The summer after my sophomore year, I picked up a used copy of "Mass Effect". I'd heard a ton about it, but had never spent any time playing through the system. In a nutshell, the game is an action sci-fi about a character, Commander Shepard, who can be male or female based on early character creation. In the future of the human race, we find a whole plethora of other species and live alongside them in the galactic communities. In the first game, Shepard is sent after a rogue agent named "Saren" of a different species who is trying to take over the galaxy with a race of self-thinking robots called the Geth. We find later that Saren has been brainwashed by a race of superior synthetic beings called the Reapers, and the fight turns to them as the bad guy. Through games two and three, Shepard and the other races struggle to survive in the face of these superior beings.
What was interesting about this series, was it was open-galaxy sandbox style game. As you met characters, made choices about which missions to undertake, spoke with characters throughout the games, and ended missions in certain ways with huge decisions affecting the future of certain characters or species, the game adapted with you. At the end of game one, there had been several hundred decisions, all of which affected which characters lived, died, or what their life trajectory was. Enter game 2, and all of those choices were imported and the timeline continued. Time and time again you saw choices you made in the previous game affecting your current one. Characters who died in game 1, were suddenly not present in game 2. At the end of game 2, all the choices of game 1 AND 2 were imported into game 3.
I just finished game 3, and holy crap. What the Mass Effect series is so unbelievably successful at is integration and involvement of the psyche. Because every decision you made affected something, you truly felt that unlike any other game, this was YOUR game. You became emotionally invested in the characters, especially as you had to make life or death decisions of these characters that you spent time making decisions alongside. You have these people who are either loyal or hate you, and it is your job to make them feel one way or the other. As these players lay down their lives for you, or choose not to, there is a pure emotional reaction to the game and to these characters at a level that I've never experienced in another video game. Maybe it's the writing, maybe it's the realism and detail of the voice acting, or maybe it's the choices system, but throughout Mass Effect 3 I found myself longing to have made a different previous decision from two games ago. I found myself wishing I'd spent time cultivating a certain ingame friendship, or whatever. As these players went through their lives alongside me, I had very emotional reactions, on a deeper level then I often feel in television or film. Unlike those where we passively experience a story, Mass Effect made you live it. It made you dedicate hours upon hours to it. I wish there were more games out there that give me this sort of experience. In the past there has been Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, but those were more about finding every possible thing, there were few decisions where no matter which choice you made would drastically affect the future of the game. In Skyrim or World of Warcraft, you get lost in the world but in a different emotional way. Relationships are not forged the way Mass Effect does, you become overtly attached to your own character, but rarely to the characters around you. The Halo trilogy got close for me, because I became so invested in the various characters, but the game is linear. The same way with the Assassin's Creed trilogy, they made me emotionally invested, but mostly in the main character, not in the entire world around me. If I play Mass Effect again I will not have the same cutscenes, the same experiences, the same choices. I don't even remember 90% of the choices I made, so I don't even know if I could play the same game again twice.
For a video game, that's absurd.
The biggest complaint I hear coming out of the online community is people are mad about the ending because it doesn't accurately reflect all the choices that each player made. To me, that's crap. It's not important that the big epic ending talk about all the choices you made, it's important that the game made you feel those choices were important! The ending succinctly wraps up the story, what's awesome is that the game is about the choices you make leading up to the ending. It's the first game in history where the journey is important, the end is just icing. I love that, Mass Effect has changed the face of gaming. It's just not a very good "video game" in the traditional sense of the word. However I'll take Mass Effect and its ending ANY day. It was a fantastic experience and I will absolutely go back and play all three games again just to see what else I could have experienced.
So thanks Bioware, and to your naysayers. Screw 'em, the ending was awesome!
Photo by Danny Bristoll
(fac·to·tum | \ fak-ˈtō-təm) noun - a person having many diverse activities or responsibilities
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