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The Virtual Life – Making Hard Choices With The Mass Effect Trilogy

by Javy Gwaltney on Mar 22, 2017 at 10:00 AM

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Hey gang, if you're worried about Andromeda spoilers, have no fear. I'm just talking about the original trilogy for this column.

Mass Effect 2 changed my life. I mean that in a very practical, defined way. I had been away from video games for a long time when my brother bought it for me. I was in college, a sophomore. I had switched my major to English and spent a lot of my nights writing bad fiction and reading lots of novels so I could sound smart in class and tell people how much I had read of Infinite Jest or War and Peace. I was, in more ways than I am now, a positively insufferable human being.

I remember loading the game up for the first time in my tiny apartment on a three-year-old laptop. I had never played the first Mass Effect. The last game I had played, fittingly enough, was Jade Empire shortly before I sold my Xbox and swore off games to devote more time to reading and writing. I had more or less booted the sci-fi adventure up because I would have felt bad to not play this present my brother bought me more than an actual desire to play the damn thing. Within 10 minutes I was hooked. I was introduced to a crew of capable of people, the majority of them cut down within seconds after a mysterious attack, and my hero blown into the darkness of space after saving their trusty pilot. I sat in there in awe as I watched commander Shepard choke to death within the opening moments of the game in a Psycho-esque twist.

Seven years later I write full-time about video games for one of the biggest magazines in the world. I've spent a lot of time thinking about Mass Effect 2 but I've rarely written about it. It's possibly the only game that's hard for me to approach critically because of the role it's played in my life, ushering me back into the realm of games and essentially putting me on the path to where I am now and wherever else I go with it.

However, with Andromeda out and about in the world now, I decided that it was finally time to sit down and truly think about what makes Mass Effect 2, and the original trilogy, so special in my mind outside of the game's impact on my personal life. What is its allure? Is it just that having an interactive gumbo of Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Babylon 5 is my cup of tea? The idea of carrying a character across three games and seeing how they change? Why does Mass Effect 2 continue to fascinate me to the point that I've played through it over 20 times since its release?

There are a lot of answers, but the biggest one here is "accountability." Make no mistake: Mass Effect is like the majority of action blockbuster games in that it is first and foremost a power fantasy. However, within that frame, Mass Effect also does something that few other games dare to: It requires you to take responsibility for your actions. You have before you an entire galaxy and every choice you make affects things that happen there, whether it's on a personal level, with you choosing one lover over another souring your relationship with the rejected person, or your decisions affecting the futures of entire civilizations. But it's not just your decisions that have accountability attached to them. The characters you journey with all have their own lives and desires that exist outside of you, choices they've made, and regrets they harbor.

Take Mordin Solus for example. He's a brilliant scientist, one of the brightest minds in Mass Effect's universe. Before the events of Mass Effect 2, he helps create a more advanced variant of an engineered genetic mutation called the Genophage that helps limit the birthrate of an entire species. During the events of 2, Solus clearly struggles with the role he's played in bringing. If he makes it through the finale of 2, he goes on to reverse the genophage (if you let him) in Mass Effect 3, sacrificing his life to cure the mutation in what might be the emotional peak of a series filled with incredible heartfelt scenes. It's a startling, tear-jerking moment that captures what it means to be responsible for our actions and the high cost of making up for our mistakes. 

The entire trilogy is filled with moments that like this. They might not hit as hard but they've got the same framework. A character makes decisions based on their beliefs when they're in a particular situation and then deals with the fallout later on. Saren, the first's game villain, when he endangers the galaxy by trying to save it. Ronald Taylor, who slowly becomes a monstrous dictator while trying to keep a group of marooned survivors alive. Tali, who has to choose between protecting her father's legacy or being exiled from her people. 

In Mass Effect, everyone is dealing with the weight of their choices. And to have that theme feature so strongly in a medium that is explicitly about interactivity is a powerful thing. And what's interesting about Mass Effect's handling of this is that, despite the series' famed and often criticized binary systems, the fallout from characters' choices isn't always clear cut. For example, Garrus' side quest in Mass Effect 2 revolves around him trying to avenge his former squadmates after one of them betrays the rest, which results in everyone but the traitor and Garrus dying. You can either let Garrus take his revenge or intervene but either way, there's no discernible change in his character. Garrus remains Garrus. Some people might be disappointed by the lack of noticeable, branching decision there or yearn for a "Pacifism Is The Correct Way" reward but to me, it's more interesting to see the scenario handed with relative ambiguity. Just because my Shepard might not be able to live with that choice doesn't mean that Garrus can't.

Mass Effect's universe is after all morally grey, with civilizations striving to create meaning and order out of belief systems they've established. To see characters from these various civilizations grapple with dilemmas and the aftermath of the choices they make is the trilogy's most fascinating thread for me. How do a salarian and human handle guilt? How do the hivemind Geth and the nomadic Quarians deal with individuality and desire? Where are the similarities? Where are the divergences?

In the years since Mass Effect, other games have presented their own take on a design model that centers on a player's choices affecting whatever experience they're having. Obviously the biggest comparison point is probably Telltale's games, which remove conventional gameplay aspects to focus on storytelling. Other games, like 90 Days and Oxenfree, have presented more complicated and less binary conversation and branching choice gameplay. However, I find that almost all of these games still focus almost exclusively on the main character's choices. Everything is about what the player does and how the world reacts to it, with other characters' whims and desires being shaped by the player's actions.

This is certainly true to a degree with Mass Effect as well. However, characters in the trilogy are still ultimately their own beings, and we're given plenty of time to see them as individual people who make decisions and deal with whatever comes next in whatever way they can. Sometimes it's not pretty, sometimes these people screw up and their screw ups cost relationships or even lives, but that's a part of being alive. I've made terrible decisions in my life. I've hurt people who didn't deserve it because I was inconsiderate or drunk or angry or desperate or selfish. It's reassuring to jump into a fantastical world teeming with people who screw up just as much as I do. Their mistakes obviously have higher stakes attached to them than I do, but that doesn't stop the experience from being an oddly comforting one.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is out now. We've reviewed it. People are playing it. I'm playing it. There seems to be a general sense of disappointment around the game, that it doesn't capture what made the three games that came before it so special. I can understand that to a degree, but at the same time, I also realize there will never be another Mass Effect 2 again. And for me, so far, Andromeda still retains that thing that makes Mass Effect, Mass Effect. It's not the exploration. It's not the romance or the cool combat or even the branching decisions. It's the moments where people not unlike you or me have to go through relatable situations and make difficult decisions and find out what it means to be a person. It's a terrifying, wonderful thing and something I hope the series never loses.