The following column contains absolutely, positively no spoilers for the Mass Effect franchise. It does, however, spoil the ending of M*A*S*H.
This column has been a very long time in the writing. I’d originally intended to write it last year, after I had finished Mass Effect 3, but I decided to hold fire when the controversial Director’s Cut patch was announced. Then came the trailer for Leviathan, which promised to reveal more about the universe’s back story, so I held fire again. Then came Omega and finally, a short while ago, the glorious celebration and love letter of Citadel. Mass Effect’s story is finally over; now I’m ready to talk about how I feel about that.
Citadel left me both immensely satisfied and heartbroken – not in any serious way, but in the way a good piece of bittersweet entertainment can affect you – in equal measure. Whilst it isn’t an ending in story terms (like all of Mass Effect’s downloadable content Citadel was designed to allow players to slot it in to their playthrough wherever they saw fit) it is, emotionally-speaking, a farewell. It’s Hunnicutt writing “Goodbye” in stones for Pierce. It’s JMS throwing the switch on Babylon 5. It’s Denny and Alan having one last cigar on the balcony and Sam saying the bar is closed. The Mass Effect series is as well-written, and has meant as much to me, as each and every one of those shows and it’s only in the recent past that I’ve properly considered why. The answer, some might say appropriately, stems from Star Wars.
As much as I’d like to consider myself part of the Star Wars generation, I’m really not. The first film was released in the UK two years before I was born, the second was released two months afterward and I was still too young to watch or comprehend the series by the time the third rolled around in June of 1983. As such, whilst I grew up with the films playing on television at Christmas and received vast swathes of toys and merchandise from my parents I don’t think I ever truly got swept up in Star Wars fever the way I would later with He-Man or Transformers. I didn’t even really develop affection for the films until the Special Edition re-releases in 1997 whereupon, admittedly, I was captivated by them as I sat watching them in a darkened cinema full of fans. But that captivation has waned over the years and whilst I am still quite fond of the original trilogy (and in particular its design aesthetic) I have never truly felt part of that fandom. I like the films, I don’t love them. Not the way some of my friends do. And whilst in an odd, not-entirely-serious way I felt like I was missing out on something that kind of fandom – that kind of love – cannot be chosen and manufactured. You either connect with something or you don’t, and in that sense Mass Effect arrived in my life at exactly the right time.
My first encounter with the franchise was as part of a preview in PC Gamer magazine, for what was then a PC-exclusive title. I remember it vividly: I was reading the magazine in the bath and would have skipped over the article – it appeared to be a shooter, and shooters aren’t my thing – if not for the gorgeous production art which splashed across the pages. I lingered on that artwork for a while then scanned over the copy, eventually becoming intrigued as I read about the plan to allow gamers to carry their characters over to the game’s planned sequels. That concept – the idea of forcing gamers to carry the consequences of their decisions and behaviour throughout the lifetime of a franchise – amazed me. How would this influence the game? How would this influence how I played the game? I couldn’t wait to find out more.
Shortly after I read that preview, however, Mass Effect was secured by Microsoft as an Xbox exclusive and, lacking a 360 at the time, the game fell completely off my radar. Until 2007, that is, when Microsoft’s press people contacted every website going to offer promo opportunities for the new game and I, through the film festival website I volunteered for at the time, was given the opportunity to interview writer Drew Karpyshyn. Time was short and the review copy Microsoft sent me only arrived a day before my interview slot so I had to go in blind; the press kit sent to me once put an emphasis on player choice and consequences, instantly reminding me of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books and that became my hook. Karpyshyn gave a great interview and by the end of it he had me invested once again in this universe, this brave new world of gaming that Bioware was attempting to build. The next day I threw the game disc into my Xbox* and got started. Three hours later, when I couldn’t get the stupid fucking Mako tank to climb the stupid fucking mountain and kept getting shot by all those stupid STUPID fucking ROBOTS I threw my game disc across the room**. There it stayed until 2010, when I was short on money and exceptionally bored; and then, suddenly, something clicked in my head and I fell in love.
It was inevitable I suppose. If an RPG wants to get my attention there are worse things it can do than riffing on both Blade Runner and Cyber City Oedo for its opening. If it wants to keep my attention there are worse things it can do than reminding me of Babylon 5 (a lot). And yet Mass Effect is far more than a sum of its influences: it presents a detailed, lived-in and fully-explorable universe that is at once informed by its predecessors and yet still unique. Every race introduced has its own biology, its own identity and technology, and its own complex relationship with the other races that you encounter. Every plot device you play through is an established sci-fi trope without being clichéd or over-used. The gameplay is fun enough – albeit not without the occasional flaw – but the story is impeccable. Layered, intriguing, well-acted and – most crucially – personal. Thanks to the exceptional efforts and incredibly clever writing of Bioware’s creative team Mass Effect is your story: everybody who plays has a different experience. In my case that experience was the finest and most involving narrative I think I’ve ever experienced.
So how do I feel now that it’s all over? Bereft. Satisfied. Grateful. But most of all I feel excited for the future. I’ve realised that if, when I was eighteen, you had asked me what I thought of Final Fantasy VII I would have said, word for word, exactly what I said at the end of the preceding paragraph. By today’s standards, however, Squaresoft’s techno-fantasy opus is a crude affectation; a child’s scrawl in crayon compared the poetry of modern RPGs. It moved me to tears over a single plot point, a single character whilst Mass Effect made me feel intense emotion – positive, negative and everything in between - over every single character, every single event, every single line of dialogue. The crew of the Normandy were my crew. The people of the Citadel were my people. The war against the Reapers was my war. In the decade in between Final Fantasy VII and the original Mass Effect video games have evolved that far. What, therefore, could the next decade hold? How will video game narrative be connecting with me in 2017? I just can’t wait.
*I caught up eventually.
**Okay, that’s a lie. I can’t bring myself to scuff a disc. But I did give it a dirty look when I put it very carefully back inside its plastic case and filed it in its proper spot on the shelf.