I’ve written before about music, movies, and television that has inspired me. Now it’s time to jump over to the next entertainment medium: video games.
It’s startling to me, but there are still people out there who claim that video games are just empty exercises in hand-eye coordination, that they hold no artistic merit. I will never understand this assertion. I firmly believe that a well-made video games holds just as much story-telling value as a great novel or movie.
Who wasn’t touched by left paddle’s triumphant come-from-behind victory over right paddle?
While I could easily list hundreds of titles that prove this point, I want to focus on the one video game series that has touched and inspired me more than any other. This series has an incredible story, beautiful characters that you come to consider your friends, unique and action-packed gameplay, and is overall one of the best gaming experiences out there. That series is, of course, Mass Effect.
What is Mass Effect, first of all? For the uninitiated, this is a trilogy of video games made by the developer Bioware. In the year 2183, humanity has recently discovered the secret to near-instant space travel This has brought us into the fold of a galactic community consisting of a dozen different species. In our quest to be taken seriously as a race, humanity discovers a secret that threatens all life in the galaxy. The Reapers, an ancient race of sentient space ships, will return soon to destroy every sentient being in the Milky Way. You take the role of Commander Shepard, one of humanity’s best soldiers. With a rag-tag group of followers, you must unite the galaxy and stop the Reapers from continuing the cycle of galactic destruction.
“Our numbers will darken the sky of every world. You cannot escape your doom.”
So if you have any appreciation for sci-fi, adventure, or just awesome things in general, you’ll realize that is one of the coolest descriptions of anything ever. But in case you need more convincing, allow me to count the ways Mass Effect is amazing.
“I fight for the right to choose our own fate. And if I die, I’ll die knowing that I did everything I could to stop you. And I’ll die free.”
Right from the opening cutscene of the series, you can tell that Mass Effect is going to be good. But I didn’t realize it was something utterly, uniquely amazing until 10 hours into the first game, on the mission called Virmire: Assault.
I’d spent ten hours recruiting my team and hunting down an alien named Saren threatening to destroy all of humanity. The stakes seemed dire; my entire species was at risk. I’d criss-crossed the galaxy hunting this madman and finally located one of his bases on the planet Virmire. Another elite squad of soldiers had been stuck on this planet trying to gain some intel on the base. We met up, joined forces, and stormed the facility in an epic attack.
After fighting through beaches, lookout posts, and laboratories, I finally was closing in on the bastard. Then, I found a computer console. Thinking it would have some data on my enemy’s research, I opened it up and found this.
Is that…is that a glowing prawn?
This was Saren’s spaceship, the largest one anyone in the galaxy had ever seen. Throughout the campaign we were led to assume it was just a normal, though dangerous, vehicle. That all changed when the spaceship started talking to me. It quickly became apparent that this ship was one of the fabled Reapers, a mythological creature believed to cause galactic extinction every 50,000 years. And then, with a single line of dialogue, the entire game shifted.
“You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”
Oh shit. Saren was just a pawn of Sovereign, the Reaper before me. These things don’t just want to destroy humanity, they want to annihilate every sentient being in the galaxy. Not only was this whole conversation with Sovereign incredibly well-written and chilling, it perfectly set the stage for the rest of the series. What started as trying to find and stop one madman turned into a desperate race against time to unite the galaxy against an onslaught of unstoppable terror. Two and a half more games of insane adventure were about to begin, and it all started with one of the most bad-ass lines I’ve ever heard.
“Forgive the insubordination, but this old friend has an order for you…Go out there and give them hell. You were born to do this.”
Throughout all of Mass Effect 1, I had Garrus Vakarian in my squad. He’s the guy up there, the most badass former cop in the galaxy. Throughout my campaign Garrus watched my back, offered some awesome one-liners, and became my friend. The only rift between us was how we handled the bad guys.
I never hestitated to fire when fired upon or neutralize a threat, but I always tried using diplomacy first, and I never would kill an enemy that tried to surrender. Garrus was different. He figured killing a bad guy, no matter the circumstances, made the galaxy just a little bit better. We got into a few scuffles over this, but eventually Garrus came to see my point of view. So together we stopped Saren, destroyed Sovereign, and helped buy billions of lives a little more time to prepare against the Reaper onslaught.
