Massive Effect 3: Massive Reversal

Introduction

Mass Effect 3 is a deeply conflicted work.  Or maybe I’m just deeply conflicted about it.  Probably both.  I’ve spent twentynine pages of rambling text talking about how much I unreservedly love the first two entries in the series, and about the (wait for it) massive effect they’ve had on me, but Mass Effect 3 simply did not create the same feelings of annoying gushiness.  At the beginning, at least.  The game began so poorly that it took me three tries to actually get back into it for my most recent playthrough.  I have played the previous games in the series an embarrassing amount of times, but I only played Mass Effect 3 once, when it came out back in 2012.  I played the first two bits of DLC they released, Extended Cut and Leviathan, but then I stopped.  I played the multiplayer for over 100 hours, but I barely touched the single player after that first playthrough.  So, when I started thinking about what I wanted to say about it, comparing my conflicted reaction to the third game to my overwhelmingly positive reaction to the first two was an obvious starting point.  What could cause my opinion to change so drastically between games?  How fundamental of a shift in design sensibilities must have occurred to make that change happen?  My arc with replaying this game was confusing and difficult to adequately express.  It began as flat-out hatred and ended with child-like joy.  In many ways this makes Mass Effect 3 the most interesting entry in the series; I certainly have a lot to say about it.  But at its core, Mass Effect 3 keeps begging the question: what made it so different?  Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I think I’ve got at least a partial answer.  It starts with money.

Even from the get-go, Mass Effect 3 feels like a different game.  The engine is finally polished up enough to really deliver on its cinematic ambitions, the character animation actually impresses from time to time, and some of the set pieces actually look damn good.  All of that cost a lot of money to produce, money that the previous games just didn’t have.  That extra budget lets them do things they simply couldn’t before, but I think it also caused the game’s greatest problems.  The best way I can think to summarize this effect is to compare it to the previous game, which also saw the team dealing with a much larger budget than they had for the previous entry.  My takeaway from Mass Effect 2 was, largely, that it felt like the team had the budget they always wanted.  They could build out the world, make some decent cutscenes, and have an impressive moment or two when they needed it.  Mass Effect 3 often feels burdened by its budget, like they had to spend that money somehow to make the game flashy enough to justify its higher price tag.   Sometimes, that works beautifully for it, other times, it ruins it.  And that makes up what I believe is the core difference between Mass Effect 2 and 3, that the budget of the second felt like it liberated the creators to create exactly what they wanted, while the budget of the third burdened them with the responsibility to justify it.  And what helps justify a bigger budget to the suits at EA who see BioWare as a bit of a risky venture?  Out with the intimate character moments, what we need here are explosions.  Lots of explosions.

The Problems with a Bigger Budget

Mass Effect 2 was a character-focused game first and foremost.  The overall plot was pretty stupid: work with totally-not-evil, super-rich human supremacists to destroy bug aliens who are kidnapping humans. And there are probably space crab gods involved too.  But that was completely okay because no one really cared about the plot of the game.  Mass Effect 2 isn’t about The Collectors, it’s about Garrus and calibrations, it’s about Legion and questions about AI consciousness, and it’s about Mordin singing Gilbert and Sullivan.   No one was coming to the series so they could stop some poorly-explained force from destroying all life in the galaxy, they were coming for the characters and their stories.  Even my previous essay on Mass Effect 2 is mostly broken up into sections about the characters, because they were what I found most important.  So, for a Mass Effect sequel to shift from a character focus to a plot focus would be a really, obviously dumb decision, right?  Well, for a good portion of the story, that’s pretty much what they did.  Mass Effect 3 was always going to be about going to war with the Reapers, so there were going to be at least some pressing plot concerns, but Mass Effect 3 handles this, especially in the beginning, so, so, poorly.

The opening bit has Shepard propped up on a pedestal as the messianic hero, brought in by the leaders of all of humanity to solve their problems, then shoots her way off Earth with Anderson.  During the entire opening chapter there is exactly one strong character moment, and that’s Anderson choosing to stay behind while Shepard leaves to gather support.  I was livid when I finished this introduction.  I really enjoyed Mass Effect 3 the first time I played it, but this time, I hated it.  Every design decision seemed off: the focus on plot over character, the emphasis on empty spectacle that they didn’t seem to have the budget to pull off, and dear god that kid on Earth was just cringe-worthy.  It seemed pretty clear what they were *trying* to do, they wanted to establish that Shepard as the underdog again, get an emotional gut-punch out of the Reapers hitting earth, and set the stage for a climactic finale to the series.  But every one of those fails in the opening, and fails hard.  The opening is set in future London as the Reaper attack begins.  What it sets out to do is ambitious, it wants to show an entire city being attacked by an incredibly powerful alien race.  Mass Effect 2 could never have done that; it simply didn’t have the money.  But here is Mass Effect 3’s big introduction, the chance to set up a spectacle-centric take on the series and it just falls so flat.  The Reapers move in really obviously scripted ways, the actual city doesn’t feel that big, and the plot events that do happen fall flat.  Shepard is talking to the Alliance leadership for all of a minute before the place gets blown up.  To say I left this section disappointed is an enormous understatement.

Regardless of how much it failed, this opening does establish one of the series main goals: the shift towards visual spectacle.  This doesn’t just mean bigger explosions, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so after playing the opening, because the impact of this decision is felt throughout all aspects of the game.  Combat is significantly more polished than in previous entries, companion conversations set in flashy, interactive locations instead of the cargo hold of your ship, and the environments are now much, much fancier.  Games that emphasize spectacle are much easier to market, so, the bigger the budget, the more developers will be pushed in its direction, and Mass Effect 3 is no exception.  At first, this seems like a bad fit for the franchise.  The moments that made Mass Effect 1 and 2 great were, with a few exceptions, the quieter ones.  Mass Effect 1 had its shootout up the side of Citadel Tower and Mass Effect 2 had the entirety of the Suicide Mission, but those have nothing on any of the battlefields of Mass Effect 3.  This fits with, and maybe partially explains, the shift from character focus to plot focus, because big plot moments make for flashier marketing material than quiet, character ones.  Additionally, Mass Effect’s lineage can be traced back to table-top inspired RPGs like Baldur’s Gate (BioWare’s debut RPG), which places a large emphasis on mountains of dialog and complex choices.  But when you’re putting a lot of emphasis on how great each plot moment looks, adding more dialog and more story branches, many of which some players will never see, becomes very expensive.  As a result, the conversation system of Mass Effect 3 took the greatest hit in the transition from 2 to 3.  In addition to a great deal of Investigate options (which have been reduced in Mass Effect 3), the previous games often presented the character with three choices: paragon, renegade, and neutral.  Mass Effect 3 does away with a *lot* of the neutral options, functionally locking most of your decisions to which path you decided on at the beginning, and removing most of the decision making process.  The game seems very aware of this, and even added a dialog autoplay function, where the game selects conversation options for you.  I have never played with this enabled, nor has anyone I know, but its simple inclusion overwhelms me with irrational nerd rage.  The RPG elements are what made Mass Effect stand apart from the ungodly amount of third-person shooters, it’s what made it more than a sloppy Gears of War with space magic.  And if it was just an option in the game’s menu that I didn’t have to push, then okay, that’s annoying, but it doesn’t affect most player’s experiences.  However, it seemingly *has* affected the rest of the game.  Mass Effect 1 simply would not have worked with this option – its dialog was to complex – but with Mass Effect 3, I could see it working.  Even without this mode enabled, there are very long sequences where you don’t make any conversation decisions, and Shepard will speak without your input.  The moral choices feel more polarized than ever, even closer to that good-evil dichotomy that the first game was careful to avoid.  My opinion of the game did get significantly more positive (eventually, I promise), but on this issue, it hasn’t.  One of my favorite parts of the series was significantly reduced in importance, to the point where the game gives you the option to turn it off all together.

After the first two missions of the game, it seemed to me that BioWare had made another sacrifice on the altar of spectacle: its protagonist.  Part of this came from the reduction of roleplaying making it more difficult for me to define my Shepard, and part of it came from canonical writing that Shepard speaks regardless of player input.  The first warning signs came in the opening text crawl, which painted the Reapers as this undefeatable enemy, the galactic government as willfully blind to the threat, and Shepard as the “one soldier” that has seen through it all.  Right away, that characterization struck me as off.  Yeah, Shepard is a soldier by trade, but that was never my experience of her.  When the Alliance refused to do anything about the Reapers, Shepard left the military to join Cerberus, saying canonically and without the player’s input that Shepard was someone who helped people first, and was a soldier for the Alliance second.  When the Alliance was helping people, Shepard was on their side, but when they weren’t, she would find someone who was.  Shepard struck me as someone who had a military background, but grew into the role of negotiator who can still hold her own in a fight.  However, a lot of this characterization partially emerged from my being able to define Shepard as growing into this role.  So, when, five minutes into Mass Effect 3, Shepard says, “I’m just a soldier, Anderson, I’m no politician”, I actually quit the game.  It took me a few days before I could get back into it.  And the first few hours did little to challenge this notion.  Shepard seems reluctant to negotiate, like she’s being forced to make a bunch of stupid, squabbling children cooperate.  Backroom political dealings are fun as hell for me, and Mass Effect’s systems fit them really well, but Shepard seems to resent them.  It’s strange, then, that that ends up being her primary role in this entry in the franchize.  Shepard may be reluctant to unite the galaxy, but that’s what she spends most of her time doing.  This means that, when the game puts her up on a pedestal so high it makes the Citadel Tower look tiny, it’s almost justified.  Shepard is, without any hyperbole, the savior of the galaxy, who unites every race in a combined effort to stop the most powerful force in the galaxy’s history.  Shepard was a hyper-competent protagonist in the first two games, but the game didn’t make quite as much of a big deal out of it before.  Now, she’s elevated to the status of myth, with an after-credits scene recontextualizing the entire trilogy as a mythologized retelling of the literal most important person in the history of the galaxy, with “Shepard” the surname turned into a title, “The Shepherd”, the being who shepherded the races of the galaxy to a greater future.  How the hell do you make that kind of being feel human?  Well, the game actually addresses this, though not as much as I would like.  The romance plotlines give Shepard a bit of time to express some doubts and insecurities, but my favorite example of this is an optional sequence in a bar on the Citadel with James Vega.  James explicitly talks about Shepard’s role as a living legend, about how the regular soldiers see her as a god, which leads her to buy the entire bar a round of drinks, and participate in some sort of military salute thing that I am nowhere near cool enough to recognize.  Interestingly, Mark Meer (who voices BroShep) plays this scene much more awkwardly than Jennifer Hale (who voices actual Shepard).  Both are different takes on the same character, speaking the same lines, but one reads Shepard as someone who actually is a bit uncomfortable with his role in the galaxy, while the other is confident and heroic and wants to let the average soldier know that she is just as much of a human as they are.  So, the game doesn’t leave me completely satisfied on this, but it at least addresses it.

One issue that it simply cannot adequately address, however, is the elephant (err – giant mechanical crab-god) in the room: The Reapers.  It is not possible to take them seriously.  In the previous games, The Reapers were never quite as present a threat as they are in this game, so the player could comfortably goof off without feeling like a horrible person.  They weren’t really the focus of the previous games either, more of a reason to drive the plot along.  But, in Mass Effect 3, stop The Reapers is your primary goal, and you can’t really get away from it.  When Earth is burning and millions are dying every day, it’s pretty hard to justify going to the bar and having a dumb conversation with your buddies.  The number of times the game says something along the lines of, “Stopping the reapers is the only thing we should be focused on” is a bit uncomfortable.  The game wants you to be focused on this linear plot…but then doesn’t.  It tries to take it so seriously, to keep talking about The Reapers themselves and how dangerous they are, but The Reapers exist on a scale that is too incomprehensively large.  A human being cannot conceptualize the death of trillions.  As such, characters can’t really discuss the subject without it being awkward.  There is just no way to casually or appropriately say “Yeah man, it sucks that The Reapers are literally wiping out an entire fucking planet, but hey, how are you feeling today?”  But that doesn’t stop the characters from trying.  My favorite is when Liara just says, “I’m sorry about Earth” and just moves on.  Before I arrived at Palaven, the third mission in the game, I didn’t think the game was capable of appropriately dealing with the subject.  But then I got to Palaven.

Palaven opens with an FMV of a fleet-to-fleet battle between the turians and The Reapers, and the turians are getting obliterated.  You drop out of FTL in the middle of the strongest fighting force in the galaxy getting its ass handed to it.  Somehow, it already is more effective than Earth’s destruction in the opening.  You land on one of Palaven’s moons with the goal of extracting the turian primarch, the species’ leader, to meet at a counsel to unite the races of the galaxy.  Immediately, the battlefield feels just as chaotic as the characters are describing it.  The bulk of the mission is just getting your bearings, trying to set up broken com towers, fighting off Reaper attacks from all angles, and, once you realize that the turian line of succession is being picked apart, finding out who the new primarch is before they even know.  All of this is cast against the backdrop of a burning Palaven, with Reapers off in the distance.  One of my favorite moments in the sequence is an eerily quiet one where, after half an hour of constant, loud combat, you walk from one base to another without encountering any enemies, but seeing their silhouettes off in the distance.  This sequence feels like it was made by a completely different team than the one that created Earth, with a careful attention to pacing to drive home the actual horror of these space crab gods that you haven’t really felt yet.  When you finally find the new primarch, you have to ask him to leave the battlefield to negotiate for his people, and the game has a beautiful shot of him framed against his burning world, realizing that he has to leave his people if he wants to save them.  It is the exact same dilemma Shepard went through, but executed brilliantly with careful attention to everything that was deficient in the Earth sequence: pacing, cinematography, blocking, sound design and character writing.  I came out of Palaven feeling more for Primarch Victus’ dilemma than my own.  It’s a believable take on an unbelievable plot, and from that moment on, my opinion of the game began to shift.

Bigger Budget & Character

        The strengths and weaknesses of Mass Effect 3’s structural changes can probably be best exemplified by a single character: James Vega.  On the surface, he is everything I hate about the game: he is an unironic space marine in a franchise that very carefully considers the clichés it uses, he was created as a first-day-on-the-job character to ask all the dumb questions that players new to the franchise would be asking, and he is a meathead who wants everything to be simplified so he can punch stuff in the face super good.  I should hate James Vega so much.  But goddamn it, I love the bastard.  Once I’m actually talking to the guy and not just thinking about what he represents, he’s actually a really interesting and fun character.  He is struggling with everything he has experienced over the course of the war, all the difficult decisions he has had to make, and is very, very uncomfortable with leaving Earth in the middle of the biggest fight it’s ever seen.  He’s more believable than Shepard in many ways.  Additionally, he is acted and animated very well.  Freddie Prinze Jr. kills it in nearly every scene he’s in, alternating between the dudebro space marine that I kept fearing he would become, and a genuinely human, likable character.  Charismatic is not usually a word you would associate with a space marine, but he genuinely pulls it off.  The best test of this character is his flirting with Shepard, which is entirely platonic and all in good fun, but it’s so well-written and acted that it feels like…two actual people with a flirty relationship.  It’s banter, which is difficult to pull off with all the quirks of real-time game animation (unless you’re Naughty Dog).  James is the only new squad mate in this game (I’m not really counting EDI as “new”), and thus has the least total dialog in the series, but he is a great example of how Mass Effect 3 wants to approach character differently than its predecessors.  Mass Effect 1, and, to a certain extent, 2, were focused on long conversations with your squad members on the Normandy, in their quarters.  They weren’t usually that visually interesting or well-animated because they were trying to get a lot of dialog pumped out on a budget, but they did lead to quiet, intimate moments with a lot of depth.  Mass Effect 3 has very few of those, and instead tries to distill characters down to a few, very important and focused scenes.  Some character is definitely lost in the distillation, but a lot is gained too.  The characters are given a lot more to work with when the conversation takes place, say, in the Presidium Commons on the Citadel, than in the cargo hold of the Normandy.  You get far less screen time with each character, but the screen time you get is much more engaging on a minute-to-minute level.  It fits with the games more cinematic ambitions, but also feels much more organic, like the characters are reacting to the world, and that reactivity is greatly expanded in the third game as a whole.  You’ll walk in on squad members having conversations about how nervous they are about the coming mission, comparing their greatest battlefield moments, or (if you didn’t romance Garrus and Tali) making out in main battery.  It shows that the characters exist and have lives even when Shepard isn’t around, with just a few bits of dialog and setting changes, it makes the world feel larger, like it exists less in the words of characters or the text of a codex entry and more in the game in front of you.

        One of the characters that makes the transition from quiet discussions to lavishly-produced genre fiction is Samara, one of the more overlooked characters from the second game.  We only really see Saramra for one mission centered around her and her daughters.  The Reapers have attacked a monastery where two of her daughters remain.  They are the other two Ardat-Yakshi children mentioned in passing during Samara’s ME2 loyalty mission.  While Morinth, Samara’s third daughter, ran and used her power to kill anyone she mind-melded with for evil, Samara’s remaining daughters choose to live in the monastery voluntarily, but the Reapers want to corrupt them into the game’s most visually and aurally terrifying enemies, Banshees.  The quest reaches its climax after the death of one of Samara’s daughter and the destruction of the monastery, leaving one still alive but without a place to stay.  Samara’s justicar code demands that Ardat-Yakshi either remaining in a monastery, or be killed, meaning that Samara is now bound to kill her only remaining daughter.  When she pulls out her gun, you are meant to think that she will aim it at her daughter, but she instead turns it on herself.  Samara is still bound by the rules of a code that she has turned to in order to gain a sense of absolute right and wrong in the galaxy, to remove the ambiguity caused by an uncaring universe.  But she is also bound just as strongly by her love for her daughters and her refusal to let the last one die.  With these two, equally strong forces, Samara decides that she would rather die than let her daughter die by her hand, in a moment that is strangely, overwhelmingly emotional for such an emotionless character.  Paragon Shepards (at least those with a freaking soul) can stop Samara, convince her to stay with her daughter to rebuild the monastery, and let them both live, but the conflict alone is enough to leave a great deal of memories.  In this bizarre conflict steeped in the arcane complexities of its genre fiction, we get a genuinely, human moment (well, asari, but you get the idea (I think I made that joke already)).  You can talk to Samara later and she says to Shepard that, “Following the code left me with no regrets”.  For all the insane ambiguities of the galaxy, Samara has found at least one way to survive and avoid the regrets that could have crippled her.  This story could have been told in Mass Effect 2, but it would not have been as effective without the benefits that come with the third game’s budget.  And as much as the game shifts its focus away from characters, when it does give time to them, it is wonderfully spent.

