I structure this playthrough in the manner I think would tell the best story in these articles, and interestingly that’s distinct from a playthrough where I’m trying to make the best story just playing for my own entertainment. I don’t think playing video games with the intention of getting into a character’s head and telling a story the way I do is all that common – most people are just in it for the ownage, perfectly happy to ‘break character’ by using whatever equipment they think looks cool and breaking the game with bugs (or causing them because they’re funny). I’m not above that kind of thing, especially in a multiplayer game where it’s fun to make your friends laugh, but for single-player games I’m generally paying for the full Whatever We’re Playing experience. It’s more fun for me to play by somebody else’s rules for a little, to feel like a badass space hero or ruthless gang member or zombie killin’ machine than to prove I’m smarter than a video game. My point with this is that we’ve actually reached the point where my goal of writing thoughtful criticism has actually interfered with my enjoyment of the game as a game – I usually scatter the sidequests around, doing one here or there, maybe before or after a main mission. I wanted to talk about them in big clumps so I could convey their sense and the recurring themes without taking up the main articles, but that means I have to play them in big clumps, and the main recurring theme that highlights is how repetitive and boring the gameplay is. They have a few ‘sets’, justified by in-story by the idea of ‘pre-fab’ buildings, with unique design coming by where the generic boxes and walls are placed within them. Even when the story is great, it’s a slog to get through, especially when you’re playing a whole lot in a row.
And sometimes that story is genuinely great. There are sidequests that only pop up when you pass parts of the story – rewards for playing that lead to more rewards – and there are two directly connected to talking to your alien friends. The flipside of the game focusing too much on some ideas is not quite focusing on enough, and the two best sidequests in the game are tiny favours you do for Garrus and Wrex after talking to them enough. In conversation with Wrex, you eventually find out he killed his father for trying to betray our favourite krogan mercenary’s attempt to reunite the krogan tribes after the genophage was dropped, and that the only remnant of his family that survives is a piece of old armour left over from before the war. Shepard offers to retrieve the armour from the hands of a turian collector, and it’s a one-location mission you knock out in like, ten minutes tops. But Wrex seems genuinely moved by both Shepard and the item’s sentimentality (even as he remarks how shitty the armour itself is). Wrex’s story is of a man cynical because he was betrayed by the very nature of his people. He genuinely believes in ownage, and he’s seen how the short-sighted ownage of the krogan has destroyed them, and he’s seen how the krogan cannot have that sense of ownage taken from them (when describing his people, he often uses some variation on the phrase “It’s just who we are”). He’s buried his pride, seeing it as something useless, but Shepard’s actions make him reassess whether or not he should do that.
Then there’s Garrus’ mission. He tells you a story from his C-Sec days, about a geneticist who did horrific experiments on innocent people and managed to get away because Garrus’ superiors prioritised civilian lives over taking down the bad guy. He worked out where the geneticist is, and convinces you to go hunt him down. Again, it’s a one-room fight (this time a zombie story where his test subjects apparently turned on him), and when you confront him, you have two options: gun him down then and there, or attempt to arrest him. If you try to arrest him, the doctor turns on you and you have to kill him, and Garrus complains about how pointless that was. Shepard can give a response that has always stuck with me: “You can’t predict how people will act, Garrus. But you can control how you respond. In the end, that’s what really matters.” Garrus’ story is of a man with a drive to do good, and we find him at a crossroads between solving all his problems with violence, and learning a more disciplined, long-term approach, with Shepard pushing him either way. This is a moment where his values take a concrete shape, where who he could potentially be has changed into who he is. It’s especially profound to me because the exact same line was the exact same thing to me – I was awed by the line because it was something I’d always felt, put as simply and clearly and truthfully as possible. It’s like they found the words for my sense of right and wrong. Reason might not solve everything, but it’s the first step to a moral existence.
(also, Garrus drops one of the best scifi worldbuilding moments ever: some krogan believe testicle transplants can cure the genophage and are willing to pay up to $10,000 for a new ball. “That’s $40,000 for a full set!”)
