There will be spoilers. Fair warning.
I’m not exactly sure what got me so attached to the characters in Mass Effect, and I find that unsettling. For many games, it’s not difficult for me to explain my attachment to a character. In Portal, for example, I attribute my affinity for GLaDOS, Wheatley, and Cave Johnson to the game’s excellent writing and voice acting. The two work in tandem beautifully; the writing sets the player up for unexpectedly punchy and impactful lines, while the talent of voice actors like Ellen McLain… well, just listen to what she can do.
Chilling, isn’t it? The rarity of lines like these make them even more powerful. Usually, GLaDOS sounds like this. But when she drops her typical sarcastic veil, she gets scary fast. Through lines like the first example above, players learn just how twisted GLaDOS really is. Chell’s resilience infuriates her, and she can only play nice for so long before that frightening, pent-up emotion breaches the surface.
It’s more than just writing.
I got my degree in English Literature, so of course I’m a sucker for excellent writing and quality voice acting. And I’m certain this is a major reason why I enjoy Mass Effect and its characters so much. But there’s something else about Mass Effect – an X factor, if you will. Perhaps it’s how the game rewarded me with more dialogue when I spent extra time with my crew. Y’know, when I wasn’t busy with the game’s grindy combat. It would let me just get to know my crew, like when I sat down to have a bottle of Serrice Ice Brandy with Doctor Chakwas.
I got to see Chakwas in a whole new, albeit drunken, light. Her reservations dropped away. We laughed. She divulged that she had more than a few mixed feelings about her current employer. I learned that she missed the Alliance and yearned to collaborate with people who actually had enthusiasm for their work. And by the end of Mass Effect 2, during the suicide mission, I thought of moments like these when it came time to choose whether or not to save her.
I was given a choice – send an escort to guide her back to the ship, or tell her to go back on her own. But I had bonded with her. I wasn’t going to just give her a gun and say, “You’re on your own.” I’d risk one of my crew for the chance that they would both survive. Mind you, I was playing Shepard, the protagonist, as a Machiavellian “the ends justify the means” sort of character. But even she couldn’t help but have a soft spot for the doctor.
They said it would be a suicide mission.
Almost every other player I’ve spoken with since completing the trilogy said that they didn’t lose any of their characters during the suicide mission. That just blew my mind. After some digging, though, I found that most of them used a guide of some kind and completed every single side mission possible to increase their chances of survival. I did not.
And I’m thankful for that. It made the game feel all the more real, and my poor decisions lost me not one but three of my crew. I swear the game is psychic or something. It chose to kill off the people I liked the most. Goodbye Tali. Grunt. Thane. Thanks, game.
Couldn’t you have taken Miranda instead? No offense to Miranda’s fans.
Alas, poor Mordin, I knew him well.
By game three, I knew my crew well enough to see through their own fibs, like when Mordin Solus, the ship’s resident crazed scientist, told Shepard that he planned on retiring and living out the rest of his life collecting seashells on a beach somewhere.
“Bullshit,” I thought, only to hear Shepard slyly say, “You’d go crazy inside an hour.”
Mordin mused, “Might run tests on the seashells.”
I found myself smirking so hard. That’s so Mordin, I thought. Very few games give you moments like these. Moments where you just get to sit down and chat with someone. Get to slowly chip away at their defenses until you learn who they are at their core. When Mordin sacrificed himself later in the game in order to spread the cure to the Krogan genophage, I was left misty-eyed. “Had to be me,” he said, “someone else might have gotten it wrong.” His sacrifice didn’t feel like some cheap attempt at working the player’s emotions. It felt right. That’s so Mordin.
The game is rich with characterization. The crew all felt distinct. Real. But the game’s ending keeps me from whole-heartedly praising this aspect. It left me feeling somewhat odd. I’m speaking about the extended ending, mind you. I’m actually not entirely dissatisfied with it, but I do know that I actually prefer the pre-DLC cut. It made the post-credits appearance of the Stargazer (voiced by Buzz Aldrin of all people) all the more meaningful.
“Every life is a special story of it’s own.”
I prefer not really knowing whether or not the choices I made really mattered at all in the long run, because to me Mass Effect wasn’t about the final choice. It wasn’t about defeating the Reapers or ending the cycle of destruction. It was about trying to find kinship despite immense differences. I emphasize “trying” because the game often didn’t let me save the day for everyone.
At one point I was forced to choose: Geth or Quarian. Their fleets were poised like gunmen in a Western standoff. Whoever I picked would certainly destroy the other, and there was no other option. But Shepard did what she could, and I think that’s the Stargazer’s point. The attempt itself had meaning. Shepard (and thus the player) came to know the varying and often conflicting perspectives of many people and learned how to navigate them. I can’t help but find that a more appropriate ending than watching my crew gather around to look sad about the loss of their commander.
But as I feel the journey is more important than the destination, I can only fault BioWare so much for giving in to the overwhelming pressure from fans who demanded more of the conclusion. I’m actually a fan of the fourth choice given to the player – the choice not to not abide by the Reapers’ terms. But I feel that at its core, Mass Effect did a wonderful thing. It let me interact with characters who felt real. It demonstrates just how difficult it can be to work with people who have such deeply-rooted hatred and mistrust for one another, yet it stresses that each life has a story of its own.
And you can get to know that story if you just take the time.