This article deals with the narrative of the Mass Effect trilogy in depth. If you haven’t played these games yet then be warned that spoilers lie in wait below.
Mass Effect launched into our lives almost five years ago now and the series has enjoyed ongoing success since then. Never content to rest on their laurels, BioWare have made many changes and innovations throughout the series, some welcome and others less so (we’ll get onto my aggrieved response to finding out the Mako was gone in Mass Effect 2 later). Altogether the Mass Effect series has been adaptive, changing and usually excellent. The series is one of the pioneers in non-linear narrative and now with the trilogy complete it seems like a good time to look at some of the gameplay and storytelling highs and lows in this superb saga.
Complexity Versus Polish
Mass Effect is vast in scope and enthralling to wide-eyed new occupants of its incredible universe. From arriving at the Citadel to exploring the many distant planets, the journey through this world is a marvel. If there were a common complaint about the first instalment in the franchise, it would be that certain gameplay elements weren’t particularly elegant in their application; the inventory was a mess, the exploration was repetitive and the Mako was a pain to control. In short, the game lacked polish.
BioWare responded by reigning in many of these factors in Mass Effect 2. The Mako was completely removed, the inventory was shrunk to a minimal size and exploration of random worlds was reduced to an orbital mining activity. Unfortunately the outcome of these decisions was a sense that some aspects of the Mass Effect universe were downscaled and made simpler. This raises an important sense of balance that the action/RPG genre must deal with to succeed and it is an issue we still see being faced today. Developers must weigh up the value of the depth offered by detailed and time consuming gameplay elements against the appeal of a sleek and accessible system.
I think the reason that many express nostalgia over the gameplay elements removed after Mass Effect 1 is that, in the case of these sometimes messy aspects of the game, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That is to say that yes, the inventory of Mass Effect 1 was something of a mess and yes, the largely barren worlds were repetitive but together with so many other aspects of the game they created a sense of scope; they made the world of Mass Effect 1 feel huge. Mass Effect 2 lost some of these elements but BioWare weren’t about to let their vision of the galaxy lose its epic feel.
A Personal Experience
Mass Effect 2 may have simplified the inventory and dialled down the exploration but in return it focuses somewhat more intensely on the personal journey of your Shepard and the characters you meet along the way. The second game in the trilogy is even more character focused than the first, even offering a fairly trimmed down central plot in favour of exploring the individual journeys of your squad and how your Shepard interacts with them.
From Mordin to Legion, Mass Effect 2 brings in a cavalcade of great new characters and explores their background in enormous detail. From helping Miranda protect her sister to galaxy changing revelations about the Geth, Mass Effect 2 expands upon the world of the first game in significant ways of its own. For those looking for the sense of detail found in the first game there is still the codex and the endless list of planets to visit and read about.
In terms of the central narrative Mass Effect 2 often seems to be the weakest of the trilogy. The Collectors are a menacing enemy and the revelation that they were once Protheans is a strong move but this doesn’t go far enough to make up for the fact that only a handful of missions are dedicated to the main plot and it sometimes gets lost amongst the more enthralling character narratives. This isn’t to say that this is a particularly bad thing- the character focus of Mass Effect 2 is one of its defining qualities.
Perhaps the biggest narrative change in Mass Effect 2 is the move to working for Cerberus. It served well to shake the story up and announce that Mass Effect 2 wasn’t just going to stick to a formula established in the first game. If Mass Effect 1 introduced us to Shepard’s world, Mass Effect 2 explored the underworld. From Omega to the prison ship Purgatory, the second game gave us a tour of all the dark nooks and crannies that evaded the spotlight in Mass Effect 1.
While there have been many changes throughout the Mass Effect series, there has been one very consistent factor- your decisions and their influence on your adventure. Perhaps the most noteworthy characteristic of the franchise is how these decisions are not limited to the game in which they take place. You can make a decision in Mass Effect 1 and see ramifications of this choice in the third game.
This may not be the first time this system has been implemented but Mass Effect is certainly the most noteworthy example. It demonstrates the potential of video games to tell emotional and engaging narratives that are heavily influenced by the player’s decisions. Granted, some of the decisions you can make only have a small effect on the story and others may have none at all, but it’s still a great step forward.
It’s fair to say that despite the achievements in Mass Effect there are still many improvements that could be made to a non-linear narrative of this sort. As an example it would have been superb to be given the option of who to work for in Mass Effect 2; maintain your allegiance to the Council (along with Spectre status), fall back to working exclusively for the Earth Alliance or splinter off and settle in with Cerberus. In the future it would be great to see developers moving forward from the example set by Mass Effect, creating narratives that branch wildly depending on player choice and that continue from one game to the next seamlessly. The scale of such endeavours may demand new pricing models but it’s something that definitely needs to be explored- it’s the future of storytelling.
