“Is that the kind of person we want protecting the galaxy?”
“That’s the only kind of person who can protect the galaxy.”
“Take us in, Joker, fast and quiet. This mission just got a lot more complicated.”
Mass Effect is my favourite space opera story of all time. I grew up watching Star Wars, Star Trek, and Stargate: SG1, and while I still have some affection for them, none of them inspire the genuine fannish enthusiasm in me the way ME continues to. Which is interesting, because ME is written with a fannish mindset, even coming prepared with its own internal wiki. There’s a genuine enthusiasm for ideas just for their own sake, and the story is written with a deep understanding of the Types you see in scifi stories, aiming to take its place in the long tradition of science fiction. These are our spaceships, our honourable warrior alien race, our Federation. In a way, like a lot of stories I like, it’s the logical conclusion of that kind of attitude, the most thoughtful and mature expression of it – we’ve seen the Klingons and the Minbari and the Peacekeepers and the Jaffa, and after lining them all up, we can see both the specific details that tend to recur, and the holes in the archetype, the creative potential that hasn’t been fulfilled, and we can keep the details we like, mix-and-match a few more details, and throw in a few extra details nobody’s done before. It’s the long, hard way around to earning creative inspiration.
That practical way to get to something mystical and esoteric really defines what I think it is I get from this series: it’s simultaneously magic and normal, with neither half of the equation overwhelming or undermining the other. More often than not, this is something genre fiction really struggles to balance, if it chooses to at all – The X-Files vaguely waved its hand at the idea that it had one foot in skepticism and the other in reality, but the supernatural ended up winning out so often that it had ‘the one episode where nothing supernatural happened’ as a wacky premise. Harry Potter‘s world began so magical and uncanny that the attempt to ground it in reality towards the end only served to turn it into po-faced melodrama to me. Coming at it from the other direction, hard science fiction is well known for a certain dryness – the joke is that in hard scifi, you ask how the time machine works, you’ll be told that once you activate the time machine, it creates a channel in spacetime by generating an electromagnetic pulse that builds up in parabolic form, and once the machine is turned off the electromagnetic pulse parabolically dies down, and that a weeble placed within the machine will bounce from one point in time to another, allowing someone to enter the box before shutting it off and exiting when it’s turned on, while in a soft scifi, the same question will get you “You input a date and turn this lever”.
Mass Effect takes a slightly different tack; it presents uncanny imagery and then contextualises it with an explanation. This is a world where you see strange, alien things, but those things work on rules that are internally consistent and can be expected to be followed to their logical conclusion. It’s an equivalent to the story of a small-town kid moving to the big city, awed by the architecture and the lights and the culture, slowly learning the bus schedules and the parties and the drinks you’re supposed to like and the parts of town you’re supposed to hate until one day the kid wakes up an Ordinary Citizen; or, if you like, it’s the process of scientific discovery. It’s a shift from the excitement of Adventure to the niceness of Belonging.
It’s something visible from the very start. The very first action of the story is the Normandy travelling through a mass relay, something that’s awe-inspiring and momentous the first time you see it, energy sparks and deep vibrations (and, of course, heroic music), but which becomes the single most mundane aspect of the series. This isn’t to say it never stops being fucking cool, just that it’s something we get up and do every day. Although, the first action of the game isn’t that, it’s choosing Shepard’s abilities and backstory (via the guise of accessing Shepard’s personnel file which qualifies as ‘ill’, at least from a technical standpoint). I was interested how I’d react to the backstory aspect given my newfound adherence to ‘backstory is bullshit’; I’ve always thought Shepard’s backstory was a brilliant move, solidifying that Commander Shepard is a particular person in a video game genre that generally offers you a complete blank slate. Shepard’s past is divided into two, what your childhood was like and what your military career has been like (shades of Don Draper’s two-part backstory). No matter what you choose, Shepard is an incredible person who rose from humble beginnings to achieve great things in the Alliance before the story even began.
