Since this is post 100 there will now be a break in our regular theme – to focus on one of the greatest loves of my life, or at least for the past year and a half.
–[Spoiler Alert]– If you’ve not yet completed the game or don’t want some of the plot points spoiled for you, don’t read the rest of this post okay. Go buy the games, play them and then come back okay? You’ll thank me!
The Mass Effect Trilogy of games is without a doubt the single best science fiction personal experience of the last decade for me. Note that slight inflection personal experience. There have been more intense and exciting SciFi TV series that have had me on the edge of my seat (Battlestar Galactica I’m looking at you). There’s been at least one utterly excellent SciFi film (Star Trek…or at least your opening 20 minutes anyway) that I’ve really enjoyed. But games, and specifically role-playing games (RPGs) are a different category of entertainment. Rather than the passive absorption of the narrative, you are a participant who shapes the loves, lives and adventures you take. I came to it quite late (the original game came out in 2007) but I’d kept coming across references to it in my gaming magazines, and it sounded quite good so thought I’d give it a go.
Little was I to know quite how much it would draw me in!
Now it is possible to approach the choices you make in these kinds of roleplaying games in an abstract “What will be the best choice for my game winning experience?“. On the other hand, through the immerse power of games like Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, The Witcher 2 and many other well written games means you actually become more invested in the life you have created for yourself and hence the decisions increasingly become “What would MY character do here?”. I certainly play all RPGs like this, not simply creating a collection of statistics and abilities to take me through the game, but actually thinking through the ethics, morals and world views of the character I want to play. In part these will be shaped by the story framework and gaming experience. They’ll also be shaped by your own naturally predilections – I really struggle to play utterly amoral characters; it’s just not in my nature. On the other hand the cheeky, loyal badass…yeah, I can pull that one off.
Mass Effect was a gaming experience that encouraged, nay demanded the latter. It’s why I’ve titled this post Affected because by playing through the three games my choices haven’t just shaped the lives and adventures of my motley assortment of characters; they’ve had an impact on me. Probably why I was in tears at the end of the series – not because it had ended; but because it had genuinely moved me. And the stunning achievement of the game’s creators is that it achieved this through no single component. Which is what I’m going to explore in this post, just how Mass Effect impacted on me.
The name’s Shepard, Commander Shepard
The protagonist, one Commander Sheppard lives a couple of hundred years from now as a human being in a galaxy governed by a number of slightly technologically superior races (Asari, Turian, Salarian) from a massive and ancient space station called The Citadel. The human race, like many others is an associate member of the Citadel races, which don’t have quite the same influence as others. After defining the sex, appearance and starting skills of your Shepard (and a first name that no one ever uses…not even in the final appearance of your name…) you are swiftly thrown into a series of missions aboard your rather sexy stealth frigate the Normandy. And like many roleplaying games you start to pick up companions (squadmates) as well as supporting characters.
Some of these will be with you right through the entire game series. Some of them will come to a squishy end. Some will walk out on you only to pop up when you least expect it.
And some, indeed all of them, can die.
Thanks to the choices you make.
Which means Commander Leela Shepard, MY Shepard was going to gave some hard choices to make. From the outset I decided to go with a female Shepard for three reasons.
- As someone once said “If I’m going to be staring at someone’s backside for the next 100hrs, I want it to be a pretty one”
- I wanted to model my Shepard’s personality on Michelle Forbes’ Admiral Cain from Battlestar Galactia. Hard. decisive. Effective. resilient. Non-hetero. Pragmatic. Oh, with just a hint of James T Kirk’s eye for the ladies.
- FemShep is voiced by the incredible Jennifer Hale, who has voiced so many wonderful characters in games I play. And I like having her voice be MY voice.
Given the voice cast for EDI from ME2 onwards…one of these reasons turned out to have a greater inter-textural resonance than I anticipated. Having played through the series as my Commander Shepard, it’s always thrown me to see the MaleShep on the box art and adverts. What are they thinking, Shepard is a red-headed lady!!
