It has been ten years since Canadian developer BioWare released the first game in what is now a long-running franchise, Mass Effect. The team, fresh off their experience from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and spearheaded by project lead Casey Hudson, were hoping to make their own mark in the realm of science fiction and role-playing by crafting a unique world all to themselves. Now, ten years later, that title has become a symbolic piece of BioWare’s own history—both good and bad—from the fanbase of the franchise.
Tiffany Lowe is a longtime fan of video games, first picking up a controller at the age of five after watching her father play the Atari 2600. Her passion for games is incredibly evident, especially for titles by Canadian developer BioWare.
“I did not discover them until 2010 when I picked up a used copy of Dragon Age: Origins and fell in love,” stated Lowe. While a big fan of the Dragon Age series, she then discovered another love from the company: the Mass Effect franchise.
“After falling in love with Dragon Age, I trusted that BioWare’s other big RPG game would be awesome,” she recalls. “While I love fantasy more, I am also a really big fan of science fiction as well. Besides gaming, that is another thing I got from my Dad – a childhood of watching the original Star Trek movies and The Next Generation. So, the thought of an RPG where I could make myself into a starship captain and essentially go be my own version of Captain Kirk appealed to me greatly.”
Lowe began her journey with Mass Effect 2, but like many fans of the franchise, would quickly discover something more under the surface. The popular sci-fi RPG would defy expectations for many, becoming one of the most beloved trilogies of all time in the history of video games.
When production began on the first Mass Effect in 2004, the goal was to create a robust role-playing game with a brand new, cinematic presentation. Hudson himself stated that “the level of cinematic intensity and the extreme depth and emotional impact of the story and character interactions required us to craft a very specific kind of experience for the player.” The fixed protagonist of Commander Shepard became the lynchpin to that design, as was the nature of the games themselves; the planted seeds for what would eventually become a trilogy of critically acclaimed titles released within a five-year period.
For many fans of the trilogy, that passion shone through with Mass Effect’s overall design. For others, the attraction of the sci-fi world was enough.
“I’ve loved science fiction ever since I first turned on Stargate SG-1 as a kid,” recalls Sil, a member of the Unofficial BioWare Social Network. “[But very] few games ever give the sense that you can play through one of those great sci-fi tv shows. I was told that Mass Effect scratches that gaming itch, and so I dived in by buying it pre-owned for the Xbox 360."
“I supposed the reason Mass Effect appealed to me from the very beginning – of me finding out mind you, as I do not deny coming six years late to the party – was because of how close it was to our future,” stated Serza, another member of the forums. “It felt to me like a story very grounded in possibility and not at all distant like others, such as Halo. Simply in a hundred and seventy years, I could see something like this be reality with the same build up the events in the game had.”
The appeal of Mass Effect goes beyond just the sci-fi world. Part of the game's original appeal came through its overall cinematic design. Touted as a major innovation thanks to the use of voiced protagonist and deep choice and consequences role-playing, the first Mass Effect game set the bar for what has become the AAA standard for RPGs. Use of cinematic moments, camera angle tricks, and high visual fidelity for 2007 dazzled many a player at the time, engrossing them into the lives of not only Commander Shepard, but the crew surrounding them.
“Cinematic design is a unique position not only in BioWare, but the industry as a whole,” stated Mass Effect’s cinematic designer Armando Troisi in 2007. “We are responsible for supporting the narrative by delivering the emotional content. We generate cutscenes, conversations, level events, and ambient behaviors to tell the story the writers have laid out. It's kind of like directing a film, except it's interactive.”
Troisi would be responsible for the in-game toolsets used for conversations, including the cinematography of these conversations and, in the case of the prologue and interactions on the Citadel, digital acting implementation. Troisi’s work would set new standards for not only BioWare, but future AAA projects, where the cinematography evokes emotional responses just as strongly as the gameplay itself.
“The game was full of scenes right out of a science fiction film or tv series,” recalls RPG fan Jake Kiefer. “It made me think of Babylon 5, Star Trek, or even Firefly. This game was a departure for the more tabletop-like settings of previous BioWare RPGs, and to me this was an enjoyable novelty. I wanted to see where this could go.”
