Like many people obsessed with the Mass Effect trilogy back when it originally released, I have a complicated relationship with the series due to the major flaws of the third game, which led to one of the most infamously controversial endings in video game history. I fell firmly on the side of absolutely despising said ending. The subsequent free DLC makes it easy to forget just how atrocious those original endings were, and even the improved versions did not fix the fundamental problems that sank the plot of Mass Effect 3.
Because of my considerable dislike for the trilogy’s ending, I considered not buying the new Legendary Edition of the Mass Effect trilogy. Being as I am absolute Mass Effect trash, this consideration was a laughable joke and I bought the Legendary Edition the morning it released. As of writing this, I have beaten Mass Effect 2 and am considering whether I want to jump right into the third game or not.
Whatever my disappointment, it is Mass Effect 2 that showed me why I am still a Mass Effect super fan, even after everything that happened back in 2012 with the third game. Particularly, one moment made it starkly clear.
During Samara’s loyalty mission, which puts you on the trail of her daughter Morinth, a particular type of Asari murderer, you track her through her latest victim, a young girl named Nef. This process has you watch journal entries where you learn who Nef is, where Morinth found her, and how Nef was seduced to her eventual death. And…it’s heartbreaking. It is 5-10 minutes of a 30–40-hour game but it leaves a deep impression. Nef is a young, vibrant, creative person who gives you insight into the everyday life of the world around her. She combines worldbuilding with character with a memorable plot, all in this one small bite of the game.
When you talk to her mom and feel the grief in every word, you feel some of that grief with her. This was a young woman with so much potential that is just gone. In a blighted, hopeless piece of space like Omega, she somehow still shone, and now she’s gone.
Why do I still love Mass Effect? Because of moments just like this.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of the larger plot with the Reapers and their defeat, I think we can all agree that Mass Effect created the most fleshed-out and thoughtful world the gaming industry has ever seen. I would put Mass Effect’s IP up there with damn near any sci-fi universe ever created. BioWare created a robust interconnected galaxy filled with multiple species, planets, governments, and histories that consistently factor into the world around you.
None of this would matter if these games only packed this world-building into the Codex and failed to make much use of all this potential, but they sure as hell do make use of said potential. And best of all they do so through these seemingly unrelated little stories that show the tangible effects their world has on the people who live in it.
These games are packed with minor moments like this. Just within the Citadel during the first Mass Effect, you have quests like Saresh Batia’s attempts to get his wife’s body back, Rebekah and Michael’s argument over medical treatments for her baby, and a Turian general’s petty attempts to smear the Consort. Feros has you running around doing gritty work to stabilize the Zhu’s Hope colony. Noveria involves you in corporate espionage and undercover police work. Everywhere you go, Mass Effect packs the experience full of these smaller, fleshed out stories that do more to build the believability of BioWare’s universe than most games manage in their entirety.
By building their world around the people in it, I learn what life is truly like for those people. Omega is established as a criminal paradise run by gang bosses. Within most games, it would be exclusively that. You would run into and get into shootouts with gangsters and the people who live there otherwise would be an afterthought. And yes, the missions on Omega involve you shooting gangsters and mercs.
In between those shootouts, though, you see someone like Nef. You see a grieving mother preserving her promising young daughter’s bedroom and hear her loves and fears. You hear about her insecurities. Art pieces display her talent. Elsewhere, you run into a Quarian running a parts shop in hopes of paying his way off Omega and running into trouble because of a rival shop owner putting the squeeze on him. It makes you think of when you first ran into Tali on the Citadel, and how easily she could have ended up just like this other poor Quarian, or the one you do find on the Citadel being harassed for theft despite stealing absolutely nothing.
Omega as a concept of a space station run by gangs is an easy thing to just throw in a game. What makes it effective is the multiple examples of normal people living under their oppression. Garrus’s successful efforts to recruit a crew to fight back against those gangs is so much easier to understand because of people’s stories like Nef’s. I can imagine the Quarian shop owner chafing under this oppression and fighting back at Garrus’s side.
Arguably the most difficult thing in fiction is the attempt to build a believable world with believable inhabitants, where you can easily picture how and why people live in this fiction. That is especially true of video games, where the gameplay must come first. Something like Metal Gear may have a cool world but it is ultimately a series based around cool stealth missions in warzones and military bases.
It is so easy to lose sight of how people live in a world when a game makes everything revolve around the player. The world will feel static around you. People do not live within most games so much as they react to what you are doing, or in some cases not reacting at all. You would think some random nobody bandit would know better than to pick a fight with a ludicrously well-armed hero who kills legendary dragons, but Skyrim has them trying to rob you anyway.
Obviously, in the end, the game world will always revolve around the player, no matter how believable the developers try to convince you otherwise. And that is perfectly okay, so long as I can lose myself in the fantasy.
Few games make me lose myself in fantasy like Mass Effect. The Nefs out there will keep existing, keep loving and grieving and living and dying, regardless of whether Commander Shepard exists or not. Their parents and siblings will keep joining groups that fight back against Omega’s gangs. Aria T’Loaks will come and go. The galaxy is bigger even than Commander Shephard, whose journey is literally saving the galaxy.
Even after so many years, with so many new games, Mass Effect scratches this itch like nothing else I have ever played, and that legacy still outweighs its failed ambitions. It will until a new franchise one-ups this truly incredible world.
Images Courtesy of BioWare
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