that have given us five years of nothing but sequels thanks to their success. Assassin’s Creed, Gears of War, Modern Warfare, Mirror’s Edge, Dragon Age, the long-awaited reemergence of Fallout, and Mass Effect are all children of this era, and I did my best to get into all of them, since this was probably an era that will be remembered by the gaming world forever. But I just didn’t have time to devote to all of them. I’ve played the original game in each series, all of which are fantastic in their own ways, but I haven’t been able to get any further with any of them for years.
I knew that if I had to choose one series to complete, it had to be Mass Effect. I mean, a galaxy-spanning, Star Trek inspired, sci-fi action roll-playing epic trilogy flavored with some pulpy space opera? Nothing like this has ever existed anywhere near this scale in the game industry, and the fact that it’s as huge a commercial success as it is, living in a somewhat niche genre, makes it probably the most interesting 2007-2009 golden age specimen to get into.
There’s an endless list of things I could talk about with these games, and most of it comes out when I try to answer the most interesting question of all: Which Mass Effect game is the best?
Now, these are three extremely dense games with about 30 hours of content each. In order to get everything I can out of them, I’ll need to break this up, possibly into an entry for each game. Don’t worry, though, talking about this series will stay eternally interesting all the way through, for some of us at least.
So, the original Mass Effect…
Just the announcement of this game made me and most of the video/computer roll-playing game (which I’ll just call RPG from now on) community die with excitement. Bioware–the developers that made of some of the greatest RPGs in history and who are effectively the entire other half of the Western RPG world not occupied by Bethesda–was making a totally new sci-fi action RPG set in a future where humanity has begun colonizing distant star systems and lives side-by-side with dozens of other spacefaring alien races all trying to carve out a life of prosperity in the galaxy. The game would be two parts Star Trek with Shepherd exploring the galaxy in his ship, the Normandy, encountering and learning about different alien races and planets, exploring both arid and verdant worlds lightyears from Earth to discover new secrets, and looking cool while doing it; and it would be one part Star Wars, with you playing the hero in galaxy-wide conflicts and slaying giant space monsters.
The game is perfectly paced, as Bioware always does. It has a nice hook with the Eden Prime mission serving as an inciting incident, but it doesn’t jump into it right away. It gives the player a good 15 minutes of well-written dialogue with excellently voice acted characters delivering impressively natural “as you know, bob” exposition (exposition in which characters, through dialogue, explain things they both already know for the sake of the uninformed audience). The opening scenes explain everything from how humanity made it to the stars to humanity’s political position in galactic society, and then it drops you into space monster killing action. Granted, the fighting in the game is pretty unbalanced and clunky. In the beginning, you’re likely to get kicked in the face if you happen to run into a fight made by a designer who was having a bad day, but by the end I had exploited the game’s mechanics easily enough to make my Shepherd into an unstoppably badass tank of a monster alien slaying space warrior who would only lose if I tried to fail. Still, pretty cool.
It might sound like somewhat silly but totally awesome fun at first, but this is still Bioware, and no one takes a game’s narrative more seriously than Bioware. The whole premise is the perfect opportunity for Bioware to kill it with their fantastic world building. Talking to different characters about the history and politics of “Citadel Council space” or just reading the pages of in-game codex information was often the highlight of a play session the first time I played the game. Second to that, the game’s main narrative carries it all pretty well with its kinda generic but excellently delivered space adventure: Shepherd discovers a warning from an alien data store foretelling the arrival of an ancient machine race they called the Reapers–beings who reappear every 50,000 years to harvest the spacefaring civilizations of the galaxy that grew up using the technology the Reapers left behind. For this first installment, Shepherd has to stop the rogue Spectre agent Saren from helping the Reapers return for the next cycle. This story gets pretty dark, and it also brings up some deep themes.
Some might point out the game’s “paragon/renegade” dichotomy as a powerful central theme, but I’m not too sure. Following the two big Bioware games before it, Mass Effect has a sort of “morality scale” that quantifies the choices you make as Shepherd. Like Jade Empire’s “open palm/closed fist” binary, it pretends to be a different sort of philosophy not necessarily related to morality, but that’s basically what it is. For the most part, doing self-serving, unsympathetic things racks up renegade points while doing altruistic things makes your Shepherd more of a paragon. (Spoilers) To give it some credit, the paragon/renegade theme reaches its most interesting nuance at the game’s “false ending” climax (a narrative tactic Bioware has mastered) in which Shepherd runs into Saren while trying to destroy a research facility Saren had taken over. Before the fight, Saren appeals to Shepherd, explaining that he’s trying to save what he can of the galaxy by submitting to the Reapers, and that he has to stop Shepherd from dooming the galaxy by fighting back (end spoilers). The point is supposed to be that Saren represents the ultimate renegade–going against conventional principles and calculating and achieving the best results no matter what the cost. Maybe this “ends justify the means” question could have been the main point of the paragon/renegade dichotomy, but it gets lost among all the ways the game equivocates on the whole system’s meaning. Sometimes it means putting end results over principles or vice versa, but sometimes it means valuing humanity over other races or being egalitarian, sometimes it means playing hard and fast with the rules or sticking to protocol. For real, though: most of the time it just means being nice or being a dick.
