I started playing Mass Effect sometime in early 2010, well before I had the disposable income to be playing high budget, contemporary games. 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. So after messing with crack files and cursing my lack of any cash to spend on games, 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. With my laptop was burning so hot it almost certainly wasn’t safe, I fired up what would undoubtedly become the most influential game of my life.
Every games writer and enthusiast 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.
Mass Effect’s opening, while fascinating in its own right, definitely lacks the bombast of the later games. Especially in its pre-remastered state, it doesn’t do much to impress with the visuals. It starts pretty slowly too, with a deliberately 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. Character creation is fairly limited for an RPG of the time, with options for gender, combat class, and a basic backstory. The player gets quickly introduced to their space ship, learns a bit about galactic politics, and is whisked away on their first mission. However, the depth and reactivity of the setting is already on display from moment one. Despite trying to make its opening mission feel urgent and frantic, characters are surprisingly chatty about some of its more interesting aspects. Humans are the newest members of the galactic community, they’re too ambitious, taking too much power and territory, and the other species of the galaxy don’t like them. For an experienced sci-fi fan, this is nothing new, but from my limited experience with Star Wars and Star Trek, this was fascinating.
Fortunately, this exposition is integrated surprisingly elegantly for a work that has to introduce this entire new setting. 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.
While the opening may be a bit slow regardless, the game’s soundtrack definitely picks up the slack. 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. 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 aren’t an inherently bad pick for the setting – Mass Effect 2 and 3 certainly prove that – 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 fun little connection to the game’s core themes of 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, 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 2010, I hadn’t even seen Blade Runner, let alone fallen head-over-heels in love with it. The broader science fiction landscape, 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, after all. Woah, Blade Runner is insanely cool, what’s this whole Cyberpunk thing? And so on and so on. This doesn’t make Mass Effect, in a vacuum, any better of a game, this is steeped in my personal experience with the sci-fi genre at the time I played it. But the fact that the game pulls lovingly from so many influences lends it to this kind of tangential learning, and I’ll always love it for that.
But back to the game. After the slog that is the opening Eden Prime introduction, you fly to The Citadel, the enormous, ancient space station that forms the center of the game’s major political forces. Now, the Citadel in the first game is not the most widely beloved area by the fan community, but I personally love it. You’ve got a series of missions to do on the station directly related to the main plot, and those are fun in their own right. But the station itself is really where the game starts to open up. In the first mission, the game tells you where to go and what to do, gives you narrow paths to run down, and outside of some optional conversations, you don’t have much say in where you go and what you do. Not so on The Citadel. 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. Its intro song never fails to make me feel like a dumbass 15-year-old, staring gobsmacked at this 800×600 rendering of 20 frames per second pure, sci-fi glory. 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 neutral towns between combat encounters, where you can poke around for hidden quests and loot, meet 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.
Conversations and Characters
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 officer in charge of the situation, who tells you that studying the woman’s body could provide invaluable information in the fight against the Geth, the first game’s main antagonists. 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, or Paragon and Renegade, in the game’s parlance. In a move that would become more and more unique for the series, both paragon and renegade players can make either choice: 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. Mass Effect’s morality system has received its share of criticism, and honestly, it’s a fairly shallow one. But I think that this quest represents a more interesting approach that they could have gone with, where the morality isn’t about what the player does, but how they do it.
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, especially in its original release, but this was my first encounter with a more cinematic conversation system in a game, so it stuck out. I get to spend hours of gametime just…talking to people? 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 visual quality that made those choices feel more significant to 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 older CRPGs. This felt much more organic, like I was having conversations with people. Its interesting that, even though I had played other games with conversation systems that provided more options and reactivity, this felt more impactful. Mass Effect became the game I would compare every other conversation system to. When I played Deus Ex: Human Revolution the following year, or Telltale’s Walking Dead the year after, I enjoyed them, in part, because of how they iterated on what Mass Effect had done. So, no, Mass Effect does not have the most complex or reactive conversation system; Planescape Torment and other CRPGs still have it thuroughly beat in the camp. Nor does it have conversations that look quite as good as something you’d find in a David Cage game. But by mixing the two approaches, it creates a system that simulates the feel of actual conversation, for me, better than any other.