Ahem. As I said, ME is an intensely personal experience. When I imported my save from ME2 into ME3 for some reason it didn’t manage to import her appearance quite right. I started playing the game and after 30 minutes I just couldn’t keep going – she didn’t so much not look likemy Shepard, she WASN’T my Shepard even if she did act and sound alike. It was a rather jarring experience, which somewhat dislocated me from that willing suspension of disbelief that is so crucial to immersion. So I booted up my copy of ME2, took a screenshot and restart ME3 and this time spending quite a while tweaking the appearance of Shepard until she looked as she always had all over again.
While ME is at its heart an RPG, it’s a shooter RPG with magic…sorry biotic/psychic powers and special abilities all playing a part. Sure a lot of the big crisis moments are resolved through dialogue choices, but happiness is a Javelin sniper rifle with thermal clips to spare! As Leela Shepard was an infiltrator class, she spent a lot of time cloaked or hiding behind cover before popping out to put a shell through the head of what ever Geth, Collector, Cerebus agent or Reaper husk was foolish enough to wander into view. See, there again my class choice is inspired by Admiral Cain; using precision and focus rather than spray and pray. Although in ME3’s multiplayer I do fall into the latter class at times. You have a free enough choice to pick and chose missions, although it’s clear which are major story events that move the narrative forward, and which are about fleshing out the galaxy and its inhabitant’s stories. As a completist, yes I did every single one of these sidequests I could, because damn it, Commander Shepard would. She had enough compassion to know that a single life mattered just as much as the big picture.
Something narratively that paid off in the escape from Earth in ME3…and that other shuttle. Damn it, I was as chewed up by that as Shepard; though I didn’t have the same dreams thankfully.
The tale the ME series tells draws on many of the classic SciFi tropes and sources from books, film and TV. The human Systems Alliance could be viewed as akin to Earth Force from Babylon 5. The ancient foes from beyond the galaxy are an updating of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. The Krogan’s have clearly borrowed Star Trek’s Klingon’s attitude and cranial ridges. The influences of Scott Orson Card, Philip K Dick and Robert A. Heinlein to name but a few are clear in the narrative. Not to mention having your initial mission expand from a simple recon through to a battle for galactic freedom, well that’s just about every epic science fiction thing I’ve ever read or watched.
And yet like all epic stories drawing on these sources ME performs the most sublime of transformative acts, bringing forth an epic struggle for life, freedom and free will. Civilisations rise and fall and are reborn across a galactic stage. And while Commander Shepard is at the very heart of the story from her discovery of the Protheium Beccon on Eden Prime to the closing moments with the Crucible, unlike some less well plotted tales the Universe doesn’t stand still waiting for you to do things. Some characters who play a vital role in the first story, pretty much clear off and do very exciting things in the interim before you encounter them again. Shepard might be the focus of the story, but the lives in the galaxy doesn’t revolve around her.
At least not until the closing moments of ME3 perhaps.
Each of the ME games has a pretty epic climax: uniting to fight a hidden and seemingly unstoppable foe, overcoming a new foe and uncovering a more terrifying one waiting in Dark Space and finally uniting everyone in the galaxy…and realising it still might not be enough to win. When I finished the first ME last Christmas I described it as “The best science fiction film I’ve played“. And I thought it would be hard to top, but ME2 and ME3…did.
Throughout the story Leela Shepard kept true to her convictions, always attempting to use reason, persuasion and compassion rather than brute force. She tried to see the long picture – should I save the last member of this ancient alien warlike race and give them the opportunity to evolve into something new, or do I end a potential foe right here and now with clinical precision? She saved them, and two games later the impact of that decision was a crucial spur in her quest’s arc.
During some of the dialogue sense the games allow what are called interprets – either paragon or renegade. Paragon options normally use persuasion and negotiation to bring about a resolution. Renegade sometimes (not always) bring about the justice of a gun. Not always, sometimes it’s a smack in the teeth, but it’s generally (from Leela Shepard’s POV) the less favourable option; but one she took sometimes when certain characters just pushed her beyond her tolerance levels. Oh and once on the spaceport Omega by mistake; but then decided I liked the resolution and played on. Sometimes there’s no other choice except the wrong one, and I think much as it effected Shepard’s story it affected me too; giving me the feeling that sometimes the hard choice IS the only choice and you have to suck it in and learn to live with the consequences.