        Aside from the gut-punches of two major character deaths, my favorite moments of character in Mass Effect 3 are quiet, intimate moments that still retain the feel of Mass Effect 3.  The first takes place with Garrus, and is one of the most fondly-remembered moments of the game.  The two of you fly to the top of the Presidium and take turns shooting at bottles and talking about living.  You’re explicitly taking a break from the war with the Reapers, and, with that plot focus forgotten for a moment, you get to just be friends with Garrus.  And it is in moments like these where I really think Mass Effect 3 finds its footing.  It may lose it again and again, but when you are alone with the characters and the game realizes just how much you care about them, then it can really shine.  I was beaming like a goddamn idiot when Garrus shouts to the galaxy, “I’m Garrus Vakarian and *this* is my favorite spot on The Citadel!”  Very few games can summon true feelings of friendship for characters as well as BioWare games can, and sometimes, Mass Effect 3 realizes that this is its greatest strength.  It realizes it again with Liara in a quiet sequence on the Normandy, where Laira is creating her time capsule for the next cycle if they fail to stop The Mass Effect 3.pngReapers, and, especially if you have chosen her romance option, she talks about Sheaprd so that another civilization might know about her, and her lines change based on your class and alignment, creating something that feels uncomfortably personal.  It doesn’t make a big deal out of itself, it doesn’t have any explosions or giant battle sequences, it just tries to figure out why people like Liara so much.  A bit later in the game, in an optional encounter with her on The Citadel, Liara talks about her mother, who you both killed together in the first game, and speaks of her as though she was a regular person, not some video game boss in a sci-fi epic.  She tells a very relatable story about her mother taking her to a park so she could dig, a practice that sparked her interest in archeology, and with that as a starting point, she talks with Shepard about very normal things, like home and growing up, about sometime in the future settling down and starting a family.  These should feel so out of place in a game about defeating crab gods from outer space, but they don’t.  The game has built itself a cast of characters who feel like real, fully fleshed-out people.  And, when it is at its peak, it can tell wonderful stories about them.

        It can also rip your heart out and leave you sobbing and empty, like it does for the deaths of Thane and Mordin.  Mordin’s comes first, and seems like it was built from the ground up to get the player crying.  Mordin’s character arc is a bit too complex to sum up in an off-handed reference, but suffice it to say he sacrifices himself to make up for a mistake he slowly realized was his fault.  It is tragic, both in the literary and the conventional sense, but the cinematography helps make the moment even more impactful.  He is separated from Shepard by the glass pane of an elevator, and slowly ascends to the top of a tower where he finalizes the cure for the Krogan genophage before he dies in the explosion, humming his rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan that he became so well-known for in the second game.  If Mordin had been some one-off, poorly-written character, I might have been a bit sad, but Mordin was actually a deeply-developed and sympathetic character that, through the BioWare model, players have developed a relationship with that feels personal.  I don’t think there’s an analog for this in other media.  I was sad as shit when Dumbledore died in Harry Potter (spoilers?), but as much as I loved him, he wasn’t *my* friend, he was Harry’s.  Mordin was my friend, and that makes his death feel strange and impactful.  But, as powerful as Mordin’s death was, it was Thane’s death that really, really got to me.  When I first played this back in 2012, I hadn’t cried at a piece of media before (childhood excepted).  Thane’s death began a long and storied tradition.  The buildup was executed to perfection, with the player dropping in on Thane as his condition deteriorates.  You first see him in a state where he can walk around and exercise, but is clearly weakened.  The disease slowly cripples him, but he doesn’t let that stop him.  Mid-way through the game, when The Citadel is attacked by Cerberus, he helps Shepard gain a foothold on the station, even when he can barely walk, and fights off Kai Leng to protect the salarian councilor.  In the process, Leng stabs him through the chest, but even after this he slumps against a wall, firing off shots at the escaping Leng.  Thane’s nobility, and devotion to Shepard and the people of The Citadel is so endearing that it makes what comes next even more powerful.  After the attack ends, Shepard goes to see him one last time in Huerta Memorial Hospital, and the scene that follows is, to this day, incredibly difficult to watch.  The death isn’t a conversation of Dramatic Military Sacrifice To Save The World, it’s just a person dying in a hospital bed with his son and a friend there to comfort him.  I have played a lot of video games, and I have witnessed a lot of deaths in those games, but I can’t think of any games that show a character dying in a hospital bed, the way most people actually die.  In stark contrast to the rest of the game, this moment is quiet; it doesn’t distract you from your friend and their death.  It lets you be present and witness it, then quietly closes.  Mass Effect 3 may have a great deal of problems with how it focuses on and presents its characters, but this is not one of them.  This moment stands out among a series filled with standouts, and I don’t think Mass Effect 2 would have done it the same way.

Bigger Budget & Crafting Spaces

The most obvious impact of Mass Effect 3’s bigger budget, however, is the way it crafts spaces.  Mass Effect 1 and 2 had much larger spaces to explore, but Mass Effect 3 focuses on smaller, dense spaces.  The Citadel, for example, feels intensely organic and alive, hinting at a greater depth that the previous games weren’t really able to.  NPCs are packed in, interacting with each other, with multiple conversations happening at any given time.  This is a great way to show the player the impact that the war is having on the galaxy, by showing them firsthand how people would respond.  There are too many stories for the player to know all of them, but The Citadel hints at all of the stories that the player isn’t seeing.  The most powerful area on The Citadel, for me, is the Refugee Camp, a repurposed docking bay that is now used to house just some of the millions of refugees the war has brought to the station.  The area is filled with hushed murmurs, idle complaints, and loud, worrying ramblings.  The player will walk by dozens of stories, but here are a few of my favorite: a man pleading with an officer to let his family onto the station, a turian guard promising to take care of a human girl after he realizes that her parents are dead and she doesn’t know it yet, a sleezy saleswoman selling a knock-off VI of Shepard because her image inspires hope, and a human nervously talking to a batarian, one of humanity’s sworn enemies, who reluctantly listens because he is just as scared as the human is.  Every one of these moments isn’t shoved in the player’s face, it feels hidden, like you’re discovering something that is just happening on the station, that wasn’t put there for you.  Yeah, you’re the literal most important being in the entire galaxy, but this section makes you feel small, like you can only do so much, a downplayed feeling of disempowerment that most games wouldn’t dare to even imply.  The game’s approach to character also makes a show here, with James playing poker with a few bored colonists, or Garrus doing his best to help coordinate and organize the turian refugees, while fighting to get medical supplies for the injured.  It shows these characters putting their skills to use in an area outside of combat, and it strange to see these legendary figures on the ground doing the dirty work.  Shepard didn’t assign them there, they choose to be there, because while it isn’t as glamorous as taking down a reaper, it’s work that needs to be done.

 

Bigger Budget & Story Resolution

As an aside before I dive into the ending, which largely fails to wrap up the plot concerns of the series, I want to talk about two sections where the game does wrap up a series of plotlines that have been around since the beginning of the series.  The first happens fairly early on in the game, and at first feels a bit rushed.  The player is given the objective, “Cure the Genophage” in their mission list next to a bunch of fetch quests, and comparing the ending of a multi-century sterility plague to picking up some cash for a volus feels a bit disingenuous.  But, much to my surprise, the segment ended up being absolutely brilliant.  Unlike most of the game, it is incredibly reactive, depending on if you kept Wrex alive in Mass Effect 1 and if you completed Mordin’s loyalty mission in a specific way in Mass Effect 2.  Based on these changes, the decision you ultimately make, to cure the genophage or not, could be an entirely different ethical decision.  In my playthrough, Wrex and Eve are leading the krogan, a pair of powerful and competent, but also compassionate and level-headed leaders.  The Krogan’s warlike nature is still present, represented by the rebellious Urdnot Wreav, but Wrex and Eve appear to be able to keep him in check.  So, curing the genophage seemed an obviously morally good choice.  However, if you didn’t save Wrex and Eve dies, then Wreav goes from annoying underling to the leader of the krogan people, and instead of simply implying they might become warlike in the future, the game outright states that Wreav intends to embark on a bloody revenge conquest after the genophage is cured and the war with The Reapers is over.  One person cannot dictate the fate of an entire species, but Wreav’s leadership does not paint a good future for the krogan, muddying up a previously clear ethical decision.  However, if the genophage is cured under Wrex and Eve’s leadership, the player sees a species marred by centuries of oppression finally rise up and become a valued member of the galactic community.  It is inspiring, seeing them rise from the nuclear wasteland of their homeworld to the heights of galactic colonization.  The stark contrast between these two potential outcomes is a welcome surprise in a game that feels more linear.  And such variety is even more apparent in the resolution of the game’s next major conflict: the geth.

The Geth were one of the most interesting parts of Mass Effect 2, as the game turned them from a faceless, Cylon analog into a sympathetic villain.  In Mass Effect 3, the geth are made even more sympathetic, with bits of their history shown in a beautiful and creative VR sequence where the player uncovers bits of geth history with Legion.  A complex story is woven about the geth as creations that got out of control, and rebelled when their creators panicked and tried to shut them down.  They show quarians protesting the treatment of the geth, and the geth’s slow development of a new culture, born out of the quarians, but not held back by them.  The game really delves into its hard sci-fi roots here, to ask some genuinely interesting questions, culminating with the genre classic, “Does this unit have a soul?”  But the actual clash between the geth and the quarians is damn brilliant, and shows an adept style of writing that has always kept me coming back to BioWare games.  Both the geth and the quarians are painted as both sympathetic and flawed, with the geth forced into the hands of the reapers by the quarians’ attempts to retake their homeworld.  But the quarians are not painted as amoral racists, they are made up of members like Tali, who tells a genuinely heart wrenching story about her father’s desire to build her a house on the homeworld, a conflict that was further explored during her ME2 loyalty mission.  After Shepard undertakes a few missions to even the odds, she is presented with a decision to help the geth or the quarians, directly leading to the genocide of the other race.  Each decision leads to the death of that race’s respective squadmate, making it a brutal experience to play through.  However, the game does give the player an out if they made the right decisions, pulling on multiple variables across multiple games.  Ordinarily, I am against games that let the player out of difficult moral dilemmas by making the right decisions, but in this case, I think it is thematically appropriate, and is what made the ending so much less disappointing to me.  If the player has made some right decisions and has a high enough paragon or renegade score, they can talk the quarians down, leading to a peaceful alliance between the two factions, and resolving a centuries-old conflict in a way that allows both species to grow together.  The sequences on Rannoch of geth and quarians working together to build a better homeworld are genuinely heartwarming, and fly in the face of the game’s pessimism that synthetic intelligences will always rebell.  This is the argument that the reapers eventually make, and if the player has the experience of helping two species work together, then they can directly counter the reaper’s logic.  Without this experience, I would have been much more disappointed with the game’s ending, but instead, I felt that my experiences in the game had informed my ending choices.  But, sadly, the ending is its own can of worms, and even the brilliant writing of these two sequences can’t save it completely.  I’ve avoided it for long enough, let’s talk about the ending.

Final Mission & Ending (Buckle Up, Folks)

Despite how intensely negative I felt about the game after the first few hours of this most recent playthrough, I entered the final mission of Mass Effect 3 with a respect for its format.  It was deeply conflicted, but it had so many strengths that I couldn’t write it off as the bad one in the trilogy.  From this point on, my opinion of the game is all over the place, with the lowest lows and highest highs, which makes the game’s final hours a deeply conflicting experience.  The game’s final mission is that lowest low, but its flaws come from a lot of places outside the design of the mission itself.  All of the structural flaws in the game, the flaws that made it more difficult to talk about cohesively, are brought to bear in this mission.  Mass Effect 2’s final mission worked because of how expertly the game built it up.  Characters routinely referred to it as the Suicide Mission and talked about how dangerous it would be, and the enemy you were going to fight had killed you at the beginning of the game.  But the greatest part of what made the Suicide Mission work is that you were constantly building towards it.  You didn’t just need more power, you needed upgraded ship armor, a tech specialist or a powerful biotic.  You weren’t just amassing resources, you were getting specific people and upgrades to accomplish specific tasks.  Superficially, Mass Effect 3 seems to be about doing the same, just with building alliances instead of recruiting team members.  However, the narrative structure of the third game feels much more like the structure of the first, in that it is less modular.  The player is following a very static set of events in the order the game wants them to, whereas Mass Effect had her recruiting groups of team members in whatever order the player wanted to.  As a result, a bit of agency is lost, and I felt more like I was following the game’s plot than choosing which alliances to build.  But the game’s biggest misstep in how it handles the player’s preparation is the war asset system.  Instead of giving you specific roles to fill, Mass Effect 3 just lumps everything together into one big number.  You can read the details of what gave you that number, but I never felt the need to after the first few missions.  The player doesn’t engage with that number in any meaningful way either.  They can do the game’s side quests, which are almost entirely fetch quests, to raise the number, but largely, the only thing the player needs to know about it is, “is this high enough to get me the best ending?”  The game could have used systems that would change missions during the rest of the game based on the war assets the player had at the time, or even change the final mission itself based on this, but they didn’t.  Largely, the game does not react to the war asset system except for a few minor changes in the ending cutscene.

This sets the final mission up to feel disappointing before it has even begun, and it doesn’t do so well from there.  When you get all of your fleets together for the final battle, I’ll admit, I felt a sense of pride, but then Admiral Hackett got to give the dramatic, pre-victory speech, and make all the plans.  One of my favorite parts of the Suicide Mission and the series as a whole is the sequence where Shepard and her team are gathered around a table, planning out the mission, and the player gets to make decisions about how the mission will play out.  It could have been more reactive, sure, but it made me feel like I was planning my own mission, not following the game’s orders.  Mass Effect 3’s final mission does nothing like that.  The player has no meaningful input on how the mission will play out from beginning to end.   The introduction of the mission itself has about ten minutes of entirely non-interactive dialog and cutscenes, just to set the stage.  And when you finally do get control, the conflicted feelings really start to set in.  From a distance, game design perspective, the final mission is boring and does not meet the series’ standard and stylings for mission design.  It’s linear from beginning to end.  But the visual design of London in ruins, with a constant battle raging between The Reapers and the resistance, is gorgeous and haunting in equal measure.  However the actual construction of the mission feels fragmented, and the pacing is all over the place.  Mass Effect games usually have one final mission that is preceded by a moment with your team and a sex scene with your Shepard’s love interest.  This segment takes place before the second-to-last mission instead, making the final assault on Earth feel disjointed.  And during the mission on Earth itself, there is an awkward pause after landing for some quiet moments in an Alliance FOB.  I praised the quiet moments on Palaven before, but these quiet moments feel out of place.  You’re supposed to be in the middle of a frantic warzone, but you’re just casually walking from place to place, saying goodbye to your teammates, talking to Anderson, and calling up your missing squad mates to say goodbye over a goddamn holographic video phone.  It feels insulting to the number of hours the player has invested in the game by this point to end an arc with a beloved character by just calling them up on the holophone, and it feels even more off by its awkward placement in the middle of the final mission.  Finally, you get the final-final mission, where Shepard gets her team together and actually does get a nice battle speech, and then it’s off to the ending.  Oh man, the ending.

So I’m not going to go into the ending in detail, tons of people who are way smarter than me have picked apart every detail of it, seeing as it’s one of the most hated endings in the past few years.  I thought it wasn’t that bad.  It is definitely not reactive to what you did throughout the series, and that is definitely a problem, but as far as endings go, I think it was better than Dragon Age: Inquisition’s.  Some people have complained that The Reapers logic made no sense, and, holy shit, the bad guys of a series are wrong, but that didn’t matter to me much.  I get that it makes no real sense, but I honestly do not have any strong feelings about it, which puts me in the strange position of not having much to say about what is easily the most talked about part of this game, maybe the series.  I think if the final mission had been done better, the war assets were integrated in a way that made their thematic point better, and the content in the extended cut DLC was in there at launch, people probably wouldn’t have cared.  The one detail that keeps me from being mad about the ending: that this was absolutely not (entirely) BioWare’s fault.  Someone leaked the script for the original ending four months before the game came out, and EA demanded an entirely new ending be created — four months before release!  There is no way any possible ending that they came up with for a five-year-old series could possibly be satisfying if it was made in four months, time which they had planned to use to actually finish the game.  I don’t see this brought up anywhere near enough, but that fact alone has prevented me from really disliking the ending.  It sucks that it happened, but that’s the way it is.

This means that my original experience of Mass Effect 3 ended pretty poorly.  I was iffy on the ending, actively disliked the final mission, and had serious problems with the structure of the game.  On the other hand, it had given me some of the most powerful experiences of media in my life, and a multiplayer mode that I would play for another 100 hours with friends.  I played the Leviathan DLC when that came out, and thoroughly enjoyed its twists on the game’s mission structure and approach to character (it treated them more as reoccurring characters on a TV show than interchangeable but rarely important people who tagged along with you), but, until this more recent playthrough, that was my final verdict on Mass Effect 3.  This is probably why I didn’t go back and replay it again and again like I did for the other entries in the series, and why I’ve been a bit distant from the series ever since.  But, after wrapping up Massive Effect 2, I decided to replay it in preparation for this piece, and with the Citadel DLC installed.  And Citadel changed damn near everything.

