Ahh, Mass Effect series. Where do I even start? There is so much that can be examined and analyzed and write books about in this groundbreaking space opera (more like space epic) from Bioware. The richness of the setting, the innovative game mechanic, the superb narrative, the endearing characters, the amazing immersion, and beautiful design are only examples of everything that deserves a detailed analysis. But alas, I have not the time or space to provide such attention to all of them. Also, providing a first impression will be neigh on impossible, since I have gone through the game(s) multiple times already. Instead, I will focus on the genre-defying choices that Bioware put in to construct the unique narrative of Mass Effect series.
Even 59 years after the Lord of the Rings is published, many modern stories in film, books, and video game still faithfully follows the romance circle and re-uses many features of quest romance, in various forms. This is not a detriment or a lack of creativity, and there are many stories that are done very well using this model. Star Wars, for example, can be basically matched, scene for scene, to the romance circle, as well as easily categorizing the various characters in the archetypal roles. Mass Effect, however, have deviated much from this convention. There is no clear quest for the player, no Mordor to conquer, no harrowing of the underworld. Instead, Mass Effect series chooses a more modern narrative construction. Instead of an visible “dark lord,” there is only an enigmatic enemy, revealing little more than his name. Instead of an overarching quest, there are military missions, each one slowly shedding more light on the truth. Instead of glorious battles against forces of evil, there are dirty, gritty, dangerous firefights. Instead of an all-knowing, impossibly wise guide, there are only squadmates who will brave hell and brimstone with you (even if she is over 900-years-old, impossibly beautiful, and ridiculously powerful. Not kidding). Even when a clear enemy presents itself in Mass Effect 3, it is done is a innovative way. There is no Mordor to journey to, no dark lord to overthrow; Mordor is already everywhere, and failure means extinction, not surrender.
These characteristic enable Bioware to bring a fresh narrative, which is only made all the more immersive by the way it is delivered. In Mass Effect series, the players are allowed to make their own decisions in the journey, and face the consequences later. Did you manage to save a particular alien squadmate? He is now a successful and progressive warlord that aims to help his people as a whole. Did you leave another squadmate to die? Your comrades will later lament and mourn her passing when the going gets tough. This mechanic, which appeared in other Bioware games and perfected in the Mass Effect series, not only instills a rare sense of agency in the player, it creates a sense of immersion unparalleled by, I dare wager, any other game to date. Instead of simply an outsider watching the story unfold, a player of the Mass Effect games will feel like he or she is a member who belongs in this living, evolving galaxy.
It is hard to describe Mass Effect series’ narrative. It is not a circle, not a simple journey, and not even a web. The most apt way to visualize Bioware’s space epic, I believe, is to borrow the Many World Interpretation from physics, where there is a universe for every possibility, as Mass Effect offers a diverging, sometimes conflicting choices, and the story can play out in so many different ways. This narrative structure is nearly impossible on any other medium, and Bioware is a pioneer worthy of applause for their achievement with the Mass Effect series. Even though many people still consider video games a second-rate medium of narrative, falling behind literature, film, and even television, games like Mass Effect will do well to disparage that belief in the near future, and help strengthen video game’s status as a legitimate art form.
Stand Fast, stand strong, stand together.