There are too many standout moments in the story arc to choose any single most outstanding moment; and certainly the finalés of all three games are among them. But from a personal experience point of view there are four that will probably stay with me for some time to come.
- ME: The Normandy vs Sovereign at the Battle of the Citadel. I am not afraid to say I punched the air and cheered aloud watching that bit.
- ME2: The opening scenes. Unexpected isn’t the half of it. And the Normandy *sob* Jaw. On. The. Floor.
- ME3: Returning to the Citadel after the Cerebus attack to overhear that my former lover has died a stupid and pointless death. Teared up and quit playing to sulk.
- ME3: The sudden rising suggestion in the labs on Horizon that I might no longer BE Shepard. Paging Rick Deckard and his unicorn… Uncomfortable feeling between my shoulder blades.
Some moments in the story are widescreen epics, some are quiet character beats. Each of them contributes to the power of the whole experience. And perhaps none of them make it more personal than the ability to romance your crew mates…
Most of your squad mates and some of the incidental characters are romanceable. More in ME2 and 3, and their orientation actually matters. I’ve loved and lost three of them and lived through the ecstasy and agony with Shepard.
Okay, maybe not quite the ecstasy (just in case Mrs Llama ever reads this!) but the delight in scoring with a hot alien babe never goes away.
Liara T’Soni was my first in ME – and she was only 106 years old. A smart lady all the same, despite being in her first phase of life (those Asari live a LONG time). From a mono-gender, and clearly feminine race renowned for their interbreeding with other species…well I thought I’d be onto a good thing here. Liara was a really handy person in a scrap with biotic powers and the romance was really sweet. I was heart-broken in ME2 when she appeared to have moved on in her life after my fall two years previously. Shepard kept a flame burning for her, and when she returned to my crew in ME3 I thought about rekindling the love…but her experiences had changed her, she wasn’t quite the same Liara any more and I couldn’t fake it. We remained very close friends, and as former lovers shared a moment of perfect bliss as we exchanged consciousness just before I went into the final battle in ME3. I was half wondering if I’d impregnated her at this point, but I guess Shepard will never know!
When Liara was a potneital squad mate, I actually found that Shepard was making some odd command decisions. On missions that looked like potential suicide runs (you could lose squad mates for good on some) I actually agonised about asigning Liara to accompany me. But then, because Commander Shepard is a soldier first and a lover second, I would take that hard choice and bring her with me. I’m glad I did, her insight was always invaluable. And I know she’s got a bright future all the same.
Kelly Chambers was my second in ME2 and brought out my inner Kirk. Assigned as my yeoman on the Normandy SR2, and secretly my observer, she was bright, a bit naive and more than a little sparky and forward at times. Given the slightly dour Shepard I was playing at this point after my recruitment to Cerebus, she was a ray of light in the darkness. Secretly I did try and make a play for Miranda Lawson but she wasn’t interested in ladies. Frosty cow (although the nicest ass in the galaxy). So Kelly and I grew closer…and then the Normandy was overrun by the forces of the Collectors and I had to race to save my lost crew. It all worked out, and Kelly performed a very sexy little dance for me as a reward for her rescue. Possibly the most unprofessional moment in Leela Shepard’s military career and would probably have got me chucked out of the Alliance had I not been a Citadel Council Spectre! Jim Kirk would have been proud though.
In ME3 we’d clearly drifted apart as Kelly had ended up on the Citadel helping with refugees. We met up and chatted amicably enough, but like Liara we’d both been changed by our experiences and it didn’t work out. We parted as friends and all was going just fine.