Part of the fun for me with roleplaying in general and Mass Effect in particular is the joy of pretending to be someone else, and the backstory of Shepard has always helped with that. Choosing backstory doesn’t limit any of your choices from a gameplay or plot perspective, but you can let it inform your character’s decisions and motivations. If you choose a “Ruthless” military career, in which Shepard sacrificed her whole team to take the moon of Torfan from batarian raiders, perhaps your Shepard feels a deep guilt for her mistakes and is trying to improve moving forward, or perhaps she really is that ruthless and willing to do anything to get the job done. Either way, it definitely informs your relationship with batarians moving forward. I personally like to choose the “Colonist” background (in which Shepard was a farmer’s kid on Mindoir whose parents were killed in a batarian pirate raid) and “Sole Survivor” military career (in which Shepard’s unit accidentally ran into a thresher maw and Shep was the only one out alive), because I always liked the idea that my Shep was motivated by a deep appreciation for human life and a need for a real family.
Your first dip of a toe into Mass Effect isn’t exactly the series at its most auspicious. I would call it needlessly complicated in a very strange way – there’s a lot for it to throw at you. There are three main ideas that don’t quite fit together: first, that the Normandy, a ship built by the human Alliance and funded by the Council, is on its maiden voyage, testing the experimental stealth drive; secondly, that the Normandy is also secretly on a mission to pick up a Prothean artifact from a human colony, Eden Prime; thirdly, that Nihilus, the turian Spectre representing the Council, is also here to evaluate whether Shepard ought to be the first human Spectre. That’s a lot to take in all at once, and I imagine if you haven’t played the games it comes off as complete nonsense, so I’m gonna break it all down for you.
I’m gonna move through this in chronological order, starting with the earliest setting detail and moving forward. Fifty thousand years ago, there was a species called the Protheans, who built a galactic-wide empire and then vanished, leaving behind a faster-than-light transport network called the ‘mass relays’, as well as a gigantic space station called the Citadel. After they vanished, multiple civilisations rose up and used what technology they left lying around, and the three most powerful races started using the Citadel as a central galactic authority, a kind of Space UN meets Space Washington, DC. The Council created a special police force called the Spectres (short for Special Tactics and Reconnaissance for reasons I forget but that made sense), individual agents that are given enormous leeway in creating galactic security.
Thirty-five years before the story is set, humanity discovered a Prothean artifact that jumpstarted FTL research; nine years after that, humanity made contact with the turians in what’s now referred to as the First Contact War before things were sorted out and the human Alliance officially joined the galactic community. Since then, humans have begun to be seen as upstarts, asking, demanding, and taking whatever power they can, instilling resentment in other races for taking things they had to spend centuries waiting for (there’s a strong thematic connection with Stargate: SG-1 here, where the humans of that story were known for ambition and an ability to think their way out of problems other races had taken literal millennia to deal with; Mass Effect is less invested in keeping either the Alliance or the other races likable and is more willing to go uncomfortable places with it). One of the Alliance’s latest projects is the Normandy, a ship co-developed with the turians and funded partly by the Citadel, installed with advanced stealth technology.
I’m pleased with myself for laying that out in what I think is a fairly elegant way; the game itself introduces this information more haphazardly. I think the problem is the typical nerd’s problem of thinking all of the information available is equally interesting. Strip away all the information, and your goal is actually pretty simple: find a Prothean beacon uncovered on Eden Prime. Instead of throwing you into that goal and allowing the information to accrue around that as it comes up, the game starts with you on the Normandy and simply throws all of it at you in big conversations; it’s not actively boring (and actually I quite like the conversation with the Corporal from Eden Prime, where he lays out why he left – it’s beautiful, but tedious), but it’s not the most interesting way to convey this information.
