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Full Steam Ahead – Mass Effect

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 50 Hours

Generally, I assume that the average reader of Almost Infinite is somewhat well-versed in video games and gaming culture. That makes some parts of my writing very easy, because a lot of you will understand what I’m talking about without me going into what feels like extraneous detail. While my Steam library admittedly contains some really weird options, chances are a few of you have played a few of the games I’ve already covered. If I’m being perfectly honest, chances are that a lot of you have probably played the game in question.

Today is one of those rare days that I really hope you aren’t familiar with the game I’m talking about. I am actually quite excited by the prospect of introducing something completely new to even a small minority of our readers, because Mass Effect really is something you should jump into blind.

Can we take a second to appreciate this wordmark? The font, the planetary curve, just… yay.

Mass Effect is a science fiction game, of a scale and style that I believe one could term, “Space Opera”. Set in the future of 2183 CE, the game tells the story of humanity spread far across the stars. The discovery of alien artifacts on Mars lead to humanity joining a host of alien species in an intergalactic union. The player assumes the role of Shepard, a human soldier assigned with stopping a rogue special operative intent upon bringing ruin to the galaxy.

Mass Effect is made by Bioware, the same developers responsible for the excellent Jade Empire. Much like the earlier Jade Empire, this game is massive. However, even for a game about galactic exploration, the scale of Mass Effect is breathtaking, spanning scores of planets scattered throughout the Milky Way. I struggle with finding a good place to start talking about it.

I suppose, much like Jade Empire, one of the aspects I truly like about Mass Effect are its well-written, believable characters. The crew of the Normandy (Shepard’s vessel) feel delightfully real, from the weary Dr. Chakwas, to the nervous, stuck-up Navigator Pressly, to the cynical, pessimistic helmsman, “Joker” Moreau.

It should be noted that these characters have very little impact on gameplay, if any. They’re just interesting people to talk to along the way, and Mass Effect is full to bursting with characters like this.

However, none of the above characters accompany Shepard on the ground, and all of them are humans. In the end, more than half of Shepard’s possible teammates are from various alien races. There are the Krogans, a violent, tribal species, slowly dying out due to an artificially constructed disease. The Turians are noble and brave, albeit judgmental, and slow to trust new species, especially humans. The Quarians, technologically gifted, but forced to wander the stars, fleeing the threat of an AI species they created. The Asari, a monogender, matriarchical species gifted in biotics (Mass Effect’s take on telepathy and telekinesis). There are several other species Shepard can interact with, but each the four above has a member who joins the team.

A human and a quarian enjoying a quiet moment on the moon.

What’s more, there are many more alien species to interact with. Unlike some some sci-fi series, in which the aliens feel like quirky humans, the various species in Mass Effect feel truly out of this world.

However, perhaps the most interesting character in Mass Effect is Shepard himself/herself. At the beginning of the game, you can choose from a variety of different character backgrounds and legacies. In my playthrough for Full Steam Ahead, I made Patricia Shepard, a space-born vanguard who was the sole survivor of a horrific alien attack earlier in her military career.

By and large, these choices don’t affect gameplay. Every now and then, I run into someone who knew Shepard’s mother through the navy. I run into someone who studies the thresher maws, the aliens who attacked Shepard’s unit. Small touches that make the universe seem just a little more real.

However, these are the results of choices that don’t overtly affect gameplay. There are plenty of choices that will unlock new missions or open new branches of character development. Do I kill or spare the last remaining Rachni? Do I praise the cooperation of various alien species on the Normandy, or do I let the human crew take all the credit for our success? Do I answer that distress call in a neighbouring system or keep to the mission?

Mercy for a monster, or security through slaying? Choose wisely.

What really make these decisions interesting is how rarely they result in a numerical change, apart from altering Shepard’s alignment (on a paragon-renegade spectrum). The choices I make, most frequently in dialogue options, change how I perceive my characters and the world around me.

For example, one of my teammates, Garrus, is a Turian, and a former officer of Citadel Security. Working with Shepard, Garrus revels in the ability to pursue his objectives without the constant red-tape and bureaucracy of the citadel. While Patricia Shepard is troubled by this rebellious streak, she cannot deny that Garrus’ experiences with Citadel Security have left him disillusioned with the legal system.

In another instance, Ashley Williams, a humanity-first, Earth Alliance soldier with a xenophobic streak, mentions, that she had the same instructors, the same boot camp, as Shepard. What changes, what differences happened in their lives to give Patricia Shepard and Williams such different views on aliens? Neither one of these conversations has any lasting effect on your relationship with the crew members. All they do is give me some insight into the massive world that Bioware has built, but that it in of itself is a worthy achievement.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Shepard character is its versatility. My most recent playthrough with Full Steam Ahead is my third playthrough of the game. My first featured a ruthless infiltrator, Konstantin Shepard. He frequently subverted rules and disobeyed orders, but he always got the job done. Incidentally, him and Garrus got along great. My second playthrough was with Louis Shepard, and earth-first soldier who didn’t play well with aliens, but was loved by the human military and politicians. Patricia Shepard, however, is by-the-book. Sometimes, people take advantage of her trusting nature, but she is respectful and tolerant of alien species, not because it’s the best thing to do, but it is the right thing.

These three characters were played at very different times in my life. Konstantin was played in late 2010, when I still fancied myself a determined realist. Louis was played in 2012, when I was curious to see just how much of a jerk I could be with this character. In all three playthroughs, whether with Konstantin, Louis, or Patricia, the character of Shepard has felt consistent and believable, despite their differences.

Mass Effect somehow manages to be a game about the exploration of both the galaxy and human nature; I would argue even the most alien interactions are useful tools for exploring human nature. In the tradition of great science fiction, Mass Effect uses the semantics of things far removed from our world (strange futures and alien civilizations) to talk about important issues here and now. It has valuable discussions on race, the commercialization of space, the value of tradition, intolerance, security, responsibility, justice, and surely dozens of other subjects. I’m sure that I could play through this game another two or three times without hearing all the things this game has to say.

… let me play among the stars …

There are two sayings (the origin of which I’m not certain) that I am paticularly fond of regarding space and science fiction. The first is, “The universe is very large, and you are very small; act accordingly.” The second is, “Many assumptions, few certainties, keep exploring.”  Mass Effect permits me to explore both these ideas, and that’s why it’s one of my favourite games. That’s why I really, really hope that I’ve been able to introduce something new and interesting to at least one reader. There’s a whole galaxy out there, so have fun exploring.

Next Episode: Kerbal Space Program

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