It has been about 13 years since developer, Bioware, took us on an epic space exploration adventure that would alter the history of our galaxy, with the Mass Effect series. Even though much of the series’ gameplay functionality is a bit outdated, Mass Effect still stands out as one of the Greatest Sci-Fi RPG (Role Playing Game) franchises to date.
Just as The Godfather and Pulp Fiction were limited by the technology available in their time, are still classics, so is Mass Effect. Not because it took the player on a quest to save the galaxy, with the odd side mission, but because it immerses one in the story line by cleverly evoking one’s curiosity, sense of duty, as well as enables an unprecedented amount of choice.
Despite the criticism the franchise has garnered over the years, Mass Effect remains at the top of many a gamer’s list of favorite titles. Despite using one’s own amygdala against them half the time, Bioware employed a lot of functional and narrative devices that generated a higher level of player engagement than any other game. Bioware evoked a great deal of discussion around the possibilities, and philosophical, as well as ethical issues concerning space travel – while delving more deeply into modern societal concepts than any other franchise has, to date.
Numerous gamers will probably admit to being hooked from the word ‘go’. The game, as with other RPG titles, has allowed the user to generate their own character, with no set race, sexual orientation, or gender, all of that is left to the player’s discretion. This sets the tone for the rest of the game as just about every choice one make’s, from that point onward, will create thousands of variables that will affect one’s story throughout the series. The consequence of choices made in Mass Effect 1 may only come to fruition in Mass Effect 3.
The Mass Effect series also tends to put great emphasis on relationships. How a player interacts with in-game characters not only affects gameplay, but character development as well – of player and in-game character alike. Take smart-mouthed Turian, Garrus Varkarian for instance; this character starts out with a chaotic-good personality who’s heart is in the right place but follows some unorthodox methods to effect justice. With adequate interaction, a strong bond can form between Garrus and Shepard (the main character) with Garrus easing his hard-line stance on matters.
Choices made in the game can also lead to certain relationships, either strengthening, or completely falling apart. A choice in Mass Effect 1 could lead to Shepard butting heads with Krogan crew member, Wrex, depending on previous choices and relationships with other characters, the situation could lead to a warm reunion between Shepard and Wrex in Mass Effect 2, or Shepard could end up doing a lot of explaining to Wrex’s brother.
The second installment of the game gives one a glimpse into Shepard’s influence on characters he/she interacted with in Mass Effect 1, while showing one how they have developed individually after Shepard’s 5 year absence following a tragic event that took place after the battle of the Citadel.
Aside from the 32-odd star systems and planets available for exploration (creating a false sense of safety before the next mission), Mass Effect’s gameplay has a way of making a user enter the next level of gameplay because they want to. With each quest one completes, only more questions arise.
Bioware do very well in giving players a sense of progression as the series unfolds, with Mass Effect 1 giving a player a sense of how insignificant they are – in view of the vastness of space – and having to prove oneself and representing humanity against great odds. Mass Effect 2 and 3, on the other hand portray Shepard as a more experienced, resolute, and battle-hardened character.
The Philosophical Aspect
What Mass Effect does right away, unlike other sci-fi franchises, is put humans in their place; so to speak. The game does away with one’s innate sense of superiority and any prejudices a player might have by putting humans in an underdog position, trying to earn a place on The Council (a galactic United Nations, of sorts).
This does away with the assumption that humans automatically have a valuable role to play in the goings-on of the galaxy. Offering the player a sense that they have a lot to prove. Mass Effect also eliminates the idea that intelligent life has a greater purpose, set out by a greater being. Carried across, through the various species in the game, who are near artistically used as devices for the exploration of the nonlinear progression of intelligent life.
On one hand you have the Quarians, a vagabond race who were displaced from their home world by an artificial intelligence they created. On the other, the Krogans, a warlike race who were uplifted by The Council, to aid in a battle against an invasion by a hostile insectoid species, only to use the sophisticated weapons they had gained access to against the rest of the galaxy later on.
Mass Effect, forces one to confront some tough questions; is it all meaningless? What value can humanity add to cosmic civilization? What value can one contribute to humanity? How important are relationships in the face of catastrophe? When race, gender and orientation are no longer a factor, what is most important? How does one measure the value of one life in comparison to another? The player takes on all these questions, naked of any preset notions. That is what makes Mass Effect one of the greatest sci-fi RPG games of all time- if not the best.
There is word of Bioware revisiting the franchise after the failure of their reboot, Mass Effect: Andromeda, which takes place centuries after the events of the initial Mass Effect trilogy, and in a different galaxy altogether. It may be the next installment in the Andromeda series (which would be great, as there are a lot of unresolved questions we have), or Bioware may take the franchise in a completely different direction. Either way, if they develop a story as engagingly human as the original Mass Effect trilogy, they may just bring the franchise back to its former glory, yet.