My interest in Mass Effect started only as a strange fascination. BioWare has never been a company I followed closely so when this game first bleeped on my radar it was simply because of its sci-fi and RPG elements. I actually remember being only halfway engaged for a good portion of my first play through, too. You see, having the power to make good or bad decisions in a game just wasn’t something I ever really cared about. Give me a hard line on my stories, ya know? The more linear the better. I’ve always thought that the most effective way to tell an engrossing epic is to have a series of events set in stone that you only witness as the player. To have a main character with a clear personality that makes decisions based on their written characterization. I’ll gladly eat crow this time, though, because Mass Effect went a long way in proving me wrong.
Or at least partially wrong. Mass Effect is simply just one of the best games of this generation and whatever flaws you can find are completely unrelated to the decision making dynamic. In an age of twitch gaming, multiplayer emphasis and superficial design Mass Effect somehow rose above all the competition to be a unique RPG that innovated within a combination of tired genres. It’s a game that has spawned a sequel and a hundred other games that hope to emulate its magic. Fortunately, all these other copy-cats will mostly fail in their attempt (Alpha Protocol…come on, seriously?). No matter where the series goes, what changes they make or who they decide to kill…NO!! SHEPARD!!!!!! I know I will always have Mass Effect 1.
So what’s this “magic”? Kind of hard to describe really. Generally, I use that term to describe a game that makes me feel a certain way towards it that is unique from any other game. It’s a combination of music, design and moments that create an aura around it. Vagrant Story was magical, but not in any similar way to any other game. It’s a way to describe the indescribable, a way to explain how I feel or the emotion a specific game brings outta me. Mass Effect does that. It was never like, oh that character is great -just like Basch- or, hey that scene or song reminded me of Xenosaga…it’s just an exclusive feeling for that game in general, as a whole. I don’t relate my Mass Effect experience to any other game because it reserved its own spot in my memory, which is something that hasn’t happened with a game for quite some time now. In fact I would probably have to say that our current generation is pretty consistently lacking in the ‘magic’ category.
The best place to start would have to be with Shepard him/herself. Mass Effect eschewed the somewhat traditional good vs. bad character concept and morphed it into good+ vs. good-. No matter what path you choose… you are a good guy. If you end up killing someone through choice it is always someone who (by a certain path of reasoning) deserved it. Provided you have at least a small sense of justice, people you kill will never be innocent. Because of this more oriented approach to the game as a whole, Shepard is able to exist not merely as a blank slate, but as a good person with a blank personality. Another interesting design choice was that in addition to the create-a-character, BioWare created the ’iconic’ Shepard. It was a smart move that gave them the ability to present a main character with a distinct look, personality and storyline that everyone could experience the same way (and market the game with an recognizable main character instead of what…a group of characters?). Of course one of the main draws of the game is building your own adventure but if you want to experience the BioWare Shepard then you can. It seems to me that the designers really were focused on creating a game with a distinguishable main character following a distinguishable path, even with the ability to choose an appearance and choices to get through it. In this, they succeeded. The story is stronger for it, yet the choices you can make are influential enough to give you that feeling of control.
In Baldur’s Gate you could always choose the lawful good route, and in a sense you were always rewarded a little bit more for doing so. It’s the same way here. If you choose an iconic, paragon Shepard you will experience the game in the most cohesive way (opinion). For instance, when you’re giving your speech on the Normandy right before you head out on your mission to stop Saren if you choose the paragon options the speech you give is different than if you choose the renegade options. Although your words may change the music remains epic, hopeful, inspiring and completely geared towards saving the galaxy and becoming a hero. It just doesn’t click the same way if you’re saying ’we’re gonna go kick Saren’s ass’ and ’we have to do this alone because no other races care enough to help’ WHILE THE CAMERA IS FOCUSING IN ON YOUR ALIEN TEAMMATES IN AN EPIC SHOT. Ya know, it’s a subtle difference that kinda doesn’t matter but this guy right here appreciates the fact that there is a slightly more story driven aspect.