And then she was killed by Cerebus forces. See Kelly, like me, had been part of the Cerebus pro-human organisation. Like me, she had walked away in disgust once their larger agenda had become apparent. Unlike me she didn’t have a crew of shipmates to protect her back. So they just shot her in the face when they attacked the Citadel. Pointless, tragic, heartbreaking – the nearest I’ve ever come to rage-quiting a game and not coming back in actuality. Just as well there wasn’t an in-game option to have Shepard have a break down, because I’d have clicked that without a doubt. As it was once I came back to the game days late I headed straight over to the Purgatory Bar and downed a number of drinks in her memory. Not that you can actually get drunk, but it’s the thought that counts. Even more galling is it turns out there’s a conversation option that I could have chosen that would have saved her.
And she doesn’t even get her name on the Normandy memorial wall. *sigh*
Samantha Traynor was my third in ME3. Once again as the galaxy went to pieces, Commander Shepard decided that given Liara wasn’t goign to work out that romancing her Yoeman would be the right thing to do. It was an interesting relationship, with elements of both the former loves. She had the innocence and then progressive character growth of Kelly. She had the warmth and intellectual curiosity of Liara. And yet was her own woman for it. There were elements of Shepard there too I could spot, with her attitude hardening and darkneing in the darkest days of the war but at the same time remaining her own woman. And at times it seemed all she wanted was to borrow my shower.
Before the battle to liberate Earth we shared a personal moment, that if anything was more intense than when we’d showered together. We talked of a future together, a house somewhere outside of the military and the struggle for the galaxy. It sounded great for my war weary Shepard, even though in my heart of hearts I suspected that I wasn’t coming back from this final mission. I didn’t want to set Samantha up with false hopes, but all the same if I did manage to save the day and myself – having something and someone to live for was important to Shepard.
My Shepard was sure of her sexuality, which meant that the occasional overture from the male crew mates was lightly rebuffed with a smile. But if she would have crossed that line with anyone, it would have been Garrus Vakarian. With her for almost the entire game series, I actually found I wanted to bring him on missions where I needed emotional support and the advice of a friend. I wasn’t sure which of us had more scars by the end, and we both shared a fondness for ocular combat accessories A life long friend, and so warmly acted by Brandon Keener.
Missing in Action
Early in ME you have to chose between two squad mates on a no-hope mission. The game makes it fairly clear from the narrative that you’re sending one of them to their death, although at the time you’re not sure which one. Then you make the judgement call to run to the rescue of ONE of them. Ashley Williams (slightly xenophobic ex-army brat and career military officer) or Kaidan Alenko (sensitive, biotic military specialist and a bit bland). I think you can guess who I picked. Sorry Kaidan I had a twinkle in my eye for Ashley (not that she was interested it turned out), but you’ll always be remembered. And Ashley did become one of Shepard’s closest friends and most frequent squad mates – even down to that final charge towards the Beacon. So I guess what I’m saying is – in the non-win moment I backed the right horse; although both Shepard and I did wonder what would Kaidan have made of himself had he been able to life on.
Thane Krios, the Drell Assassin joined my team in ME2. An assassin with a terminal illness, father/son issues and an intensely religious personal outlook on life. Without a doubt the most unusual of my companions in ME2, probably as driven as Mordin but with an icy core. Shepard and he shared some fairly intense visions with a rather impressive visual element over his time with my team, and I have to say I was intrigued by his past, his outlook and his determination. I wouldn’t have strictly called him a friend but he was utterly dependable Which is why in the final assault I assigned him to a role uniquely suited to his talents – crawling through the air ducts to come out behind the enemy. To this day I don’t know what went wrong, maybe being around non-assassins had blunted his edge, but having come through his assigned role he got gunned down opening some doors for the rest of my team. Damn it Thane, I know you were dying but there was plenty of life in the old Drell yet.
Mordin Solus was with me from ME2 onwards. A salarian geneticist and surprisingly agile military specialist who came with me on a lot of missions, partly for his abilities but also because he made me laugh so many times with his commentary and occasionally highly inappropriate comments. Especially the advice about relationships. Okay and then he burst into song unexpectidly, which utterly won me over. His life’s work had been driven by his hard moral core; seeking to undo his race’s effective neutering of the entire Krogan species. My Shepard could understand this drive, she had it herself and hence he became probably her closet friend after Garrus. During the early events of ME3 he finally has the chance of curing the genophage plague, the culmination of pretty much everything he stood for. But it came at the cost of his own life. My Shepard could respect that, she’d do no less her self if the need arose. He went out singing, but damned if I didn’t miss his advice however it made eyes almost pop out at times as the galaxy got darker. Of all the deaths his was the one that I regretted but respected the most.
