5 reasons why Mass Effect made the history of videogames, and not only

Mass Effect: Andromeda is the latest videogame from Bioware’s ultra-successful Mass Effect franchise, released on March 21st (23rd for Europe, I still don’t know why). In a future post I will talk about Andromeda in detail (it’s very, very controversial), but now it is finally time to discuss the original trilogy, why I think it changed videogame as a medium for good, and its huge cultural impact.

Spoilers warning: I will spoil elements of the original trilogy, but nothing at all about the latest game. So you know.

First, a little bit of context.

(which you can skip entirely if you don’t particularly care about the history of videogames). 

In the 1990s Bioware was a Canadian studio famous for some of the best computer role playing games ever, with titles such as the Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. If you are smiling and nodding while reading this, you know what I mean.

If, on the contrary, you have no clue what I am talking about: know that they were some of the best games ever made, giving players freedom of  action, epic and relevant choices to make, huge worlds to explore, and fantastic stories that were stretching the definition of “game”. This concept had a huge influence on the way videogames have developed since then.

Gameplay from “Planescape: Torment” (1999). Games were very different back then. This is still considered one of the best stories ever written. Period. Not only in a game.

Bioware was acquired by the electronic entertainment colossus Electronic Arts in 2000. This bit is relevant to our story because since then, for some people at least,  the studio lost its “proudly independent” aura and became part of a big global corporation. With all that comes with it. But it also gave Bioware the power to aim higher, and they really put this power to good use when they decided to expand (no less) the Star Wars universe with Knights of The Old Republic (2003) – which received universal acclaim and added some 4000 years to the history of that far, far away galaxy.

Pixels of the Old Republic. The story was set 4000 years before the classic trilogy of Star Wars, so to give its author a wider creative liberty. They used it very well.

And so it is in this frame that the first Mass Effect came into existence, in 2007. By then, Bioware had already a reputation for developing top-class role playing games, telling stories that blew minds with impressive characters and choices, and thanks to their contribution to the Star Wars narrative, they got a sci-fi lovers base solidly behind them.

With Mass Effect, they promised to bring an epic science fiction adventure without precedents, at the same time raising once more the bar of how videogames were made. And… boy, they did.

The game was not perfect, and had its flaws. It got a solid 89% on metacritic. But even then, it was clear that something new and powerful was starting to happen.

The story is set in our galaxy, starting in the year 2183, and it revolves around the special agent Commander Shepard and his quest to save the galaxy from a huge threat. Nothing new, per se, but Mass Effect involved cutting edge graphics, cinematic direction and editing, a huge world to explore (a galaxy, actually), an epic storyline and many truly memorable characters. All in a definitely adult setting. It was a huge success, both for critics and players.

Some of the characters of ME1. Left to right: Garrus, Ashley, Wrex. They would come back in following chapters of the story (or not: only Garrus was sure to survive).

Fast forward to 2010, with the hugely expected Mass Effect 2, which did what sequels do when they want to be better than their predecessors: it doubled up the challenge by going darker, tougher, badass-er. Yeah, I know this is not a word

The sequel started with a real bang! With Shepard’s death… and resurrection.

I guess you couldn’t get more messianic than that. This time Shepard started to work for some of the bad guys from ME1 (because, you know, they paid for his resurrection) and had to embark on a suicide mission. For this, he first had to recruit a crew of assassins, criminals, convicts that were willing to help. The game packed even better storytelling, unforgettable characters and locations, and even harder moral choices to make.

It was decidedly more action oriented, and scored an even bigger hit, scoring “universal acclaim” with 94% on metacritic and projecting the series into videogame legend. The “Mass Effect Strikes Back” effect.

The cast in ME2 was even richer, with some absolutely legendary characters.

Three is the charm, as they say, and so in 2012 it was time for the third chapter of the story. With an astounding budget of 40 million USD, and an all-star cast, the scene was set to bring all the saga to an end. 

The challenge bar was raised once more: the whole galaxy was about to the destroyed (yes, again) but this time for real. As in: all life in the galaxy is going to be destroyed. All the existing civilisations decide to join forces for one last desperate, epic last stand against the common enemy. And who has to work really hard to bring everybody on board and coordinate their efforts? Commander Shepard, of course. That meant you, the player.