Some people will argue that I’m missing the point and that having the choice to choose what you say is just as important. They might even say that choosing the more moral or paragon path automatically eliminates the purpose of the concept of giving you a choice in the first place. Let’s be honest with ourselves here. Anyone who’s exclusively picking the renegade option is doing it for specific reasons:
1. You want the achievement for 75% renegade points
2. It’s funnier (it is)
3. You’ve played paragon already and you want to experience renegade because you’re a completionist and the option exists
4. You’re 14 and you think being ‘bad-ass’ is cooler
Most serious adults who value gaming experiences will choose whatever they would choose if THEY were the character, probably with a slight emphasis on paragon. Of course the point is to have a choice, to handle things the whichever way you choose but if the creators intended to give you total freedom they would’ve positioned Shepard somewhere much closer to the middle, in-between good and evil. As it stands, this is not the case and the game is powerful because of it.
Plus… there’s already a renegade in this game and his name is fucking Saren. Bravo to BioWare for creating a ’bad guy’ that isn’t just a carbon copy of every nemesis in every game/movie/comic/TV show ever. He fit’s the role of villain and check marks enough cliches off the list to be a typical antagonist, but where he succeeds is in concept. I called Saren a renegade and it’s true. He is almost exactly what Shepard would be had he been just slightly off center, and it‘s believable. A Renegade Shepard is an asshole who wants to get shit done as effectively as possible. The only difference between that and Saren is that the latter had been manipulated considerably at some point by overwhelming alien mind-control. It is made very clear that Saren’s personal will is not the will of evil. As a mirror for Shepard (and us) to see himself in, Saren’s role is beautifully executed. He is just a guy in a position of power who is slightly confused about the proper way to go about things. As far as bad guys go, Saren is less that and more an analogy for how some misguided choices built up over time can lead to something much more extreme than you ever intended. As a nice little message, Shepard can be and is the other side of the coin, which is a great example of how good choices built up over time can help you save the galaxy, not destroy it. I mean you can actually convince Saren, when the entire universe is on the line to remember what he once was and redeem himself even after he has committed so many atrocities. Through all the murder and terror Saren can still listen to reason, can still see that what he has done is wrong. This might be the only video game I’ve ever played where you can TALK THE FINAL BOSS DOWN from his madness and HE ACTUALLY LISTENS TO REASON and punishes himself for his own crimes. Good show BioWare, good show. Other game writers should take notes on how to add complexity to your standard ‘villain’. Actually… never mind, the 14 year olds on Xbox Live probably wouldn’t appreciate the concept of moral gray areas. Let’s just keep the good guys good and the bad guys bad.
Too often in the video game world we are confused into thinking that someone is the boss, only to find out that there’s some secret crazy nobody who has had no relevance to anything at all. I’m so sick of that. Like…that’s such a tired concept from a dead era of storytelling that isn’t surprising anyone anymore. Final Fantasy 9 did that as a throwback to a past generation of gaming, and it really showed how weak that idea really is. Mass Effect is cool because you know from very early on that Saren is your guy. You know that you’ll be fighting Saren at the end and that’s that. Thank you BioWare, seriously. A story doesn’t need some crazy ridiculous surprise twist that’s never mentioned until the very end, revealing some puppet-master pulling the strings (BioShock…awful). It’s a cheap gimmick…we aren’t 12 year olds anymore and RPG’s can do better. Even when the Reapers are revealed as the true threat (which seems like exactly what I’m talking about) it’s presented as a far-off event, a situation too big for one game (or person) to handle. The story is so driven and focused that as you realize there is a much larger threat, you are at the same time centered even more on the task at hand. Saren is still your target, he’s still the final boss. Now had you followed Saren the entire game only to kill him as a precursor to a final, FINAL boss… that was a reaper… and you hadn’t yet heard about reapers… then it would’ve felt cheap. They smartly saved the Reaper boss for ME2 and let you complete your mission as a singular task, a story in and of itself for ME1. The way the ending was handled was superb and allowed you to actually get closure emotionally on what truly felt like an entire game, not just a prologue to a bigger sequel. And when those sequels happen and the story is complete you will still be able to look back on ME1 with importance. Your struggle with Saren will surely be dwarfed by the assumed war with the Reapers but it will never be rendered insignificant.