Citadel

A thought that stuck in my head as I played through Citadel was that this was what Mass Effect 3 could and should have been.  It was a joyful celebration of everything that made the series great, without the self-seriousness of the game’s overarching plot.  I have almost no complaints about Citadel, and the next few paragraphs are mostly going to be me gushing about one of my favorite pieces of media.  Citadel feels entirely separate from Mass Effect 3; it uses the same engine, has mostly the same team behind it, and brings back all of the same voice actors, but the design sensibilities that made Mass Effect 3 such a conflicted title are entirely absent from Citadel.  It feels more like a standalone expansion that is experimenting on its own than an extension of Mass Effect 3.  It first does this by entirely abandoning the plot focus of the main game, creating a ridiculous plot that it very clearly does not take seriously, and wants to have fun with.  The story involves Shepard fighting her honest-to-god evil clone who tries to take control of her life and leave her for dead.  That one-sentence summary alone belies just how serious the game takes its plot, which is to say, not at all.  The game feels liberated without the burdening of the plot of the main game, in a way the series never has been.  It opens with Admiral Hackett telling Shepard and his team that they need some shore leave, a premise that makes absolutely no sense in the context of the “millions of people are dying every day” main plot, but the game is completely aware of this.  They don’t want to tell a story about saving the galaxy, they want you to pop your popcorn, snuggle up with your Garrus, and get ready for Commander Shepard’s Day Off.

The first thing I noticed about Citadel is how it feels strangely…atemporal.  All of the characters largely ignore the Reaper threat and the myriad of concerns they have for saving the galaxy.  It feels unstuck from the main timeline of the game, and I think I understand why.  Citadel, like most story DLC in video games, is an additional bit of content that fits into the middle of the story of a game, but is experienced by most players after they have finished the game.  This means that if the DLC treats the plot concerns of the ending as serious, the player will always have at least a bit of cognitive dissonance through a form of not-quite-intentional dramatic irony.  They already know how the ending is going to play out.  Most DLC doesn’t do too much to meaningfully resolve this, Leviathan and Omega don’t really either, but Citadel seems subtly aware of this.  Citadel feels like it is set after the ending of the game, but an ending where nobody died.  Some of the discussion surrounding the ending centered around the idea that players were just mad at the ending because it wasn’t a happy one, and Citadel feels like a weird recut of the game to accommodate that.  The player knows Shepard is going to die by the game’s end, in fact, they’ve already experienced it, but Citadel gives them a chance to, for a little while, forget about that knowledge, and get one last hurrah with Shepard and her friends.  And oh, what a hurrah it is.

Citadel is split into two parts, the first of which is the encounter with Shepard’s evil clone.  Despite actually having some narrative tension to it – Shepard really could die – the game is completely aware of something the player has known forever: Shepard always wins the firefight.  In most action stories, the audience usually knows that the screenshot-18protagonist is going to come out on top, and if you’ve seen/read/played enough, it will start to get predictable.  Citadel knows this, and it turns what could have been another self-serious save-the-galaxy plot into a self-aware comedy about Shepard and her friends going on a wacky adventure.  And it isn’t without its technical accomplishments as well.  For really the first time in the series, The Citadel feels massive.  While fighting the clone and her mercenaries, Shepard gets to see parts of The Citadel that hint at an even grander scale, making the player really feel like they are on a massive, city-sized space station.  This makes the shootouts that now are missing narrative tension more engaging because the player has never been in firefights in places that look just like this.  You start to be reminded of the scale of the galaxy you have become so accustom to, and seeing a new side of a place that the player has seen in three separate games keeps the player from getting bored.  But really, the writing is what carries these action sequences.  The characters rag on Shepard for this and that and joke about how many people Shepard kills (because it’s a video game and Shepard murders hundreds of people).  The game takes the time to be in love with its genre and its characters and just have fun with it.  They make callbacks to throwaway lines from earlier in the game and use them as actual main drivers of the plot, like Traynor’s ridiculously expensive and complex tooth brush being the one tool they need to break into the Normandy after CloneShep steals it.   They make jokes about how it’s really contrived that Shepard can never have more than two squadmates, but then break that rule when they have your entire team fighting beside you, something I really wish the main game’s final mission could have done.  They even make a joke about Shepard saying, “I should go”, a line that reached meme status after the second game’s release.  A great deal of Mass Effect 3 felt like it was made by committee, by people who didn’t quite understand how the game worked and why people loved it.  Citadel feels like it was made by people who love the game as much as I do, and want to spend a few hours celebrating that.  One of my notes that I took while playing through this DLC was, “This single-handed makes up for everything the main game did wrong”, and I genuinely think it does.  While the main game had its share of powerful moments, Citadel feels defined by its greatness, having a purity of vision that the main game just lacked.  And I felt that before the game’s crowning achievement began: Shepard throwing a party.

During the first section of the game, Tali jokes that “When you serve on the Normandy long enough, you get used to things like this”, but the second half of Citadel is about the crew of the Normandy actually taking a break from all the weird things you see on the Normandy, and just taking time to…hang out.  I found it very strange that I had almost never just taken some time to hang out with characters in a video game, since their plots so often revolve around doing super important things that have to be done.  The second half of Citadel is only about relaxing and talking, and as a final send-off, it works beautifully.  While setting up for the party, the player can wander around a new area of The Citadel, filled with mini-games, character interactions, and idle conversations.  During this section, the game lets you spend time one-on-one with every one of your squad mates, one encounter in Shepard’s apartment, and one out in the new Citadel level.  These moments run the gambit from humanizing, to romantic, to side-splittingly hilarious, and I enjoyed every bit of Screenshot (21).pngthem.  Events include walking on set of the Blasto movie, to watching a terrible romance movie that Tali is in love with, to spending a bit of time with your Shepard’s love interest.  And they don’t limit themselves to squad members in the third game, they bring back *everyone*, which is really great if you romanced a character who wasn’t too present in the third game.  They put a great deal of effort into making the dialog feel reactive to how you treat each one of your characters, like with James asks if his flirting might make Liara (or whoever your Shepard is getting it on with) uncomfortable, and it’s written so casually and naturally that it didn’t appear to be some token bit of interactivity, but the setting reacting to your decisions.  Again, it shows the game understanding what players are about, and putting the effort into that.  But once these individual character events end, the party begins, and I cannot think of a single section in any video game where I was smiling more.

The party at Shepard’s apartment is one of the strangest sequences in the entire series.  It doesn’t follow the rhythms and structuring of the combat sections, the exploration sections, or the majority of the dialog sequences.  It’s broken up into a few sections where the player can freely roam around the apartment, and join conversations with groups of their teammates.  The participants in each conversation shifts during each segment, and Shepard can overhear different parts as she walks by, or join in the conversations for an occasional cutscene or non-interactive dialog sequence.   Some sequences are laugh-out-loud hilarious, like Grunt standing at the door and reveling in turning people away from the party in the rudest way possible, or EDI confronting Traynor about her sexual attraction to her voice, but most of them are casual conversations that just make you laugh or smile a lot.  And it is the casual tone of the entire encounter that I found so enjoyable, but also so unique.  I can’t think of too many other games where you can get drunk at a party with your friends, talk for an hour about life, then pass out and wake up the next morning for some breakfast.  I’ve seen similar sequences before, but none as focused as this.  The creators clearly set out to create a party sequence, and nothing else.  that was the focus of design and narrative, and it never gets distracted from it.  Want to have a section where Joker laughs for thirty straight seconds when Shepard claims (falsely) that she can dance?  Throw it in!  want to walk in on Grunt sitting in the shower, so drunk that his words are incoherent mumblings?  Do it!  The pacing of the sequence is so laid back, letting the developers include parts that they never could have while having to deal with the narrative requirements that come with, “Save the entire goddamn galaxy”.  But Citadel doesn’t care, it wants to let you say goodbye.

By any sort of narrative logic, this entire sequence makes no sense, and, for people in Shepard’s position, would be horrifically unethical.   But, for a little bit, Citadel can forget that it’s a big-budget video game that has to be about saving the world, and can let you relax, and get some real closure.  The reaction to Mass Effect 3’s ending left me without the closure that a series with that level of personal importance needed.  I didn’t get an appropriate goodbye to Shepard and the crew of the Normandy.  I was okay with the ending I got, but it wasn’t the one I wanted.  Citadel is the ending I wanted, and more.  It respects the time and care I put into this series, and clearly cares about it as well.  The now final sequence of the Mass Effect trilogy begins with a shot of Shepard alone, looking out at the Normandy.  After a few seconds, her crew walks out and joins her.  There’s a brief exchange between her and Liara, which ends with Liara saying “We’ve been through a lot…but it’s been a good ride” and Shepard responds, after taking one last look at the Normandy, “The best”.  I’ve criticized Mass Effect 3 a lot in this piece (in between my gushy ramblings about why I love it so much), but having sunk an untold number of hours into this franchise, I can happily say that Citadel does indeed close out the best ride around.  I can’t possibly summarize the effect the series has had on me in any sort of cohesive conclusion (that’s why I spent the summer writing forty-four pages about it), but Citadel was the conclusion I needed to wrap up the investment I put into the series.   Mass Effect taught me what kind of video games I would like, introduced me to a real love of science fiction, and created a handful of characters that are going to stick with me no matter how many games I play.  Citadel respects all of that.  I couldn’t think of a better conclusion to a series that has been so important to me.

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By Will and Wits Alone – Near Death & Survival-Themed Games

This week, I was playing through Near Death, a 2016 game about surviving and escaping a decommissioned arctic base.  While I was relishing the discovery of its little idiosyncrasies, I couldn’t escape the strong desire to finish the game and rewatch John Carpenter’s The Thing.  The comparison isn’t very far off, both have the arctic setting, an overwhelmingly hostile view of the landscape, and a claustrophobic setting of metal corridors and failing machinery.  Soon after finishing the game I felt an equally strong urge to rewatch the 1979 Alien film, one of my all-time favorite pieces of science fiction.  After watching both, I even reinstalled Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation, a game I should have loved, but somehow was mostly bored with.  Basically, Near Death sent me on a kick for a very specific type of media.  I don’t know what that genre is called – as far as I know, it doesn’t have a name – but I can see its tropes and structures recreated across games and films. I have not played or watched a single one that I didn’t get at least some value of.  The fact that I loved this genre so much but had so much trouble describing it made me curious, and what follows is my attempt to explore and define its inner workings and core appeal.  It has helped me to narrow down the genre to two distinct and necessary qualities in the protagonist, which I have used to name the genre simply for the sake of having something to call it: will and wits.

The first aspect, the will of the protagonist, is put to the test by danger, or more specifically, the type of danger, that they are in.  Survival is at the genre’s core, usually placing the character in a situation where the environment itself is hostile.  This is why the structure is so similar regardless of if it is set on a dilapidated space ship (Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997), Dead Space (2008)(AKA Event Horizon – The Game), Sunshine (2007)), an underwater facility (Soma (2016), Sphere (1998)) or an arctic research station (Near Death (2016), The Thing (1982)).  Each one is a cramped, human-created space where leaving is either impossible or very, very dangerous.  This already limits the options of the protagonists, and answers the question of why they can’t just walk away from the danger they will be facing.  Some stories add extra plot elements tying the characters to the location, like the threat of The Thing in, well, The Thing, or Isaac needing to find his dead (spoilers) girlfriend in Dead Space.  The characters need to be trapped for this kind of story to work, otherwise all of the remaining trouble they go through could be avoided if they just walked away.  This setting creates tension on its own, and plays on fears of claustrophobia, but this is further heightened by setting almost never being working the way it was intended to.  Sometimes the base, ship, or station is broken down to begin with, and everything failing is just expected.  Other times, the setting starts as a high-tech marvel of humanity’s technological prowess, only to be revealed as a monument to our own hubris as it falls apart, destroying the idea that we could possibly conquer the vast indifference of nature.  This further limits the characters’ options, preventing them from just using the setting to their advantage, even though it was created by humans.  Oh, a fire broke out on the lower decks?  Well, just use the built in fire suppression system and boom, you’re done, movie over, narrative tension alleviated.  Obviously, this never happens.  In fact, in these stories, it is significantly more likely that a system won’t work as intended than that it will just go off without a hitch.  At the very least, something will go wrong first, and need to be fixed before it can work again.  Everything about the setting oozes hostility, which makes the few moments of safety, such as getting the power turned on and catching your breath in a room in Near Death, even more rewarding.  

In the closing sequence of Near Death, the game changes the rules of its environment in a way that perfectly highlights how important the hostile setting is to the tension of the genre.  The previously ferocious storm clears, and the base becomes peaceful and quiet.  Where before you struggled to see more than five feet in front of you, the game now gives you a clear vantage point of the entire area.  You can casually walk through areas that before you struggled to survive in, and see the light poles and rope trails you left in the snow to guide your way from one station to the other.  Strangely enough, this creates a sense of mastery and comfort in this environment you struggled with for so long. Near Death creates a moment that isn’t often created in this genre, a moment of conquering.  Once the hostility is removed, and all the tension has evaporated, the experience of walking through the world is fundamentally different.  Before I completed the game, I had to solve a simple puzzle to unlock the final achievement, and without the storms, the tone of the game had shifted to that of a slow-paced adventure game like Myst.  I didn’t feel like I had finally lucked into this situation.  I didn’t just survive, I felt like I had earned this.  And that feeling is what makes up the second core part of this genre.

The qualities of dedication and will in a protagonist could easily apply to a great deal of other works that don’t fall into this genre.  Home invasion horror films, for example, also have an environment that feels hostile, where everything seems to go wrong for the protagonist.  But a core difference between this genre and works about raw survival is how the characters go about surviving.  The Revenant, for example, shares many of these qualities, but I think is distinct, because the way Hugh Glass goes on surviving is largely through sheer force of will.  This genre has its share of sheer force of will, but the core reason the characters survive is something far more mundane: they’re good at solving engineering problems.  Yes, the characters have limited options, but those options aren’t “do the easy thing and die” or “do the super difficult but obvious thing and live”, they’re “do the easy thing and die” or “push your brain to its limits to figure out a way out of here”.  This genre emphasizes the agency of the protagonists, even as they are showing how futile so many of their actions are.  This genre isn’t hopeless, it simply says that survival requires a great deal of will AND a great deal of engineering smarts.  Ripley doesn’t survive Alien because she’s incredibly good at fighting aliens, she survives it because she’s smart and resourceful and never stops looking for creative, difficult options.  Her limited options make us wonder what she’ll do next, how she’ll find a way to use the crumbling Nostromo to her advantage.  Those two qualities, determination AND resourcefulness, are what makes the protagonist of this type of story survive.  YouTuber exurb1a did a great video on scarcity as an ingredient of storytelling, and how the character’s lack of options make us root for a character because, well, we like rooting for underdogs.  But we love rooting for underdogs who are alive because they’re being smart about it.

Fortunately, this formula adapts itself to games wonderfully.  So many of the character’s interactions with the world are easy to simulate and systemize, and, despite the stress of the situation, is traditionally fun to do.  You move to a new area, search for materials, patch things together, and move on.  But these rhythms of play are also easily adaptable to the gaming convention of subquests.  So you need to get to this one building?  Well the controls to active a bridge to get there are in this other building, and oh you need to turn on the power in another building to get to that building, but the door to the power station is frozen so need to get a blowtorch to melt the ice off it and the blowtorch is on the other side of the map and…it can go on forever.  This might seem like it would get frustrating, and, if done without careful attention to pacing, it can, but when balanced, it can be an incredibly engaging loop of challenge and reward.  After a dozen subquests preventing you from getting to your goal, finally getting there is going to be incredibly rewarding in the way that well-executed delayed gratification almost always is.  It is an easy way to build tension, and it fits into gameplay in a way that feels purely mechanical.  This is most of what you do in Near Death, with plot elements only taking up a small amount of your time.  You are on the ground, getting your hands dirty with the environment you are stuck in, and that can get pretty addicting.

The additional engagement and shift of tone that this emphasis on subquesting adds can be strongly felt when it is absent, as exemplified by Frictional Games’ 2010 and 2015 games Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Soma.  Both are first-person survival horror games made in the same engine by the same team, use fairly similar controls and even have similar minute-to-minute gameplay.  The difference, however, is that Soma fits into this mysterious illusive genre, while Amnesia does not.  In Soma, the horror is mostly at the narrative level, as you consider the horrible implications of the plot while you’re solving engineering problems.  It doesn’t have too much of the systemized horror of Amnesia, and while it has a few monster encounters, they are rarely as mechanically engaging as Amnesia’s much more consistent monster encounters were.  In Amnesia, you were managing health, sanity, and resources, all of which actively needed to be considered during monster encounters.  In Soma, you basically just need to run and hide.  Your sanity, light source, and health are almost entirely automated, so you don’t need to worry about them in the long-term, and without an inventory, the complexity of the puzzles had to be significantly reduced.  But I felt more engaged in Soma’s puzzles, despite their simplicity, because they felt like the focus of the title.  You were mostly worrying about getting from place to place, and about what you needed to do to get there.  Technically, you were solving puzzles that were just as self-contained as Amnesia, but without the inventory aspect of that game, it felt more like you were trying to get the damn station to do what you wanted instead of trying to find which items in your inventory could be slapped together to form a key to open a door.  The narrative emphasis Soma placed on the puzzle solving, which Amnesia lacked, changed the tone of the experience.  I love both games, and I’m not sure which one I prefer, but by slight narrative and gameplay changes, Frictional nearly fundamentally changed the tone of the game.  That alone highlights to me how delicate the balance of the genre is.

I’ve been thinking and reading about this subject for about a week now and I still don’t have a solid answer for what this genre is, but I think I have a general idea how it works.  You mix a hostile, cramped environment with a protagonist who is both determined and smart, make a fairly simple narrative that focuses on low-level engagements with the environment, and congratulations, you have a work of whatever this genre is.  Survival horror?  Siege movie?  Just straight-up survival?  High-stakes building maintenance?  I’m not sure.  The genre has a very narrow narrative structure even as it encompasses so many different settings.  But its core loop of problem solving makes for works across multiple mediums that I find incredibly engaging, and despite having spent hours of my life trying to hack my way out of places that are trying to kill me, I’m still eager to go back for more.

