This March, after the release of the final piece of downloadable content, I completed the Mass Effect trilogy of games. Is it worth posting about this? Should I see doing something that millions of people have done as a form of entertainment as something worth making note of for the years to come? I think so, and this is why. I didn’t just complete a game, I finished a six year journey with fictional characters who I came to know like friends and trust just as much.
My first exposure to Mass Effect came in 2005 when the game was spoken about for the then soon to be coming next generation Xbox. I thought I had the game pegged when I heard about it as I’d played Bioware games before, particularly Knights of the Old Republic, which was what all of the articles were comparing this game to. It would be a space adventure in name and setting mostly, with the RPG combat making it feel very fantasy adventure in some parts. You’d have a choice of planets to visit, each with their own main quest and multiple side quests, then have to go to the newly unlocked story planet to complete the game. In some respects I was right about the progression, but there was so much more on offer.
Where Knights of the Old Republic had the entire Star Wars universe to draw from, yet the freedom of being set hundreds of years before the original games, Mass Effect brought its own universe into play. Now I missed many of the sci-fi events of the 90s due to insane workloads so this universe was so fresh and new to me. For others it was an unashamed mish-mash of the best bits of Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, Farscape and countless others.
Humankind was new to this galactic space, having only made contact thirty years before in a catastrophic event that lead to war with the Turians, one of the Council (think, the big bosses) species in the galaxy. Peace was finally brokered but it left humanity with a bitter taste on its tongue about aliens, and the Council races a little untrusting of us. Of course, through the series we’ll see a human commander save all of them, but that is par for the course for sci-fi. Being new to the galactic space meant that we could find out all the nuances of relationships between the races with new eyes, yet still have the commander comment on them with his perspective.
And what nuances there were. The Geth, who were the initial enemy in the first game, were created as servant robots by the Quarians at first then took over their planet and drove the Quarians away. That was three hundred years ago and the Quarians have been floating through space as nomads ever since, in whatever cheap spaceships they can buy, and with environment suits protecting them outside as their bodies adjust to the cleanliness of living in space. Then there’s the Krogan who were a race of brutish warriors who were uplifted (given higher technology and the secrets of spaceflight) by the Council races in a desperate attempt to fight the Rachni, a group of spacefaring insects that were attacking Council space. With the Rachni beaten the Krogan themselves tried to conquer several worlds and were genetically sterilised as a result. One in a thousand Krogan births is successful as a result of this “genophage” that was released by the Salarians, leading to hostility between those races. These are just two of the races in the Mass Effect universe and I haven’t even mentioned the molelike business running Volus, the “see your fantasy” psychic warrior Asari or any of the other standout races, each with their own rich history available to be read in the galactic codex that was available from the menu at any point.
Mass Effect Fields
If the races in Mass Effect were deeply thought out and, after watching a lot of sci-fi, derivative enough to be familiar then the science was what set the series apart. The title describes the central technology behind most marvels in this world, the Mass Effect field. At it’s core this is basically a highly powerful controlled gravity field. This allows everything from guns (which chip of a tiny piece from a large block of metal and use a Mass Effect field to hurl the piece at an enemy with incredible force) to space travel where gigantic “Mass Relays” slingshot ships across the galaxy for the equivalent of the old sci-fi hyperspace trope.
The game even has psychic powers (called biotics in this universe) that are a result of experimentation with Element Zero, the mineral which allows for the creation of Mass Effect fields. Humans, new to the galaxy and striving for an advantage, did illegal experiments on kids that had been “accidentally” exposed to Element Zero so that they could breed human biotics. The experiments were a success to a degree, though the biotics they created often suffer from painful headaches and migraines. Biotics are implanted with a mini Mass Effect generator that allows them to control their powers and most of these are gravity related, from lifting enemies in the air and out of cover to dropping a black hole in their midst or covering yourself with an extra protective barrier. From the second game onwards, biotics interacted with each other and the use of multiple biotic characters could give a tactical advantage. I played through the series as a Sentinel, a character class with no weapon skills but a mixture of technology based and biotic skillsets and had great fun setting up a warp field that would detonate explosively if any other biotics fired a power at it.
With interplanetary travel made so easy due to the gravity slingshot of the Mass Relays, it would be a shame if the galaxy in Mass Effect only had the storyline planets to visit, especially as the first game had five of them in total. This is where the series could have easily fallen down and where it really stood out, in my opinion.
You can visit every known area on the map (a couple of dozen of them) and are then presented with a map of that system that has several solar systems marked on it. Choose one of these systems to visit and you’ll be taken to a map of that system. You can freely move around, scan for hidden items, and orbit any planet. From orbit you have the option to scan a planet which will either return some long lost artifact or give you a mission that needs you to land on the planet.
