Retrospective: Mass Effect
Posted by Chris at 17:01 on 24 Oct 2013
(Spoiler alert: move right along if you have yet to play the Mass Effect trilogy).
There is so much that is indefensible about the Mass Effect series - from shonky storytelling to deeply faulted game design. There are huge plot holes, some tedious quests, artificially long missions, ludicrously awkward romances and yeah of course there's that sodding ending.
But a game's never made me do a feel quite like the one I did when I watched a Gilbert and Sullivan-loving space salamander step into an elevator and say he would have liked to run tests on the seashells.
Watching his final cutscene, with him gently singing his favourite tune, at peace with all he had done and willingly going to his death with the true courage of his convictions, I got a warm feeling in my brain and a sinking one in my stomach. Either I'd shat myself again or I was having an 'emotion'.
Paragon interrupt. Don't go Mordin. Shepard, please. Have to do this.
I think it hit all the harder as I had no idea it was coming and it was the first proper character death I'd experienced in the series: I wasn't invested in either Kayden or Ashley when I had to make the call in the first game and I'd managed to get every one out alive at the end of the second (including, by pure luck, the Normandy crew and my beloved Kelly - I went straight to the Collector base after the attack as I'd already done all the side missions; I only found out later that they all died if you didn't go there immediately).
But Mordin I cared about. And I was powerless to help him.
Reading the excellent Mass Effect wiki after I'd completed the game I discovered that there is in fact a way to save him. But what it involved wouldn't have worked for me. It didn't fit with the narrative I'd created over the last 70 hours. My Shepard could only have revealed the Salarians' deception and cured the Genophage. It was what she would have done. The Krogans had earned their chance. But more than that, it wouldn't have worked for Mordin either. This was what he wanted. It had to be him.
I love the Mass Effect games and I love the Mass Effect universe. The overall story is a bit of a mess albeit compelling enough to make me want to see it through. But that wasn't why I kept coming back, wasn't why I sunk just over 50 hours into the first two games in the space of six days and 25 hours into the third between 10am on a Saturday and 10pm on Sunday.
No, the draw was the crew. My crew. The companions I would drop in on and talk at length with after every story progression, A'ing my way through the conversation until the well ran dry. The ones I would switch out when walking around the Citadel just to hear their ambient dialogue. The ones I never took in my squad but who were still one of the best things in the game (that's you, Garrus). The ones who made me laugh and the ones I wanted to protect.
It wasn't just the interactions I had with them either. The development of the relationships between the characters themselves, the tensions and the triumphs, were just as important in my enjoyment of the experience. I'd never pursued the romance option with Garrus and so my heart swelled when I wandered into the main battery before the Cerberus assault and found him and Tali finally getting together.
Not everything was a success. A lot of it is overwrought or deeply clichéd, with a distinct whiff of Sixth Form about it ("Tali Zora... does this unit... have... a soul?") and there were characters I didn't take to. I never gave a shit about Samara, although the Ardat-Yakshi plot element is interesting, Miranda was too selfish to like and Grunt may as well have not been there at all for all the impression he made on me. But when you're delivering three games worth of characters like Garrus, Tali, Legion, Jack, Aria and Kelly you're allowed a few play and misses.
I've discussed before how deeply I can involve myself in the mythology of a game's universe. It's one of my favourite things and I'd be lying if I said that the ending of the main story didn't leave me unedified. Enough has been written about that for me not to need to add my pointless penny's worth.
What I will say however is this: BioWare did give me the ending I wanted. Forget the arbitrary red pill blue pill Crucible bullshit; what I wanted was the goodbye. And in that long walk through the command centre at London, speaking to all your squadmates past and present, that's exactly what I got.
They might have ballsed up their story - and I won't pretend that that doesn't bother me, because it does - but more important for me was the people that had brought this massive, remarkably rich and detailed universe to life. Every entry in the codex, every planetary biography, every Reaper attack, every historical inter-species conflict... All would have been redundant without there being people in the galaxy to care about. With the Citadel DLC and that final walk, BioWare did at least do right by their characters. The ones that weren't Shepard, anyway.
The Mass Effect games are not the first and will not be the last to inspire these kinds of reactions in people. They're also far from perfect from a 'game' perspective: in places broken, janky and just poorly thought out in so many ways. But my experiences in their universe are some of the most profoundly affecting and meaningful ones I've had with any form of media.
For all their issues, they remain a masterful triumph of characterisation. In that respect they are not unique - but they are rare. I already miss them.