I’d have to argue that there are much more interesting and coherently expressed themes in the game. The one really huge choice at the end serves one of the biggest themes in the whole series. (Spoilers here) After either killing Saren or convincing him to kill himself to free himself from the reapers’ control, Shepherd has to choose between ordering the Human Alliance fleets to save the Citadel galactic council from the reaper Sovereign, thus sacrificing human lives to save a political entity run by the most privileged alien races of the galaxy, or Shepherd can order that the Alliance abandon the council, focusing entirely on destroying Sovereign, thus sparing human soldier lives at the cost of alien civilian lives (end spoilers). From the very beginning of the game, when Shepherd is a candidate for becoming the first human to ever join the Spectres, the main question is: “What place would humanity have in a galactic society?” Would we get along with everyone? Would there be anything special about us that set us apart? What would alien races think about us? Would we be privileged or marginalized? And what would we do about it?
Mass Effect’s answers are kind of optimistic, and they’re interestingly colored by human history. In the years in which Mass Effect is set, humanity has spread faster in its planetary colonization than almost any other race before, and we have become one of the most powerful military forces in the galaxy. But, despite the amazing success we manage to create once we get out of our solar system, humanity’s youth in the galactic community makes us somewhat marginalized. Or, at least, we feel marginalized because we don’t have the same privilege of races that have been in the galactic community for ten times as long. Playing as Shepherd, you get to feel some of this marginalization as the Citadel Council hesitates at the idea of a human Spectre or when an unfriendly alien writes you off as being unreasonable or needlessly violent just because you’re a human. Of course, some of these accusations might be kind of true. When you’re dealing with a vast variety of sentient alien life, there will be very big and real differences between the races, some of which will make those races more or less valuable to galactic society. In the Mass Effect world, humanity is really good at spreading out, exploiting resources, and fighting, but we’re also emotional and ambitious, and thus not always trustworthy. So how should we be valued by the galactic community compared to other races with other strengths and temperaments? Can those same value judgments be passed on individuals who have different abilities? And the final question the game asks the player about privilege and marginalization in this sort of world is whether that value extends to intelligent life in and of itself. Is all self-aware, sentient life equally sacred, or is a human life worth more than an alien life? Of course, none of us will ever have to answer this question in the real world, but our answers still have real-world implications.
Privilege and marginalization might be the main theme of the original Mass Effect, but the false ending fight with Saren is preceded and followed by a couple of scenes that bring up what is probably the biggest theme of the Mass Effect series: the near-eternal continuity of the universe and what it means for the nature and purpose of life. (Big spoilers here) Before fighting Saren in the perfectly paced false ending, Shepherd actually manages to speak with the reaper Sovereign. When asked what the reapers are, Sovereign claims that they are the eternal pinnacle of evolution and that it is their task to impose order on the chaos of life. They left behind their mass relays and the Citadel space station to force the development of galactic civilization down the paths they wanted, and once galactic civilization reaches the level of development they desire, they return from their 50,000 years of sleep beyond the galaxy to harvest it (end spoilers). I guess, if we’re talking about pinnacles of evolution and all, this would be perfection insofar as the mechanical purpose of life is to use energy to minimize entropy. We eat food and breathe air so our body can keep itself from falling apart, the Reapers harvest galactic civilization so they can eliminate the entropic chaos of young species and perpetuate their immortal perfection.
Of course, the Reapers aren’t the only ones for whom time is on their side. (More spoilers) After the false ending, Shepherd meets the ancient virtual intelligence program Virgil, who was left by the last galactic civilization to preserve a team of scientists secreted away from the reapers so that, once the reapers had left, the scientists could find a way to stop the reapers from returning in another 50,000 years. They succeeded, forcing Sovereign to come up with a new plan, but they couldn’t survive in a galaxy now emptied of intelligent life. Without food or water on the Citadel space station, they died, leaving Virgil to pass on their knowledge to the next generation of civilization (end spoilers). Within the floundering chaos of “primitive” life, there’s a mutual dependence–like a collaborative history spanning eons. Virgil helping Shepherd stop Saren and Sovereign represents an ideal of the game’s galactic civilization–life from 50,000 years before trusting that whoever comes next, even though they may look and behave and live totally differently, will still care about the same things they do enough to fight the Reapers with the knowledge they’re trying to pass on.
But, if the Reapers are the pinnacle of evolution, and if we defeat them and continue to grow uninterrupted for the next billion years, will we just become them all over again?
Mass Effect is easily compared to Star Trek in themes and style, but I think it easily outdid its spiritual progenitor as far as diving into those themes, if only by virtue of being an extremely long-form narrative told through a 90-hour-total video game epic. This first game set everything up for an amazing series in terms of narrative premise, but we’ll see how things get changed up significantly in Mass Effect 2.