“One of the more stand out moments in the first Mass Effect for me was actually near the beginning, as the Normandy approaches the Citadel for the first time,” stated forum-goer Hanako Ikezawa. “Between the music building up as we go through the cloudy nebula, only ever getting tiny looks, until the music peaks as we finally see the whole station was incredible and cemented the idea in me that Mass Effect was going to be something special.”
“I was terrified of the Rachni!” exclaimed another fan, Antonio Montero. “When I first reached Peak 15 on Noveria, there was a cutscene where me, Tali and Wrex were standing side-by-side since they keep hearing some sort of banging noise...and then a rachni appeared and scared the shit out of me! I think I played a bit more on the mission, kept getting terrified because the same damn banging noise kept repeating itself, then eventually stopped playing and forgetting about the game for some months. Eventually, I got back to it…but I started using walkthroughs.”
The cinematic quality of the entire franchise has become one of the biggest hallmarks of the Mass Effect series. So much so, fans on the unofficial forums have begun compiling a list of their 100 favorite moments from the Mass Effect games along with a "Thank you Mass Effect" campaign, in celebration of the series 10th anniversary.
“For me, the entire opening sequence [of Mass Effect 2] was like something out of a movie," said Lowe. “Ship in trouble, making sure your crew evacuates. When the hull of the Normandy was breached and suddenly everything went into slow motion as you basically space-walked to the bridge to save your helmsman, the only sound being your own breathing inside your suit. It immediately invoked feelings like the death of the Enterprise.”
“In some ways, Mass Effect was a pioneer in role-playing games,” argued Kiefer. “Technology has marched on, and the cinematics of the original Mass Effect are fairly dated. However, the RPG mechanics are alive and well. Other games now use a dialogue wheel like what Mass Effect used, and save imports are becoming more of a thing. Telltale has even become rather notorious for its 'Clementine will remember this' notification.”
The introduction of several gameplay mechanics transformed the landscape of role-playing, for better or worse. Many AAA RPGs have emulated BioWare's innovations and even expanded upon them to create first-rate role-playing games of various stripes. Like fans of any genre, for many the uniqueness of the experience of Mass Effect, and of BioWare's body of work, is what stands out.
“Dragon Age: Origins ruined my appreciation for other non-BioWare RPGs, even though I had previously played [the likes of] Might and Magic, Diablo 2, Morrowind and Betrayal at Krondor,” stated forum member Shinobu. “They were not as good in the character department and focused too much on point spending, inventory, loot, or what have you. I bought Diablo 3 and Divinity: Original Sin but didn’t enjoy them very much, so I’m pretty much a BioWare only consumer at this point.”
“It depends on what the individual is look[ing] for in their RPG experience,” noted forum member Colfoley. “Some people really like The Witcher, some people really like the Elder Scrolls for its exploration and free-roaming capability. For me, personally, BioWare [make] the best RPGs in the market. Even some of their weaker titles have still provided amazing Role-Playing opportunities, allowing you to forge your own character.”
Others look to BioWare and Mass Effect with more intimate memories.
“On January 19th, 2012, my mom decided to take her life,” said Lowe. “As you can imagine, that was completely devastating. My mom was my best friend, she was like a sister to me, and I’ve never been through a loss that close and that sudden and unexpected. I went into a really dark place, personally.”
Lowe credits the multiplayer of Mass Effect 3 in having a profound impact on helping her cope with this traumatic event.
“Sometimes it’s the little things. I don’t know what it was about the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, but it actually captured and engaged my interest through my grief, my anger, my sadness,” said Lowe, who expressed her feelings on the series in a Youtube video titled ‘What N7 Means to me’ posted in 2014. “I would actually be able to concentrate on the game, and on the matches, and it was almost like a glimpse into my old self again, that I haven’t seen since my mom died.”