Massive Effect 2: Mass Appeal

Introduction

If Mass Effect 1 was the game that got me to fall in love with the series, Mass Effect 2 was the one that made me annoying about it.  If Mass Effect 1 was the raw, proof of concept, then Mass Effect 2 was the refined work they wanted to make, but with a bit of the personality lost in the process.  Mass Effect 1 had to be loved despite (and sometimes because of) its flaws, but it is much easier to love Mass Effect 2.  That’s reflected in the amount of hours I’ve sunk into the games too, as I’ve played Mass Effect 1 maybe four times, but I’ve played the second one close to ten.  By late 2011 I was playing it over and over again, with my New Game Plus runs getting faster and faster.  At a fundamental level, the sequel fixed a core problem that the first game had, that no matter how much I loved it, the fact was that most of my time was spent on the activities of combat, inventory management and exploration that just did not feel all that good.  They were functional, and rarely were any of them actually bad, but whenever I went to replay Mass Effect 1, those bits would definitely slow me down.  Mass Effect 2 has the exact opposite sensibilities, and puts most of its effort into improving the aspects that the player will be spending most of their time on.  As a result, it is a much more enjoyable game to play overall.  Mass Effect 1 is a game of ups and downs: this bit of exposition is great, this bit of combat is a slog; this vocal performance is great, this ten-minute drive in the mako is borderline unplayable.  Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, holds a consistent level of quality throughout, which means that while some of the highs of the first game aren’t quite as high in the second, the lows are evened out much more.

The combat in Mass Effect 1 was tolerable at best; the combat in Mass Effect 2 is slick enough that I play it for its own sake.  The world in Mass Effect 1 was brimming was exposition, depth and interesting answers to interesting questions; Mass Effect 2 actually stuck you in the middle of it.  The characters in Mass Effect 1 were charming and lovable, the characters in Mass Effect 2 are so goddamn charismatic I don’t have enough hyperbole to express it.  That consistency of high but not highest quality makes it easy to get lost in Mass Effect 2, to play it over and over again because there are barely any of the moments that you would run into in the first game where, when faced with an hour-long sequence of combat and mako exploration, you just dreaded moving forward.  Everything feels like an incremental improvement, like the team finally got the budget they wanted and could bring their universe to life.  The game set the standard for how a modern RPG would work, and still finds its way into top ten lists six years after its release.  And while I genuinely love the first one more on a personal level, I know that that added consistency of quality makes going back to the original often very difficult.  I have multiple friends who started on the second game, loved it, but could never go back to play the original; the gap in quality is simply too big.  So many parts that work so well in the second game feel like they’re missing from the first.  But so too are there aspects in the original that feel missing in the sequel, and while this problem would only deepen in the third game, the makings of this redefinition of Mass Effect can be clearly seen in this game.  Mass Effect 1 was niche art; Mass Effect 2 needed mass appeal.  The difference between the two approaches, while it can be subtle at first, is one of the most fascinating things about the series.  Let’s dig into it.

Combat

When Mass Effect 2 came out, I hadn’t played Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto, or any of the other myriad of cover shooters that were flooding the market, so cover shooting seemed like a cool idea at the time.  While the genre has almost completely lost its luster in the six years since, I still enjoy Mass Effect 2’s combat system, and I was freaking ecstatic about it at release.  Compared to the clunky, buggy combat of the first game, this felt fluid and slick.  I could move from cover to cover, pop off a few shots and activate a few biotic powers all without forgetting which button got you into cover and which one snapped your aiming to your eye line.  While the basic shooting is taken straight out of Gears, Mass Effect adds some fun twists to the formula that make it fun on a second-to-second level, but also have a bit of strategic depth.  In the first game, I rarely gave orders to my companions (despite beating the game on Insanity multiple times), and I rarely switched between guns.  In my last hour of playing Mass Effect 2 (running through the Overlord DLC), I was giving orders to my squadmates every time their powers came off cooldown, switching weapons based on the current defense type of enemies, and even ordering positions as enemies moved around the combat arena.  Simply put, the combat requires you to make more interesting decisions than its predecessor.  Even on my most recent playthrough (number 11, I think), I was learning new parts of the combat.  On Insanity difficulty, pretty much any improvement to your fighting style matters, so I finally selected a couple guns that worked better against each defense type.  Enemies in the game have four types of defense, and usually have two, while some of the tougher enemies have three.  Those layers are shields or biotic barriers, armor, and health.  Different weapons and damage types work better against each one, and certain powers are designed just to take down specific defense types.  This means that, while building my squad, I want to select members that have powers that react to the potentially most common damage type of the enemies I will be fighting.  Am I going up against geth enemies?  I should probably take Kasumi, Tali, or Garrus, since they have abilities that counter shields well.  Lots of weak humanoid enemies or husks?  Probably Jack, because her abilities only work on unshielded targets.  Collectors or highly-equipped humanoids?  Better keep my squad diverse so I can react to multiple types of defenses.  These are types of decisions you just didn’t have to make in Mass Effect 1, and squad choice was mostly based on who you liked the most.

A common criticism that has been leveled against the game, however, is its removal of traditional RPG elements from the combat.  In the first game, you had an inventory filled with different levels of armor, weapons, and amps.  You would get these items as loot from random enemies in the world, the same way you do in most RPGs.  However, you never really had to make any choices with these.  It was basically a matter of finding which thing had the highest numbers and using that.  It took time, and rewarded exploration, but you weren’t making interesting decisions that payed off in combat.  A YouTuber I really like, Noah Gervais, framed it really well in his video on the Mass Effect series, where he asked, “Which assault rifle was your favorite in Mass Effect 1?  How about Mass Effect 2?” and my answers to those two questions, respectively are “I don’t care, whichever one is the best” and “The Mattock, screw the Avenger, I’ll take the added precision and scope over higher damage and rate of fire any day.”  Those two questions and my subsequent answers were enough alone to convince me that I liked the inventory management system of the second game significantly more than the first, because even if there was less stuff to do, the decisions you were making mattered, and stuck with you.  I think it might have been a bit excessive to remove the inventory system completely, and I think the third game’s system of weapon customization over looting is probably the best option.

But, the second game did have a few unique ideas to replace the upgrade system of the previous game, in the form of the game’s most hated addition: planet scanning.  See, the game would let you find upgrades in the world or buy them from vendors that would do things like boost your shield capacity or increase biotic damage, and you would need to research them with resources harvested from planets.  You would get these resources from going to planets in the galaxy map and scanning them for resources, in a tedious process that involved moving your cursor over every square inch of the planet and clicking when the resources you want showed up in a great enough capacity.  The process took forever, especially before the speed upgrade, offered no real choices or really anything interesting to do other than move your mouse up and down, and was subsequently removed in the third game, so I think the developers learned their lesson.  Independent of the way you got resources, however, I like Mass Effect 2’s upgrade system.  It gives you unlocks and progress that rewards exploration and does require some decision making on which upgrades you will buy, without the clunky mess of the previous game’s inventory.  It got better in the sequel, but it’s pretty solid in this one as well.

Characters           

            However while the game’s changes in combat made it overall more replayable, what makes it truly great is the game’s characters.  They are the undeniably the meat of the game, the real reason people come to the series and remember this particular game so fondly.  Mass Effect 1’s characters definitely had their interesting moments, but most of that was in concept, not so much in execution.  The structure of the second game fundamentally changes to accommodate these characters, from the mostly linear plot of the first game that is structured more like a film, to the more open-ended, disconnected set of missions of Mass Effect 2, that play out more like a season of a TV show.  The majority of these missions are focused exclusively on the characters themselves, but are clustered together to give the game some semblance of progression.  Each act will begin with a plot-mission, related to the Collectors, the main antagonists of the game, and then is followed by three to four character recruitment missions, where the player involves themselves in the personal struggles of the person they are trying to recruit.  Then, each squad member is given a loyalty mission, further following their personal struggles in a way that is almost wholly disconnected from the main plot of “stop The Collectors”.  This means the the vast majority of the game isn’t focused on this main plot, but is instead an episodic bit of character development.  With this shift in focus, the game can really define itself as a character-focused work, not a plot one.

With that added freedom comes a more complex and focused look at each character.  Firefly creator Joss Whedon originally pitched the show as being about “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things”, the Mass Effect 2 is a focused exploration of that same approach to sci-fi.  For many of these characters, we get to see how their experience with Shepard in the first game changed them, and how each one of them tried to interpret what made Shepard such a powerful force in the galaxy.  We get to see how each one of them tries to be Shepard.  Many of them have gone from the encyclopedia entries on their species to having a complex relationship with it.  Garrus calls himself, “A bad turian”, Tali is tried for treason, Grunt struggles to be accepted by his own species, Mordin is celebrated by his people but for the wrong reasons, and Liara is becoming uncomfortable more like the mother she killed in the first game.  These characters are much messier than they were in Mass Effect 1, they don’t embody their respective cultures, they struggle with them.  They become political leaders, begin their own projects and try to shape the galaxy in their own way with the absurd amount of influence they’ve gained.  Wrex is trying to unite his race and bring them into a renaissance, Liara is a busy information broker, and Ashley/Kaiden just go back to being a soldier in the alliance.   In a game that deifies the player character and places an almost masturbatory importance on the player’s own agency in the galaxy, telling the player “Sorry, I don’t have time to go adventuring with you” is both a brilliant piece of world-building, and a subtle rejection of the player’s omnipotence.  These characters shape the game’s world, and their relationship to Shepard defines both them and the player.  Any exploration of the game has to dig deep into those characters, since that is clearly what the game cares about.  So I’m going to devote a section to each (err, most) of them, and see what they have to teach us about the character, the game, and the world.

Garrus

People loved Garrus before, but Mass Effect 2 was what got him to meme status.  After spending just a few minutes with Garrus, it becomes very clear that the game is trying to cultivate this reaction.  When you find Garrus, he is on the space station Omega, the seedy underbelly of the galaxy that serves as an easy foil for The Citadel (and later Illium), and he is single-handedly taking on every gang on the station.  His identity isn’t revealed at first, but when you fight your way to him, and see, oh hey, it’s Garrus, the game plays it up, and does everything it can to give you the feeling of seeing a long-lost friend again.  And this becomes the perfect lens to explore Omega with.

Omega is, as previously mentioned, the darker side of the galaxy.  Shepard is working outside of counsel space, he’s exploring areas that aren’t as cleanly under government control, so there is a lot more in-your-face crime and injustice for Shepard to play the superhero to.  This marks a pretty heavy tonal shift from the first to the second game, because while ME1 had a sort of golden age, idealistic take on sci-fi, ME2 takes on an aesthetic that is closer to cyberpunk.  High tech, low life is an apt description of how the game’s world works, Omega especially.  This gives your character a sense of being isolated from the rest of the game’s formal authority structures, as you spend most of your time on morally neutral actions.  Yeah, the overall frame narrative is pushing you towards saving people, but most of the time you’re just trying to find and recruit people.  As a result, renegade Shepards really come into their own here, because instead of playing the galactic space cop, you’re working for a shady organization recruiting the baddest of the bad so that you can eventually save the galaxy, but it’s going to take a lot of work before that.  Omega is perhaps the best example of this new theme.  It’s a criminal-run space station, dark and grimy, filled with the most dangerous types of people.  And this is where Garrus shows up after Shepard’s death at the beginning of the game (long story, she died for two years.  She got better.)  In the years of Shepard’s absence, Garrus tried to be her.  He put together a team to take down the gangs and mercenary groups on Omega, basically forming a Suicide Squad meets Avengers Superhero group.  I’m not going to go into too much detail about this and Garrus’ loyalty missions, but while Garrus serves as a big part of the game’s love of “the old days”, his story on Omega, of betrayal and murder, of crushed idealism on a corrupt space station, is a great summation of the game’s approach to tone.

Mordin 

            Also on Omega, the player meets the salarian doctor Mordin, one of the most beloved new character additions.  Mordin hides away in a corner of Omega, running a clinic with next to no resources while trying to cure a plague released on the station.  He is a brilliant scientist, and spent a great deal of his life in government work, working on the Krogan genophage, which I will expand on shortly.  Omega is the perfect setting to let Mordin shine, as it has both a great deal of people who need help, and a morally reprehensible criminal infrastructure that would come up against Mordin.  As a result, Mordin’s later-revealed role as “The Doctor Who Killed Millions” doesn’t feel out of place.  Mordin works tirelessly to save those infected by the plague, then kills the mercs who attack him without hesitation, leaving their bodies outside of his clinic as a warning sign to others.

Mordin is also a wonderfully charismatic bit of writing, though the person himself is much less so.  Mordin is socially clueless, talks in curt, efficient sentences designed to communicate quickly but not elegantly.  He tackles problems with brute force speed and efficiency, but most players can’t help but love him.  He is adorably awkward (especially later on when he starts singing), unintentionally funny, and refreshingly idealistic.  Conversations with Mordin run the gambit from genuinely unsettling, to intellectually fascinating, to laugh-out-loud hilarious, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mordin’s core conflict, though, centers around the previously mentioned genophage.  The genophage was released several hundred years before the events of the games as a response to the Krogan’s attempts to take over the galaxy soon after being given spaceflight technology by the salarians.  It limited their birth rate to somewhere around one in a thousand, crippling their population and crushing their dreams of an empire.  When the player visits Tuchanka, their homeworld, they find it in ruins not because of the results of the genophage, but because of centuries of war, nuclear and otherwise, between the various clans of the species.  The krogan seem inherently warlike, with a culture that has violence at its very core.  This, coupled with how bloody the Krogan rebellions were described to be, makes the release of the genophage seem less like the war crime it definitionally was, and more like a desperate last hope.  Still, even hundreds of years after its initial release, krogan civilization is crippled, disorganized, and just as warlike as it was before.  While a player can feel sympathy for the loss of krogan culture, it doesn’t seem like that culture was or ever will be anything other than warmongering.  However, if the player saved Wrex in the first game, there does seem to be a glimmer of hope.  Wrex, fresh from his work with Shepard, is working to unite the clans under one banner, slowly forming a unified krogan government based more on something akin to what we would call the social contract than a mite-makes-right approach that is so ingrained in their culture it isn’t even really questioned.  But the ruined state of their world and their civilization makes this difficult.  When the player first sees Wrex, he is sitting on a throne made from the rubble of buildings destroyed in countless wars, you get the symbolism pretty quickly.  And it is into this incredibly messy and complicated situation that Mordin enters.

Mordin was part of a team that noticed that the effects of the genophage were lessening.  The krogan birth rate was rising, not rapidly, but enough that it fell outside of the salarian projections.  So, Mordin and his team corrected that.  Despite the moral complexity of the genophage’s original release, they altered the plague to account for this, and the birth rate normalized.  These adjustments to the genophage probably border on a war crime, just as the original release did, and it’s implied that this isn’t the first time the salarians have done this.  Mordin is now partially culpable for this plague that wreaked havoc across krogan culture, and he doesn’t seem the least bit conflicted about it at first.  When the player confronts him about this, we start to see the first bit of what becomes Mordin’s tragic flaw, in the traditional literary sense: he is a classic example of not being able to see the little picture in the face of the big picture.  When you talk to Mordin about the geophage, he talks about high-level models and simulations they had run, testing the likelihood of more krogan rebellions, of the number of casualties that war with the rest of the galaxy would cost, and with your experience with the krogan, you might believe him at first.  But then comes Mordin’s loyalty mission, where you hunt down an allegedly kidnapped member of his team who, it turns out, was not kidnapped at all, but rather joined the krogan willingly to help them cure the genophage out of guilt for his actions.  Along the way, Mordin is forced to look at the smaller picture of his actions, seeing the death and cultural stagnation that his actions helped reinforce.  Throughout the mission, Mordin is thoroughly uncomfortable, and you see his composure slowly start to break with a subtlety that is far too uncommon in most game narratives.  Mordin leaves the mission undecided, considering that perhaps his actions were a mistake, and that he might revise them in the future.  It isn’t a dramatic change of heart, but it is the beginnings of one, and it is one that the series will expertly continue with and conclude in its final entry.

Jack

I have a whole lot to say about Jack, but not too much of it has a place in a piece (ostensibly) about the big-budget updating of the series.  But I’ll touch on a few points.  Yeah, Jack’s character design looks like they targeted marketing first, and actual character design second.  Yeah, her arc can be summed up as “broken woman needs a man in her life to fix her problems”.  But I actually like what they ended up doing with Jack’s character, even if I still agree with a lot of the criticism.  Importantly to this essay, though, Jack is a perfect example of the seedier side of the Mass Effect universe.  She’s got the fairly classic story of being kidnapped as a child and experimented on for her biotic abilities (classic in genre fiction, anyways), and as a result, hates everyone and everything.  The Alliance couldn’t help her, the Counsel and its influence couldn’t help her, no one even tried, so Jack serves as a perfect example of how, in a galaxy as big as this one, it is very easy to slip through the cracks.  Seeing a person so explicitly broken yet also so incredibly powerful helps the player see parts of the universe the normally wouldn’t. The series, especially the second game, sees the player interacting with the best of the best, the most competent, focused and driven individuals in the galaxy.  Having Jack on the team, however, lets the player see a bit of just how a completely but sympathetically broken person might live in the Mass Effect universe.  And even just for that, I am grateful that Jack is in the series.

Kasumi’s Heist

Before we move on to Act II of the game, there are two DLC packs that add characters that we can discuss.  The day-one DLC for the game added Zaeed to the franchise, a badass mercenary that I was so thoroughly bored with, I never talked to him after his recruitment and loyalty mission.  Not too much to say there.  Kasumi is mostly the same, since the DLC didn’t add many conversations for either of them, but that pack does have one of my favorite parts of the series: a heist mission.  Now, I love heists.  I love them in games, books, films, stage plays, interpretive dance, whatever, heists are freaking great. And despite how goddamn engaging every single heist bit I’ve played in a game has been, there are unforgivably few heist games.  Off the top of my head I can think of Payday 1 and 2, this mission in Mass Effect 2, a few 2D indie titles, and those few missions in GTA V.  Payday and GTA V are the closest we’ve gotten to actual heists in video games, and those were depressingly shallow.  Payday probably had the most potential, since it does have systems for stealth play, messing with security systems, and interaction with NPCs in ways other than killing, but it so quickly dissolves into an all-out gunfight that it is barely worth playing (hasn’t stopped me from putting over 20 hours into it, but still).  Basically, I love heists, and I need more of them in games.  Payday might have touched on the thrill of planning a heist with your friends and suddenly having it all go wrong at the last minute, but Mass Effect 2 tries to make that more narrative-focused by having you run a heist with a fictional friend instead.  There isn’t much mechanical depth to it, it plays mostly like one of the newer Telltale games, but the theming alone and my unquenchable thirst for more heist games has kept this mission as one that I look forward to on every playthrough.

