Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek became a massive, pop culture phenomenon and a redefining moment in the evolution of how science fiction is portrayed on our screens, yet despite its many imitators, none have ever really captured the essence that made it what it is. Putting aside the mesmerising chemistry between a cast of figures that would go on to become household names, there was one aspect of the show in particular that made it such an important landmark, the feeling that this crew of courageous men and women genuinely were going where no human had ever been before. Space, as they say, is the final frontier, but is it something that we are likely to freely venture out in, to discover new systems and perhaps even new species’? Probably, but certainly not in my lifetime, which is why BioWare’s space faring, role-playing masterpiece is the closest that I will ever come to exploring the stars, but what is it that makes it so special? Well, for one, and perhaps most importantly of all, it too captured that sense of wonder originally held only by the adventures of Kirk and company. Yet there are obviously many other factors that mark the original Mass Effect as one of the most ground-breaking and utterly profound releases in the history of the medium, which is exactly what I’d like to discuss with you now.
Obviously, there’s a heck of a lot to go through, which is why this particular examination of the game has been divided into multiple parts, so for this inaugural instalment, I’m going to focus entirely upon the game’s narrative, before moving on in next week’s segment to discuss the core gameplay mechanics and the user interface, whilst the concluding segment will focus primarily on the game’s setting and character designs.
Mass Effect was a game that first rose to prominence through a jaw dropping demonstration video that was shown at Microsoft’s E3 conference in 2006, the game was published by Microsoft Game Studios and was intended to be an exclusive for the Xbox 360 console. A PC port of the title came sometime afterwards, following the developer’s acquisition by Electronic Arts in a deal that was announced in 2007, and concluded in 2008, the publisher would then nullify the exclusivity deal and release the game on the Sony PlayStation as part of the Mass Effect Trilogy pack that emerged in 2012.
Mass Effect has rightfully garnered a reputation for itself as one of the greatest examples of storytelling in videogames; the quality of writing is assuredly far ahead of anything else available, making it one of the most engrossing experiences available in gaming thanks to strong characterisation, dialogue, voice acting and a dialogue wheel that created lifelike conversations between characters whose responses actually appeared to bounce off of one another. Simultaneously, Mass Effect was like nothing else seen before it, yet it was a natural evolution of BioWare’s efforts prior to that moment, with similar, yet undoubtedly less advanced versions of the conversation wheel being found within the likes of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and the brilliant, Jade Empire.
The overriding storyline in Mass Effect, which runs throughout the trilogy, concerns the return of an ancient, sentient race of machines, known as the Reapers, which appear every 50,000 years to purge the galaxy clean of all advanced organic life forms. During what is believed to be a routine mission to secure a beacon, an artefact left behind by an ancient race believed to have created the most advanced technological accomplishments in the universe (the Protheans), Commander Shepard (the series’ protagonist) bears witness to a segment of a communication that shows him a fragmented, scrambled video of their annihilation. This sets in motion a series of events too complex to delve into here, but needless to say, Commander Shepard goes on to become mankind’s first Spectre (an elite special forces team utilised by the Galactic Council) and ultimately, the only hope that any species has to fend off this unfeeling and ferocious foe.
In this first instalment of the series, it is another Spectre that assumes the role of antagonist, Saren Arterious, a Turian whom the player witnesses murdering another of his kind during the initial section of the game. It begins to become clear over the course of the events depicted in Mass Effect that the real threat does not necessarily emanate from him, but rather his ship, Sovereign, which is a Reaper who can indoctrinate any organic organism around it. Saren is in fact a victim of this indoctrination which he can eventually overcome at the end should the player assume the paragon path (the game features a fairly rigid morality system), which sees the character kill himself, shortening the final boss battle. Of course, his indoctrination had gone too far, and Sovereign is able to transfer a part of itself into Saren’s body to do battle with Shepard. Upon besting this final segment of the fight, the shields that protect Sovereign’s own body deplete, and the forces of the galaxy’s most advanced species are able to finally destroy it.
The story is told through numerous cut-scenes that punctuate the action, and through visually stunning conversation sequences that prominently display the attention to detail on the game’s gorgeous character models as much as it does the overall quality of the writing. There is an incredible amount of depth to the universe that BioWare have created here, all lying in wait to be discovered by players - particularly those that complete all of the side missions as well as the main campaign – and through the numerous codex entries that provide a wealth of information of species both living and dead, planets, weapons, vehicles, cultures, religions and the vital technological breakthroughs that made it all possible. The principal discovery, as far as mankind is concerned, is expressed to the player upon first starting up the game:
“In the year 2148, explorers on Mars discovered the remains of an ancient spacefaring civilization. In the decades that followed, these mysterious artefacts revealed startling new technologies, enabling travel to the furthest stars. The basis for this incredible technology was a force that controlled the very fabric of space and time.
They called it the greatest discovery in human history.