Since 2012, BioWare has celebrated November 7th as the official “holiday” for the Mass Effect series, selecting the month of November in honor of the 5-year anniversary of the release of the first game released for the Xbox 360 on November 20th. The 7th was chosen due to the famous N7 logo, which has become synonymous with the Mass Effect series. Since then, BioWare has used N7 day to not only celebrate Mass Effect, but to interact with the BioWare community, from charity streams to video interaction, such as Lowe’s own N7 day video.
Not all fans were happy about the direction of the series, however.
“I see the trilogy as [having] fantastic potential that was completely wasted,” said Kiefer. “It became painfully obvious that there was no actual plan or three-game arc. As such, Mass Effect 2 felt totally divorced from the first game, and in fact had a story so anemic it was barely there. They seemed to try to remedy this with Mass Effect 3, but at this point there were so many choices and characters that it was impossible to do justice to them all.”
Kiefer, like many fans of the original trilogy, also point to the games' more negative aspects as harming the overall potential of the franchise, most famously the endings of Mass Effect 3.
“The endings [were in my opinion] so bad that it felt like a deliberate sabotage of the setting,” said Kiefer. “It was like they simply gave up in frustration and burned it all to the ground.”
Fan Kevin Hill echoed a similar sentiment. “Although it was mostly well written, certain parts of the trilogy were over-written. The ending of Mass Effect 3, although it made sense to me in a way, did require a lot of thought and in my opinion, was not the best, although I do understand that BioWare were also trying to close the book on Shepard as well as the trilogy.”
The backlash against Mass Effect 3 was unprecedented at the time, with hundreds of fans angry over what many believed to be a cop-out ending. The lack of clarity and narrative sense of the ending alienated many, blaming BioWare or Electronic Arts for the shoddy conclusion to the trilogy. Some fans attempted to spin the ending with a more comedic light; the most famous example being the tongue-in-cheek Marauder Shields comic that was even acknowledged by BioWare itself at one point. BioWare addressed some of the major concerns by releasing the Extended Cut, which added more dialogue and re-shot parts of the ending to provide further closure to the fanbase.
The Extended Cut did not assuage most of the backlash. Many fans turned to modding to attempt to fix the game's endings, with one mod, the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod, attaining legendary status among the BioWare community. Outside of this famous mod, and the EGM team’s Extended Galaxy Mod, the community is still relatively bare overall for the original Mass Effect trilogy.
“Unfortunately, the community for Mass Effect 3 modding is tiny,” said Sil. “[This is] in part because tools took years to reach the stage they are at today, but also because modding Mass Effect 3 takes a lot of persistence and skill. I’ve noticed that hairstyle mods seem especially popular, which baffles me, but there are also a lot of armour mods as well.”
The community, however, has rallied around one guiding principle for modding on Mass Effect 3: compatibility.
“One noteworthy aspect of Mass Effect 3 modding is that the community does seem to go out of their way to allow for compatibility between mods,” argued Sil. “And I’d say this; without the efforts of the mod team's, Mass Effect 3 would have never reached its potential.”
While many fans were upset over the ending of Mass Effect 3, some were less fazed by the backlash.
“The trilogy was one of the most engaging and emotionally affecting game experiences I’ve ever had,” said Shinobu. “I was so heartbroken by the ending of Mass Effect 3 (even with the extended cut) I was unable to play any of the [original trilogy] games, except the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, until now. I’m currently playing Mass Effect 3 to collect clips for a video [project] and I’m rediscovering my love for the characters and setting. It still holds up.”
“It’s funny, I loved the trilogy,” stated Colfoley. “But I spend so much time on here, probably out in real life, [sounding] like I probably hate it. But I did, for the most part, aside from the ending, aside from some wonkiness. I do love the trilogy. It has its flaws. Some of them big and long, and there is only one game of the original three that I truly love and is in my favorite games of all-time list.”
The issues regarding BioWare go beyond Mass Effect. For many fans, both old and new, it is a long-standing love-hate relationship with the company that has many great highs and lows. Perhaps the biggest low for the fan community occurred last year, when BioWare announced that they would be shutting down their official forums, which had been active since the early 2000s.