The saga of Mass Effect culminates in the finale of Mass Effect 3. BioWare continues to focus on developing and improving their work and this means more changes in this final instalment- most of them a solid improvement. Unlike the changes between the first two games, there has been little issue over the advancements in Mass Effect 3. In terms of the inventory and level up systems BioWare have striven to find a happy medium between the complexity of Mass Effect 1 and the sleekness of Mass Effect 2. They largely succeeded, introducing a sizable armoury with mods that heavily influence the effectiveness of each weapon. Moreover the level up system is now more complex, with important choices being necessary when designing your Shepard’s skill set.
The narrative took a new direction, retaining the character depth of Mass Effect 2 but placing the focus on the central plot again. This time that story is one of galactic invasion and impending extinction. With the Reapers finally making their move BioWare has a much easier job of uniting character story and the main narrative, exploring the influence that the invasion has on each character.
In Mass Effect 3 the non-linear narrative of the trilogy comes to a head. BioWare chose to represent this in both the narrative and through a concept called war assets, an idea that turns out to be something of a double edged sword. On the one hand it is great to see an overview of the military strength you have accumulated, reading summaries of each element of your force and how it helps the fight against the Reapers. On the other hand, it feels like a cheap solution to a very complicated problem.
Before the release of Mass Effect 3 it was claimed that as the story will not continue after the conclusion of the game it would be easier to focus on extensive branching of the plot. With all of the content of the first two games behind them, however, this is still no small task. From favours for crime lords to saving the genophage cure, countless decisions must be factored in. Bioware ensured that many of these decisions do have a substantial influence on the plot of Mass Effect 3 but some choices were reduced to only influencing war assets. These show the benefits of your decisions in the simple form of a numerical representation of your military strength against the Reapers.
Despite the detail in the descriptions of each war asset it would be better to see these forces in the game, embodied in the story and shown in the fight against the Reapers. This is most evident in the final battle on Earth; mostly human forces are shown despite being teased throughout the game with stories of Krogans riding Kakliosaurs and Volus flying bombing squadrons. Beyond this it would have been good to see a more diverse group of troops assaulting the Reapers- Salarian snipers, Krogan shock troops and Geth infantry. This is one example of BioWare’s occasional failure to serve their goal of non-linearity.
The End Run
Finally we reach this particularly controversial subject. Before exploring the ramifications of the conclusion of the trilogy lets have a look at the endings of Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2. The finale of the first game was massive in scale, elegantly unifying the various key plot points presented throughout the narrative. Sovereign’s attack on the Citadel was titanic and almost mystical in nature as the ancient machine united with the massive space station.
Mass Effect 2, continuing its theme of personal stories, instead focused on the suicide mission embarked upon by Shepard and the team. In an incredible finale you are given the choice of which squad mates will fulfil which role, tackling various challenges in order to ensure the success of the mission. Some (or even all) may be lost along the way and the struggle to take down the Collector base feels epic as your team follows the plan you lay down and battles their way through the enemy. The choice between destroying and capturing the base sadly has little effect on the events in Mass Effect 3 but it’s a superb mission nonetheless.
The conclusion of Mass Effect 3 has had less of a positive impact on the fan base, sending waves throughout the community. Many have expressed their frustration at the plot holes and sense of anticlimax created by the finale. I won’t go into great depth exploring these plot holes here as I think that discussion would deserve an article of its own, moreover they have been explored exhaustively elsewhere. Suffice to say I agree with many of the issues raised and feel that the conclusion lacks emotional power or thematic coherence with the rest of the trilogy.
Moving away from the plot holes and narrative failings of the climax itself and looking at the final mission on Earth, we can see that something is missing here too. Mass Effect 1 ended by bringing events back to the centre of its world- the Citadel. Mass Effect 2 featured your entire squad working together in player assigned roles to overcome the Collectors. Mass Effect 3, through the concept of war assets, dangles the idea in front of us that we will be able to direct our allies from across the galaxy in the final battle in much the same way that we assigned our squad mates to roles in the second game. Sadly this does not occur.
Unfortunately we don’t even get the option to involve our entire squad in the assault. It would have been superb to see our allies both personal and political fighting alongside one another, in roles defined by the player, to get to the Citadel. We can only hope that BioWare consider the attack on Earth when they address the more obvious difficulties in the final ten minutes of the game.
The future of the Mass Effect universe seems rather bleak within the narrative but thankfully in the real world the trilogy has taken an important step forward for interactive storytelling. Whatever our criticisms of the finale or our desires for greater non-linearity in the trilogy, it can’t be denied that Mass Effect is a triumph. Fusing great gameplay with a player manipulated narrative BioWare have created a universe that fans have grown to love. It is a testament to this fondness that players are so upset about the ending and in spite of the conclusion fans will no doubt go on loving the series for years to come.