Encompassing three blockbuster video games, four published novels, ten comics titles, an animated film, and even a theme park ride, Mass Effect is arguably one of the biggest and most influential roleplaying franchises of all time.
The third-person action RPG transports players to a world filled with aliens, sleek starships, and memorable characters. Each game is filled with hundreds of choices, and these choices ensure that every player has a unique experience. With the next video game installment in the series, Mass Effect: Andromeda, on track for a March 2017 release, it seems that the power of individual choice will remain a hallmark of the series, and continue to ensure its place in gaming history.
My own journey with the Mass Effect games spanned five years of my life. It was a journey shaped by the choices I made within the game, and one that was unique to me. Game by game, the nuanced decisions I had to make made Mass Effect one of the most memorable gaming experiences I've ever had.
Spoilers for Mass Effect 1-3 to follow.
The series puts players into the space boots of Commander Shepard, a fully customizable character, from gender all the way down to forehead size, eye color, nostril diameter, and much more. This level of choice extended to the character’s background and military history before launching players into the futuristic world of the year 2183 aboard the spaceship Normandy.
The decision to allow an individual background for Commander Shepard—who was fully voiced throughout the trilogy—was a stroke of genius. I remember being impressed that the game put Commander Shepard forward as a fully realized character rather than a blank slate, a feeling that remains even now. As BioWare’s Creative Director, Mac Walters, said in a recent 2016 interview: “Shepard came on the scene, and it felt like they’d already accomplished a lot.”
Once a player takes control of Shepard, the in-game choices are based on the “Paragon” and “Renegade” morality system. Unlike many other simple good or evil choices in other games, both Paragon and Renegade were heroic, but with different ways of going about saving the galaxy. For example, there was the conversation interface. Rather than simply repeating what answer you chose verbatim, Shepard said something similar to what you selected, but not exact. As the trilogy grew, these answers would become longer, as would the spaces between dialogue choices. In effect, my Shepard began thinking for himself—even, just a bit, growing outside my control.
Perhaps the biggest and most well known choice in the first game occurs about two-thirds of the way through the story, when the player is given the hardest choice of all: who to sacrifice. This was one decision that had no third option; one member of the team had to die to cover the rest while a bomb went off, and it would be permanent.
For my part, I remember agonizing over this choice for quite a while. I had never encountered a decision like this in a game before. Even now, almost a decade later, this choice remains one of the standout moments of the series and one that epitomizes the personal appeal of the game for me: lasting choices with consequences far beyond what might be first apparent.
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Mass Effect 2 was darker, edgier, and more fleshed out. It began with a shock: Commander Shepard, the character crafted and guided for so many hours of gameplay, died in a surprise attack on the Normandy. On my first playthrough of the game, which began just after I returned from a midnight release, I remember feeling as if I’d been punched in the gut; I was flabbergasted to see my protagonist simply die without any buildup.
After this opening, in a scene reminiscent of The Fifth Element, the Commander is rebuilt by the human black ops organization Cerberus and its mysterious leader, The Illusive Man. This allowed players to change the look or class of their Shepard while still keeping the sense of continuity from the previous game.
Once again, player choice remained a key element of the game. New to the game were “Loyalty Missions,” unique levels for each member of the squad. More than simply added content however, these missions—and whether the player chose to complete them—had a tangible effect on the last part of the story. Every choice added up in the final “Suicide Mission,” where a character’s loyalty (based on the resolution of their individual mission) directly affected their chances of survival. This ending level perfectly encapsulates the entire series and remains the high point of the game and the trilogy as whole; for me, Mass Effect 2 is the best in the series in part because of this third act.
For example, throughout the game the player was given the choice to spend resources upgrading the ship. If neglected, then some squad members could die during the first part of the mission. Like the choice in the first game, these companions were now dead for the rest of the trilogy. Additionally, at certain junctions in the mission, picking the wrong companion for each task could potentially result in more deaths. Even the Commander could die again if things went badly. In my case, during my initial run of the final level, several of my decisions were based on personal favoritism of my companions instead of their in-game skills. As a result of this emotional thinking—and the fact that I had neglected several Loyalty Missions—three of my favorite characters died.
For the first time in my life, I actually put down my controller at this point. I was stunned. Nothing—not the opening (which was mostly one non-interactive cinematic set piece), not the choices in the first game—had prepared me for this. These characters, some of which felt nearly as real as human beings, were now dead because of my choices. It was my fault. While some of the effect was spoiled by the knowledge that I could simply reload a previous save game and try again (which I eventually did), it was still a tearjerker.
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Fans were promised that Mass Effect 3 would be the culmination of two games worth of choices; the galaxy would live or die based on previous and new decisions, even as the story upped the scale and stakes. ME:3 features the villainous robotic Reapers invading the Milky Way en masse as they cull the galaxy of life.
In some ways, the game lived up to these lofty promises. Every mission or character was a callback to previous events, and even the smallest decisions affected the game in some way or another; for example, the completion of a tiny, relatively insignificant side quest in the first game that involved collecting ancient writings actually influenced a character’s final fate.
But, whereas the first and most of the second game allowed players to pick nearly every response in a conversation, the third game had Shepard speaking more between choices. Additionally, the Paragon and Renegade choices became less nuanced and more binary, with Renegade becoming more stereotypically “evil” and Paragon becoming “good.” In my opinion, this was a mixed blessing. While the increased lines from Shepard did indeed make them a more fleshed out character with a defined personality, it removed some of the choice, as did the lack of Loyalty Missions.
These forced paths would eventually culminate in one of the most divisive endings in gaming history.
For many fans, the last act of the game was completely jarring, involving a great deal of railroading that barely showed the effects of previous gameplay decisions. It was filled with plot holes and scenes that the player had no direct control over. Further angering the fanbase was the last choice of the game, which boiled down to simply picking between destroying the Reapers, controlling them, or merging with them, all explained by a character that had never before appeared in the series. I personally remember saying that it was “one of the worst endings I’ve ever seen.”
Looking back, the ending was disliked not because of the choices presented, but because the nuances of each choice were lacking. There was no option, for example, to refuse the choices presented before you. Nor did Paragon or Renegade players have different possibilities based on their moral alignment. I personally felt cheated—as did many other players—because the ending seemed not to take our choices into account at all.
BioWare listened to the complaints and eventually released a free “Extended Cut” ending that silenced most concerns. This was later followed up by the final piece of post-launch content. Titled “Citadel,” it was generally seen as a good sendoff to the story of Commander Shepard.
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Mass Effect remains a shining example of the power of player choice. It is a testament to BioWare that they were able to create a living, breathing world and give players an extraordinary number of personal decisions which carried over from game to game. Even now I still regularly replay the trilogy to try out different choices, and each time I’m amazed at the extraordinary amount of variations in my individual experience. As the series continues into 2017 with Mass Effect: Andromeda, I'm excited to continue plotting my own course through the distant stars.
Featured photo Commander Shepard via BioWare