(The point of comparison here is Aliens, which conveyed an, uh, alien galaxy with a plot that was always moving forward)
What compensates for this is surprisingly simple: you get to control how Shepard reacts to all of this. This is far from the first game to have a dialogue tree or a Good and Evil moral system, but it is the smoothest distillation of the concept up until then; aside from the menu of dialogue options being smooth and intuitive to handle, the options you choose from aren’t exactly what Shepard will say, but rather the gist of it, the thought that motivates what she says. Generally, you have one of three options: a Paragon response, which is usually nice (or at least diplomatic), a Renegade response, which is at minimum domineering or cutting, and a neutral response – for example, your very first dialogue option is to respond to the pilot, Jeff “Joker” Moreau cynically dismissing the cover story for the Normandy‘s shakedown run. You can either agree with him, tell him to shut up (“You’re marines! Act like it.”), or simply make a neutral* joke at his expense. Even if you’re slightly lost as to what the meaning of everything is, it’s fun to characterise Shepard, to decide her emotional temperature and inner life; Shepard provides a centre of gravity that the plot doesn’t.
Once you’re on your way to Eden Prime, the mission complicates itself even further: geth have invaded Eden Prime. Geth are your basic killer robots, and are something of a boogeyman in this universe, hiding outside of visible space for the past three centuries. They’re a complication that work a little better, because they’re an obstacle between you and the beacon; it’s cool to learn more about them (they were originally designed as tools for a race called the quarians before they gained sentience and rose up against their masters, which is cliche but acceptable, and their inner processes are a network of AIs that gain intelligence the more of them are networked, like a wiki of robots, which totally fucking rules) but you’re never at a loss as what to what they’ll do or what you should do to them (they’ll try and kill you, so, as Malcolm Reynolds advised, kill them first). Their introduction is also extremely cinematic, a distress call sent as a video message that shows POV of the geth attacking, and a giant, purple, Lovecraftian (as in squids) spaceship descending on the planet like a hand.
When you land on the planet, Nihilus splits up with you (he works faster alone apparently), and you explore the planet with your team looking for the dig site. It would have been more effective to see what Eden Prime looked like before it was attacked, but the art totally sells that this is a beautiful paradise where people do nothing but farm all day; most obvious are the ‘gasbags’ floating around, harmless floating fleshbags that explode if you shoot them – nothing that fragile could survive anywhere but Eden – but it’s also just dense with vegetation, though it’s all a lot more purple and red than we’re used to on Earth. At the same time, there are a lot of bodies, and off in the distance you can both see and hear laser fire (actually plasma fire, but whatever) and explosions. You’ve definitely gotten here far too late.
The game indulges in a cliche; the aforementioned Corporal turns out to be a redshirt (named, hilariously, Richard L Jenkins – if you’re gonna make references, might as well esoterically combine a few) to both sell the danger and allow Shepard another chance to react to something, and Shepard and Staff Lieutenant Kaiden Alenko find surviving marine Ashley Williams to lead them through Eden Prime. Meanwhile, Nihilus finds fellow Spectre and old friend Saren waiting for him, and ends up shot in the back; this is something where the game cuts away from Shepard’s POV, and I always find that deeply frustrating because the game otherwise totally commits to you seeing this world through Shepard’s eyes, and cutting away from her undermines the emotional investment for me. I like only knowing what Shepard knows and vice versa, as if we’re discovering this world together.
So anyway, Saren is introduced as a total cardboard cartoon villain; he looks totally boss, all cybernetic parts, and Fred Tatasciore has a voice that really suits the particular effect turian voices are put through (his ordinary speaking voice combined with a deeper copy of the same recording), but basically all he does is sneer and say/do Bad Guy shit. Ostensibly, he’s interesting because you’re wondering why he’s doing what he’s doing, but knowing where this all goes actually makes him and his actions less interesting the next run through. Point of comparison: Reservoir Dogs is just as fun when you know who the rat is, because you can see the decisions he’s making moment to moment. Saren isn’t really making any moral decisions, so it’s just airless. All-in-all, when Shepard and co stumble upon Nihilus’ body, it’s sad because Nihilus had a kickass voice and a cool, professional demeanour (turians in general can be expected to resent humanity, but Nihilus admired Shep’s skills and was the one to recommend her as the first human Spectre candidate), but I don’t feel the intense hatred towards Saren that Shepard does because the game does everything it can to undermine that kind of emotional reaction. Shepard doesn’t even see Nihilus’ murder herself – she hears about it second-hand from a witness!