In ME the geth are the main foe I fought. In ME2 and 3, one joined me going by the not at all biblically scary name of Legion. I’d had my suspicions that a twist in the plot might involve one of the cyborg race joining me, didn’t quite count on 1,183 of them joining me – all be it in one body. Resolutely calling me “Shepard, Commander” throughout Legion was an interesting squad mate and companion, and the first fully synthetic crew member (although given the cyberware my Shepard had acquired I’d had my doubts). Since I was playing a peacemaker having him on the team made perfect logical sense even if his creator’s race was also represented too. You just knew that the quarrian/geth situation would need to be resolved by the end, and sure enough it was a major plot point in ME3. Thankfully I saved one race and raised another up to true sentience.
But in order to do this Legion had to sacrifice its individuality. The significance of the act wasn’t lost on me, as it played into the themes of not just freedom, but the freedom to choose – free will if you like – that runs throughout the game. The implacable Reapers are not just the enemy of individual freedoms; through indoctrination they seek the elimination of the random element that life brings with it. Something Legion gifted to the geth, and something my Shepard too reflected on towards the end of the story.
I guess it could have been worse! I almost lost both Ashely and EDI in the final charge in ME3. My closest human friend and cylon buddy, oh noes! Thankfully my work in raising an army was enough to save them, but it was close!
While the impact of ME owes much to the powerful and well crafted script, the involving gameplay, the interactive role-playing choices and the incredible visuals; it would be diminished had it not been for the impressive array of voice talent that brings the characters to vivid life. Aside from Jennifer Hale, the most stand out for me has to be the bravissimo performance from Martin Sheen as the hissably evil/misguided/amoral/insane (delete as applicable) Illusive Man. Martin puts as much into his voice acting as goes any of his roles, which makes it all the more satisfying to interact with his character. I was almost sorry for what I had to do with him at the end.
And then I remembered Kelly. Bastard.
On top of this you get such SciFi luminaries as Tricia (Caprica Six) Helfer, Michael (Col Tigh) Hogan, Claudia (Aeryn Sun) Black, Yvonne (Sarah from Chuck) Strahovski and Carrie-Anne (Trinity) Moss. Not to mention other actors with such a vocal richness as Keith David, Seth Green, Alan Dale and Brandon Keener playing other major parts. Even the minor roles have people like Armin Shimerman popping in to play them.
And just to top it all off – Buzz Aldrin in a post script. Magical. It helps make it more of a cinematic experience than a game at times with all these fabulous voices telling the story that you’re directing.
I can’t let this post go without mentioning the soundtrack. Film and tv soundtracks and scores are to me to modern classically music, with a richness, sophistication and narrative enhancing ability that cannot be understated. I think of the closing moments of the last episode of Battlestar Galactica or Babylon 5 and director’s notes like “Break our hearts”; both Daybreak and Sleeping in Light’s music add so much to their emotional one-two punch to the stomach that they can’t be dismissed. In the same way the scores for ME, ME2 and ME3 (which I’ve had playing while I wrote this) are both as evocative of the games’ key moment as they are as crucial to telling the story. My hat is just off to Jack Wall, Sam Hulick. Richard Jacques David Kates Jimmy Hinson, Sascha Dikiciyan, Christopher Lennertz, Clint Mansell and Cris Velasco. and all those responsible for bringing the soundscape of the game into being. The sound effects too are first rate – the noise the Reapers make is right up there with a Shadow scream in the SciFi hall of fame in my opinion.
It’s hard to pick a favourite track from all of them, and the main themes to each of the three games are quite notable. But if I had to, and there’s no paragon option to weasel out of answering this, I’d have to answer An End Once and for All (Extended Cut). Starts off in a nice minor key on the piano before moving through some rising strings into something a little more appropriately epic. I had this on quite loud during the game, and accompanied by the gameplay visuals the impact still lingers.
