In 'Mass Effect' While You Stare into the RPG, the RPG Stares Back into You
Just as you interrogate your companions and enemies in order to understand them and their worlds, the game reveals itself to have been questioning you. What kind of player are you? What kind of person?
In the beginning is fear.
Mass Effect begins with series protagonist, Shepard, staring out into the inky black of space, over a planet that either is, or is meant to evoke, Earth. Back when I used to replay the first two games in the Mass Effect series on a perpetual loop, that expanse of possibility was delightfully vertiginous.The journey ahead still a series of potentialities, none yet realised. The player, like Shepard, was able to look ahead and wonder at what was to come.
But now when I return to the game a decade after its initial release, what I feel is fear – because I already know it all leads to one place.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Mass Effect is (now perhaps: was) a video game series set in a sci-fi future universe in which the player, either a male or female space cop called Shepard, explored the galaxy, interacting with alien cultures, becoming enmeshed in political intrigue, and eventually unearthing an apocalyptic conspiracy that impacted every living civilisation. It was a role playing game with stretches of third person shooting, but its principle hook was the comprehensive choice-based narrative it promised. From the beginning it was advertised as a trilogy, with a player's behaviour and choices carrying on to each sequel. If you let a character die in one game, they would not be turning up in the next. If you chose to be rude to someone to get what you wanted, they would remember whenever you ran into them next. As your choices compounded upon one another you could be responsible for exterminating an entire race; decide who would govern the galactic government; help your allies achieve closure on their personal demons or gun them down if they got in your way.
For two games, Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, the series populated its narrative universe with rich characters and an evolving, if progressively convoluted, mystery, but when the conclusion of the trilogy arrived in Mass Effect 3, many of the choices that had been made throughout the series were hand-waved away in the opening minutes of the game, e.g., That race you may have exterminated? Yeah, you didn't. That guy you may have chosen to be galactic president? Nuh, didn't matter. More egregiously, the entirety of your journey boiled down to an arbitrary final decision point in which, no matter how you played in the hundreds of hours previous, you were forced to work with the series' ultimate villain to either commit an act of mass brainwashing, a galaxy-wide genocide, or an involuntary eugenic reprogramming of every living being. Your Shepard could have been the most wide-eyed optimist that was ever shot into the stars, but in their final act they were going to commit a war crime on the universe, and be celebrated for it for all time. In the wake of that disappointment, a fourth addition to the series, Mass Effect: Andromeda, was rushed through development, eventually launching in an unfinished state and riddled with so many bugs that whatever charms it might have had were buried under an avalanche of negative press.
And so, when I decided to return to the original game to play through it once more, I found myself wary of the journey I was about to undertake. Awash with recollections of the series' grandeur and disappointment, the knowledge of the franchise's ignoble end soured my enthusiasm.
I was afraid. And yet, to my delight, I found the experience to be instantly, gloriously reaffirming.
Beyond the comforting thrum of the menu music, which still evokes in me a kind of Pavlovian response of joyful anticipation, beyond the visuals and mechanics that hold up better than I'd feared, and even acknowledging that my affection for the series might lead to some blind spots in my critical thinking (I have always adored that beautiful vehicle the Mako, wonky handling and all; hell, I even like the tediously long elevator rides – yes, really), I maintain that the first Mass Effect is still one of the most perfect marriages of form and function in any text, videogame or otherwise. Its narrative and the mechanics through which it expresses itself work in unison to create an experience that is thoroughly absorbing and profound.
You stare into the RPG, but the RPG stares back into you.
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