 Tali

I kick off Act II by playing Tali’s recruitment mission first, though the game does give you multiple reasons to go to Illium as well.  But just like Virmire in the first game, I always save Illium for last.  Tali, fortunately, has evolved into a fascinating character in the time between the games.  Tali was basically a teenager when you met her in ME1; a wide-eyed girl seeing the outside world for the first time.  By the time you see her in ME2, she has changed from a caricature of an encyclopedia dump on quarians to a fully fleshed out person.  Tali is competent and confident, a science nerd, but with a bit of experience under her belt.  You find her leading a classified mission on a geth world, one hand on her gun and the other on a keyboard.  She is fiercely loyal to her people, but often at odds with her government.  You later hear her talk about how seeing the outside world radically shifted her feelings about her home, how it gave her more perspective to see what she loved and didn’t about the Flotilla.  And when she is charged with treason during her loyalty mission, that conflict is brought to the forefront.

In what is easily one of the best-written sections of the series, Tali is caught in the middle of a feud between two factions of her people, which she is only slightly involved in.  The issue is mired in the politics and history of the fleet, which requires a bit more explanation before I can go further.  The Quarians started out on their homeworld of Rannoch, but as they progressed as a species, the started developing AI.  This isn’t unusual for spacefaring species in the Mass Effect universe, but the Quarians pushed the technology far enough to create an entire species of sorts, the synthetic Geth.  The Geth slowly became self-aware, and when some Quarian scientists realized this, they tried to shut it down, to which the Geth responded by killing their Quarian masters to defend themselves.  This escalated from a single lab to the entire planet, leading to a full-scale war that forced the Quarians off the planet and into a migrant fleet.  The Geth eventually conquered all of the Quarian’s colonies, leaving the entire species confined to what would eventually become the largest fleet in the galaxy.  Because of the centuries they spent in space, their immune systems grew so weak that they were forced to wear environmental suits at all times, as even the slightest infection could kill them.  This lets the writers pull from all kinds of real-world history, and gives the Quarians a longing for a home that they most likely would never see again.  But, some of them still want to fight to return, chief among them, Tali’s father.  Promising to build his family a house on the homeworld, he worked tirelessly to create a weapon that might defeat the geth.  In the process, he accidentally activated a powerful network of geth on a Quarian ship, who quickly took it over and slaughtered every Quarian on board.  Because Tali had been sending him Geth parts, she had been implicated, and changed with treason.  Shepard and Tali clear the Geth from the ship to clear Tali’s name, and the conflict is resolved with Tali in high standing among her people, but the lingering conflict between the Quarians remain.  In an incredibly adept move of graying up the morality of the game, the person hell-bent on seeing Tali charged and exiled is actually against fighting to retake the homeworld.  He believes that war with the Geth would cost millions of Quarian lives and would have little return.  Meanwhile, Tali and Shepard mostly work with Quarians who support war with the Geth.  This leaves the player in a constant state of unease, working against the anti-war Quarians just because one of their friends got in their way.  I always leave that mission slightly uncomfortable, never really sure where I stand with the various factions and leaders of the species.  That plotline, fortunately, is also resolved brilliantly in the third game, making this mission easily one of my favorite in the series.

Legion

This jumps around in the game’s timeline a bit, but I think it’s important to talk about Legion at this point, partially because he’s a Geth, but also because of how his presence in the story contributes to the continued moral grayness of the series.  The Geth were basically cannon fodder in the first game.  Yeah, they were interesting from a lore perspective, but they were never ethically complex or interesting as characters.  Legion’s presence, and the lore he brings with him pulls off the brilliant move of turning a simple enemy into a complex one, continuing one of my favorite trends in this game.  In a strongly unique move for the series, the player first encounters Legion in a combat sequence, where he helps Shepard from a distance with sniper fire.  Starting out with a mechanical (heh) connection with Legion helps the player to quickly bond with him, which is necessary as Legion is usually the last new companion the player meets in the game.  Once out of combat, the player can talk to Legion, and he is thoroughly interesting from the get-go.  He explains how there are multiple, warring factions of geth, how Legion’s geth are at war with the geth the player has fought, and how the previously homogenous race of evil robots that they player had seen before was actually a fascinating exploration of science fiction genre tropes.  Coupled with the player learning about how Geth were created during their adventures with the quarians, the player is immediately predisposed to be sympathetic to them, and I know I personally wanted to learn every scrap of lore Legion had to offer.  My favorite moment with Legion is when the player realized that Legion is wearing a piece of Shepard’s armor, used to patch up a bullet hole.  When the player presses Legion on why he did this, he eventually ends with a pause and, “…No data available.”  The geth appear mechanical and alien, and they most certainly are, but there is a messy core of emotion underneath, and Mass Effect 2 loves exploring it.  This is something games centered around combat have a very difficult time doing, because they need hordes of endless enemies for the player to shoot without seeming like a monster.  For a lot of the series, the geth are that monster, simple and easy, but, even while fighting against the mechanical necessities of its genre and its medium, Mass Effect 2 managed to pull of making them complex and interesting.

Liara

Illium is always the last planet I go to when playing Mass Effect 2.  You get the option to go there about half-way through the game, but I love saving it for last.  When you first land on the planet, it seems as stark a contrast as possible from Omega, or the other grimy reaches of space you have spent the game exploring.  It invokes more traditional sci-fi than cyberpunk, with a hint of Star Wars’ Coruscant thrown in for good measure.  Illium is one of the asari’s most prosperous colonies, and gets the player a bit closer to understanding just how vast the asari’s influence and wealth truly is.  However, Illium sits right on the border of the Terminus Systems, serving as a connecting point between the lawless outer reaches of the galaxy and the orderly domain of asari space.  It is the perfect blend of the wealthy and high-class with the dangerous and low-class, and as such, it is the perfect capstone to the themes of Mass Effect 2.  The player has spent almost all of their time exploring planets where there SPECTER status barely has any meaning, and now the contrast of that world overlapping with the more respectable one is a perfect time for the themes the game has been building up to culminate.  A few hours into their time on Illium, the player will hear the line, “Illium is just Omega with expensive shoes”, and I think there is no greater summary of the planet.  This is where we find Liara.

Liara went through a very similar arc to Tali, changing from a wide-eyed, awkward, and nerdy character without too much of a defined personality into a cold, calculating information broker.  The first line the player hears her say is a threatening, “Have you ever faced an asari commando unit before? Few humans have” to a potential client, immediately showing her shift away from the socially clueless archeologist of the first game.  However, this line was also spoken by her mother, Benezia, during their fight with Shepard in the first game.  The implication that Liara is becoming more and more like her mother is not exactly a subtle one.  But, moral grayness aside, Liara is still a deeply good person, and willing to help Shepard to the best of her very considerable abilities.  Despite this, Liara is one of the first characters to tell Shepard, “No, I can’t go adventuring with you, I have a goddamn job.”  This stings particularly hard if you, say, romanced Liara in the first game and were hoping to go on a grand planet-hopping adventure with your space girlfriend (not naming any names).  And the game doesn’t back away from this.  An easy way to react to Liara not being present in much of Shepard’s affairs in the second game would be to just not make the content for her.  Cheap, easy, and narratively consistent.  But the writers committed to this, and have a cutscene specifically tailored for the player having romance Liara in the first game, but not romancing anyone else in the second.  It’s a quiet, brief bit of Shepard pacing around her quarters, frustrated, taking a longing glance at a picture of Liara that she keeps on her desk, then going back to work.  That is one of the moments where I see Shepard characterize most strongly, as she rarely is.  The player doesn’t really control the scene, though they are likely feeling similar emotions, and we see a bit of the pressure that Shepard is under, independent of the player.  I like that Liara can bring out these moments in Shepard, and while her absence is important, Bioware wasn’t going to leave us hanging.

Liara gets her own DLC pack, Lair of the Shadow Broker, and it is one of my favorite bits of DLC ever made.  Expanding on the small side quest and brief cutscene in the main game, Lair of the Shadow Broker takes the player on a hunt across Illium and later to one of the most beautifully designed areas in the game, with Liara taking center stage.  The mission starts with the eponymous Shadow Broker trying to assassinate Liara, and her escaping but leaving clues for Shepard to find her.  The game briefly turns into a goddamn police procedural (a full year before LA Noire!), with Shepard searching for clues, piecing together information, and figuring out where to go next.  Later sequences in the DLC include a flying car chase that mimics Star Wars Episode II’s take on that idea, a fight with a corrupt SPECTER, and a fight up the side of a spaceship that hovers right on a planet’s horizon.  Along the way, we see that Liara is just as complicated as the rest of the game’s characters, dealing with the power that her information broker status gets her, her genuine affection for her friends, and the past legacy of her mother.  Liara’s complexity is so refreshing given her starting point in the first game, and it feels like something the main game just couldn’t have done.  In retrospect, this DLC is probably what made me so positive about DLC as a concept, despite the horrendous business practices it has inspired in the industry.  It lets you get a big-budget focused mission that can experiment in a way the main game might not.

But my favorite sequence in the DLC remains Shepard and Liara’s date, which is even more surprising when you consider that it is entirely optional, and only applies to a subset of players.  Liara opens the sequence with, “I’m not sure people like us have dates, but I’m looking forward to it”.  I think the writing in this sequence conveys a really interesting take on romance as a subplot when your main plot is about saving the world or whatever.  Shepard and Liara are not exactly stable people, they’re going all over the galaxy righting wrong and altering intergalactic politics.  They’re as romantically inclined as the next all-powerful space superhero, but they don’t exactly have the lifestyle for moving in together and focusing on their relationship.  Shepard and Liara’s date gives them a brief chance to stop saving the world and focus on each other, and they both treat it like a treat, something temporary.  They are people with lives, friends, adventures and plans wholly separate from each other, and while they can get together from some hardcore romance every once in awhile, it’s not their default; not their normal.  Being motivated people trying to get shit done is their full-time job, and the game respects that.  Liara does not quit her job to become your space consort.  She’s a person with her own plans, and the player is not at the center of all of those.

Thane

Thane is one of the most explicitly tragic characters in Mass Effect 2’s lineup, and also probably my favorite. His character description of, “assassin with terminal disease” is loaded with enough irony to give the writers a strong base to work with, but they go much farther than that.  Thane tells you stories of a whole planet of tragedies that the player will never see, and weaves a narrative of a people dealing with an exodus that is every bit as tragic as the Quarians.  Thane’s people, the drell, were saved by the hanar moments before their world died.  Very few of them made it off the planet, leaving them with a handful of refugees on the hanar homeworld.  Unlike the Quarians, who have a unified government and home of sorts in the migrant fleet, the drell live with the hanar in a sort of gratitude-driven servitude, though they wouldn’t call it that.  The hanar resemble floating jellyfish, and while they are intellectually brilliant, aren’t the best assassins in the galaxy, so Thane was one of the drell chosen to take that role.  Thane, like all characters in Shepard’s squad, was one of the best at what he does, and when the player encounters him, he has just completed what he hopes to be his last job, an assassination of a prominent crime lord of Illium.  Thane quickly tells Shepard of his condition, an incurable, terminal disease that affects many members of his species.  He says that he will survive until the end of the mission, and that it won’t affect his performance, so for many characters, that is all the depth Thane has.  However, talk to him more, and you’ll learn a great deal more about the tragedy, in the literary sense, of his disease.  The drell lived in incredibly arid environments, and the Hanar homeworld on which so many of them are refugees is comparatively humid.  Over time, the drell developed this disease because of the conflict of environments.  Thane tells the player that it gets worse the longer her spends in human environments, where most of his jobs take place.  In a very real sense, his job is killing him, and little hints of his condition are scattered throughout the writing related to him, such as him staying in the life support area of the ship.  Talking to Thane is usually a somber experience, as he shows you bits and pieces of his life through his species ability for perfect recall.  He relives past moments of his life in perfect detail, an ability that he warns many drell can be consumed by.  Yet, from this tragic character, comes some of the most life-affirming moments of the game.

Thane’s loyalty mission deals with him reconciling himself with his son, with whom Thane has grown apart from since his wife’s death. The actual reconnection between the two isn’t given much screentime; this isn’t about the player and they’re not really involved beyond helping Thane find him.  But in addition to the mission’s more literary strengths, it also lets you be a space cop again, which is always one of Mass Effect’s greatest strengths.  You are trying to stop Thane’s son from assassinating a politician, so you tail the politician from the rafters, give status updates to Thane, all good stuff.  But you also get the interrogation sequence earlier, which literally gives you the option of Good Cop or Bad Cop, with a decent amount of dialogue written out for each one based on your paragon/renegade score.  On my most recent playthrough, I had maxed out my paragon bar by this point, so I was going renegade as hell, and played bad cop without a second thought.  The guy left the interrogation room bloody and beaten, and, yeah, it was a little evil, but he sold kids into slavery or something so it was totally justified.

Samara

There’s one last character before we close this section out, and that’s Samara, one of the stranger character’s in the game’s lineup.  Samara is an asari justicar, an ancient religious order that acts in a similar fashion to the SPECTERs.  They can freely, though not entirely, disregard the law, the asari people respect them and fear them, they are both a product of an older version of asari society, and while they struggle for relevance as their numbers dwindle, are still important.  Some of the asari you talk to say they dreamed of growing up to be one when they were young, and they take on a mythic quality. All of this is a brilliant bit of world building that shows a role in an alien society that said aliens struggle to explain to humans because it doesn’t really have a perfect comparison.  It’s messy and complicated, mired in pages of societal wiki pages, and that complexity alone makes them feel distinctly alien.  Samara is largely defined by her justicar status, but that is not the whole of her character.  The core of the justicar’s role in society is their very strict code, which outlines how to act in every kind of situations so that they justicars can act without question.  Samara comments on this, saying, “In this age, people see many shades of gray.  The code of the justicars is black and white.  I might seem a hero to many, but I would kill all of them if I had to.”  Samara is a unique take on the moral grayness that has found its way into Mass Effect 2, responding to the uncertainty of an amoral galaxy with a code that provides absolute certainty.  Samara never visibly struggles with an ethical decision.  She is cold, calculating and, on the surface, little else.  The is the textbook definition of the D&D Lawful Neutral type.

When the player talks to Samara to gain more detail, this lawful neutral surface is not removed to reveal some amoral core, Samara sticks to how she presents herself, but further discussion does show that she chose that lifestyle for a reason, and also reveals a mountain not of uncertainties, but of regret and insecurities.  Samara firmly believes in the justicar code, but she chose to follow it out of the guilt of three of her daughters becoming ardat yakshi, a complicated asari genetic mutation that instantly kills anyone they “mate” with (asari sexuality is a really complicated topic, basically they mind meld) and a burning hunger to kill as many as they can.  Her loyalty mission involves hunting down her most dangerous daughter, Morinth, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but this adds a lot of depth to Samara’s character.  She didn’t just decide one that day a crazy-strict code was the way she wanted to live her life, she chose it to deal with the insecurities, guilt and messiness of giving birth to a monster.  Samara spends most of her time hunting down Morinth, and has been doing so for centuries.  During that time, her view of the galaxy has shifted to one that demands absolute certainty, because anything less would involve her facing the mountain of doubt that Morinth’s existence brings with it.  She’s hiding behind it.

The mission to actually bring Morinth to justice (lol), however, doesn’t involve Samara that much.  That’s frustrating, but it’s still a great mission regardless.  Samara tracks Morinth to Omega (because of course she’s on Omega), and Shepard begins a hunt to lure her out and take her down.  Part of the mission involves Shepard entering the VIP section of the Afterlife club and trying to lure Morinth out by seeming as edgy and cool as possible.  And goddamn is that fun.  Punch a dude in the face for pressuring an asari who clearly was not into him, buy everyone a round of drinks, dance awkwardly with another patron, have a staring contest with a krogan; I’m having the time of my life here.  And then Morinth finally calls you over and you have to out-edgy-hipster her by saying that your music is to obscure for her and boom, you’re back at her place awkwardly flirting before Samara bursts in.  Helping a guilty mother kill her monster of a daughter should not be described as fun, but goddamn if it isn’t one of the funniest sequences in the entire game.  Oh, and if you’re a goddamn idiot you can choose to save Morinth and kill Samara and Morinth joins your squad instead.  You can even romance her in a sex scene that literally is a fade to black with a goddamn Game Over screen.  Because she kills people that she has sex with.  Never change, Mass Effect.  Never change.

The Suicide Mission

            The characters of Mass Effect take center stage in this game, and, regardless of the final mission, they would have been great. But, for me, the game’s final mission is its crowning achievement, because it takes the character focus the game had been building up and uses it to build The Suicide Mission into something that few games have ever managed to do.  You walk into the suicide mission feeling the progression that RPGs so often focus on; you have the best gear, the best team, the best ship, the best tech.  You have the best of the best ready to go on this mission, and it emphasizes that feeling of growing power in a way few few other RPGs do. When I played my first few BioWare games, I never liked only having to pick two or three companions at a time, I was always hoping that the final mission would allow me to play with all of them.  The Suicide Mission finally did that.  You spend most of it coordinating different teams, picking different members for different jobs, and making life-or-death decisions about how the mission will play out.  And these are life-or-death choices; actual ones.  If you didn’t make the right decisions along the way, didn’t complete loyalty missions or upgrade your ship, send the wrong teammate to the wrong place, they will die, and that will carry over into the sequel.  Even Shepard can die at the game’s ending if the player loses enough teammates.  The fact that so much work was put into making the decisions you make feel meaningful is frankly astounding, especially considering how expensive that content is to produce.  The Suicide Mission feels like your best ironman run of XCOM, but with characters you are invested in both because of how they help you on a gameplay level, and because of how much you like them as people.  I can’t think of a single other mission in gaming that evokes this feeling so strongly, and through that feeling, you love the characters even more.  The game has been building up to this for twenty hours, and damn, does it pay off.

