After a recent replay of the original trilogy, Sam Brooks writes on the unfairly maligned legacy of the Mass Effect trilogy.
Spoilers for a trilogy that finished over half a decade again (be honest: if you wanted to play these games by now, you would’ve).
If you’re even a casual gamer, the thing you probably remember most about the Mass Effect trilogy is the fan response to the third game. Let’s be frank though, fan ‘response’ is too kind; fan ‘vitriol’ is closer to the mark. It wasn’t the first time in gaming history that a company addressed fan response, but it was the first time that a company as huge as BioWare (and by proxy, EA) rolled over and changed a huge part of their game as a response.
If you’re not a gamer, congratulations for clicking on this story and widening your scope! Well done.
But let’s go back a little bit: The Mass Effect trilogy was BioWare’s flagship series for a bit, following them handing off Knights of the Old Republic II to Obsidian. You played as Commander Shepard, a human soldier who, after being made the first human Spectre (James Bond but in a spacesuit), is charged with stopping a galaxy-wide plot to destroy all of civilization, human as well as alien.
It was as much a love letter to science-fiction as it was a subversion of common science-fiction tropes. The green-skinned alien babes in Mass Effect were the most advanced civilization in the galaxy. The klingon equivalent, the Krogans, were not a universally-feared race but a race who had been genetically modified into their own genocide. AI was not something used freely, but something to be feared.
But the series’ main draw card was the amount of narrative agency the player had. Like any BioWare game, there was some degree of character creation and moral compass that the player could roleplay their way into, but Mass Effect took that the immersion deeper. From the beginning, BioWare promised that choices you made in the first game would carry over to the second, and so on.
The most emotional of these is the lynchpin of the series, and is what a lot of gamers remember most in the series. Towards the end of the first game, Shepard is given intel on destroying Virmire, the base out of which the big bad is operating. In what seems like routine, you split up your two human party members, Kaidan Alenko and Ashley Williams, who have been with you since the beginning of the game. Unexpectedly, shit goes downhill. Both party members get pinned down, and you can only save one of them.
There’s no way out of it; there’s no choice you can make, sidequests you can do or preparation you can make to avert this choice. Whoever you choose will die, and whoever you choose will live. BioWare had done choices like this before, but they were always the result of the player not doing the right quest here or picking up an item there. It was the first time where your choice truly mattered, and made a difference.
That decision reverberates throughout the entire trilogy, and it’s not the only one to do so. There are bigger choices, like whether you save the last of the rachni, a race that devastated the galaxy centuries ago, or whether you choose to kill or talk down your rampaging companion, Wrex. Hell, there are even tiny choices you make in the first game that have unseen consequences in the third.
Which brings me to that third game.
I think Mass Effect 3 is one of the best RPGs ever made. If you think of it as a standalone game, it holds up as a fun, reactive RPG with deep characters, a fifth-gear narrative and a well-developed world. If you think of it as the third act in one story, it amps up and resolves 150 hours’ worth of story in a way that’s unprecedented in gameplay, and rewards the time and effort that you, as player, have put into making this world the way it is.
If you beat this game on its release, as I did, I can imagine being angry at the resolution. To summarise: The McGuffin Superweapon of Universe-Saving™ that you have been developing is, in fact, not quite that thing. Instead, it’s a device that gives you, Shepard – the only being in recorded history to have gotten this face – the opportunity to rewrite the galaxy.
Do you decide to destroy the Reapers, the synthetic gods that have been wreaking terror across all known civilization, knowing that will destroy all synthetic life in the galaxy as well, including your allies?
Do you control the Reapers, taking control of these merciless squid-like creatures and becoming the very thing that you hate?
Or, if you’ve played enough and done enough side quests, synthesize all organic and synthetic life? You will lose your life, as Commander Shepard, but all conflict that has been raging across the galaxy forever will stop, and the constant battle between organic and synthetic life will cease? Peace will be achieved.
If those three endings sound wild and out of nowhere to you, you’re not alone. Few people expected all the effort put into the trilogy would resolve like this, and even fewer people liked it.
It didn’t help that in all of these endings, the mass effect relays were destroyed, separating all civilizations, and making all of the work that you did as Commander Shepard to improve the lives of the asari, the krogan, the quarians, the turians, seemingly meaningless. It also didn’t help that in all three endings, what exactly happened to the universe following your choice was free of specificity and detail. What about that one tiny quest I did? What happened to the rachni? What happened to the Virmire Survivor?
But the main thing that didn’t help was this organic/synthetic binary hadn’t been very foregrounded in any of the games so far. The plot was there in the undercurrent of all the games, and replaying them all recently puts them into sharper relief. The dangers of artificial intelligence are constantly referenced, and one of the overarching plots of the series revolves around the quarians and the geths, creators and created, and the ongoing war between them. It wasn’t the main focus of any game, and it smacked of a plot being foregrounded for the sake of any resolution, rather than the right resolution.
