What can be said about Mass Effect?
We are approaching nearly a decade since the first game was released on the Xbox 360, and in that time the Mass Effect series meteoric rise to dominance is abundantly clear. Since the release of Mass Effect 3, the trilogy has been one of the more divisive games in recent memory. Perhaps it was the weight of ambition on BioWare's part to go for broke on the final chapter, but even then, people are still talking about Mass Effect to this day.
Not all of the discussions are positive, of course. Many still deride Mass Effect for its arguably underwhelming ending. Others have pointed to narrative plot flaws, lack of role-playing choices and consequence, poor or streamlined gameplay and overall feelings of “betrayal” by the series creators. Much of this pure negativity is not unjust; each game in the Mass Effect series has its own merits and flaws, and when standing alone these aspects of the trilogy are magnified tenfold.
Yet, when put together, the trilogy becomes somethings more. Transcending the cynics and the sycophants that constantly demean or defend the games, the trilogy of Mass Effect is not only one of the best game series to be introduced last generation, but arguably one of the best game series ever made. It should not be a question of arguing the merits or deficiencies of the games themselves; to do so would take much longer than this piece of writing here, and we would still only scratch the surface of the depth Mass Effect actually has.
Instead, to truly understand why Mass Effect is so important, we need to look at what was added to not only the gaming world, but the world at large. No game, save for maybe Call of Duty or Guitar Hero, was able to influence more than just how video games are made. And unlike Call of Duty or Guitar Hero, which have either burned out completely or are confined only into influencing video games, Mass Effect has crossed over into the mainstream, becoming, in essence, the Star Wars of our time.
Of course, people will likely debate that claim, but if you really think about it, it does make sense. Besides the connection of being science-fiction worlds, what should be looked at is the growth of the series since the first game, and how, over time, it has spawned a cultural phenomenon faster than any modern game series. Much like Star Wars, Mass Effect is now more than just a trilogy that defines it, it is a franchise that is ever expanding. It may not reach the level of impact as Star Wars just yet, but it has certainly had people talking as to the importance of Mass Effect being the Star Wars of our generation.
It is in more ways integral to understanding why Mass Effect had such an impact by exploring, in part, the themes and how they are portrayed to the player. Part of the innovation of Mass Effect is the first full attempt of BioWare's current course of game design—a full-on cinematic experience. Part of the appeal of Mass Effect was how BioWare would innovate the role-playing genre with a fully voiced protagonist, filled with personality and pathos while keeping the essence of role-playing alive through player dialogue choices. It is a mix of RPG mechanics formulated into a new prism, and many games have copied this approach since.
This also transforms how players actually role-play. Commander Shepard is a hybrid character, one that is not a fully controlled character, but a completely controlled personality. Shepard has a personality all to their own, but the player is able to change Shepard’s perspective, morality and even emotions on a whim. This leads to Commander Shepard being one of most dynamic and realistic game protagonists in decades, done in a way that few characters can claim.
Mass Effect is more than just innovating through visual storytelling with a voiced protagonist, it also becomes encompassed through the thematic elements of Mass Effect. Much of the trilogy is under the shell of a space opera. Much like Star Wars, there is technology and some science involved in the world, but upon closer inspection it is less scientific, more magical in how it works. The true measure of Mass Effect comes from following the thematic tropes of a space opera, epic battles filled with adventures, places to explore, interpersonal relationships, and the use of otherworldly technology or magic in the overall storyline.
For all the faults the Mass Effect series may have, it shines when viewed as a space opera. The true crux of the series is not the main plot or the details behind it, but rather how Shepard, and your squadmates, interact and grow throughout the series. If there is one thing fans of Mass Effect can universally agree on, it is how the interpersonal relationships, and romantic interests, found in Mass Effect not only enrich the entire experience, but become the focal point of much of the Mass Effect fandom; how you interact with the characters makes you care about the complexities, backstories, and even forming an emotional link to the world at large. In other words, through the game's supporting cast of characters, the world of Mass Effect is filled with life and vibrancy that makes the galaxy feel more alive than the game can actually allow.
Finally, the ability to carry over important decisions from game to game through saved choices brought another dimension to the role-playing experience. While not perfect, more than likely due to implementation being experimental, the ability to carry over choices between the games was novel at the time and has since been refined by not only BioWare, but utilized in other games to give continuity to respected series. It would be disingenuous to say that carrying over a save state from game to game can’t work, and credit has to be given to Mass Effect for being the first major attempt at doing this.
Mass Effect is also one of the few games to really push the boundaries of intellectual thought in recent years. Throughout the trilogy we have seen the re-imagining of sci-fi trappings through a new lens—the dangers of technology leading to genocide, the conflict between organic and synthetic life or the true measure of what it means to be human. These themes lead to discussions of literary themes, culture, philosophy and even theology is explored in Mass Effect through various means. This gives the series a sense of legitimacy not found in many video games, becoming the subject of deeper conversations regarding not only the events of the trilogy, but the overall impact Mass Effect, and in a sense video games, can have on us.
Perhaps, however, we see the full force of Mass Effect has in the gaming world outside of its in-game mechanics. Unlike other games this generation, Mass Effect has developed a large following that brings the series outside of the realm of just pop sci-fi. Instead, it has created a cultural touchstone, a pop culture phenomenon that has formulated a franchise. Mass Effect is not just the video games, although they are the core piece. It also embodies the novels, comic books, animated and even a live action movie. Hell, there is an unofficial holiday celebrated by BioWare and the fandom—it's all a part of this growing universe.
A universe that contains fans, who despite the flaws, the shortcomings, or even the ending of the trilogy, seem to keep coming back for more and more as time goes on. With us now three years removed from the controversial ending of Mass Effect 3, we see the fandom of Mass Effect has not died down. In fact, it has only become stronger over time. Art, cosplay, musical tributes and other fan-made videos have continued to showcase the power the series has on people. We see comedic videos showcasing how much of a jerk Shepard is, to heartwarming soliloquies on why Shepard’s squad fights on. We even see the music of Mass Effect used outside of the gaming medium. Even in silent protest, a mod to the end of Mass Effect 3 is available if people choose to download it, a testament to how much people care about the series.
It is very difficult to wrap around that idea, perhaps because many don’t see Mass Effect in that light, but to deny such an impact has been made would be disingenuous. The true power of Mass Effect is how these elements come together to form something unique, ambitious and long lasting. It is different from other fandom's in this case as well; the overall presence of Mass Effect in and outside of the gaming world is in the realm of Mario Bros or World of Warcraft. All of this is what elevates Mass Effect to that level of recognition, to the point where the series would be granted a spot in gaming's Pantheon. It is not about comparing which series had the most impact over time, but rather what games had an impact, and continue to do so for years to come. For many, the Mass Effect series, through its ambition and passion and presentation, has achieved that level of greatness.
Is Mass Effect perfect? The answer is of course no, as no game really is. Yet, none of that truly matters in the grand scheme of things. For those who played the trilogy, who feel invested in the world, its characters, and the approach BioWare utilized to showcase them, Mass Effect means so much more than the sum total of its parts.
Yet don’t take my word for it. One of the final moments in Mass Effect, through the Citadel DLC, sums up the trilogy as a whole.
If nothing else, the ride has been a good one, that will endure the test of time as Mass Effect takes a rightful place as not only, the best game of its generation, but one of the best of all time.