There were quite a few planets that you could land on, each with its own dangers to face (from regular enemies to gigantic Thresher Maws) as well as unique conditions (extreme cold or heat), resources to claim for the human alliance, and missions to complete. In the first game you landed in a small vehicle and roamed a square area looking for these placed events. Later games tightened these missions up, making them more like the story missions and tying them into the story more completely. Personally I’d like to see a mix of the two approaches as the tighter missions lost some of the sense of freedom that the original game gave a player.
The feeling that you were travelling an interconnected galaxy continued throughout the series, with the second game adding a fuel resource to manage as you went between systems. From then on each area had a landing point for the Mass Relays, and you would have to use fuel to go to other systems in the area.
Again, this may sound rather cliché to those who are more up to date with sci-fi, but it eventually turned out that the galaxy was under threat from an ancient enemy who just happens to be based in technology and wants to assimil…harvest us all. In this case the ancient enemy are the Reapers, a group of gigantic robotic squid who can act as spaceships (believe me when I say that they’re much more terrifying than I’m making them sound).
In the third game of the series we find out that the Reapers were constructed long ago to solve the problem that robots constructed by organics always rebel and attack their owners. The incredibly clever squid people who came up with the idea of making a robot to solve that problem, programmed it with the need to solve that situation “no matter the cost”. The video above shows the cost millions of years later.
The Reapers decided that the best way to solve the problem was to remove all organics before they get to a stage capable of making robots that might wipe them out. Being robots themselves they lacked the ability to appreciate the irony of their situation. Every fifty thousand years the Reapers would descend on the galaxy and remove every organic from the races who had advanced that far, liquefying them and making a brand new Reaper from the fluid remains. This Reaper would contain the memories and knowledge of these species, yet the core programming remained. Having done their job they would remove technology from the galaxy, leaving hints behind for other organics to discover so that they would evolve along predictable paths rather than through inspiration of their own, and to guarantee that they didn’t develop synthetics to wipe them out before the Reapers could arrive.
To be honest, the motivation behind the Reapers sounds a little hacked together and that’s because it is. There was a fascinating side story in the second game about dark matter and suns that were expanding abnormally. That thread was left dangling for the third game but, as far as I know, someone leaked the script and the whole thing was changed in the end. Still, that doesn’t stop the Reapers from being an ever present menace in the mind of the player.
The main threat of the Reapers, despite their overwhelming size, is the ability to “indoctrinate” organic lifeforms by their proximity. The more one is exposed to a Reaper, the more they find their thoughts coming in line with the wishes of the Reaper and the less control they have over their own actions. Indoctrinated lifeforms usually act as spies for the Reapers, disrupting those who would fight against the wonderful tentacle inspired change coming to them. However, their use of the fallen as shock troops is truly terrifying.
Some of the first enemies we meet in the first Mass Effect game are the husks. We see the Geth (at this point working with a Reaper) placing living humans onto spikes that impale them and rise up high. Circuitry starts to cover the body as its fluids are drained away and then the spike descends, leaving the now Reaper controlled techno-zombie to attack whoever is closest (normally me). Over the course of the series we’ll see more husks from other races, some of them huge, some of them with advanced powers, all of them fucking creepy to look at. It makes sense that we’d be facing these as our main enemies, as the true menace is so large that no-one could go toe-to-toe with it, and having these enemies tied in as subjugation devices by the Reapers (who see this as a clean and clinical way to do things, by the way) makes them all the more creepy.
Made For Me
For some people Mass Effect may be all about spectacular gunplay, peppered with biotic abilities shooting off at enemies that were once your friends and relatives. For others, those alien landscapes and the rich history provided in this galaxy are everything they wanted from a science fiction game. This wasn’t what made Mass Effect special to me. It was the sense of relationship I had with the game.
Six years ago I created Commander Mik Shepard (the surname and title are always present so that conversations can seem more natural) and the metrosexual version of me (he looks like he moisturises as do all game characters) that I made took his first steps into the galaxy. I rebuked the pilot of the ship for making a joke and also told off one of the other officers for being racist to aliens. The pilot stayed with me throughout the series and our relationship blossomed, while the racist officer apologised then died in the next game. There was a touching scene where we remembered him as we scoured the wreckage for his dogtags. These were choices that I made and others might not have, and every choice carried over through the series, affecting little things here and there. By the time the third game came there were dozens of variations, ranging from emails to thank me for some little thing I’d almost forgotten, to entire missions being added to the game if you took this path or that. Mostly these were little scenes added here and there that changed, had different characters in them, or simply didn’t happen depending on your choices.
