Five Things that Make the Mass Effect Franchise Some of the Best Science Fiction of the Last 20 Years

By Jeremy M. Zoss in Five Things
Wednesday, March 7, 2012 at 12:00 pm
By Jason Helton

It's easy to see that EA is putting a lot of stock in their Mass Effect franchise.  Turn on any even slightly nerdy show on TV, and you will most likely see an ad for Mass Effect 3.  I'm not talking an ad featuring cut scenes from the game mixed in with action sequences and perhaps a foreboding voiceover.  The ME3 ads of recent are live action short films depicting the invasion of Earth, with what seems to be incredible production values.  Real emotion can be felt as parents hold their children, lovers kiss for one last time as oblivion engulfs the people of Earth.  The tone is set, the gravity of the situation is obvious, and for even the casual viewer, it looks like Mass Effect 3 is so much more than a typical video game.
I received a free copy of the original Mass Effect from a contest that was run on what was still called the Sci-Fi Channel at the time.  A limited edition copy of the game arrived at my home and for some reason, I put it away.  Almost a year went by, and it was only out of sheer boredom while my wife was away that I finally cracked it open and fired it up.  Not being a very big Xbox gamer at the time I wasn't expecting much, but within minutes I was captivated at the complexity of the game and the story, and of the virtual universe that had been created.  I immediately ran out and bought a PC version of the game, loaded it on my laptop, and played every single free moment I had.  I finished the game in a matter of days, and truth be told, it was the first game I had played to completion in years.  

Mass Effect 2 was released some time later, and rather than just capture the magic of the first one, it expanded on it, one of the very few times where I felt the sequel was far superior to the original.  Coupled with loads of DLC, Mass Effect 2 was an instant hit with a lot of life to it.  Fans wanted more, and Mass Effect 3 aims to deliver.

While it remains to be seen whether ME3 has the goods to wrap up the original story, it's doubtful that Bioware would have screwed the pooch on the epic finale.  If it is anything like the first two, we are in for one hell of a ride, and no one is safe.  I only hope my PC can handle it, because I have a Level 30 Vanguard who I'm not willing to let die.  

The key to the success of the Mass Effect series is that it has become more than a typical video game.  It's now not too uncommon to see someone wearing an N7 hat or hoodie, and the epic failure of one of the ME novels sparked tons of controversy on the Internet.  Mass Effect has become a beloved franchise and as I will show, has become some of the best science fiction in decades.

The Writing

When Bioware started work on Mass Effect, they tasked former Wizards of the Coast game designer Drew Karpyshyn to write the script.  At this point he was no stranger to video game writing, having worked on such classics as Baulder's Gate II, Neverwinter Nights, and the amazing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  But not only was he a game scriptwriter, he was also a novelist, having written books in the Forgotten Realms series as well as novelizations of his own game scripts.  He and the rest of the writing staff set out on a monumental task, design a complete universe.

Instead of writing an origin story, Karpyshyn and team had to write multiple origins for his main character, because the choices a player made in the opening minutes of the game were reflected not only in the first game, but in the second and possibly the third entries in the series.  While the main plot remained the same, he had to keep in mind throughout that Shepard might be a war orphan, or a sole survivor.  He might be male or female.  And he had to make almost every choice in the game relevant, and have its own set of consequences.  It's hard to believe that Karpyshyn and associates didn't go mad in the writing process, not only having to keep a universe in his head, but to have multiple universes, each based around choices made by the player.   


Depending on your character, each situation may have very different results.  If you've made more aggressive choices through the story, your actions may become limited to less diplomatic action, and more physical resolution in conflict.  Sometimes a person who you wronged comes back for revenge later in the series.  Sometimes your actions in the first game create situations that may come back to haunt you later, like the choice to either free or terminate the existence of the Rachni.  And sometimes your choices have a direct effect on you as a player, and to the success of your campaign.

Throughout ME2, there was a material mining mini game, which was necessary in order to upgrade bother your character and their abilities, as well as the Normandy, your vessel.  It was not required to do any of these upgrades, but a player suffered bitter consequences if they didn't, to the point of characters living or dying at the end of the game.  In fact, decisions made throughout the game could possibly lead you to finish the game with none of the characters surviving for part three of the series.  In the Mass Effect universe, "Dead is Dead", and anyone who has died during your run will not be coming back for the third game.  In fact, if you failed to keep your Commander Shepard alive at the end of ME2, the game will not let you import your obviously dead character, and you will need to start over from scratch.  