Fortunately, the game quickly provides you with numerous characters worth really having a conversation with. One of the first characters you meet on The Citadel, and by far the most beloved, is Garrus Vakarian. Garrus, like most of the characters in the first game, starts as 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 and join Shepard, he takes it. But cliche or not, Garrus is probably the most widely loved companion character in the medium. He can play the role of a buddy cop, brother in arms, fellow spy, you name it. Garrus was the first character I met in a video game that felt, weirdly, like my friend, not just a character. He helped me take down Saren, ge saved my ass in more than a few firefights, and, hey, when the mission’s looking tough, he’ll crack jokes with me for a bit. I’ve got battle stories with Garrus, memories of friendship, loss and struggle…and none of those feel like surrogate memories; those are my memories. Now, obviously, Garrus is not a real person and I am not really friends with him. I’m not *that* far gone and I own a completely reasonable number of Garrus body pillows. But I love that Mass Effect and other Bioware games consistently try to write characters by leaning into these experiences that only games can provide. There are tons of characters in movies and books that I love, but Garrus is probably the only one who feels like my friend.
This makes it difficult when he starts struggling with genuine moral dilemmas. 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, and I especially love how his arc plays very directly into Shepard’s.
Garrus’ dilemma provides an interesting set of questions for the player to ponder throughout the game, because, early on in the game, the player is given the role of Specter, a space cop who legally does not have to follow any laws, and this is *exactly* what Garrus wants to be. 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 states. Imagine trying to respect the sovereignty and laws of every one of those systems, even as the criminals you are chasing do not. 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 oversight (the Marvel Cinematic Universe is certainly the most popular example), but in the Mass Effect universe, that argument seems much more plausible. If you can’t even 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. But while other works of media present this view uncritically, Mass Effect is actually pretty uncomfortable with the idea. No one in the game explicitly says, “Shepard, your role as a space cop just exists to defend
global galactic capital, and your desire to escape regulations just means you’ll end up abusing your power.” The game isn’t *that* good with its politics. But it’s kind of difficult to support the Speceters uncritically when the main antagonist of the game is himself a Specter who used his immunity to basically all laws to nearly bring about the end of the galaxy. The existing diplomatic structures are incredibly resistant towards and form of accountability for Saren, because they want to defend their own power structures. Tens of thousands died because the Citadel Counsel refused to check the power of their own agents. So, bringing this back to Garrus, this makes his personal character arc incredibly relevant to how the player engages with the morality of the setting as well. Do you follow in the footsteps of the antagonist, ignoring the rules for personal gain and pushing Garrus in that direction with you? Or do you try for something better? I don’t want to oversell it, the game still fundamentally affirms the necessity of the military and the police as institutions, but this criticism helps make a game where you’re playing as a literal space cop a little less politically uncomfortable.
Garrus isn’t the only teammate you pick up on the citadel, however; along the way, you’ll meet Wrex and Tali. Both are aliens, a krogan and a quarrian, respectively, and each highlight a bit of the weakness in the first game’s 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, with both of them having complex relationships with their own cultures, accepting and rejecting parts in equal measure. I still enjoyed my conversations with both, but more because of the information I learned, not the people I was learning it from. Wrex especially does get more characterisation in this game, and I’ll talk about that later, but for now, they’re closer to walking codex entries than proper characters.