The last episode lacked the unique mix of adrenalinic action and sharp storytelling of ME2, but still delivered a very good conclusion to the saga, with an overall apocalyptic, dark tone. It got an average of 89% score by critics, while its reception by players was mixed. We will see why in a moment.

The third chapter had a much darker and tense tone. Being about the end of the world, it figures.

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So finally, why did the Mass Effect series make videogames (and not only) history? 

(if you skipped the first chapter you can start reading NOW). 

1) Epic, really epic.

Player could export save files from one game to the next, and have the feeling of  one single, uninterrupted storyline arching over 300 hours of gameplay and 5 years of development. If that’s not epic, then I don’t know what is.

All the choices made over the course of each game (bigger, like which character lives and who dies; or smaller, like if you decide to be polite or nasty in a particular encounter, or whom you fall in love with) were carried over to the next, creating many, many possible ramifications. Literally thousands. That’s why I say many.

Also, ME series was serious from the beginning about its intention to raise the bar of how storytelling can find new ways to be expressed in videogame form. The characters, even minor ones, felt alive and real in their contradictions and dilemmas. The writing was top-notch inspiring, almost throughout the whole saga. And the games brought a stark, distinct visual style that set them apart from everything else, very careful design and attention to detail, and major production value in every aspect.

The Normandy is the legendary ship, protagonist of all three chapters.

From an absolutely fantastic soundtrack (the complete trilogy’s OST is 6 hours and 24 minutes of epic, inspiring original music, and you can find it all here), to excellent voice acting including beloved TV and movie celebrities such as Martin Sheen (The Illusive Man), Carrie-Ann Moss (Aria T’Loak), Lance Henriksen (Admiral Hackett), Tricia Helfer (EDI), Seth Green (Joker) and… Buzz Aldrin. Yes, THAT Buzz Aldrin.

I mean, just watch this and tell me again how it is “just a game”.

 

2) A concentrate of all sci-fi classics, in one unique fresh package.

Yes, critics may argue that in itself, the story is nothing incredibly original, and indeed Mass Effect draws from basically every successful trope in science fiction literature, cinema and tv. But it does it in a unique way, and for a fan (or for any intelligent being, I would argue), to have so many classic topics included in a single story is a real treat.

Some of the major influences: of course Star Wars (with the “light side vs dark side” concept, imported directly from Knights of the Old Republic and made into “Renegade vs Paragon”); Star Trek (with ideas like the Federation and the Star Fleet, in general all the going around in space searching for anomalies, and the male engineer with a thick Scottish accent, anyone?); Dune (you actually visit a planet with huge sandworms);

Firefly (the ragtag crew of friends who goes against impossible odds); X Files (the Smoking Man becomes the Illusive Man, voiced by the amazing Martin Sheen); Space Odyssey (the talking computer, which of course is everywhere now); Stargate (the idea of portals to travel across the galaxy);

The “Relays” are in all substance “Star Gates”.

everything from Terminator to Battlestar Galactica and The Matrix (the Rise of the Machines plot idea); the Uplift saga by David Brin (with the Krogan-Salarian plot); Enders Game and Starship Troopers (the invading swarm of telepathic space insects);

Final confrontation with the Rachni Queen. It’s a big sentient alien insect.

Blade Runner (the exploration of the concept of artificial intelligence and android life). And surely more that I cannot think of at the moment.

It also works both ways,  with Mass Effect having influenced later media. For example, 2016’s Netflix series”Stranger Things” (subject Zero becomes Eleven, it’s really just a change of number: a very good complete article is here),

Left, Eleven from “Stranger Things”. Right, “Subject Zero” from ME2 (and 3, sometimes).

or 2015’s Marvel movie “Guardians of the Galaxy” – where the capital Xandar reminds clearly of the Citadel, and the space prison Kyln can be the Purgatory.

The “Citadel”, where all galactic civilisations meet. A similar concept is also used in 2013’s “Elysium”, with Matt Damon.

And what about the robot units in “Total Recall” (2012)? They look very Mass Effect-ey to me.

Cerberus troops in action, from MA3.