For the first few missions in Mass Effect 2, none of my old crew members from the first game were around. It was explained that time had passed and we’d all drifted apart. I missed all of them, but none more than Garrus. I especially missed him on a mission to recruit the galaxy’s top sniper, a masked vigilante known as Archangel.
Archangel was under attack by a trio of gangs he’d pissed off, and I needed him to help stop the Reapers. So my two new squadmates and I pretended to join one of the gangs to get near Archangel. As we stormed Archangel’s hideouts and his sniper rifle started mowing down the bad guys fighting beside me, I switched sides and started massacring them as well. I fought my way upstairs and told Archangel I was there to bust him out. He held up a finger telling me to wait, sniped one last enemy soldier, then spun around and took his helmet off.
Garrus, you crazy son of a bitch.
I threw up my hands and excitedly shouted, “Garrus!” at the same moment my character onscreen did. It was one of the most surprising and delightful moments I’d ever had in a video game. Not only was my brother in arms the mysterious Archangel, not only were we suddenly reunited, but now we got to fight through waves and waves of enemy soldiers and massive robotic mechs together. We set up shop on the balcony, picked up our sniper rifles, and mowed those bastards down.
It is one of the fondest memories I will ever have.
Though Garrus was by far my favorite, you will grow to love every person who fights beside you in the Mass Effect series. Who will be your favorite? Maybe it will be Wrex, the hulking Krogan warlord who’s abandoned his dying people because they can’t be bothered to save themselves. Or maybe EDI, the friendly artificial intelligence who wonders if she is truly alive. What about Thane, the dying assassin who wants to help stop the Reapers to make up for all the lives he took?
There’s plenty of options.
None of them are simple cliches or cardboard cut-outs. Over the seventy hours you invest in this series you’ll become attached to every one of them, feel your heart rip in two when some fall in battle, and come to consider them your real friends. No other game I’ve ever played has warranted such a connection to its cast, and Mass Effect deserves all the praise it can get for this accomplishment.
Time to gear up.
It was the final mission of Mass Effect 3. 70 hours of gameplay had come down to this. The Reapers had long ago invaded Earth, and it was time to take it back. My team had spent an hour trudging through ashen streets, fighting the Reaper’s ground forces at every turn. We were trying to reach a cache of deadly missiles, which another team had lost their lives defending. We needed to get to that stockpile, buy our A.I. some time to target the lone Reaper guarding their force’s one weak spot, and blow it to hell.
We reached the missiles, neutralized the forces in the area, and uploaded our A.I. It would need a few minutes to target the reaper, so my team and I settled into defensive positions. I knew it would be a tough fight, but this was everything my team and I had prepared for. We would win.
Then they started coming.
Dozens of enemies stormed us from every direction. I unshouldered my sniper rifle and started firing at every enemy I could. First in my sights was a Ravager, an insect-like creature with dual-mounted cannons. Two shots to the head sent it tumbling. I moved from distant target to distant target, but soon a swarm ofhusks, dead humans repurposed by the Reapers, rushed the field en mass. I needed to keep sniping the far-away enemies before we were overrun, so I opened up my tac-com and gave orders to my teammates. Garrus laid down a proximity mine which blew a handful of husks apart, and Liara used her biotic (sci-fi magic) skills to sweep another half dozen into the air and lock them there.
A brute, a massive conglomeration of different dead aliens that can kill you with a single punch, lumbered onto the battlefield. My sniper fire couldn’t pierce its armor, so I launched a projectile of molten plasma from my wrist and incinerated its protective plating. Garrus overloaded the shields of enemies flanking from the left, Liara used her biotic abilities to throw more approaching ravagers off their feet, and I unloaded a clip full of bullets into the brute’s face.
Then a scream filled the battlefield, and I knew the Banshees were coming.
Target them first because they scare me!
As I switched between my sniper rifle to pop off enemies’ heads and my submachine gun to whittle away their shields, Garrus kept throwing proximity mines and laying down suppressive fire. Liara tossed her biotic grenades, which blew enemies apart and suspended them in a stasis field. The banshees used their own biotic powers to teleport all around us, dancing in between my sniper shots. I ordered Garrus to switch to his sniper rifle, hoping he could pick up my slack.