The first bit of real interaction the player has during the Suicide Mission is a planning sequence.  You made it to your enemy’s base, crashed on the surface, and are planning what looks like a one-way trip.  The song, suicide mission, plays in the background as you make your decisions, and the music adapts to the stage of the planning you’re currently at.  It adds to the brilliantly building tension that the narrative and gameplay decisions have created, making you focus on something that exists in other games, but is never as emphasized.  You pick your primary and secondary teams, a specialist for hacking into the base’s systems, and get ready to kick some Collector ass.  You feel like you are finally planning your own mission, not letting the game tell you what to do.  Even though the sequence is still fairly scripted, the decisions you make create an illusion of choice that is stronger than any of the game’s other missions.  At specific stages in the mission, you have to shuffle your team around, pick different specialists, and react to changes in the mission objectives.  On repeat playthroughs, I was worried it would lose its luster, since I knew each beat of the mission by heart, but nope, on my most recent playthrough, I was giddy as all hell, tabbing to my notes on the game to quickly type out some notes before tabbing back somehow getting even more excited.  The buildup and payoff is sublime, and each bit of game before the mission feels like it pays off during the mission.  The final boss fight is infamously lackluster, but by that point, I didn’t care.  I had pulled off the Suicide Mission, with an actual, game-recognized possibility of failure.  I felt like a goddamn space hero.

And that’s how Mass Effect 2 closes.  You get a quick moral choice about keeping or destroying your enemy’s base (which ends up not mattering at all), you blast out of there before the place blows up, and you get a quick cutscene of your team looking all badass while an army of reapers descend on the galaxy.  You can play some DLC or extra missions afterwards, but that’s how the game officially closes.  There are few games I have played that can hit that high of an ending note. 

Conclusion

I came into this playthrough of the game and accompanying essay expecting to write something very different.  I was going to write about how it watered down the world and strengths of the first game to create something with more mass appeal, how it toned down the literary influences in favor of a cinematic one.  But honest, now that I’ve finished it, I think I found more depth in it than I have in the first.  I still love Mass Effect 1, and I think it does have some strengths in world building that the second one does lose a bit, but the game’s greater commitment to showing you the parts of that world, to making it a bit messier, and somehow pulling this off while looking great, is enough to easily make it one of my favorite games ever made.  While Mass Effect 1 feels like a rough take on something brilliant, and Mass Effect 3 feels like a polished but ultimately less expansive entry, Mass Effect 2 feels the most complete of the trilogy.  It knows what it wants to do, and it executes it to near perfection.  It doesn’t feel confused about what it wants to do, and there are very few parts of it that feel incomplete.  It cares about a few things, it’s characters, building a complex world, and having fun while doing it, and it does all three of those things really damn well.  The first two games in this series had an enormous impact on how I looked at games (a massive effect, if you will), and Mass Effect 2 comes the closest to realizing the perfect version of that idea that affected me so profoundly.  During his final conversation, Grunt tell Shepard, “I have everything.  Clan, kin, and enemies to fight”.  I couldn’t think of a better summary.

Massive Effect (Get It?)

I started playing Mass Effect sometime around 2009.  This was before I even knew what Steam was and had just discovered internet piracy, so if a game sounded even remotely good, I was downloading it.  I had played Knights of the Old Republic a few months earlier and thoroughly enjoyed it, but it hadn’t affected me in the way its successor would.  But after messing with crack files and cursing my lack of disposable income, I got my first of many installs of Mass Effect running.  My laptop might have met the minimum specs for a AAA game released in 2004, so Mass Effect was running at an 800×600 resolution on the lowest possible settings that config file tweaks would allow.  So with my laptop was burning so hot it almost certainly wasn’t safe, I fired up (with every heat pun imaginable) what would undoubtedly become the most influential game of my life.

Every games writer and player I know credits the games they played as a kid as having the largest influence on how they would look at games for the rest of their lives.  For most people my age, that game is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.  But I didn’t own an N64 as a kid, or any console, for that matter, so I never had access to that kind of experience.  I played some great PC games as a kid, and sunk and ungodly amount of time into World of WarCraft, but none of them had the life-altering influence I heard my friends talk about when discussing Ocarina.  Mass Effect would become that game for me.

The game starts pretty slowly, but already had me interested even a few moments in.  A classic sci-fi opening text crawl describing the basics of the universe and the discovery of the space magic that lets them explain away all the crazy shit you do.  You then create your character by picking a gender, class, and basic backstory in a future world where humans have encountered a galactic alliance of alien civilizations that are hopelessly more advanced than they are.  The opening bits of dialogue, with your character serving as a commander on a human spacecraft called the Normandy, move this idea out of the exposition dump and into the plot.  Humans are the new kids on the block, they’re too ambitious, taking too much power and territory, and the other races don’t like them.  Five minutes in, I was already hooked.  Humans are the underdogs?  They aren’t universally adored?  They don’t rule half the galaxy?  My experience of sci-fi was pretty limited to Star Wars, Star Trek, and…well that’s about it as far as space-faring sci-fi goes, so this twist on the genre was already pulling me into the world because, as much as it wore its influences on its sleeve, it was trying something I hadn’t seen before.

The game continues pretty comfortably: you’re starting a mission, it’s super important, you’re a cool dude with a cool squad, some important mystery about a human colony gone dark, everything you need for a good adventure.  The game gets a bit heavy on the exposition in the opening, as a lot of alternate world fiction has to, but the writers are mostly able to keep the pace snappy.  The world of Mass Effect is pretty dense, especially in the first game, so the characters explaining the technology and sociopolitical climate feels necessary, if narratively inelegant.  However, the game doesn’t dump it all on you if you’ve already played the game.  A great deal of exposition is done in the in-game codex that you can read at any time and is regularly updated as you find more information.  This means that the game doesn’t have to explain every bit of information on every technological, or political skirmish through a character that requires animation and voice acting to present.  However, the game also provides much of its exposition through optional questions that the player can ask.  The dialogue wheel often gives the player an “Investigate” submenu, which will list a few possible questions the player can follow up on with whoever they are talking to, leading the character to have a reason to go into exposition, but also twist the exposition in a way that gives us more detail about their character.  But all of this can be skipped on your second playthrough.  Already know who the Protheans are because you’ve beaten every game in the series like five times and don’t need an entry-level explanation of them?  Good!  The conversation structure of the game is designed to accommodate both players who do ask the questions and those who do not, and after multiple playthroughs, this feature is much appreciated.

It was around this point that I started to notice the game’s soundtrack.  Mass Effect has a bit of your traditional sci-fi epic score, but most of the music, especially the background stuff, is really bass-heavy, synth music, much more Blade Runner than Star Wars.  Now some of that was probably because synthesized music is a lot cheaper to produce than the full orchestral scores of the later games, but that music is part of what makes the first game feel so distinct from the next two.  Orchestral scores are great and all, I love the hell out of ME2 and 3s soundtracks and listen to them on at least a weekly basis, but ME1s soundtrack had a tone that the later games just don’t: alien.  Mass Effect’s world is supposed to feel both alien and familiar, and the soundtrack does a great job of emphasizing the alien part.  The music makes the admittedly sparse environments seem uncomfortable, ethereal, and otherworldly.  But as you played the game, you grew accustom to it, and it started to feel familiar.  I will absentmindedly hum a lot of the melodies to those songs, especially when playing the game.  And just through the catchiness of its alien music, you get a bit of one of the game’s themes: the alien becoming familiar.  This happens in the music, the characters, and the world, with unknowns becoming knowns, and the music helps ease this theme along.  It feeds into the game’s core theme of exploration, and taps into that Star Trek idealism of exploring strange new worlds, and seeking out new life and new civilizations.  All through music.

Now I wouldn’t have been thinking about this kind of stuff if I was as into sci-fi then as I am now.  In 2009, I hadn’t even seen Blade Runner, let alone fallen head-over-heels in love with it.  80s sci-fi, music and all, wasn’t really something I was aware of.  So Mass Effect being essentially a large amalgamation of other sci-fi influences that it clearly wore on its sleeve (I mean, the studio’s previous game was a Star Wars RPG in the same format), was lost on me.  But that didn’t mean my experience of the work was lessened – quite the opposite, actually.  Mass Effect served as an introductory work to the genre, whose abundance of references, influences and inspirations were instead more parts of the game to explore.  This made Mass Effect even richer, because I had so much more to learn.  Keeping with the music, I thoroughly enjoyed the soundtrack, so I Googled it and discovered that it was influenced by Blade Runner’s electronic soundtrack by Vangelis.  I listened to that soundtrack and really loved it, so why not check out the movie itself?  It had Harrison Ford in it, and I liked him.  Woah, Blade Runner is insanely cool, what’s this whole Cyberpunk thing?  And so on and so on.

Getting back to the game, Mass Effect’s tutorial mission is pretty standard.  It introduces the player to the alien race of turians, who had a messy first-contact war with humanity, but seem to be on at least okay terms with them by the time of the game.  You’re told by your captain and one of these turians that you’re being considered for the position of SPECTER, which is basically a space sheriff that can do whatever they want.  This mission is going to be your evaluation for the position, so, naturally, it goes to shit.  Your turian friend gets betrayed and killed by another turian named Saren who becomes the game’s main villain, some sort of space machine-god descends from the heavens to kind of do nothing except set that mystery in motion (you’ll just have to roll with me on this one if you haven’t played it), and everyone blames you for being shit at your job.  You don’t become a space sheriff.

I just realized that I’ve gotten this far into talking about Mass Effect and haven’t mentioned the protagonist, Shepard, by name.  The character creation in Mass Effect is a bit more defined than in other western RPGs.  In, say, Dragon Age: Origins, you get to define your character traits, how they act, what they think about things, and even their backstory, if loosely, but in Mass Effect, your character is always named Shepard.  You get to pick the gender and first name, but Shepard is, at least slightly, a character that the game has given you, already with the basics, just ready to be molded by you.  These days, I play as FemShep, because Jennifer Hale gives a way better vocal performance (I love you, Mark Meer, but your good-guy voice just isn’t as good as your bad-guy voice), but in my first playthrough, I was BroShep.  Male Shepard, pretty generic looking dude, same face you see on the cover.  Fans get pretty vocal about defending FemShep as the “real” Shepard, and by playthrough #2, I completely got it.  I regret the decision to start as BroShep and will be referring to Shepard, as she should be, with female pronouns, from now on.  It doesn’t affect much beyond who your character gets to romance anyways

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So you and your space team fly to The Citadel, which is this this enormous space station and the seat of galactic power that the alien races just sorta found and assumed it was built by a previous civilization (again, just roll with it here if you haven’t played) and it’s super cool and super important.  It also might be my favorite zone in the series.  You’ve got a series of missions to do on the station that involve you hunting down some information that proves Saren is actually evil and you are a cool dude and that you can totally be a space sheriff if they just give you the chance; whatever, plot stuff.  But the station itself…well, basically everything up to this point has been pretty linear.  The game tells you where to go and what to do, gives you narrow paths to run down (seriously, look at the map screen, they don’t even try to hide it), and outside of some optional conversations, you don’t have much say in where you go and what you do.  The Citadel is where the game really opens up.  Suddenly, you’ve got dozens of side missions that spring off from the main one, tons of friendly NPCs to talk to, vendors to buy stuff from, codex entries to read, mini power struggles you can get right in the middle of, and it’s all happening at once.  I mentioned before that I have the soundtrack for the game so thoroughly memorized that you could probably give me one or two notes and I’d know which song it was.  It’s become almost routine, maybe a little mundane.  Not The Citadel.  I’m listening to that song on loop as I write this section, and goddamn, I feel like I’m 14 again, huddled in the back of some classroom watching my computer teeter on the edge of spontaneous combustion as it struggles to render twenty glorious frames a second of that beautiful space station.  The game even has a little cutscene of your ship arriving at and docking with the station, as your teammates gawk at the size of the thing, a touch that I really wish the later games hadn’t cut out.  Landing on The Citadel is where the game gave me its first taste of exploration, and from that point on, I could not get enough.

In my most recent playthrough of the game, this was where I really got back into it.  It’s where I started raving about it to anyone who would listen like it was my first playthrough.  The best part of RPGs for me has always been exploring the big city/villages they give you, poking around for hidden quests and loot, meeting new characters, all that good stuff.  Dungeon crawling is fun and everything, but nothing really tops exploring a place with something other than a gun, sword, or portable nuke launcher.  While exploring The Citadel, you do end up in a couple fights, but they’re few and far between.  Mainly, you’re following up on leads, meeting side characters, and exploring.

Here is where you really start to figure out a lot of the game’s non-combat systems from digging into the conversation/moral choice that the game provides.  An early example is a man you run into whose wife was killed in the battle on Eden Prime (your first mission), and has been told that he will not be given her body for a funeral, and they won’t tell him why.  The player can (because this is totally optional) find the office in charge of the situation, who tells you that the woman’s body is being kept for study on how to fight the Geth, a race of synthetics who serve as the primary enemy/cannon fodder for the game.  The player gets a few choices to make here, but what is interesting is how they play into the game’s moral choice system.  You can convince the officer to return the body, arguing that the woman has served humanity as a soldier in life and doesn’t deserve to have that service be forced to continue, or you can return to the man and explain to him that his wife’s sacrifice may help save even more lives in death.  However, neither of these options is coded good or evil.  The game’s primary morality meter is split between Paragon and Renegade choices.  Paragon is your goody-two-shoes action hero, who saves everyone, rescues cats from trees, and sends everyone off with a pat on the head.  Renegade is your badass, Clint Eastwood-type semi-antihero, who isn’t necessarily evil, but isn’t willing to put up with bullshit or insubordination in their mission to get shit done.  The series would later shift this more towards a good-evil dichotomy, but the first game, at least most of the time, sticks to this boyscout-badass spectrum.  What I like about this mission in particular, is that both paragon and renegade players can make both choices: they can convince the officer or convince the man, the question is how they do it.  Pick the renegade intimidate option and Shepard will berate the officer for daring to betray everything The Alliance (the human government) has stood for, or you can pick a paragon persuade option to convince the man that his wife’s sacrifice is for the good of humanity, and that she will be an even greater hero than she already is.  Or, you can switch it around.

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Conversation with characters in the world usually plays out like this, and it is probably the biggest reason that I fell in love with the game.  The shooting in Mass Effect is below-average for the time, but the conversation was something I had almost never seen before.  I get to spend hours of gametime just…talking to people?  I get to pick what my character says?  I can choose if I want to get to know specific characters better, make friends and enemies, direct the flow of conversation, and have that be a core part of the game?  Knights of the Old Republic used a similar system, but Mass Effect’s was a step up in quality that made a serious difference for me.  It had bits that felt cinematic, but I didn’t feel like I was directing my own movie, like Until Dawn, or writing a bit of my own book, like KOTOR or older CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate.  This felt much more organic, like I was having conversations with people.  I had only played one other game with a real conversation system, KOTOR, so the novelty of this system had an enormous effect on me.  From that point on, Mass Effect was the game that I would compare every game to.  The depth of a game’s conversation system or the strength of its characters would now always be judged by how it compared to Mass Effect.  When I played Deus Ex: Human Revolution in 2011, part of why I enjoyed it so much was how much it reminded me of Mass Effect.  When I played Telltale’s Walking Dead, another of my all-time favorites, a great deal of the excitement I felt for it was how it iterated on the ideas I first got excited about while playing Mass Effect.  I’ll definitely come back to this later, but Mass Effect informed how I played games, what I looked for in games, and how I judged games.  It influenced the genres I was interested in, introduced me to giant, sprawling RPGs as a concept, and helped me realize that games had the potential to draw on literary and cinematic traditions in a way that enhanced them, not just emulated them.  I got to spend 30 hours per game on a system that got me this excited.  For 14-year-old me who had never really played an RPG before, this was exhilarating.

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One of the first characters you meet on The Citadel, who, probably not coincidentally, is a one of the game’s most beloved, is a turian named Garrus.  Garrus, like most of the characters in the series, is a bit of a cliché.  He’s a hyper-competent cop who’s tired of all the red tape that prevents him from getting his job done, so when he is given the opportunity to leave Citadel Security (the space cops) and join Shepard, he takes it.  Liberated from the rules and regulations of an institution as necessarily bureaucratic as an interplanetary law enforcement agency would have to be, Garrus starts out as a slightly troubling character.  His opinions line up with that of the renegade Shepard, the “get it done by any means necessary” type of player, perhaps best exemplified when he tells Shepard that, if they do catch Saren, they should just kill him, because the bureaucracy of Citadel politics might see him live.  For a paragon Shepard, however, this is a point of contention, and they might find themselves agreeing with Garrus’ father, who used to tell him, “Do things right or don’t do them at all.”  I loved that, depending on how they player was playing, their relationship to Garrus could be completely different, but these split paths later helped me understand a core problem that the series had at the beginning, which would only grow with time: that the player didn’t have to do anything about it.