I’m quite fond of the track New Worlds from too, if anything it’s the leitmotif for the game series for me.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
As with many RPGs comes the woman, comes the moment. At the climax of ME3 you are faced by three choices, none of which look like you can walk away from them; but my Shepard was okay with that. From the moment her boots hit the ground on Earth she just knew that one way or another she was unlikely to walk away from this. All her decisions led up to this, all those lives lost along the way, all those lessons learned the hard way, all of them would be meaningless if she made the wrong choice. As with many games there isn’t normally a wrong choice; indeed reading the wiki for the game even the hidden fourth choice; to damn the galaxy has a optamistic ending even if no one you know or care about walks away. But since my Shepard wasn’t aware of this option (nor would she consider it) she was faced with:
- Firing the supermega ultraweapon and wiping out all robotic life, and preserving humanity. (The Bonehead Option)
- Merging with the supermega ultraweapon and controlling the ancient enemy for the betterment of all life (The Godhead Option)
- Evolving the supermega ultraweapon and all life into something new (The V’Ger Option)
I smiled to myself as the options were laid out before me. There was no way my Shepard would do anything as stupid as the Bonehead Option, given it would destroy my allies the Geth (and make Legion’s death pointless), and my friend EDI. Not to mention with all the cybernetics I carried and countless millions of other sentiments that definition of synthetic life might just extend to us to. Not the idea of controlling the Reapers and making a better galaxy for all…there was a moment when she considered that. And then I remembered this was what the Illusive Man aspired to. becoming the effective Godhead of the Mass Effect galaxy sounded great, but I’d made some poor choices along the way (sob, sorry Kelly!) and who was to say I’d chose any better. Not to mention I’d be doing just what the Reaper’s creators were doing – applying my ethics, my beliefs, my desires on the galaxy. Sure we’d win freedom, but life would essentially lose its free will. Absolute power and all that.
The V’Ger Option scared me for a moment, who’d want to make organic life more synthetic and vice versa. And then it dawned on me, this was about raising up the civilisations of the galaxy. It wouldn’t strip their free will, and sure there would doubtless be some who disagreed. But of the available options it was the one that supported life, all life and gave it a chance to become something more. Allow life to rise anew from all this death and destruction.
But in the end this wasn’t what decided my choice for me. It was thinking about the relationship between Jeff “Joker” Moreau and EDI, a human with a bone disease that disabled him from standing for more than a few moments and a synthetic gynoid embodying my ship’s computer. In many ways Jeff and EDI were at the heart of the ME story – the conflict between organic and synthetic life. The cycle that the Reapers followed saw that one would always seek to destroy or control the other, and this is why they needed to perform their periodic cleansing of the galaxy. Jeff and EDI didn’t agree, they were…a new way. And a thought hit me:
“If I do option 3, then Jeff and EDI will have a chance for a real relationship.”
And so at that moment I chose, and Commander Leela Shepard laid down her life in what history would record for all life…but that I knew was actually about the most basic of reasons.
It was about a boy and a girl having a future together.
It was about love…
Oh damn it, I hate it when that happens!!!
I always complain when the day is saved through love in films and tv shows…and now look at me. I’d made the conscious decision for the same reason. And do you know what? As Jeff and EDI walked from the crash of the Normandy SR2 I knew I’d done the right thing. Plus as a bonus everyone got rather cool glowing eyes and funky skin tattoos. The fact that the augmentations seemed to have enabed Jeff to walk as well was a bonus and not something I’d considered could have happened.
And that’s a little voyage through the 100 or so hours I’ve enjoyed playing the Mass Effect saga. It’s left me a little emotionally burned out, which is no bad thing. I’d rather be moved by a film, a book, a play or a game than to simply think “Right, now what’s for dinner”. It’ll be a while before I can play anything else as I’m still resonating from the experience. There’s only one thing that bugs me about the ending.
Why didn’t I get my full name on the memorial wall? Or was Shepard’s first name really Commander all along…