One Banshee closed in, reared back to stab me with a one-hit kill and erase ten minutes of progress, when a crisp bang rang out and tore open the Banshee’s skull. It slumped to the ground, and I stared in amazement at Garrus as he silently turned back around to drill another husk between the eyes.
A game can have an amazing story and characters, but at the end of the day it’s still a game. That means it has to be fun to play, and Mass Effect more than succeeds on this front. The story and characters were so good that if the gameplay was a simple run of the mill shooter, the Mass Effect series would still be a classic. But of course Mass Effect wouldn’t settle for that.
In addition to your standard gunplay, you can also choose to focus on tech talents and biotic skills. You could mix any two of these focuses together to ultimately have six classes to choose from. Biotic soldiers can use their minds to tear apart the fabric of reality. They can throw enemies back with hurricane-force, suspend hostiles in the air, and create vortexes that suck your opponents in. Engineers can toss plasma at enemies, overload shields, hack enemy robots to fight for your side, and overload hostile weapons to keep them from firing. And of course if you do just want to be a straight-up soldier, there are different shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, marksman rifles, grenade launchers, submachine guns, and pistols to choose from. With so many options, combat is never boring in this series.
Well…at least not in Mass Effect 2 & 3.
If there’s one negative thing to point out about this series, it’s Mass Effect 1‘s gameplay. The tech skills were kind of boring to use, some classes are limited to only using a pistol for the entire game, and for some bizarre reason your accuracy is determined by skill points instead of, you know, just aiming.
I love leveling up and getting skill points, but when you have to get to level 10 just to aim your pistol properly, your game has a problem.
Luckily, Mass Effect 2 streamlined the process. There were much fewer skill points to manage, biotic and tech skills became more fun to use, and accuracy was determined by your own aim instead of your character’s level. Mass Effect 3 made things even better by making battles larger and more chaotic, giving nearly every class access to different types of grenades, and offering dozens more weapons to choose from. While Mass Effect 1‘s gameplay was just mediocre, by the time the series ended it was wholly enjoyable.
We’re not killing anyone else today, Garrus. Sorry.
Mass Effect is perhaps most well known for making its players constantly make decisions. From who to help to who to kill, there’s always a dilemma. And unlike in other games that tout the importance of player choice, the decisions in Mass Effect actually matter.
The hardest decision I ever had to make was in the first Mass Effect game. A group of terrorists have killed all the miners on an asteroid and are piloting the rock towards a massive human colony. If it collides, everyone will be killed. You fight your way through the enemy’s forces and ultimately confront their leader, Balak.
Look at that asshole grin.
Balak has an offer for you. Turns out he has three innocent miners stuck in a room with a bomb. You can fight Balak and try to make him answer for his crimes, but if you do he’ll blow the bomb. Or you can let him go and save the hostages.
This was the hardest decision I ever had to make in a game. Whenever I replay through the series, I always end up making a different decision here each time. If you let Balak go, then you save three lives. But he’s a dangerous terrorist who’s already killed dozens on this rock and tried to murder millions more. He’ll certainly try again, and if he succeeds then that blood is on your hands. But if you do stop him and try to save future lives down the road, then three innocent people will die today. What do you do?
There’s no easy answer here, and there rarely are for the questions Mass Effect poses. In my first playthrough, I fought Balak and watched him kill the three miners. As he lay injured before me, he taunted me for my decision and tried to goad me into killing him. You can shoot the wall to scare him, graze him with a bullet, injure him further, or just plain kill him. I settled for grazing him with a bullet and letting him know that I wouldn’t become the murderer he was.
This whole section of the game would have been amazing as it were, but if you let Balak escape in this first game, then in Mass Effect 3 he holds you up at gunpoint. This is a real consequence to a decision made two games prior! Now you get another choice, try to kill Balak before he can pull the trigger or persuade him to let you go.
Mass Effect is filled with these kinds of agonizing decisions. Do you accept the surrender of a cocky bastard who just tried to kill you, or simply shoot him? Do you help a dying alien race that nearly wiped out the galaxy 2,000 years before since they claim they’ve changed and want to help you fight the Reapers? Should you give artificially intelligent beings a chance at life, or are they just machines that you are free to turn off? Not only does this series expect you to make these choices, but you have to live with the consequences, which may not appear until the next game.
Yep, this image has 2 guns, a glowing knife, and dozens of flaming starships. That is indeed badass.
