Mass Effect is an award-winning trilogy of RPG titles for PC, Xbox and Playstation by Bioware and Electronic Arts. Mass Effect 3, the conclusion of the series, was released last week. Set nearly 200 years in the future, the games follow the experiences of Commander Shepard, an officer of Earth’s military forces and member of the Alliance, part of a galactic civilization of divided and often competitive political, social and economic interests that is struggling against unimaginable threats. The greatest menace are the Reapers, a synthetic collective intelligence from beyond the edge of the galaxy. Humanity is regarded as a junior member of the Alliance, and an overly aggressive one, having fought against other worlds in the recent past. Humans are very much a minority in the galaxy.
Shepard’s role is part diplomat, part investigator, and part solider: as an Alliance Spectre he is brought in to broker complex negotiations with alien races; granted diplomatic immunity, he also has the ability to kill anyone and anything that gets in his way with impunity. Unusually for such games, Shepard may be played as male or female of any race. (There is a broad consensus among fans that the female version of Shepard has better voiceover acting and is generally a more interesting character).
Mass Effect falls squarely into the science fiction genre of “space opera”: a central hero on a spacecraft (the Normandy) in a desperate mission against an implacable highly advanced civilization that threatens the galaxy. It is a role-playing game on an epic scale, and has a living universe of characters, cultures, species and civilizations to suit.
JRR Tolkien In The Galactic Core
The mythos of Mass Effect is massive: the wiki alone contains over 2200 articles on planets, races and characters, while the codex of information collected by the player during their adventures in-game contains hours of lore and history. Imagine JRR Tolkien wrote science fiction rather than fantasy and had the entire galaxy to play with.
One of the aspects that makes the universe of Mass Effect a complete, breathing environment is the number of incidental side conversations that a player encounters through the game. These range from mere snippets of speech to entire discussions lasting fifteen minutes or more. As with collecting codex entries, there’s little in-game reward for witnessing these conversations: it’s simply part of the environment. All the same, I will find myself standing around for minutes at a time listening to the conversations of alien passerby.
Equality In The Milky Way
One of the most refreshing aspects of the series is its treatment of sexuality, and its respectful portrayal of gay and bi characters. Male characters mourn their lost husbands, female characters mention their same-sex preferences. The dialogue is casual and non-political, while acknowledging that bigotry and hatred continue to exist in the 23rd century. As either gender Shepard can romance human male, female and alien characters, and there’s no value judgment imposed.
Bioware has a deserved reputation for a grown-up treatment of sexual orientation, but it’s still very refreshing to see. The only real remaining area would be an acknowledgement of transgender; several of the alien races, including the asari, are mono-gendered or don’t distinguish between male and female, which suffices in a sense.
Choices & Consequences
Central to the series is the dialogue and action interaction options, and the fact that these choices have real consequences. In other games, you can interact with NPCs, wander away, and return to start over again from the beginning, as if during your time away they were hit on the head and suffered amnesia. InMass Effect, this doesn’t happen, at least at important junctures: every action has consequences. Your character grows throughout the series, making and losing friends. Actions taken by the player in the original Mass Effect alter the storyline of subsequent titles in the series, sometimes in surprising ways: for example, you may find that characters refuse to co-operate with you because of choices you made five years ago. Killed characters stay dead: they don’t magically resurrect. Combined with appealing writing and excellent voiceover acting, this can create an emotional resonance that is rare in gaming: the player can actually start to care about the struggles of characters.
Casualties and The Brutal Calculus Of War
In Mass Effect 3 many of the choices involve the war that is rapidly consuming the galaxy, and the actions of your crew within it. Sometimes these choices are morally complex: whatever you decide, people will die.
As the conflict grows, destinations behind the galactic front lines begin to fill with desperate civilian refugees fleeing the war. Aid stations and hospitals become crammed with injured and mentally devastated troops. The Normandy has a memorial wall that commemorates the names of fallen crew members, who often died as a result of your decisions. Again, this is unusual: most games with FPS elements are happy to let comrades fall beside you, wiping them from memory. Mass Effect keeps the casualties of war very much in the picture.
The Song Of Achilles
There’s been a great deal of discussion about the endings of ME3. Fan reaction has been varied and, at times, vociferous. (Warning: this is where the spoilers of my review will be found – you may wish to skip ahead to the conclusion if you wish to avoid them). I was actually pleased with the endings, in a shocked and bittersweet way. My support rests on six points:
- Throughout the series, Shepard was essentially invincible: you could be endlessly resurrected (once as part of the storyline, most often as a gameplay mechanic). Other characters did not have that option: at certain points, due to your choices, they were killed outright, with no hope of return. It is only right and fair that Shepard share that cost, and reality, at the end.
- A number of fans claimed that the final choices didn’t reflect the decisions they had made earlier in the game. That is at least partly the point. In life you can make all the right moves, do everything correctly, and then be forced to a juncture with few options and no right answers, in which all of your past achievements matter for very little. It’s humbling and very hard to take. (There are also far more possible endings than most players are aware of. One is always available, two is common, depending on alignment, a third is an option, depending on choices made in the past; I’m aware of at least one other variation of an ending that can appear under certain conditions).
- As mentioned above, the central theme of the game is suffering and sacrifice.
- There is absolutely no epilogue that would have satisfied everyone. Better to leave the conclusion in the mind of the viewer than to provide an ending – no matter how thorough – that fans would be constantly asking for more details of.
- From the perspective of Bioware, the conclusion brings an end to the story. Without it, fans would continue to demand more, which – if Bioware acceded – would almost inevitably weaken the franchise through endless sequels and derivative works. This does not mean that the universe of Mass Effect is played-out; I can see a rich opportunity for a prequel series that covers the emergence of humanity into the galaxy and the First Contact War.
- Of all of the characters, Shepard really did not express any thoughts of a future for himself after the war; indeed, he can admit that he’s never known anything but fighting. Shepard is Achilles: quite literally made for battle and heroism, and completely lost outside of it. During the game, it becomes clear that he is a deeply damaged individual, plagued by guilt, nightmares and flashbacks. In that sense, it is entirely fitting that the curtain close on Shepard in the way that it most often does.
Mass Effect is high space opera; if art can be defined as something made with the express intention of producing an emotional response, it is that too. I would recommend the game if you like science fiction or epic adventure in any form, with the strong suggestion that you play through the entire series; if you wish to wait, I expect that the complete trilogy will be released as a box set in a year.