Reading The Game: In 'Mass Effect,' The Story Starts With The Spaceship
For years now, some of the best, wildest, most moving or revealing stories we've been telling ourselves have come not from books, movies or TV, but from video games. So we're running an occasional series, Reading The Game, in which we take a look at some of these games from a literary perspective.
In the beginning, it was the Normandy that I fell for, not Mass Effect. If it hadn't been for the Normandy (gorgeous, sleek, the most advanced ship in the Alliance fleet and personal ride of Commander Shepard, star of the series), I might've just quit the newly remastered Legendary edition of the beloved trilogy after the first few hours.
See, I did not like Mass Effect at all when I started playing. Going in, I didn't have the nostalgia of a veteran player (it's a series I missed when it first blew up the games world in 2007), so I saw only this busy, silly, overcrowded galaxy full of disjointed whistle-stop worlds always in some sort of terrible peril. Everyone had a problem that needed to be fixed. Everyone had a story they needed to tell me. Here I am, most powerful Space Cop in the galaxy, and I'm wasting time scanning bug monsters and trying to stop a drunken general from spreading rumors about his girlfriend? All I got were fetch quests, dialog wheels and a clumsy, clunky, overly talky, decade-old cover shooter that no amount of updated textures, color shading or lens flare was going to fix.
But I'm a sucker for cool spaceships. I fall for them every time. And I'm a double-sucker for ships that are also home to the characters that fly on them — for the Enterprises and Serenities of the galaxy and stories that are basically tales of giant flying apartment buildings full of space weirdos riding around and having adventures. And that's what the Mass Effect series really is. The Normandy was my way in. It lent structure and gave literary confines to the messiness of the universe's pew-pew Götterdämmerung. Strip it down to its narrative underpants — forget the overarching threats, the calamitous aliens, the ticking-clock plot to destroy all life in the galaxy — and this is a story about a bunch of buds with a fast ride and somewhere to be.
It's a road trip story. A big, dramatic, very shooty road trip story. And like all road trip stories, what matters isn't where you're going, it's how you get there.
Quick aside: For those of you (like me) who don't come to Mass Effect: Legendary Edition with a decade's worth of series nostalgia already built in, let me give you a fast primer: The big story is a trilogy (planned and ruthlessly structured as such from the very beginning) that follows the life and career of one Pick-Your-Gender Commander Shepard (I played him as a man), a decorated, dedicated, reasonably capable human soldier who, early on, is basically a mayonnaise sandwich of a human — the dullest, blankest, most sir-yes-sir-iest doof around. Eventually, you'll come to understand that Shepard exists as a vessel to be filled. That he or she becomes the person you make them. But in the beginning, they're just Earth's first Spectre (basically the galaxy's super-cops) tasked with chasing after a rogue Spectre called Saren who is working with a mysterious race of aliens called the Reapers that kill every living thing in the galaxy every 50,000 years for ... reasons. Saren is the medium-bad. The Reapers are the Big Bad. Shepard is the space cop who has to save the galaxy. Got it? Cool.
ME1 is, as noted, a road trip story. It exists to familiarize you with the incredibly complex and deeply imagined universe Mass Effect operates in by having you bop around to all corners of it and talk to people.
No, really. A lot of it is just talking. But here's the thing: The Mass Effect series as a whole leaned heavily into its version of a morality meter — a sliding scale which, using different mechanics depending on which game in the series you're playing — places Shepard on a spectrum between Paragon and Renegade.
BUT (and yes, it's a big but) while many games have tried this, almost none have succeeded. Mass Effect does. The choices you make in all the hundreds of conversations you're going to have? They have very real gameplay consequences. They alter not just the way an individual encounter might run, but the way the entire game will play out afterward. Notably — and this is something else I didn't really understand until much later in my playthrough — "Paragon" and "Renegade" do not equal "Good" and "Evil". They are variations on how the universe regards your Shepard, how your friends and allies see you, how your enemies might approach you. Do you solve problems with compassion or with a gun butt? Do you help people at your own expense, or is the larger mission always paramount? Every choice changes you, and the aggregate of those choices changes the story. In the beginning, many of the choices seem small. By the end, they are enormous. And one of the major miracles of the series's narrative design is that you make those big, life-changing decisions at the end on the back of every little choice you made at the beginning. The things you know, the people you have with you, how the galaxy knows you? It all adds up.