The civilizations of the galaxy call it... MASS EFFECT.”
As was mentioned previously, there is a morality system running throughout the game, this was not a new feature to BioWare games, yet like the conversation wheel, it was somewhat refined from previous iterations. The two combine in many situations throughout the game as the conversation wheel typically offers players three direct responses to statements made by NPC characters (there may be additional options such as asking questions), these fall into the classes of paragon, neutral or renegade which will, in the cases of the first and last options, confer points upon the player’s character to increase their rating as either a saintly or evil personality upon the completion of the exchange. Responses to situations such as stand-offs also do the same, with those who can manage to talk their way out of these circumstances rewarded with paragon points, whilst players who resort to violence obviously move further in the opposite direction. When sufficient amounts have been accumulated in either trait, new conversation options will begin to appear, allowing players to be more persuasive over the characters that they encounter throughout their travels, or conversely, more threatening towards them. As Mass Effect is a game that gives players the opportunity to leave an indelible mark upon the narrative with their actions, choosing responses carefully is an integral aspect of the overall gaming experience.
In addition, player actions will have an affect over the “romance” options that their character will have, as does the gender of the character that they create. For a male Shepard, players can choose between Ashley Williams (Gunnery Chief-a soldier type character) and Dr Liara T’Soni (an Asari character, daughter of Matriarch Benezia - an ally of Saren’s), whilst female protagonists can choose between Liara and Lt. Kayden Alenko (a human biotic character). Romance options are triggered through continued conversation with a character throughout the game, following the completion of a main story mission, players can discuss what happened, along with more personal topics with the character that they wish to court, and doing so will eventually culminate in a romance option as the player builds up a rapport with the character. Mass Effect became a source of controversy on account of its romance options, with Fox News launching a campaign against the game based on their false claims that it featured full nudity and graphic sex scenes. Evidently, no one there actually thought to try the game first.
The cast of characters in Mass Effect is indeed vast and far too complicated to delve into, yet the group of playable characters extends to feature eight, including Shepard, with seven squad mates in all, though one, Richard Jenkins (possibly a nod to Halo’s Pvt. Wallace A. Jenkins) is killed during the opening mission by Geth drones. The remaining six, Garrus Vakarian, Ashley Williams, Urdnot Wrex, Liara T’Soni, Kayden Alenko and Tali’Zorah nar Rayya can remain as integral parts of the team that accompany Shepard from the beginning to the end of the principle storyline. As an important story influencing decision, players must choose to sacrifice either Kayden or Ashley towards the end of the first game as they complete a mission of the planet of Virmire. Here, Saren is creating clones of Wrex’s race, the Krogan - a species dying out from an inability to procreate due to a disease created by the Salarians, which was deemed necessary to put an end to the Krogan’s warring ways. The difficult decision is made to nuke the facility, wiping out the clones along with a potential cure to the disease. Saren, however, attacks the facility and the player is left with a decision to assist either Kayden or Ashley, leaving the other behind to perish in the blast. This can naturally impact on character relations, potentially severing a romantic interest, and is referenced at several points over the course of the subsequent two Mass Effect games.
The original Mass Effect raised the standard of writing in videogames, it has set the bar higher than most studios could even dream of achieving, and in doing so, BioWare created a series that will stand the test of time as one of the most engrossing and immersive gaming experiences ever created. Through the decisions that players are forced to make and its improved dialogue system, the universe of the game becomes the player’s own personal playground, and the character that they control become literal extensions of themselves. It is an emotive experience, not in the same way that other RPGs such as Final Fantasy VII or Lost Odyssey induced sadness in their players through set pieces (though the latter of the two is certainly a wonderful example of mature storytelling in games), but because of the hold that the game can take on a player. This will surely have proven financially lucrative to both the development team and series publisher, EA, as no fan of the games could rightfully ignore any DLC that has been released for any iteration in the series, such is the connection that players form with the characters and the setting. That bond is the motivation that drives players more so than the stellar art design, voice acting, soundtrack or gameplay mechanics, it is what inspires them to experience everything that Mass Effect has to offer, and when they do, it leaves them simply wanting even more.
Now, whilst the character line-up present in Mass Effect 2 was undoubtedly superior, no other game in the series captured the impending sense of dread that the first one wore so well, while the final part of the trilogy may have given us the doomsday scenario only spoken of in hushed tones here, it left gamers feeling as though they still had all of the time in the world to do something about it. The mighty Sovereign was seemingly the most powerful of all his kind as the remaining Reapers flounder as they attempt to destroy London, meaning that they merely extinguish any sense of dread that these sentient machines once possessed. This is just yet one more reason why, frankly, no other game in the series manages to leave one’s hair standing on end when those final credits eventually roll. Truly, Mass Effect is so extraordinary in numerous ways, and whilst I do hope that this is something that you, dear reader, are also keenly aware of, I still hope that you’ll want to pop back next week for the second instalment. Until then.