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
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.
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.
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 on 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 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. 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, 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 (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 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
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.