With all of this, it makes the player think that there is weight to every single decision to be made in the game, with consequences possibly stemming from seemingly mundane conversations.  The beauty of this is that everyone will have a slightly different experience while playing the game.  While players will be able to connect with each other over the main story line, each person will have slight variations, so when you tell a friend about your Shepard, he could be vastly different from their Shepard.  This adds a whole new social level to the game, similar to how Skyrim plays differently for everyone.  This level of variety makes it transcend the boundaries of video games, making it more like an interactive novel.

The Universe

The vastness of the Mass Effect universe is unparalleled in video gaming.  Not only are there dozens of planets to explore, but an entire history has been created, filled with characters, conflicts, alien races and technologies to explore.  

While it's most likely pretty easy to come up with planets for you to explore, all with different environments as such, it's much harder to populate them.  Steering away from mainstream science fiction, which has multitudes of bipedal, human-like aliens, the Mass Effect series embraces the strange and somewhat weird.  Not since Babylon 5 have there been such a diverse cast of creatures inhabiting the galaxy.  While you have races like the Asari and the Tauriens who look at least similar to humans, you also have the pheromone speaking Elcor, or the jelly fish like Hanar.  Even the races that look remotely human certainly don't behave that way.  For example, the Asari embrace other cultures so much, that it's a taboo for them to mate with their own species.  The Krogan could be described as a cross between Klingons and dinosaurs.  They developers of the game go out of their way to show you that these aliens are specifically not human, and typical human values cannot be applied.  

The development doesn't stop with just alien races.  Technology shown through the series generally seems plausible, and something we may see humanity possess in the distant future.  The complexities of the Mass Effect universe are just another thing which draws the player in, making it harder to put the game down.

Humanity is Still Human

One of the things that was hard to believe in the Star Trek universe, particularly during the Next Generation era, was that humans had become a peace loving, benevolent and caring race.  Those humans were the tree hugging hippies of the universe, and while there was still occasional conflict, most issues Captain Picard encountered could be solved by some critical thinking or by hugging it out.  While humanity has evolved over the thousands of years we have existed, the idea that humans become intergalactic Boy Scouts is ridiculous, and Mass Effect understands that.  

In the ME universe, while there are heroes like Commander Shepard, there are also villains, many of which are human.  A perfect example of one of these is the Illusive Man and the members of Cerberus.  My Shepard has always been understanding and accepting of alien races, note that I referred to him as MY Shepard, you could have a complete bigot for your Shepard if you so choose.  But Cerberus and many of its members think of non-humans as a threat, often times for no particular reason besides the fact that they are different.  Even members of your own team like Ashley in ME1 have more than a trace of bigotry.  While I don't agree with their sentiments, the fact is, if aliens arrived on Earth today, some people would accept them, and others would shun them, and I'm pretty sure that even in a few hundred years, people's reactions would be similar.  
One other interesting aspect of humanity is how much some of the alien races are like humans in some way, particulerly the xenophobic nature of the Turians when it comes to the acceptance of humans into the universal society.  It's like looking in a social mirror, seeing alien races dislike humans for reasons that aren't necessarily justified.  Despite the racism aspect of some humans, there are other aspects of humanity that seem to have survived those hundreds of years.  Humans in the ME universe have that drive to explore.  They love, have families, have faults, and are very much like the humans of our 21st century.  

The Human Adventure is Just Beginning

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Quotes from Bioware about Mass Effect 3 express that ME3 is the conclusion to Commander Shepard's story.  That being said, depending on the ending of the game, the door is left open to a universe of possibilities.  While we don't know what to expect in the future of the Mass Effect franchise, some of the possibilities rumored include an MMO or a new trilogy of games, this time telling a new story.  Regardless of what Bioware decides to do, the universe that has been created allows for infinite possibilities, infinite stories to be told, hopefully for years to come.  Thankfully, ME3 will not be the end.  An anime series produced by EA and FUNimation is due to be released in summer of 2012, novels and comic books continue to be written, and talks of a feature film also creates new opportunities for stories to be told in the Mass Effect universe.  In a world where rehashes of existing properties seems to be the norm, having an entirely new and unique sandbox opens up room for countless new ideas and stories.

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