What makes the Mass Effect trilogy one of the greatest game series of all time?
That question will understandably generate a myriad of responses from the series’ long-time fans. Some will highlight the breathtaking science-fiction world the creators gave us, vaguely reminiscent of Star Wars and Star Trek, yet completely new all the same. Some will point to the abundant gameplay options available to the player; whether playing as a Soldier, Engineer or Biotic, there was always something new to be found in each playthrough. Nearly everybody will point to the consequences the players’ decisions have on the game world, with choices made in the first game having serious ramifications in the third while hurtling towards the trilogy’s much-maligned conclusion.
Every single one of them is valid, and they all combine to give Mass Effect its deserved critical and commercial recognition. However, to me, Mass Effect’s greatness lies in providing me the opportunity to indulge in my own epic science fiction story. For the course of three glorious games and about 200 unforgettable hours, I was Wayne Shepard, savior of the galaxy, destroyer of the Reapers, and protector of humanity.
Before Mass Effect came along in 2007, there had been quite a few games that had me pulled me in through their sheer storytelling prowess. Knights of the Old Republic immediately comes to mind, being another Bioware product. It was the very first role-playing game I played, and it was equally great in telling a story where I, and my decisions, mattered, not to mention having the dignity of being home to the greatest plot-twist in the history of video games. Planescape Torment was another game where the player’s choices made a huge difference. It was also way ahead of its time as far as storytelling was concerned. Half Life is probably the single most influential game in terms of moving videogames as an immersive medium forward. However, all those games came with caveats. KOTOR was primarily not an original IP. Though the story was completely original, the races and politics wasn’t. It was also riddled with numerous bugs which made a lot of sequences practically unplayable, constantly taking the player out of the experience. It also sported a simpler dialogue system where the player could easily gauge how their responses would be perceived. (That is not really a complaint since KOTOR is what eventually lead to Mass Effect.) My single Torment playthrough was plagued by my wrong decision to play as a mage which made goings-on mindnumbingly difficult towards the end, not to mention it too was as buggy as KOTOR. No complaints can be made of Half Life’s polish, but the caveat with HL is that it is a linear storyline, not an RPG.
When I first played through Mass Effect in 2007, I was left speechless. I had enjoyed all of the aforementioned games, but none of them had given me that special feeling, that sheer exhilaration which ME gave me when I completed it the first time around. That first time when I realized the scale of ME’s storyline and what the creators had planned over the course of the trilogy is something I will never forget. But that is a discussion for another place and another time. I’ll discuss the nitty-gritties of the plot during the course of the subsequent posts.
Ultimately, Mass Effect remains such a great experience because despite telling a scripted story that some writers cooked up at Bioware, every single person who played the game felt as if he was telling his own story. It is probably the only game where no two players would’ve had the same experience. That is what caused the uproar at the trilogy’s conclusion because having three predetermined endings wasn’t as personal as having an ending where you, the player, actually mattered. The entire journey had been really personal, while the ending was decidedly not.
As for me, the depth to which I got attached to my playthrough of the trilogy can be highlighted by saying that, right now, I associate Mass Effect with the story of Commander Wayne Shepard. Just like Lord of the Rings is the story of Gandalf/Aragorn/Frodo/Sam; like Harry Potter is the story of Dumbledore/Voldemort/Potter/Ron/Hermione; like Star Wars is the story of Anakin/Luke/Emperor/Obi-Wan, Mass Effect to me is about Wayne Shepard/Ashley Williams/Captain Anderson and the wonderful assortment of supporting characters. I don’t think I will be able to play as any other character for the foreseeable future, if ever. I am in my third playthrough of Mass Effect right now, and I am planning to play through exactly the same way I did the first time around. That is what makes Mass Effect a resplendent journey for me. It is like re-watching a great film or re-reading a great book, I want to relive Wayne Shepard’s story and all the beautiful memories I have of my experience.
With that out of the way, I am planning for this to be a series of posts as I play through the three games. I am not making any promises, but I took up to playing Mass Effect recently because I’ve been going through a tough phase in my life and wanted to be reminded of what it is to have fun again. I will be talking about everything Mass Effect, from gameplay to characters and plot to races and politics. They will all be distilled through my personal experiences of the game.
- Banner image used under the Creative Commons License from Wikimedia Commons