So there’s a moment in this game that if I were to rate just moments, it would be damn near the top. I don’t know if everyone took the same things away from it or even the whole game in general but it was just one of those rare, unforgettable scenes. I would go as far to say that this moment and the way it was handled and implemented is an enormous part of why this game is one of the best of this generation for me. So you go to Ilos right? You’re hoping to beat Saren to the punch and find the conduit, which is supposedly there. What you eventually find out is that Ilos was home to a secret Prothean facility. The moment that changed this game for me was when you found Vigil. The approach to Vigil’s “Watcher’s Chamber” is somber. You find yourself driving down a breathtaking corridor filled seemingly hundreds of feet high with stasis pods holding the remains of the Prothean people. In the terms of this world and this mythology, the moment is incredibly powerful. The remnants of an ancient empire completely lost to the Reaper’s unstoppable advances are housed here. You spend the entire game hearing of the Protheans and their technology. Their culture left behind what would become staples of the current universe. Nearly everything we have, everything advanced that we know of is owed to them. It’s a humbling scene that is filled with mood and atmosphere. Upon finding the Watcher’s Chamber you discover that you were led to this place by a virtual intelligence program named Vigil. It was implemented with the personality of it’s Prothean maker and contains the last failing hope for a race that secretly battled to finally end the repeating scourge of every known galaxy by the sentient machines we call the Reapers. The chamber itself is beautiful and symbolic. It is a single railed platform leading straight to a circular deck where the console containing Vigil sits. A beam of light illuminates it from above through a hole in the roof and an organic vine scrawls upward from somewhere down below. It is literally and metaphorically the one last prayer for all organic life to have even a sliver of chance against an unbeatable mechanical onslaught. Vigil’s voice itself has a soothing tone and the delivery of his answers for how his race was systematically destroyed and harvested is ironically calming considering the gravity of his tale.
Your conversation with Vigil is Mass Effect. It is the embodiment of everything I love about the game. It is this game coming full circle, reaching a little bit higher to get its point across. It is a moment that defines the game for me and hopefully the series as a whole. When you’re done speaking with him the weight of game’s story itself has multiplied. For me it was emotional, a breakthrough point. It added a not-at-all-required layer of personal depth to an already highly immersive, detailed and engrossing game world. The background music playing is heard in only two places: the Watcher’s Chamber and the title screen, almost as if to say “here’s where you started and here’s where you’ll finish“. It’s a wondrous technique that helps pull together the plot in a subtle way that elevates the storytelling to a completely different category than most other games. After your conversation with Vigil is complete, you head right back out and plop yourself into the game again. It was actually kind of surreal to me how everything was different afterward. I was driving on the same path to the conduit as I was before I stopped but what I had just experienced changed everything, changed the feeling of what I was doing.
I talk about subtlety a lot in my reviews and I always will, probably because I read further than I need to into the games I love. Maybe you think these expressions I’m describing as intentional themes don’t actually exist at all and the people making this game didn’t intend them. It’s perfectly normal for someone to think that I’ve delved really far into some concept that doesn’t even exist. What I would like to say to these people respectfully is: you’re dumb. There are still game designers out there who see through the profit mongering, easy access frag fests that are most popular video games. It’s becoming more rare obviously as video games have become a seriously legitimate money making force. Mass Effect was one of these rarities. It took a group of people who decided to take their overly complex, completely un-user friendly space RPG to show me that there was at least one team still out there dedicated to making a game with integrity. Fortunately the game industry took its time trying to figure out how to take advantage of the populace the same way Hollywood does, but once they did they found that emulating that same Hollywood formula was the quickest route to success. God of War, Grand Theft Auto and even now Final Fantasy overshadow more rewarding and intricate games because of their flamboyant bravado. They appeal to the masses in the exact way the masses want, what’s easiest for them to inhale as quickly as possible… and they make a fuck-ton of money doing it. Thanks to Mass Effect and BioWare we have at least one game in the current generation that tries to explore the potential that the video game medium still clearly has. Oh yeah and Achievements actually reward you with permanent in-game bonuses.