I think it’s safe to say that Mass Effect had a huge influence on popular culture, and influenced so much of the science fiction that has been produced after its realease. However, as always in these cases, ideas inspire ideas that inspire ideas, so at some point – lacking clear references – it just becomes really hard to say what comes first and who influenced who.

3) A strong political and philosophical message.

The story in fact keeps saying: diversity is everywhere in the Galaxy. So, grow up and deal with it.

In the universe of Mass Effect, different species live together and have to share the same space (which ok, it’s a big place, being the Milky way. But still). Conflict exists, and lots of it – these are action rpgs after all – but the overall narrative is about how to deal with it, and learn to overcome differences. Because failing that, disasters happen. Call it the Geth invasion, or the Reaper menace, for me it’s really a huge metaphor for the fact that if we don’t learn how to put together our different opinions and values and live in some sort of harmony, we are all in danger.

The Reapers are giant, alien creatures. Periodically they wipe out all life in the galaxy, and a new cycle starts. They attack Earth in ME3.

Think climate change, or nuclear holocaust. If we want to dream a future when humans will be able to travel in space and explore other worlds, first of all we should try not to fuck up things here. If different species can get along well in a fictional universe, then maybe two opposite political parties can live side by side here, in my country. And people with different skin colour, too. Mass Effect rubs the player’s nose again and again in this realisation.

And also, you don’t have to be “good”, or “bad”. How you solve the different challenges, is completely up to you – sometimes Shepard and his mates can do some really morally controversial stuff. At times, they have to, because war is war.

But then the moment comes to put aside small differences, and do the right thing in the name of a higher interest. Including the most heroic sacrifice.

In ME, conflict has always consequences.

It is all very political (something I welcome), and some people felt offended or manipulated by it (which is also something I welcome, in general). An idea, or situation, that stretches my comfort zone and puts me in conflict with my own values is always a good learning opportunity. Which doesn’t mean I will be brainwashed. It just means I will reflect on it, get wiser.

Again, science fiction is a good place to explore similar concepts. Since the action is placed “somewhere else” (in space and time), it feels safer to imagine scenarios, actions and consequences. And then, it’s our job to adopt them in our real life world. What we see in a context of spaceships and aliens fighting over an intergalactic trade route, we have to translate to our everyday situations where we do fight over borders, personal or political values, and energy sources.

Nothing new here. Back to the classics, Star Trek opened the way: in a famous 1968 episode, captain Kirk kissed her communication officer, Uhura. The scene is considered the first inter-species kiss in the American television and it’s so famous, it has its own wikipedia page.

Think of the consequences: we are talking about the Sixties. Martin Luther King had been assassinated that same year. Star Trek was all about bringing people together and wanted to depict a utopian, optimistic future in which all humans (and other species too) lived under one Federation. So that was the way to go.

Producers were naturally afraid of the consequences, and shot the scene as if the two characters were under the effect of telekinesis, so the kiss was forced. Nevertheless, it was there and was real. The reactions however, were overwhelmingly positive, with only one mildly negative letter received: “I am totally opposed to the mixing of the races. However, any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain’t gonna fight it.”

A lot of time has passed, since then. So now it’s time for people to decide fully how they want to represent and express their identities, even if in a digital setting.

To fully reproduce this idea, in ME people of all different ethnic backgrounds could be found in relevant positions in the game world, and players could fully customise their character, giving Shepard any skin colour they wanted, and of course choosing the gender they preferred.

Each Shepard was therefore unique. Really unique.

Which leads us to the next point.

4) Love it any way you want. Or don’t. 

Here we go. Closely connected to the previous point, but this is where it gets really controversial. Here is, essentially, where Bioware asked its audience: “Are we mature enough to have a grown-up conversation?”.

And the answer was, uh, mixed.

First of all, remember that the games have a rating system, and one can read an extensive parental guide about ME to form an opinion. Tha game is rated M (Mature) in the US, same as movies like True Grit or Psycho. In South Korea, it’s been intended to people over 18 years of age. In Germany, 16+. And in the Uk, it was as low as 12+. Children protection and what we consider “adult topics” is of course part of the discussion, but if children are exposed to media intended for adults, we are talking about other issues (from social responsibility to, quite possibly, bad parenting), but not about games anymore.

 

See the “M”, there in the corner? Means 17+. Don’t buy this game to your 10 years old kid, unless you are prepared to answer some very delicate questions.