There are also missions you unlock when you build up enough points in something. Reach a high enough level, and Admiral Hackett rings you up to tell you that a VI has gone rogue on a training base on Earth’s moon, and you’re the only person good enough to take it down. This is a mission that runs on pure atmosphere; driving around on the Moon makes me feel like Fry in Futurama, awed at actually getting to drive around where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked even as I’m in, you know, a space opera. It’s also where the pre-fab nature of the game design actually serves an advantage, because the personality of your enemy is all over everything. The VI uses every tool at its disposal to keep you from destroying it, throwing up shields in weird places and trying harder and harder to block your path. When you destroy the last server, it sends out the letters H-E-L-P in binary. If this game moves from one scifi genre to another at leisure, this is its shift into The Twilight Zone; you can almost imagine Rod Serling (or Jordan Peele) (or Maurice LaMarche) narrating something about technology’s potential to grow into a new form of life and man’s attempts to prevent the world from spinning out of control after that final little twist.
You also have more straightforward good vs evil space opera. Your exploration can turn up an organisation called Cerberus, an Alliance black ops group gone rogue, doing illegal experiments with monsters and biotics – the earliest time you can stumble across them, they’ve planted a distress call to lure Alliance Marines to a Thresher Maw nest, and they murder the Admiral trying to investigate them. After Feros, you can find the survivors of a Cerberus experiment into using Thorian Creepers as workers (this has the most badass Renegade line in the game – you can turn down their attempt to bribe you with “Blood for blood.”). Just as each of the Birth Place backstories have a Citadel sidequest, each of the Alliance History backstories has a mission out there in the galaxy, and the emotional peak of the game’s take on Cerberus is finding the only other survivor of the Thresher Maw attack – Corporal Toombs. It turns out Cerberus deliberately set the Maw on your unit and captured Toombs to perform experiments on him, and you find Toombs in the middle of slaughtering his way through the scientists who tortured him (your options are either talk him down and allow the authorities to prosecute him, or kill the scientist for him, and if you’re not charismatic enough, Toombs will kill himself in front of you afterwards). Cerberus is the darker and more evil part of the Alliance, the same story device as the NID in Stargate: SG-1, the humans who show where the moral line of the good guys is by going beyond it – Renegade Shepard alternates between disgust and saying they have a point.
Speaking of the moral line, there are two missions you unlock by having enough Paragon or Renegade points. One of the central creative conceits of the Paragon/Renegade concept is that your points aren’t a measure of your actual morality, they’re of your reputation, which is something the game is pretty bad about actually sticking to. But the mission you get is genuinely based on Admiral Hackett hoping you’ll do what you’ve been doing up until now. The Paragon mission is a pain in the ass, with biotic supremacists having taken a bunch of scientists, drugging them, and using them as human shields; your goal is to kill them all without harming a single hostage. Paragon Shepard’s morality is based partly on having discipline, and the frustrating thing about havign a reputation based on discipline is that you have to keep it up. The Renegade mission, on the other hand, is genuinely hilarious. You’re hired to broker a deal with a warlord, and he keeps provoking you with both his evil and general pettiness. Renegade Shepard’s morality is based on the line she keeps using over and over – “I’m sick of people jerking me around!” Renegade Shepard rejects any attempts to control her, always aiming to come out of any situation on top and refusing to take any challenge lying down. Which makes it hilarious when you discover that Hackett really wanted that warlord to be dead and figured Renegade Shepard would take him down in a way that makes it look like she went rogue again, absolving him of responsibility, and it’s really hilarious if you didn’t indulge that instinct and actually do broker the deal.
I want to finish up by looking at the pacing of the game as a whole. I have one important mission left – and why I left it until last will become clear when I talk about it next week – and then after that the game enters the final stretch. When that happens, you’re still able to travel the galaxy doing sidequests even though you clearly have a time limit and bigger things on your mind. This is a common video game story problem, which I think speaks to the weak storytelling instincts of game designers in general (though to be fair Bioware learned from response to this in the next game) and the limitations of their understanding of what stories video games can tell. Say what you will about Hideo Kojima and his cutscenes, he has an intuitive understanding of the effect different devices will have on players. This is one of the few ways being a sandbox story hurts rather than helps Mass Effect. The game has a lack of a singular purpose beyond immersing the player in a world, where rather than allowing a story to emerge, it actively hinders it. I suppose it also shows the unique nature of what I’m doing here. Literary analysis is as old as human thought; film analysis has been codified; even episode-by-episode analysis of TV has been around long enough to formed some simple structure. The only beat-by-beat analysis of a video game I can think of is Killing Is Harmless, Brendan Keogh’s (fantastic) breakdown of Spec Ops: The Line, and that’s a four hour game versus the twenty hour experience of Mass Effect. I’m making this up as I go along, trying to work out what I’m even trying to convey, let alone how to convey it. Looking over the sheer word count of this particular article, it looks like the pacing got away from me too.