Remember earlier when I mentioned how happy I was when I discovered Archangel was Garrus? That wasn’t the first time I shouted with glee during that mission.
As you’ll recall, I pretended to join a gang so that I could infiltrate Archangel’s compound with them and ask this vigilante to join me. So getting into the compound was easy, but I knew all along that getting out would be hard, what with three gangs realizing I was now with Archangel and shooting at me.
EDI, my friendly A.I., told me to keep an eye out for any ways to weaken the gangs to make my escape easier. While touring their makeshift FOB, I discovered a friendly engineer named Cathka repairing a gunship. While the other gang members were pretty rude to the new meat they’d just hired, Cathka was very respectful. Still, he kept droning on about how he had to repair this gunship so he could get it back up in the air to kill Archangel.
That gunship would certainly pose a problem during our escape.
As Cathka droned on, my character’s gaze flitted down to an electrically-charged knife lying on the engineer’s worktable. Then this image flashed in the corner of the screen.
These mean something amazing is about to happen.
Mass Effect 2 incorporated a new gameplay element into the series. When this symbol flashed on screen, you could interrupt dialogue with a “renegade” action. It never explicitly stated what would happen if you triggered the interrupt, but it was usually clear from context. Judging by how my character was staring daggers at a dagger, I got the hint.
And I pressed the button.
Shepard immediately scooped up the knife, told Cathka, “You’re working too hard,” and slammed it into the engineer’s back. Cathka spasmed uncontrollably as the knife crackled with electricity, then he collapsed into the floor as I nonchalantly walked away.
That was when I realized Mass Effect 2 was simply the best video game ever.
No game has ever made me feel like such a badass. By having you make active decisions during the cutscenes, you become completely immersed in the story and fully become Commander Shepard. I can’t describe how amazing it feels to do each one of these interrupts and what a brilliant design it is. Whether you’re headbutting Krogan, interrupting a foe’s monologue by setting him on fire, or executing a bad guy as he slowly reaches for a gun, each one of these is fantastic.
What company other than Bioware obliges a request like this?
I’ve already highlighted that one of the biggest missteps in the Mass Effect series is the original game’s gameplay. There is, however, one other large looming issue I need to cover. That is Mass Effect 3’s ending.
Even if you’re not into this series or video games at all, you might have heard of this controversy. Mass Effect 3 promised that all of your decisions would come together and affect the ending. Considering how they tied so many decisions from the first game into the second, few fans were worried that Bioware would fail in this promise. But somehow, they did.
Instead of getting an original ending depending on your hundreds of choices over 70 hours of gameplay, all players had to choose from the same 3 endings to the series. Even worse, the entire last 30 minutes of the game made very little sense. There were tons of logical errors, you never got to say goodbye to the team you’d spent years bonding with, and everything ended insanely abruptly with little explanation of what happened after your monumental but underwhelming decision. In short, Mass Effect 3‘s final moments were a complete disaster.
Fans were outraged and confused. The rest of the series and even the rest of Mass Effect 3 had been a nonstop thrill ride, but Bioware had inexplicably dropped the ball in the final act. It was obvious that something had gone wrong behind the scenes. People clamored for a redo, for Bioware to release downloadable content that rectified the ending. Then, in an unprecedented move, Bioware agreed.
This was released less than four months after the initial game came out and was completely free.
While this new ending still wasn’t perfect, it was leaps and bounds above what the game initially came with. You now had the opportunity to emotionally say goodbye to all your squadmates. The logical errors in the final moments were rectified. Most importantly, after your final decision you were now given a slideshow explaining what happened afterwards, and this slideshow differed depending on the choices you made throughout the series. It was everything that the fans had asked for, it came quickly, and it was free. While I still can’t believe Bioware dropped the ball so badly in the first place, they get major points for owning up to their mistake and doing their absolutely best to fix it.
So there you have it. The Mass Effect series is a shining example of what video games can be. It has a jaw-dropping story, action-packed gameplay, characters that you become more than attached to, and is made by one of the best developers out there. No video game has inspired me more, and I wholly believe everyone should experience it.
And if you need any more convincing, realize that this exchange happens very early in the first game.
“Why can’t that Hanar listen to reason?”
“Because he’s a big, stupid jellyfish!”
What more can you ask for?