 

Anyway. Mass Effect was certainly not the first videogame to give the player the choice whether to control a male or female alter ego. A bit of trivia from my research: in a 2002 research by EEDAR, 45% of reviewed games offered a choice between male and female, while 4% had an exclusively female protagonist. The first one seems to be Samus Aran from Nintendo’s Metroid, 1986. Again, sci-fi leading the charge.

In Mass Effect, like in many other games before, the protagonist could be involved in love, romance and sex, with a few scenes that can be defined “erotic” (if you are curious, check Youtube. Although – if you are curious, you have probably already done it). These are important parts of our life, and therefore they should be part of any story that wants to be really relevant. Easy, right?

Not quite. Because in ME, for the first time, players had the choice to follow whatever sexual orientation they wanted. And they could do so without labels or drastic choices, really exploring the thin lines that can exist in sexuality. Which means to go beyond the “I am creating a male character, and he is gay”. Characters in the game have their sexual orientation that can be straight, gay, or both. Some can be seduced, some will say “no, thanks”. And it’s up to the player to choose what to explore and what not. Just like in real life.

Plus, this was not limited to human / human scenarios. Humans / aliens, and even humans / artificial intelligence relationships were explored.

Joker (human), and EDI (a cyborg with artificial intelligence) form a relationship and are between the few survivors at the end of ME3.

And why shouldn’t they? Great sci-fi is the place to stretch boundaries, explore and challenge ideas. 

This was brave and revolutionary. And very, very controversial. The simple fact that homosexuality is mentioned in a game as a possible option is considered offensive by some people. Some cannot even live with it, and find it infuriating.

One commenter writes (I will not report the source):

I have nothing against gays. Fluke biological events almost certainly explain most of this evolutionarily maladaptive aberration in the same way biology accounts for downs or muscular dystrophy. As an Atheist, I don’t view it as some sort of moral question or as a sin. However, just because I can understand and accept that there are and will be homosexuals, that does not mean I want homosexuality forced on me in video games or other media. I do not, and will never, enjoy content that has a heavy homosexual theme. I don’t even like heterosexual relationship discussions in my games or media. Why does bioware think I or the rest of the straight male majority want to hear a gay dude crying over his gay lover? (Yes, there is a scene like this in the game and no you can’t avoid it). So again, the interests of the main demographic for this game (straight male gamers) is thrown under the bus in an attempt to be inclusive to an even smaller minority of activist whiners and to push the “correct” values on a large audience who were never interested in the game for any sort of partisan political message.

Please note, never in the game the player can impose his/her sexuality over another character.

But of course, you have nothing against gays, they are just a “maladaptive aberration”.

And in the comments to the same article:

Wow…… you summed up everything so well. I used to love video games so much but they keep filling them with liberal ideology. It started with Molyneux (not that one) in Fable making homosexual stuff, or at least that’s when I first noticed it, and it expanded everywhere. I can’t enjoy games that are forcing ideologies on me that are obviously false and stupid. Its a problem in gaming as a whole where we have gone from nerds who like scifi and science to idiots who like ponies and liberal ideas.

You see, the point is that toxic opinions are very contagious. It seems that such ideas are gaining traction, and with the so called alt-right followers conquering (occupying, sometimes) more and more online space, the consequences are getting stronger, and potentially dangerous.

But positive ideas are contagious, too.

Bioware stood firmly by its principles, and this is (part of) the reason why the latest Andromeda is right now being bashed by online commentaries and critics. We will talk about it in a later post.

Bioware would face similar opposition with “Dragon Age”, their medieval fantasy saga drawing inspirations from Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and more.

The Kirk-Uhura kiss seems to belong to a galaxy far, far away. Now we live in very interesting times, when apparently intolerance and hate are considered healthy, normal opinions. Well, they are not. They are forms of violence. And we can educate ourselves out of it. Also thanks to the games we play.

All media are political, and a videogame can – and should – inspire reflection on how we can deal with ideas that are different from our own, and learn to live together. Something offends me? Well, I have to get over it. We will become less and less open to discussion, if we stop discussing over important things. So, shutting diversity off is not a solution. Suppressing it, neither.