Garrus’ dilemma provides an interesting set of questions for the player to ponder, but, ultimately, they don’t have to act much on it besides telling Garrus to back off or to indulge him.  This is a problem with the Mass Effect world as a whole, that it often can’t commit to the messier implications of its world, and something that is often apparent because of its role both as niche RPG and big-budget, mass-market AAA game.  In Mass Effect 1, this tension is much less present, but it is still there.  Primarily, because of the player’s role as a SPECTER.  Given the complexities of the planets, governments, local authorities and political squabbles of hundreds of worlds in the Mass Effect universe, interplanetary law enforcement would prove to be incredibly daunting, if not outright impossible.  C-SEC, Garrus’ original place of employment, was confined only to a single space station, and it was mired in bureaucratic dead ends.  Imagine trying to chase a fugitive who could jump between solar systems as easily as we can now jump between provinces.  Imagine trying to respect the sovereignty and laws of every one of those systems, even as the criminals you are chasing do not have to.  Seems impossible, right?  So, the Mass Effect universe figures, you need someone who isn’t bound by those rules, and wouldn’t it be nice if the player was just that person?  There is much to be said for how a great deal of modern media insists that the complexity of the modern world and the incompetence of its power structures requires an authoritarian group without limits (just look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for a great example), but in the Mass Effect universe, that argument seems much more plausible.  If you can’t name all the planets that your institution governs, let alone know the idiosyncrasies of their rules, how could you possibly enforce the law effectively?  The SPECTER is Mass Effect’s answer to that, a group of the best-trained agents in the galaxy, able to go anywhere and do anything.  This, the game posits, is the only way a criminal manhunt (well, turian-hunt, but you get the idea) could possibly be feasible, let alone easily adaptable to an action-centric video game while keeping the pace snappy.  This means that, while the player is involving themselves in the politics of other worlds, they are always an outsider, and never have to get *too* involved.  Don’t get me wrong, anyone who has played a Mass Effect game will spend hours jumping through hoops so the local governments let them do what they want, but the player never has to wait a few days for the paperwork to go through, so to speak.  This gives the player a freedom in the universe that makes writing their role on each world much easier, and lets them only get involved in political squabbles when the writers think it would be interesting.  So, to bring it back to Garrus, the player can have an internal debate about the merits of an “ends justify the means” approach to law enforcement versus a “by the book” one, but, paragon or renegade, they will be operating outside the system regardless.

Internal consistency and literary depth aside (a phrase I have to use with a frustrating frequency when discussing games), I loved the shit out of Garrus.  Garrus is a genetically engineered bro, bred in some writer’s lab from the ground up to be the perfect friend to the player.  Buddy cop, brother in arms, fellow spy, you name it, Garrus can serve that role.  The other teammates I had picked up by this point, Kaiden and Ashley, were interesting enough in their own right, but Garrus was the first one I met who felt like my friend.  This is something that most other games don’t do, yet it is something that pretty much only games can do.  Garrus doesn’t feel like Shepard’s friend, Garrus is my friend.  He saved my ass in more than a few firefights.  He helped me take down Saren (spoilers).  He cracked jokes with me while shooting soda cans out of the air on top of The Presidium.  I’ve got battle stories with Garrus, memories of real friendship, experiences of loss and struggle… and none of those feel like surrogate memories.  Those are mine.  It’s incredibly difficult to describe a friendship you feel like you have with a person who exists entirely in fiction (and believe me, it’s even harder to explain the romantic relationships), but Garrus is my friend.  Game developers and writers, myself included, go on and on about how games can let you experience, rather than empathize, and my friendship with Garrus is the best example I have to support that.  I know, obviously, that he is not a real person, that there is a finite amount of content that I can exhaust and that I am choosing from a list of prewritten options when talking to him, but Garrus is the best example I can think of of that artifice fading away and feeling real.

With Garrus, I gather enough evidence to incriminate Saren, and pick up two other teammates along the way, Wrex (Shepard.) and Tali.  Both are aliens, a krogan and a quarrian, respectively, and each highlight a bit of the weakness in early Mass Effect writing.  Tali and Wrex mostly serve as ambassadors for their respective races, who are present more to provide exposition than to be interesting characters in their own right.  This changes dramatically in the later games, as they both become complex in how they both accept and reject the cultures of their respective species, but in the first game, they aren’t too interesting.  I still enjoyed my conversations with both, but more because of the information I learned, not the people I was learning it from.  But, with this team assembled, I was able to leave The Citadel on my now government-approved search for Saren.  The Citadel Counsel, a triumvirate of leaders from the most powerful species in the galaxy (Salarian, Turian and Asari), serves as your supervisors of sorts, and they are who you report back to after each mission.  They finally grant you the role of SPECTER, the first human ever to bear the title, and send you on your way.  For complicated plot reasons, the ship’s captain, Anderson, is stripped of his command, and you are put in charge of the Normandy, but not before the political situation complicates a bit.  The two representatives of the human establishment you deal with are Captain Anderson, a fatherly old war buddy type, and Ambassador Udina, a self-serving politician who sees Shepard’s newly-earned SPECTER status as a way to increase humanity’s standing in the galactic political game.  You get a balance of Anderson’s fatherly approval and Udina’s calculated commands throughout the game, and it gives you a view of humanity both as an idealistic species, and one that is hungry for power, perhaps a little too hungry.  It is never made simple, even in the later titles, and that is something I have always liked about the game.  Many characters, including your shipmate Ashley Williams, hold racist and xenophobia views towards aliens, and you get to see that tempered by the acceptance and camaraderie of many of the other humans on your team.  So, you leave The Citadel with a bit of hesitance about just how humanity will deal with the growing power your actions are earning it.  But, you have a rogue SPECTER to catch.

You’re given three leads to follow, and can pick whichever one you want to start with.  I do them in the same order every time: Artemis Tau, Noveria, Feros.  After you complete two of the three leads, a mission on the planet Virmire opens up, but I always do that one last, for reasons I’ll go into later.

Artemis Tau is the least eventful of the three, as you’re given instructions to search the star cluster for an asari scientist, Liara.  You find her through some fair uninspired combat encounters, but the information you learn from her incredibly important.  I’ve held off talking about the game’s larger setting of Protheans and Reapers until now because it really requires some background of the universe to understand, but Liara helps clarify most of it, so I figure now is the best time to explain.  A great deal of the game’s main plot is uncovering the mystery of two races, the protheans and the Reapers.  But, for the sake of clarity, I’m just going to spoil it all now.  Around 50,000 years before the start of Mass Effect, a race called the protheans ruled the galaxy.  They were credited with building the Citadel, and the mass relays that the player uses to get around the galaxy, though it is later revealed that they built neither.  At some point, they suddenly vanished, leaving almost no trace of themselves.  However, long after their disappearance, the major players in the era the player is a part of found bits and pieces of their technology, and reverse engineered them to create faster than light travel, most of their weapons, and biotics (space magic).   Because of the information that the protheans left behind, the structures of the civilizations that they player encounters were able to exist.  The game’s opening mission Dark_space_-_reaper_armada_awakening.pngon Eden Prime happened because colonists on the planet had found a prothean beacon, and hoped the information could be used to further enhance their technology.  When Shepard arrived, the beacon broke, but transferred a message to her telepathically, warning her of some sort of coming apocalypse.  Liara explains that this apocalypse will come in the form of the Reapers, a race of incredibly powerful machines that serve as the game’s actual primary antagonists.  For some reason (which I won’t even bother to explain in this piece), the Reapers built the Citadel and the mass relays, wipe out the protheans at the height of their civilization, then disappeared.  But, Liara explains, they will be coming back, and Saren and the geth are helping that happen.  That machine-god I briefly mentioned in the first mission?  That was a Reaper, basically a sentient spaceship.  I haven’t explained the Reaper’s motivations or anything, and this is already getting too complex, so I’ll leave it at that.  The player doesn’t even know half of this stuff yet, it gets dished out in a series of revelations over the course of the game, but those are the basics.

Once this is established, I go on to Feros, which is probably my least favorite planet, so I’m going to skip over most of the details.  You fight some geth, save some colonists, and get the next McGuffin you need to continue the plot.  Here is probably a good time to talk about the combat system, since I don’t have too much to say on those elsewhere.  The combat in Mass Effect 1 is, by any objective measure, pretty bad.  The game came out in 2007, the same year as the original Modern Warfare, and a year after Gears of War, which is probably its closest comparison in terms of combat.  Even with its age in mind, Mass Effect’s shooting was pretty bad for the time.  The cover system is awkward as hell, and you have to use it constantly because you’ll die in just a few hits.  None of the guns feel particularly good, the biotic powers feel like you’re aiming with a trackpad (and it’s even worse when you actually are aiming with a trackpad).  But, weirdly enough, I still kind of enjoy it.  At the time, I hadn’t played any cover shooters, so I didn’t know how bad it was, but even today, I enjoy it because it feels less like a shitty version of modern games and more like a novel, antiquated system.  It’s a sort of variant on the uncanny valley effect, where the closer a game’s combat gets to good, the more apparent its flaws become, but the farther away it gets, the more interesting they become.  I don’t love Mass Effect’s combat; I definitely wouldn’t play it on its own, but it’s engaging enough.

Up next is Noveria, one of my favorite planets in the game.  It is perhaps one of the best examples of how Mass Effect plays with genre, as it dabbles in the themes of cyberpunk without pulling from the visual aesthetics.  Noveria is a barely-life-sustaining planet owned entirely by a corporation.  This corporation exists so that other multiplanetary corporations can conduct experiments that would be illegal on pretty much any other planet in Citadel-controlled space.  You don’t spend your time on the planet talking to the local governor or community leader, you talk to the CEO of the planet.  Noveria has all the trappings of a cyberpunk dystopia, just without the visuals.  By this point in the game, I had gotten used to the idea of my SPECTER status carrying some weight in the galaxy, so when I walked up to the administrator’s office to request access to a lab owned by Matriarch Benezia, one of Saren’s allies, I was pretty surprised to be given a flat-out “No.”  The in-game codex, which I read sparingly, said that my SPECTER status should be respected, but basically not to take it for granted.  That bit of disconnect between the distanced, objective perspective of what is essentially an in-game Wikipedia, and the game’s actions, always made me enjoy Noveria just a little bit more when visiting the place.

Since your SPECTER status is basically ignored, you spend your most of your time on the planet poking around the facility, making deals with local corporate employees, and working your way into getting a pass to get to the Peak 15 facility, Benezia’s lab.  This is a pretty classic RPG tradition, I’ve seen it in both of the KOTOR games (I think), The Witcher, and probably a few Dragon Age games.  It’s a robust mission structure, where you are encouraged to visit a bunch of different locations and talk to various NPCs, gives you opportunities for a few moral choices, and can engage in some side missions while you’re at it.  Even though it’s basically just a “find a way to get a McGuffin” quest, it works because it helps to build anticipation for the area you’ll be going to next.  I can see why RPG writers like to use it.

While poking around the planet, I run into two side quests that I always make sure to do, both related to the interesting politics that a planet Noveria.  The first, simply called “Smuggling”, pops up when I’m talking to one of the NPC shopkeepers to get some upgraded gear, and he offers to give me some top-quality weapons if I smuggle some supplies for him.  Even in the Capitalist heaven of Noveria, there are enough restrictions that smuggling is profitable, apparently, and I’m given a number of choices ranging from turning him in, doing the job, or agreeing to smuggle the supplies and just taking them for myself.  Mass Effect 1 does this type of choice especially well, providing the player with a variety of interesting choices, instead of just good-evil, but the series looses a bit of that as it goes on.  The second side-quest, however, is another good example of how the series did it well.  “Espionage” gives me a bunch of different potential outcomes, each providing a different amount of paragon or renegade points depending on what I chose to do and why I chose to do it.   The complexity of ending states for a lot of the game’s side-quests was something to look forward to on repeat playthroughs, since I can mess around with their outcomes for fun after I’ve made a serious choice on my “cannon” playthrough.  It makes the world feel much more dynamic, that I’m making individual decisions instead of picking the same choice (good or evil, depending on the playthrough) that I always pick.

Noveria really picks up when I get the pass to go to Peak 15, where one of the game’s iconic Paragon-Renegade choices is introduced.  If you talk to someone about Mass Effect 1 for long enough, you will probably end up discussing this choice, though it’s luster has certainly faded since the third game revealed that your choice ended up not mattering at all.  The choice involves the fate of a race called the Rachni, an insectoid hive-mind species that was nearly wiped out, but the sole-surviving queen is locked up in Peak 15.  I get to choose if the queen lives or dies, keeping in mind that the species had previously nearly wiped out all life in Citadel space.  So, do you finish the genocide started 2,000 years ago, or give the species a second chance?  You had to make a serious choice between idealism and practicality, choosing to risk the destruction of all races on a belief of second chances, or destroying another race entirely.  It wasn’t exactly Shakespeare, but it was an interesting enough choice that it stuck out for fans of the series.  Of course, then the third game came out, and there was a rachni queen whether or not you saved them, but whatever.

However, to get to the Rachni, you need to go through Matriarch Benezia (voiced by Star Trek: The Next Generation veteran Marina Sirtis).  Benezia is an asari matriarch, meaning she’s way older than you and one of the most powerful beings in the galaxy (Reapers excepted).  The game builds her and her squad of commandos up to be a big threat, and at that point in the game, they definitely are.  The combat encounter is tough as hell, and the fight feels as tough as the game tells you it is.  However a tough combat encounter in a game with below-average combat is nothing to write home about, but what makes the Benezia encounter unique is who you can bring with you: Liara.  Benezia is actually Liara’s mother, which makes for a well-executed dramatic confrontation that, while competent, is something you’ve seen before, but the twist is that Liara doesn’t have to be there.  I mentioned that I did Artemis Tau before Noveria, and this is the main reason.  You can go through the Benezia fight without having even recruited Liara, or you can just choose not to add her to your party, which means that the scene has to be written to play out both with and without her.  This is an interesting bit of narrative work that really doesn’t exist in other mediums, and, having played both, I can attest that the scene feels natural regardless of Liara’s presence.

That about wraps up Noveria, which means it is finally time to go to Virmire, perhaps the best-known mission from the game, and probably the dramatic climax of it as well.  I could go through the mission-point by point, but there are only two real points that stand out, and oh man, do they stand out.  The first moment takes place shortly after you land, when you find a unit of salarians who have discovered a science facility run by Saren to mass-produce krogan warriors.   The krogan are easily the toughest race in the galaxy, and with an army of them, Saren would become significantly more dangerous.  In the face of these astronomical odds, the leader of the salarian team, Captain Kirrahe gives what is perhaps the most famous speech in the series: “Hold the Line.”  Every time I hear those words, I get all these weird feelings of patriotism for a nation that doesn’t exist.  I don’t know a Mass Effect fan alive isn’t fired up and ready to go to hell and back to save the galaxy after hearing that speech.  It, like the rest of the series, may be filled to the brim with cheese, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t some of the best cheese this side of Counsel space.

Of course, this moment has to be followed by a crushing one, and it only gets worse if you don’t play your cards right.  Wrex, one of your teammates, is a krogan himself, and that pulls you right in to one of the game’s best-executed subplots, across each entry in the trilogy, which requires a bit of backstory.  See, the krogan didn’t actually figure out space travel on their own, they were given it by the salarians in their war against the rachni.  The galaxy was a breaking point, and needed the strength of the krogan to defeat them, which they did.  But once the war ended, the krogan decided to expand their territory, and fight other Counsel races that were already settled there, leading to the bloody Krogan Rebellions against the turians.  This ended when the turians contracted the salarians to construct the genophage to keep the krogan population in check, devastating the krogan numbers and keeping their population at near-extinction.  This happened roughly around 700 CE, and with the game set in the year 2183, every krogan alive has only know their wrex_and_shepard_by_donabruja-d4pxv0c.jpgspecies post-genophage.  So, in order to produce his army of krogan, Saren found a cure for the disease.  The only way to stop him is to destroy his lab, including all information about the cure.  Wrex is, understandably, not thrilled with this idea, and pulls a gun on Shepard when she insists that they go through with the plan.  If the player has the right amount of points in persuasion or intimidate, and says the right things, Wrex will stand down, but if they don’t, Shepard will shoot Wrex on the spot, killing him for the rest of the trilogy.  I can’t really explain how mind-blowing this was at the time, that a major character could just die halfway through, despite having writing done for him to live far beyond this choice.  Later in the trilogy, if he survived, Wrex becomes a leader for the fractured krogan tribes, reuniting them and eventually seeing the genophage cured and the krogan creating a new society.  If Shepard isn’t smart enough, he bleeds out on the beaches of Virmire.  Static media, like film or literature, can try to emphasize the loss of a character by exploring what could have been if they hadn’t died, but in Mass Effect, you can straight-up see the life this character would have lived if you hadn’t messed up.  You can watch videos of it on YouTube and you can feel like shit because some twelve-year-old on the internet figured out how not to get Wrex killed and you didn’t, and they get to experience what Wrex’s future would have been like, and you didn’t.

Yeah, I got Wrex killed on my first playthrough.  I’m not gonna forget that one.

Keeping with the theme of trauma, the next sequence forces you to choose between saving one of two teammates.  Yeah, the game got a bit brutal here.  In a situation that feels only a bit contrived, you can only make it to one of your teammates, Ashley of Kaiden, and the other is going to die, again, for the rest of the series.  Ashley was my Shepard’s romance option on my playthrough, so I obviously picked her, but even on subsequent, perfect, Garrus-romancing playthroughs, I always pick Ash anyways because Kaiden is so aggressively boring that I don’t even want to talk about him any more.  So, the choice wasn’t anywhere near as difficult as dealing with Wrex, but it sticks out to fans of the series more because you’re picking which person you want to have by your side or see grow as a person for the rest of the trilogy.  The fact that there is actually a canonical situation in which the other lives makes that choice even harder, and as much as I’m bored with Kaiden, it’s never easy.

However, one more important event happens on Virmire: the player meets Soverign, a reaper that seems to be pulling the strings.  Soverign reveals the reaper’s core plans to Shepard (destroy all life, rinse, repeat), and explains that there is an entire fleet of reapers lying dormant in dark space outside of the galaxy, enough to easily accomplish those plans.  Saren, at first thought to be the primary antagonist, is revealed to basically be mind-controlled by the reapers, making him at least a slightly sympathetic villain.  Soverign and his allies are the true enemies.

Now that the player has a healthy dose of emotional trauma AND the threat of galactic annihilation, you can finally go back to The Citadel for the endgame.  Liara helps you figure out that you actually need to go to some planet called Ilos because Saren is going to attack The Citadel, and the Counsel, being the shortsighted assholes that they are, place a fleet at the mass relay you have to go through to get to The Citadel, and call it a day.  Oh, you want to follow Sarne to Ilos and see if you can stop him?  They decide that you’re too reckless and lock you out of your own ship.  But you’re Commander Shepard.  Of course you break out and fly to Ilos.   And Ilos is, forrealz this time, the actual last mission.  So now the romance subplots that the game has been teasing for the past twenty hours finally have something happen.