The relationships in the game were just as important. As a trilogy where the characters cross over different games and all my decisions stayed put, the time I spent with these characters feels like far more than the usual game. Over what must have been two hundred hours of play I came to think of these people of friends, at the very least to the same degree as those characters you see every week on a television show. In fact, due to my interactions with them they felt much closer than that, not quite approaching actual levels of friendship but certainly becoming characters that I cared about. We did more than save the galaxy together, we made memories too.
I could tell you about Ashley, the girl I rescued at the beginning of the first game and found myself romancing. I could tell you that, despite the distrust of aliens, we were getting close and she was starting to come around to my way of thinking. I could tell you about the time she confided her fears for her family in me, or perhaps the fateful choice I made on Virmire that saw her life sacrificed that others might live. My Shepard was broken by that event and fell in with Jack, another damaged goods biotic, in the second game. Between us we fixed each other, and found a different kind of romance.
Perhaps a word should be said about Garrus, the young C-Sec (space station police) officer who joined with me in the first game. His transition from naive do-gooder to cold-blooded mercenary hunter was a sight to see, yet he kept his sense of self through it all. I could tell you about the time we fought off an army together, the time we went drinking up in the roof of the Citadel (giant space station) and sniped cans together. Or perhaps the time I walked in on him and one of the love interests in the game that I hadn’t pursued. They had gotten together in the background while I was busy with other things and I was genuinely made up for these two fictional characters. Of course, had I romanced either of these characters this event wouldn’t have happened.
Those are just a couple of the people that you can meet in the trilogy with more of my companions shown above. Most of these had a deep backstory to uncover as well as events to find that filled in a little of their personality. I came to know these people and trust these people. They had my back and I had theirs. I worked my ass off to save the galaxy ultimately dying twice to do so, not just for me or the people back home but for the sake of those personal relationships.
For me the game felt tailored to my own personal way of playing. My Paragon/Renegade meter (a measure of how much of a shining example of the Alliance I had become) was two parts Renegade to three parts Paragon. I made some tough decisions and sometimes those decisions weren’t the nicest, but they always felt like the right ones. In my game nobody died except those that were scripted to die and in places where one person had to die for another to live. I ended up curing the genophage so that Wrex and his Krogan could be freed of that horrific punishment (one that made me shake with rage when I first heard of it). I united the Quarians and Geth, making them see past their differences and try to defend their planet together. Upon later research I found many points where things could have gone wrong or I could have been betrayed but wasn’t due to my choices in who to trust and how to play, and I went into the final battle with the entire galaxy at my back.
As that final push played out, and the events that followed saw everything boil down to the final choices I felt a sadness coming over me. This was a journey I’d undertaken so long ago that I’d been with it longer than the character had. I’d shared his frustrations and allowed his anger out on occasion. I’d seen friends die senselessly, and even talked two major enemies into seeing the folly of their actions and committing suicide. I’d faced the ultimate threat to the galaxy and now was faced with the choice of how to save the galaxy.
In the end I sacrificed myself so that, in my world at least, all organic and synthetics were joined together. The advantages of being synthetic were given to all organic creatures while the understanding and empathy that comes from being organic with a limited lifespan was given to all synthetics. It wasn’t the perfect solution, and many of the people who played the game won’t like my ending, but that is kind of the point. Mass Effect is a personal game – where you end up may not be where I did, and the road there will almost certainly be different.
I made my choice and watched the final cutscenes in silence. So much emotion had gone into reaching this place that nothing would really end it in a way that was both satisfactory and complete. I saw my friends go on with their lives now that I was gone, rebuilding all the damage that had been done. And then it was over, and the credits rolled, as the music played. Six years have gone by since I started this series of games. I’ve played other things between them, but this is the series that I will remember as the highlight of the entire generation. This is the series that introduced me to a galaxy full of intrigue, as well as to people I still think of as my friends. I carry so many fond memories of them, so many events that made me smile, so many life or death situations where we pulled our asses out of the fire at the last moment.
I saved the galaxy but was left feeling ultimately alone and yet fulfilled. The series has been something to look forward to these past few years. Each new game and new DLC story pack (a big no thank you to alternate appearances and weapon packs) gave me another chapter of the story of Mik Shepard, but now it was over. It was everything I had hoped it would be all those years ago when I first put the disc in my Xbox 360, and so much more. Mass Effect was the best ride of the generation despite the problems it had in some areas (no-one is pretending the games were perfect), and I can only hope that something else is able to match or maybe even surpass it at some point in time.
Until that point, I was Commander Shepard and this was my favourite series on the Citadel.
I should go.