And it’s not about promoting a liberal agenda, cultural marxism, being do-gooders or special snowflakes, here. 

It’s about being decent to other human beings; or not, and just being selfish dicks.  And when I can, I try not to be a dick.  

5) Don’t like how it ends? Let’s try again! 

Think about what you just read. And then imagine: you read a book, or go to cinema, and enjoy a really fantastic story. One that really touches you and connects with you. You consider it yours. But then, you find the ending disappointing. Oh no! The experience is completely destroyed!

This is what thousands of players must have felt when Mass Effect 3 was released, and they got to see the ending of the series. After putting some 300-400 hours of experience into the story (and probably many more, considering how each game can be played multiple times to explore all the different options and story lines) – the personal connection with the medium was so strong, that people felt deeply involved. And the ending of the epic galactic saga was considered by a majority of players… well, not so epic after all.

One scene from the not-so-climatic ending of ME3.

So they expressed their opinions. And what was Bioware’s decision? To listen to them. In an unprecedented move, Bioware took notice of the discussion in an open letter sent to the players by one of its co-founders Ray Muzyka, which read:

[…] I believe passionately that games are an art form, and that the power of our medium flows from our audience, who are deeply involved in how the story unfolds, and who have the uncontested right to provide constructive criticism. At the same time, I also believe in and support the artistic choices made by the development team.  The team and I have been thinking hard about how to best address the comments on ME3’s endings from players, while still maintaining the artistic integrity of the game.

Mass Effect 3 concludes a trilogy with so much player control and ownership of the story that it was hard for us to predict the range of emotions players would feel when they finished playing through it.  The journey you undertake in Mass Effect provokes an intense range of highly personal emotions in the player; even so, the passionate reaction of some of our most loyal players to the current endings in Mass Effect 3 is something that has genuinely surprised us. This is an issue we care about deeply, and we will respond to it in a fair and timely way. We’re already working hard to do that. […]

At the same time, mentioning that some of the discussion had gone out of hand and was becoming too vitriolic:

[…] Some of the criticism that has been delivered in the heat of passion by our most ardent fans, even if founded on valid principles, such as seeking more clarity to questions or looking for more closure, for example – has unfortunately become destructive rather than constructive. We listen and will respond to constructive criticism, but much as we will not tolerate individual attacks on our team members, we will not support or respond to destructive commentary.

If you are a Mass Effect fan and have input for the team – we respect your opinion and want to hear it. We’re committed to address your constructive feedback as best we can. In return, I’d ask that you help us do that by supporting what I truly believe is the best game BioWare has yet crafted. I urge you to do your own research: play the game, finish it and tell us what you think. Tell your friends if you feel it’s a good game as a whole. Trust that we are doing our damndest, as always, to address your feedback.  As artists, we care about our fans deeply and we appreciate your support.

Thank you for your feedback – we are listening.

How cool is that? We have everything: Consideration for games as a medium and as an art form. But also, the idea that they are a unique thing: interactive in a way others can only dream about.

In a videogame, players are an active part of the creative process of storytelling. And so it’s legitimate to think that their opinion counts. They want a different ending? Let’s give it to them (with the legendary Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin as narrating voice).

Bioware worked really hard to deliver an “Extended Cut”  just a few months after the game. It was completely free of charge, and optional for the players (if people were OK with the original ending, there was no need for it). Some people got the extra information and closure they needed, others found it more emotionally satisfying, while others… well, still didn’t.

But the point still remains. Can you imagine another medium able – or willing – to do the same? Would Kubrik change “2001“, because the ending was found by so many “confusing”?

Would anything change in Harry Potter, because a vast majority of readers wanted to save Snape or Dumbledore? Or make Harry marry Hermione? And what would be the right decision to take?

Very interesting food for thoughts, no?

Mass Effect has a very strong fan base, who created a huge quantity of art, fiction and memes. This is an interesting cross over with Star Wars.

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And here we are. If you liked this, there is more to come. Soon I will write my hands-on impressions and commentaries on Mass Effect: Andromeda, which I have currently been playing for 18 hours (and I feel I just scratched its surface). For strictly professional reasons, of course.

Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this. As always, feel free to subscribe to the blog, and / or to its facebook page if you want to keep following my stories.

Until the next time.

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