That said, there is one real great idea floating through Eden Prime. As you explore, you can find civilian survivors. First, there’s a few scientists who were working on the beacon, one of whom has something of a Mad Prophet vibe to him; this is exactly what I meant about the story working its way towards the mystical, because everything he says sounds perfectly like overblown nonsense but in actuality very precisely lays out what the plot will be in almost literal terms. It makes sense that he’d say what he does, and it makes sense why everyone blows him off. More interestingly, you can actually uncover a smuggling ring amongst the famrers and dockworkers (some of which have the thickest goddamned Canadian accents I’ve ever heard); believing Eden Prime was completely safe from attack, they tried to make a few bucks stealing military equipment. I love this because it’s all so petty and normal – nobody involved is really a cartoonishly evil bad guy, they’re just trying to get from one day to another with a minimum of work and a maximum of money (the witness only survived the attack because he was already napping behind the crates when the attack started). Most video games aren’t really interested in Normality – everyone’s a badass genius ultramurderer person who knows eighteen languages and blah blah blah. Mass Effect has its geniuses, and Shepard is an extraordinary person no matter how you play her, but it also likes wandering through the lives of ordinary fuckin’ people. This, of course, only serves to make Shepard look even more extraordinary as her charisma either charms or intimidates these people in compliance.
After seeing Saren’s ship take off in the distance (in a very cinematic shot – you walk up a hill to see it basically emerge), the plot climaxes with Team Shepard finding the beacon, only for Shepard to get caught up in it and receiving a vision of robot hell and fainting. Shepard wakes up in the Normandy sick bay and reports what she saw to Captain Anderson (surprisingly, for a character that basically serves as the Good Father Figure or the Not Stupid Chief, Keith David doesn’t lean in on his natural gravitas for the character – Anderson is never trying to be charming, he’s always preoccupied with the task at hand, but David plays him completely emotionally open and so he’s charming anyway). Despite not understanding what the vision means, Anderson and Shepard agree: they have to prove Saren’s gone rogue. The game is afoot.
- You’ll notice I exclusively refer to Shepard as ‘she’. This is partially because Jennifer Hale’s performance as Shepard is one of the greatest performances in anything ever, making her my definitive Shepard, and partially because I’m just too lazy to write him/her or they every time. Hale’s performance is pretty stiff this early on, but she locks in right around the final scene in the sickbay. There’s a great line you can play when she wakes up (“How do you feel?” / “Like the morning after shore leave!”) that Hale leans in on, and I also like the dismissive little ‘phwe’ she lets out when considering telling the Council about her vision. Hale ultimately takes a deliberately iconic character and brings her down to Earth.
- More effective as a way of conveying unnecessary but cool information is the Codex, which alerts you when you can read about something related to what you’re doing but isn’t required to move forward. It slows down the pace if you choose to read it whenever it updates (as opposed to, say, coming back later and reading a chunk), but I still like it as a place for the writers to get self-indulgent without getting in the way. One of the first texts we get is on the turians. There are actually multiple species in this game that could be thought of as “Mass Effect‘s version of Klingons”, and this is one interpretation of them – dogmatic and dedicated to both personal and collective honour, though in a much more disciplined sense than the Klingons are generally known for. Another way of looking at them is as an alien riff on Western culture – turians have a paternalistic, colonial attitude towards the rest of the galaxy and tend to pride themselves on their military might; this early on, the story tries to sell us on the idea that turians and humans resent each other, but ultimately the cultures are similar enough that it ends up a kind of culture-wide bromance.
- The menu for this game is surprisingly wistful, using the melancholic “Vigil” as music and being cool blues.
- This series will regularly go up on Thursdays, 11am Australian Eastern Standard Time and Wednesdays, 4pm, Pacific Standard Time.
*”What makes a man turn neutral?”