Exploring the Galaxy
So, with the team assembled, the player can leave the Citadel and really get started on the bulk of the game. They’re given three missions to choose from, with a fourth appearing shortly after. After that, it’s off to the endgame. So, the bulk of Mass Effect involves traveling around the galaxy, chasing Saren, and, more interestingly, learning about its history. And that history really kicks off when the player starts learning about the Reapers. They feel kind of trite now, but at the time, the Reapers were still fairly compelling. They’re an ancient machine race that wipes out all life in the galaxy every 50,000 years. The most recent of those harvested races, the Protheans, are credited with building the majority of the technology found by the Counsel races. The player spends a lot of the game uncovering the mysteries surrounding this history, and for a story repeated so often in this genre, it still proves incredibly engaging. It also poses a threat at a pretty impressive scale; your enemy is a group so powerful, they’ve already wiped out the entire galaxy…MULTIPLE TIMES. The deck is comically stacked against the player. Early missions in the first game really set up the Reapers as antagonists steeped in mystery, and gives the player a taste of what uncovering those mysteries will look like for the rest of the trilogy.
Unfortunately, sometimes learning that information requires some fighting to get there, and this is probably a good time to talk about the combat system. 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, its closest competitor in terms of combat. Even with its age in mind, Mass Effect’s shooting was pretty bad for the time. The cover system is janky 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). The second and third games would make actually compelling combat systems out of the base the first game created, but in this early, unpolished state, it’s pretty rough, and makes revisiting the first game especially difficult on subsequent playthroughs.
While I can’t go into detail about every one, I do want to center in on my favorite of the core missions: the planet of Noveria. 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 the place I need to go to continue the plot, 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. So, 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, trying to buy your way out of here. This is a pretty classic RPG plot setup; KOTOR, The Witcher, and Dragon Age all do it. It’s a robust mission structure, where you are encouraged to visit a bunch of different locations and talk to various NPCs. It gives you opportunities for a few moral choices, and lets you 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 encourages you to explore while building anticipation for the next zone.
So it helps that Noveria also has some of the most mechanically interesting side quests in the game. The first, “Smuggling”, pops up when one of the NPC shopkeepers offers to give you some top-quality weapons if you smuggle some supplies for him. Even in the capitalist heaven of Noveria, there are enough restrictions that smuggling is profitable, apparently, and the player is given a number of choices ranging from turning him in, doing the job, undercutting him directly to the buyer, or agreeing to smuggle the supplies and just taking them. Mass Effect 1 does this type of choice especially well, providing the player with a variety of interesting choices, across its morality spectrum. “Espionage”, the next side quest, continues this trend of offering numerous potential outcomes, each providing a different amount of paragon or renegade points depending on what the player chose to do and why they 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 “canon” 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.
Moral choices in the game are not always as complexly handled, however, and Noveria features honestly one of the weakest ones. In it, the player is given the choice to commit genocide or not. There’s a lot more to it than that, but fundamentally, it’s, “Are you cool with genocide.” Hopefully not too many people are gonna say “Yes” to that. The player decides the fate of the alien Rachni, an insectoid species that nearly wiped out all life in the galaxy. The game really wants this to be complex, talking about how dangerous the rachni were, if you’re risking another war….but, again, this is genocide. No one kills the rachni. A lot of the bigger-ticket moral choices play out like this, where you’re not deciding between different methods, but you’re just picking the good or evil choice. Fortunately, the writing around the Rachni is interesting enough to make up for this, but it does leave a disappointing end to the planet.
The planet does have one last bit of interesting reactivity though, and that comes in the fight with Matriarch Benezia. Benezia is voiced by Star Trek: The Next Generation veteran Marina Sirtis, and while I appreciate the cameo, the performance…is pretty noticeably weak. The series has better success with celebrity actors in the future, but definitely not in this case. Regardless of her voice acting though, Benezia is an interesting case study in the game’s reactivity because of how it changes if you brought Liara with you. Benezia is actually Liara’s mother, and the confrontation with them plays out in an appropriately dramatic fashion. However, what makes the scene interesting is how well it works even if Liara is not present. The game is written to react to who you bring with you, and playing out these scenes effectively with and without a dramatic confrontation really speaks to its heft and reactivity.
Finally, there is the Virmire mission, perhaps the best-known one in the game. 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 species 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. Wrex can have a bright future ahead of him, but 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. 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, actually, 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 (Garrus). 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 sex scene. 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 enlisted 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 of 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 the most 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, 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 (aforementionedly 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 fleet 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.