To quote Kill Bill, people roared, and they rampaged, and they got bloody satisfaction.
Very soon after release, BioWare announced that they would be releasing an Extended Ending Cut. More things were explained, like the fate of your team, and the fate of the universe was illustrated in a way that was satisfactory, if not perfect. It soothed some people, but gamers are an incredibly hard people to soothe once their back are up. They’re like the cat you feed but you’re sure doesn’t really love you. You know it’ll always hate you for stepping on its paw that one time, and you’re not sure what you could do to fix it.
Which is a shame. Playing it now, seven years after the fact, Mass Effect 3 is a huge, complete game. The DLC released in the year after its release, like the Aria T’loak-starring Omega DLC that resolved that particular narrative, or the precursor-illuminating Leviathan DLC that explained the origins of the Reapers, did a lot to flesh out the world and the game as a whole.
Where the game, and the trilogy, finds it resolution is in the Citadel DLC. The story of the DLC is a silly Ocean’s 8 of a thing, Shepard has to fight her own clone, and you fight alongside your entire squad for the first time. The magic of the DLC, and the entire series really, is in what happens after: You simply throw a party for your entire squad.
For about an hour and a half, you wander around in a beautiful apartment and chat to the characters you’ve spent over a hundred hours with. You get drunk with Tali, the permanently exo-suited Quarian who eats cheese for the first time while drunk and gets poisoned. You mess around with your biotics (science magic) and show off with Liara and Miranda. You might even have a one-night stand with Javik, the 50 thousand-year-old Prothean who you found in a sleep-pod.
The DLC is the goodbye that the ‘ending’ of the game could never be. It allows the space for BioWare to resolve character arcs and subplots that aren’t key to the overall narrative of the trilogy, but players invested in regardless.
One of the completely optional scenes in the DLC is a memorial for Thane Krios. He’s a squad member in Mass Effect 2, a terminally-ill assassin who shows up in Mass Effect 3, only to later die peacefully in his sleep. His son, Kolyat, holds his memorial, and a range of the other characters speak, tenderly and beautifully, about his passing. It’s one of the most mournful, meditative scenes I’ve ever seen in a game, and it honours both the character and the time invested in the character in a way that probably couldn’t have been done in the core game.
I’d wager that BioWare had no idea how to end Mass Effect, let alone Mass Effect 3. Finding an ending for one game is hard enough, but finding an ending for three games, where the players, essentially, the co-storytellers, have near unlimited variations on what choices to make sounds nigh-on impossible. There’s no way you’re going to please everyone, and it’s unfortunate that BioWare’s way out… didn’t go well.
It’s hard to rewrite history. It’s written by the victors, or at least the loudest survivors. In this case, the ‘victors’ are gamers. They yelled, and EA listened. A DLC coming out a year later, one that gives the trilogy a proper send-off, did not soothe them. The damage had already been done: Mass Effect 3 would now be remembered as a disappointment. The less said of Mass Effect: Andromeda, the better.
But in this case, gamers are also the losers. The original Mass Effect trilogy is one of the triumphs of the form, and groundbreaking in its own right. That the true achievement of the series, the unprecedented level of player agency, interactivity and immersion, is a footnote under the ‘disappointing’ headline is incredibly sad. It means people who are stepping into them, years or decades later, are coming into it prepared to be disappointed.
A hundred hours of gameplay dashed by 20 minutes of resolution. Mass Effect was never about the ending, though. It couldn’t be. It’s about immersing you in that world, the world of Commander Shepard, whatever Shepard you’ve made and put into the world.
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There’s a conversation between Matriarch Aetheyta and Liara, a constant presence throughout the trilogy, that only happens if you go out of your way to make it happen. After you complete the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC in Mass Effect 2, you can return to a certain area and watch security footage of minor characters throughout the series. It’s totally optional, and totally unnecessary.
One of these videos is of Matriarch Aetheyta, an asari bartender you can talk to during the game. She’s a thousand years old, disgruntled and has a lot of gruff opinions to share. She’s looking at a photo of Liara, and drinking a beer thoughtfully.
About halfway through the third game, you can approach Matriarch Aethetya. It’s not compulsory by any means, and you really have to look to find her. You tell her straight up that you saw her looking at a video of Liara, and find out that she’s Liara’s mother. If you choose to tell Liara this, she rolls her eyes and says she already knows. Another conversation later, and you’ve introduced the women to each other, and they find a joyful, warmth between each other.
It was never about organic or synthetics. It was never about controlling or destroying. Mass Effect has always been about letting you be the Shepard you want to be. Save Ashley or Kaidan. Save the rachni or exterminate them. Reunite a mother and daughter. That’s what makes Mass Effect matter, and that should be its legacy.
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