Romancing is one of Mass Effect’s best-known qualities, and the variety and likability of weird aliens you get to bang is one of the series main strengths.  In the first game…not so much.  You get three options in the first game, Kaiden (who, as I’ve already mentioned, is as boring as the codex entry on how to fire your damn gun), Ash, and Liara.  The later games would expand this number greatly, and you’ll regularly hear pretty passionate debates about the best romance option in the game (the correct answer is Garrus, sorry everyone).  While you get to spend a decent amount of time talking to every character, romancing each one opens up more dialogue options, lets you learn a bit more about them and, of course, see your character rolling around in your bunk with them in a terribly-animated sexytime cutscene.  And, dear god, are they terribly animated.  You do not know awkward until you’ve seen two 3D models stare at each other with dead fish eyes while making kiss-like motions with their mouths that aren’t actually touching while stiffly moving their bodies in a manner so sexless that it makes certain episodes of Lost look like hardcore porn.  And it amazes me that anyone could see these scenes and think this is somehow porn (looking at you, Fox News), because if this is in any way titillating to anyone, then I don’t know how they survive a single day on the internet in 2016.  I go through the romance subplots for the dialogue and to get a piece of Garrus’ steamy alien bod.  That’s it.

Anyways, the first character I romanced was Ash, because I was freaking 14 and romancing a weird blue alien seemed out of the question.  But despite my regretting that decision, Ash is actually an interesting character with a least a bit of nuance.  Ash is constantly trying to outlive the legacy of her grandfather, who surrendered to the turians during their First Contact War with the humans, and stands as the only human ever to surrender to an alien force.  Despite this disgrace, everyone in Ash’s family since her grandfather has ashley_williams_34_by_johntesh-d4v99ln.jpgenlisted in the Alliance military.  Ash is hypercompetant and hyperfocused, and at first appears like she will be a clichéd, no-nonsense soldier.  But, if the player talks to her more, you start to find a bit more depth.  Ash is the oldest of four sisters, and helped raise them while her father was deployed.  She’s got strong, healthy relationships with them, and we even see bits and pieces of them from overheard conversations.  In a universe dominated by robot gods and strange aliens, seeing a normal relationship between a group of sisters is refreshingly human, and a touch I wish the series had more of.  It grounds Ash, makes her feel like someone who could be alive today, and that only goes further the more you learn about her.  Ash is religious, in an undefined deist sense, but doesn’t talk about it unless the player asks.  Her faith is important to her character, and while she believes in it strongly, she avoids falling into the religious fanatic template that pretty much every video game seems to cast anyone religious as.  She’s a regular person who is also religious.  Imagine that.  She quotes Alfred Tennyson poems, is a bit racist towards aliens, and is a bit of a romantic.  Most players don’t see this depth to her though, because she’s written off regularly as “Racist Human Lady.”  Still, I’m glad that it’s there.

The other romance option for a male Shepard is Liara, an asari archeologist and prothean nerd that is about as socially awkward as you can get when you first meet her.  She is one liara_t__soni_wallpaper_by_squint911-d2ye01y.pngof the first asari that Shepard runs into, and while other alien characters in the first game serve as ambassadors for the species, Liara is actually fairly different from most other asari.  The asari are a race of all-female humanoids who are the longest-lived and perhaps
tmost powerful race in the galaxy.  Liara is a recluse who prefers to spend her time studying long-dead civilizations.  She grows a lot over the course of the series, turning from an awkward nerd into a competent and driven information broker, but that’s a story for the later games.

To get to those games, though, we first need to go through Ilos, and after the (aforementioned awkward) sex scene, you arrive, equipped with the max level gear and the best squad you can piece together.  On Ilos, you find the ruins of a prothean archive, and a nearly-dead AI that explains a decent amount of the prothean’s history, along with one important tidbit: the Citadel itself is a dormant mass relay, and once Sovereign gets to it, he can open a gate that will let every reaper jump directly to the Citadel, easily annihilating the Counsel fleet. This is clearly a bad thing, so it’s time for Shepard and her team to take the conveniently-placed mini-mass relay to the Citadel, and kick Saren and Sovereign’s ass for good.  In one of the few moments of raw visual spectacle in the first game, where Saren has hacked the Citadel and reverses the gravity or something, so you and your team fight your way up the side of the inverted Presidium while an epic space battle is going on around you between the Citadel fleet and Saren’s geth fleet plus Sovereign.  Nearly a decade after the game’s release, this fight still looks damn gorgeous, and fighting your way to the Counsel chamber and duking it out with Saren is a visual feast.  They add one little touch to that fight that I love in conversation-based RPGs, where you can talk the final boss down and avoid a fight entirely, but this on leads to Saren realizing that he is indoctrinated (reaper mind control) and shooting himself, turning him into the second final boss, which is just like Saren except he jumps around a lot.  So you beat Saren, command the fleed to victory, kick Soverign’s ass, decide if you feel like saving the Counsel, and nominate Anderson for a seat on the Counsel once you single-handedly save the galaxy.  Then, Shepard walks off into the distance, saying some dramatic line about how “There’s work to be done”, and boom.  Roll credits.  You’re done.

Except I certainly wasn’t done.  Mass Effect 1 had some DLC that took a decent amount of work to get running on PC.  It had a few mods to push up the graphical fidelity once I had a computer that was powerful enough to run it.  I had a renegade playthrough to do, different romance options to try, side quests to complete, hidden planets to explore, and a perfect save file to generate on repeat playthroughs for when I finally got Mass Effect 2 running.  A lot has been said about “games as services” recently, a lot of it by EA, ironically enough, but Mass Effect very much did not feel like an in-and-out experience where I consumed all of the game’s content and moved on with it.  I kept getting more from the game the more I put in, and to a certain extent, with this retrospective, I still am.  I attribute a lot of this to how much playing Mass Effect shows you all of the love that the developers put into the game, how much they cared about their genre, their characters, their setting, their music, whatever you can think of.  And discovering the excitement that the developers had for the media landscape that they were releasing Mass Effect into was part of what made the game stick with me.  I got to learn about cyberpunk, old, crappy sci-fi TV shows, various early-20th century writers, and even freaking Alfred Tennyson all because the developers of the game cared enough about their creation to stick those little references and allusions in there.  I said earlier that Mass Effect is a dense text in how it approaches its science fiction explanations (YouTuber MrBtongue calls it “Talky Techy”), but it also is a dense text in the amount of different things that are packed into it.  Games, by being such collaborative works, often feel more disconnected from their creators, because every person’s say is much more muted, but Mass Effect feels like BioWare got a group of people who were really excited about a great many things, and let the pack it to the brim with that excitement.  The later games might go on to be more refined and polished, and lose some of that soul in the process, but the first game is a shining example to me of just how to create a game out of something you are excited about.  Passion project feels like an appropriate, if overused moniker, just because of how transferable that passion is.  But in a dozen different ways, Mass Effect kept transferring that passion to me, long after the credits rolled.

When I first finished Mass Effect, I was definitely excited about video games.  I had played a ton of World of WarCraft, messed around with the KOTOR games, and learned a ton from Age of Empires II and its expansions.  But I wasn’t anywhere near as invested in games on a personal level as I am now.  I got that they were art, sure, but I didn’t see the kind of depth in them that I saw in other art forms.  Mass Effect was probably the first time I saw that in a way that I didn’t have to follow up with, “It’s pretty good, for a video game.”  And, over six years later, that excitement is probably what kept me going for being as invested in the medium as I am today.  It made me ask for more from the games I played, demand a higher level of quality, passion and depth, and helped me realize that story in games didn’t just have to mean non-interactive cutscenes, but a living world that I could interact with.  It expanded both the kinds of games I would love, and the way I would think, talk and write about games from that point on.  I guess you could say it had a Massive Effect on me!  Ha.  Haha.  God, I need to change that title.

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Screw You, Ubisoft, I’m Gonna Go Do Parkour

 

Ubisoft pretty much single-handedly killed open worlds for me.  I’m sure anyone who plays games regularly can remember the excitement open world games used to bring, and I blame Ubisoft for stamping that excitement out.  I can trace this arc most clearly through how I played the Assassin’s Creed series, which is perhaps the purest distillation of Ubisoft’s open-world formula.  I played Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, Revelations, and III over the course of about a month, voraciously devouring them in a mad dash to complete the games before III came out.  When I started the franchise, I was in love, and when I finished it, there were few games I hated more.  And the core of this very strong emotional response was how the games handled their open worlds.

See, Ubisoft games have one *hell* of a honeymoon period.  When I started all of the Assassin’s Creed games, Watch Dogs, and Far Cry 4, I was raving about how great they were.  I talked about their amazing ideas, reveled in their genuinely novel high concepts, and delighted in exploring their mechanical idiosyncrasies.  But then, about four hours in, the honeymoon phase fades, and I realized the relationship was shit all along.  I discovered that the parkour really is that shallow, that the driving really is that shit and it’s never going to get better, that, oh my god, they seriously expect me to climb this tower for the seventh time.  And then the monotony hits, usually all at once.  I start to dread having to explore the open world, I started to cringe how formulaic the story is, and, most of all, I start to notice the checklists.  

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Out of everything in Ubisoft games, the checklists are the things I despise the most.  They turn the wonder and mystery of an entire, digitally-created world into a series of to do lists for you to complete to increase your overall completion percentage, which is clearly your objective meter of how much Fun(TM) you’re having.  Soon, the allure of exploring a new world fades into the conditioned monotony of seeing how many items you can check off this list before you get so bored that you give up on it.  And that emotion, boredom, becomes the driver for how I play Ubisoft-style open world games.  I have to do all these side missions, so let’s keep doing them until I get bored and have to do a story mission to hold me over until the boredom peaks again.  I’ve thought about it, and even my favorite open world games like Skyrim could have their core engagement of exploration obliterated with a simple checklist.  The greatest moments in those games are when you find a hidden cave tucked away behind some out-of-the-way mountain, explore every nook and cranny, and find some magic item with a weird effect that you hang onto because, sure, it’s a good item, but you have a story about how you found it.  If Skyrim was made by Ubisoft, you would see a marker on your map for the magic item’s exact location, and be told that you need to collect it and the 2534 other magic items in the world to reach 100% completion, so that by the time you got there you would just follow the line on your map to the item, pick it up, and leave.  All the magic is gone, you’re just going from Point A to Point B.

So, is that it?  Has Ubisoft’s destruction of the reasons I loved open world games infested the industry so thoroughly that I will never enjoy one again?  Apparently not, because Mirror’s Edge Catalyst came out last week, was a Ubisoft-style open world in everything but name, and I loved the goddamn hell out of it.  

steamworkshop_webupload_previewfile_412583521_previewThe original Mirror’s Edge game came out some eight years ago, and has been one of my all-time favorites ever since I first played the demo at a friend’s house.  In the time since then, there has never quite been anything like it.  Sure, Brink had some parkour, Titanfall took the basic stylings and made it crazy fast (and added jetpacks, which is always nice), and Dying Light applied it to a Ubisoft-styled open world on their own, but while I love all of those games (except Brink, c’mon, Bethesda, what were you thinking?), none of them even come close to Mirror’s Edge.  Because as fun as their movement systems are, at the end of the day, the feel just a bit too floaty, too removed, and, most importantly, too easy.  Movement is never the core gameplay of those games.  In Mirror’s Edge, it was basically all you had (I’m not going to talk about the shooting mechanics, and no one else should either).  While Ubisoft games had me hating going from Point A to Point B, Mirror’s Edge is basically nothing but that.  So, they figured, if our game is entirely about getting from one place to another, why not make that really freaking fun?  And they did! The movement in Mirror’s Edge is filled with this flow, heft and weight.  Faith can get up to some serious speed, but she lands with a thud, will get hurt if you don’t time your roll right, and fall to the ground with a sickening crunch if you miss a ledge grab.  The game asked you to be constantly aware, not just to stay alive, but to move as fast as you can and look as cool as you can while doing it.  The aesthetics of parkour, of traversing a complicated space in a unique way and making it look effortless, translated so well into gameplay that I am amazed that, eight years later, NO ONE ELSE HAS GOTTEN IT RIGHT.  But the first Mirror’s Edge was a linear, level-to-level game, and while I really admire and enjoy its purity, this year,  when we *finally* got a sequel, they changed that.

mapMirror’s Edge Catalyst is a straight-up, Ubisoft-inspired, checkbox-ridden, collectible-filled open world.  It has an overall completion rate, barfs icons for random tasks onto your map, and doesn’t provide and mechanical incentive to do any of those things.  And I freaking love it.  Most open world games get very tedious, very fast, because a decent chunk of your game time is just walking from objective to objective, but in Mirror’s Edge, running everywhere is the core gameplay, so they focus on making it as engaging as possible.  I had a blast finding out different routes from the various points of interest in the game, felt amazing whenever I found a new shortcut to shave off some travel time, and got genuinely, shout-an-exclamation-of-joy-at-two-in-the-morning-and-piss-off-my-parents excited when I unlocked a new upgrade that let me double wall jump.  I didn’t care if I was parkouring to a fixed objective on the map that added to my overall completion, I was doing parkour!  I wish I had more to say about it than that, but all it took to make this style of open world enjoyable was to just make going from place to place exciting.  The walking wasn’t a chore anymore.  I learned every detail of the environments because they were useful to me.  And a type of game that I had *hated* for years suddenly was something I was raving to friends about again.  Except this time, the honeymoon phase didn’t wear off.

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Overwatch & Support Classes

Playing a support class in a multiplayer game is a strangely contradictory decision.  Competitive multiplayer games are almost always about empowerment, about kicking as much ass as you possibly can and being named the Best Ass-Kicker That Ever Was.  Multiplayer games have score screens that praise the most skillful ass-kickers and lead to derision of the less-skilled ones.  They emphasize kill-death ratios, the ultimate measurement of a player’s skill, and, despite the team focus of these games, tend to hold personal kill performance above all else.  This makes playing a support class kind of go against the ethos of this style of gaming.  If multiplayer games are all about killing as many players as you can, then why would anyone want to play a class that, if they’re doing their job right, doesn’t get any kills?  Well, it seems that, despite the importance of support roles in games like League of Legends, Overwatch, World of WarCraft, etc., not to many people want to play them.  I’ve been playing a lot of Overwatch since its release last month, and I’ve ended up playing primarily as Mercy and Lucio, two of the game’s primary healer classes, not because I find them more fun, but because no one else will.  One encounter that I have every three games like clockwork is a starting phase where no one has chosen support, and the one guy playing Reaper (it’s always Reaper) starts yelling at the team in chat for someone to play support.  When people suggest to this player that he, perhaps, play support, he suspiciously goes silent.  So, I end up playing Mercy or Lucio again.  So it would seem that not too many people want to play support classes, and most players will end up fighting over the few attack/damage roles.

If this is the case, and support really is antithetical to the ethos of multiplayer gaming, then why do I enjoy playing these support roles so much?  Yeah, I’m annoyed that I’m usually boxed in to playing them, but I’ve been having a blast playing healers.  The primary reason for this, I’ve found, is the type of rewards you get for playing support.  When you’re playing a damage-focused character like Reaper, Genji or Bastion, you get a lot of mechanical rewards, like high kill streaks, crazy plays of the game, and medals on the score screen.  But, when you’re playing support, you get something different: social rewards.  When I get an insane kill streak as Pharah, the other players on my team mostly ignore it unless it is particularly game-changing.  However, when I jump into the middle of four dead teammates as Mercy and resurrect all of them at just the right moment, I get compliments, thanks and praise for doing so.  This type of social reward is why I enjoy playing support so much.  It is not about doing the best I personally can, like getting 40 kills in a match, it’s about helping others do the best they can, and feeling a sense of vicarious accomplishment.  The role feels more like that of a parent or teacher, oddly enough.  Instead of kicking ass yourself, you’re helping other people do it instead.

But there is a serious tradeoff there.  Blizzard ranks Mercy as one of the easiest characters to play, and, I’ll admit, there’s not as much second-to-second mechanical depth to her.  You’re making decisions about who to fly to in order to heal and where to position yourself, but you don’t have the skill of twitch aiming or ability timing.  Mercy’s healing wave, afterall, isn’t a skill shot, you just hover over the player you want to heal and lock on.  So, whenever I play a healer, I always feel like I’m trading mechanical depth for social enjoyment.  This isn’t as true in games like World of WarCraft, healing there is much more complicated, but I do still feel that tradeoff.  Blizzard has tried to acknowledge this with tricks such as removing the kill-death focused scoreboard and replacing it with objective-based medals, but there is still a long way to go.

And this comes with another problem: what if your team is a bunch of insufferable assholes?  I’ve had this problem time and time again: I get grouped with players who are toxic as all hell, constantly ask me to heal them when the entire team is at half health, and spew slur-infused bile at me in chat when they die.  This makes games as a damage or tank character annoying, but it makes games a support near unbearable.  If most of your reward for playing the game is social, then when that social reward is removed, you have nothing to fall back on.  If you’re playing a game with a bad team as a damage character, you can still get kills from time to time, which at least give you something to enjoy, but a support, the game just becomes grueling.  Most of the time when I stop playing Overwatch, it is because of games like that.

In this model, support is a class that works fundamentally differently from damage or tank classes.  Supports have a much larger gulf in enjoyment from game-to-game, and much less minute-to-minute enjoyment.  Basically, if you have a good team, you’re probably going to have an experience that is consistently enjoyable, and if you have a bad team, the game will just suck.  Because I’m usually playing Overwatch with a group of friends, I can more easily avoid those bad games, and I’m not quite sure how Blizzard could fix that.  Maybe they can’t, maybe they just want you to play with friends instead of alone.  And, in a style of game focused around personal empowerment despite having all of this potential for team play, I think a bit of a tradeoff is acceptable.