ME2 was my favorite of the three games. It starts with Shepard dying and then just gets weirder. Functioning on a Getting The Band Back Together kind of frame, you spend most of the story recruiting old friends and new acquaintances for a big heist, all while working for a super shady gang of human supremacists called Cerberus run by a blue-eyed tech bro with Martin Sheen's voice. So yeah, Jed Bartlet as a sci-fi Elon Musk. It's freaky. But also moving, deeply layered, and full of complicated motivations for almost every character involved. Again, you're trying to stop the Reapers, only Dirty Dozen style this time.
And this time, you fail.
ME3? That's all about trying to un-fail. ME3 is about consequences and the big picture. Rather than going after individuals, now you're using all your talky-talk time (and your Paragon/Renegade stats, which carry over, game to game) to convince entire races to join your side of the fight, band together, and defeat the space monsters together. It's less satisfying than the one-on-one feel of putting together a handful of broken, psychopathic space assassins and pulling off a commando raid on the bad guys, but feels appropriately huge.
But again, the big picture is only the big picture. That's plot. The story — and the true, unbelievable strength of Mass Effect — is everything else. It's the conjunction of all the little moments: of finding a friend in the place you least expect or being able to help someone who saved your life once 50 hours of gameplay ago. It's learning things about characters you've fought beside and lived with for years. Sometimes, it's about letting them die.
Somehow, Mass Effect pulls off this amazing tightrope walk over the course of three games that isn't just a tightrope walk, but is walking a tightrope while juggling. And also all of the balls are on fire. It manages to balance sci-fi lore and worldbuilding on a scale rarely seen in one hand, believable political intrigue and gunboat diplomacy in the other, then grows a third hand to handle the chaotic ensemble cast of a character-driven space opera — shifting focus back and forth using the mechanics built into the game itself: moral choices, character loyalty and open-world exploration. Sure, at a glance, Shepard is just some overpowered space cop, space-copping around the galaxy in the slickest ride since the Millennium Falcon. But scratch the surface anywhere in-game and you can see a narrative not governed by its mechanics, but deftly utilizing the tools of gameplay hung on recognizable (and sturdy) narrative devices (the Road Trip, the Band Of Misfits, the Ticking Clock, etc.) to construct a cohesive story out of a thousand disparate moving parts.
One small example, one of dozens: There's a great character among the Normandy's crew named Tali'Zorah — a young Quarian engineer who Shepard picks up early in ME1. She's a fascinating character with recurring roles in all 3 games. At no point do you need to know the specifics of political life aboard the Quarian migrant fleet. You don't need to know about Tali's pilgrimage, or the social and economic reasons underpinning the ritual of sending young Quarians out into the galaxy on an interstellar wanderjahr. You don't need to know about her relationship with her distant father or his political position on the Quarian's Admiralty Board, or how all of this ties into the Quarians' relationship to the Geth — a race of former slave robots created by the Quarians and which later rose against them, found religion and joined with the Reapers. You don't need to know any of that to play the game, to understand the game, even to enjoy the game. None of it is required by the plot.
But to understand the story? Yeah. And all of it is just a conversation away. Take a minute to talk to Tali down in the engineering section of the Normandy and she'll tell you about it. The Quarian kid on Omega Station stuck trying to sell salvage for a ticket back to the migrant fleet will tell you about it. You'll see (or hear) pieces of the story scattered across a dozen worlds. Depending on dialog choices, mission order, who lives, who dies, who makes nice with who, you'll learn different pieces of the history, see different angles on the rights and wrongs of a thousand years of in-game lore. Same thing happens with Wrex and Grunt, the two massive Krogan warriors who join Shepard's crew. With Jack, the space-magic child prodigy abused by a system that only wanted to exploit her gifts. And Garrus, who became my Shepard's best, most reliable friend.
The same thing happens with almost everyone.
And none of it affects the story's main arc. Except that, really, all of it does. Because it is all part of the history of this place, these characters. If the story of the trilogy, writ large, is "Shepard Saves The Universe (A Couple Times, Kinda)" then everything else is the story of how he got to be the person he is when he does the saving. His choices matter. The things he sees and does all matter. Because they are the pieces of the story that you, the player, the person inside Shepard's N7 armor and inside Shepard's head, carry with you into those story beats that ring with finality. Shepard saves the world, sure. But it's the incredibly complex and interconnected narrative inside that makes the story matter.
Because Mass Effect created an entire galaxy for you to play in, then handed you the keys to the slickest ship in it.
What happens next is entirely up to you.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.