“In summary, I was heartbroken,” recalled Lowe. “It may seem silly to say that about an online gaming forum in comparison to real world worries and issues, but that’s my honest feeling. The BioWare forum was the one place online where I spent a lot of my downtime, it was there for me during the worst moment of my life and was an escape. I made many lasting friendships there, some of whom I have met up with in real life because the friendships were so true and positive.”
Lowe, like many others after the announcement was made, quickly organized the community to find a solution to the closure. Many smaller forums became de-facto homes for those in the BioWare community, until a group led by community leader Cyonan decided to migrate much of the original forums to the Unofficial BioWare forums.
Over a year later, the Unofficial forums touts over 8,000 members and close to 818,000 posts.
Lowe herself became a moderator on the forums. “It was humbling, honestly,” she stated. “I’m just a fellow fan who likes to see everyone get along. I’m not anything special. But others felt differently and wanted my voice in a leadership position.”
The challenges of being a moderator lead to a new set of priorities for Lowe.
“Why do I do it? Because ‘it had to be done’ as my father would say,” she exclaimed. “I wanted to see [the official forums] improve, not continue spiraling downhill. I even volunteered myself to help in any way possible, and at the end of the day, it would seem that I got my wish – I had wanted to try and help save the BioWare forum in any capacity, and though the official one is gone, I’m a moderator of what essentially became its replacement. I do it because I love this place and the people in it – yes, even the ones who sometimes ruffle my feathers.”
Many members of the unofficial forum still hope for more quality content from BioWare. The recent release of Mass Effect: Andromeda was met with a divisively mixed reception on the fan forums. Many criticized the technical and narrative failures of Andromeda, along with the subsequent reveals of its turbulent development and pulled DLC support, as a worrying sign for the franchise.
“Andromeda, I think, would have been better received if it had not had “Mass Effect” in the title,” said Kiefer. “It was an attempt at a clean slate without actually rebooting anything, and unfortunately, it failed to recapture the magic of the first Mass Effect game. It did suffer from technical issues, but then there were the inevitable comparisons between Shepard and Ryder, Garrus and Vetra, Joker and Kallo and so on. In addition, the whole Andromeda Initiative seemed to be based on a rather absurd degree of both lack of preparation and wide-eyed idealism for something in the Mass Effect universe.”
“I was pumped with the Quarian Arc teasers put in there, especially at the end of the game,” said Lowe. “[I] just knew I’d get to play through some cool stuff involving them…only to find out, nope, you just get those answers in a tie-in novel. Not a fan of that. If a story starts in a certain medium, I feel it should continue and end in that same medium.”
Despite the setbacks for Andromeda, the community, now ten years strong, still looks forward to the future of Mass Effect.
“I would like to see Mass Effect games continue to get made, but to go down a more RPG route & less of an action adventure,” said Hill. “Allow the players to play species that are not just Human if they want, return the dialogue to Paragon/Renegade but do not lock out future choices based on how many of these decisions are made. Mass Effect still has a future as a AAA rated sci-fi RPG and can continue to grow.”
“I hope that they move away from the bias towards using Asari, Turians and Krogan squadmates,” noted Sil. “One of the weaker aspects of Mass Effect 3 was how the Hanar, Elcor and Volus were barely acknowledged, and this transferred over into Andromeda by leaving them out of the game altogether.”
Like the fans of the game itself, their hopes for the future of the franchise are just as diverse as the game that brought them together. Mass Effect, ten years later, has given to its own fanbase a series that has become a special part of the overall gaming world. Love or hate the series, Mass Effect has become a landmark title that many look to with respect for its strong cinematics, deep characterization, and emotional ties that have rarely, if ever, been captured in a game before.
“We’ve all had our conflicting opinions these past several months,” said Montero. “But we all love the same universe. So for now, whether you love or hate Mass Effect, whether you cry out for missing Quarians or not [in Andromeda,] celebrate the world we loved to explore and immerse ourselves into; because we’ve finally reached the 10th anniversary of Mass Effect, and in the words of Ryder: “We made it.”