Mass Effects 1 and 2, Some Reflecting

Sometime ago, around when I wrote the Dylan/Anthem post, I think, I finished Mass Effect 1 and fired up Mass Effect 2.

I’ve played Mass Effect 1 plenty, made it to the end three (now four) times, yet I’ve only moved onto Mass Effect 2 once (now twice). I’m not sure which game I like better. Mass Effect 2 is way more intense and I fell hard for it the first time around. That was the main reason I was never able to play it again: too many feels. It’s been like 5 years, though, so I think I’m good. I even have thoughts like “I should come back and play this as ManShep, see if it feels different”. (All while those 3 months of WoW I bought trickle by unused.)

As much as I adore the Mako, or perhaps the idea of the Mako, Mass Effect 1 has too much boring “drive around the mountains” for this impatient completionist’s taste. But while others complain about the dated graphics, I find them charming. (My age is showing, I guess. Back in my day, we played our video games uphill through the snow without shoes. Or something like that.) As for the overall story, I don’t grab my monitor with both hands screaming “WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?” like I do when playing Mass Effect 2, but I’m completely engaged nonetheless. I’m totally intrigued by the future and Citadel space and can spend hours wandering around, talking to NPCs, moving my camera to trigger “Hit (E) to examine”, searching to discover more, more, more. My gamer soul was forged on the anvil of RPGs, so Mass Effect 1 caters to my intincts and comfort zone, however, Mass Effect 2 is so fun and exciting that it taught me that I could be rewarded by giving action/shooting-style games a chance.

Then one day, someone on Reddit (I don’t post on Reddit or even have an active account – self-preservation strategy – but I lurk) linked Shamus Young’s Mass Effect Retrospective as a reference when discussing Mass Effect 2’s writing faults. I did a double-take. What do you mean Mass Effect 2’s faults? Mass Effect 2 is the Internet’s favorite Mass Effect. It can’t possibly be that faulty!

I went to give it a skim. “A skim” turned into 3 nights of intensive reading and reflecting when this retrospective turned out to be a 50-part dissertation, published over the course of a year, on the storytelling in Mass Effect. The language is intended for a casual audience, but the depth and structure could easily be at an academic level. One of the most interesting things I’ve read in years. Highly recommended to anyone curious about the mechanics of storytelling, even someone who’s never played Mass Effect (or any video game, really). Then I went and bought his books because, seriously, that man has a gift.

Anyway, his analysis made sense of my feelings toward the series, in particular about how my love of Mass Effect 1 is different from my love of the two later games, as well as the intensity of my feelz while playing 2 and 3. I can’t recap pages and pages worth of discussion nor compare to his expertise, but I would like to highlight some major points relevant to my personal story-enjoying experience (with my own conclusions and interpretations mixed in, just in case someone happens to read my blog and thinks “that’s not what Young said!”):

1- The Shepard team in Mass Efect 2 consists of characters who, for the most part, are multidimensional, sympathetic and entertaining. They’re introduced with a backstory that you can usually partake in, and you directly observe their development (and the development of your relationship with them) through an engaging loyalty quest. It’s never made clear why you actually need some of them (why do we expect an assassin to be useful beyond the relay? a justicar? a thief?) but it doesn’t matter because you’re just grateful to have met their awesomeness.

2- The main storyline is only loosely connected to Mass Effect 1 (Collectors vs Reapers). It kind of comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere. Why are the Collectors/Harbinger after Shepard personally? How did Harbinger even find out about Shepard? Why is the Alliance doing a half assed job with its human colonies? Why do the Collectors want to make a human (as opposed to an asari or other) baby reaper? What does Shepard actually do in the Collectors ship since EDI doesn’t seem to need Shepard at all? Why is there only one Collectors ship? How did they find the dead reaper? Why wasn’t it found before? What do/can we learn from the Collectors base? The questions go on. Shame because I believe it would have been possible to properly intergrate the Collectors and the resulting story experience would have been mind-blowing.

3- The game is inconsistant about Shepard’s fit in the world. Some people heard “rumours” about Shepard being alive and working for Cerberus, other people know for sure and other people have no idea. Which makes sense until you realize “who knows what” is kind of random. Dumb kid on Omega sends you an email after you bump into him, while people with high intel access and motivation (such as ex-boyfriend and Important Alliance Guy Kaiden) are clueless. Some people are midly surprised you’re alive again, others aren’t fazed at all.

4- Cerberus is all over the place too. It makes sense that Cerberus would have different cells with varying ethics and ideals (I think this is very cool), but you don’t see much beyond Lazarus and ME1’s Kahoku’s questline (and maybe Overlord? Haven’t reached it on this playthrough yet.) Clearly, they’re able to attract lawful good personel like Jacob and Kelly, but you never learn anything about their lawful good endevours. Sometimes they go above and beyond for their employees (on the Normandy there’s a talk in the crew quarters about someone’s family being evacuated by Cerberus from an at-risk colony), other times their scientists are abandonned to a fate of insanity on a dead reaper. I think it would have added a lot to the story to be able to learn more Cerberus’ structure and key players beyond TIM. (It may be addressed in the books/comics, but I believe it would have added a lot to the game if details were included there, maybe as side-quest rewards for those who want to go above and beyond.)

5- The Illusive Man feels like a great tool that no one knows what to do with. I think he’s supposed to be a superhero story style evil business mastermind villain. This has tons of potential but interactions with him seem to have no purpose but to confuse and irritate me the player. I used to think it was just me because I’m easily confused (you know when you’re at the movies and there’s this kid who’s constantly asking “who’s that? why is he saying that? where are they going? why are they there? I’m the quieter, more polite grown up version of that kid.). Turns that being sent aboard a Collectors’ ship that was powered down by Turians, only not powered down by Turians but by the Collectors themselves as a trap, by TIM who knows it’s a trap and doesn’t have much reason to send you there and who doesn’t have to lie to you since you’re curious about Collectors and follow his orders anyway to keep your ship but still lies to you is actually confusing to everyone. You never get to properly tell him off and he never gets to shut you down by being right although unethical. All your interactions just end with you rolling your eyes and moving onto the next mission.

These brought me to the realizations that:

1- The characters are so much fun that you don’t care if the main storyline is just an excuse to go on adventures with your fictional friends. Before my replay, I had actually forgotten about the story in Mass Effect 2. I remembered Shepard dying and being reconstructed, I remembered recruitment and most of the loyatly missions, I remembered a suicide mission where you have to asign your squadmates to appropriate tasks, I remembered Kaidan being an ass after you save his life, I remember being creeped out by TIM. I didn’t remember about Collectors, what they were, what they did and where they came from. I didn’t remember any of the actual conversations with TIM. I couldn’t even remember what I was doing with Cerberus. None of that stuff really mattered because I was too busy enjoying my time with Shepard and her crew.

2- The unexplained parts of the story are hinted to be “explained later” (for example, when you ask EDI about Cerberus’ funding, she says the information is classified so you think “oh, something will happen to unlock this”), then you’re then distracted by shiny events and by the time “later” rolls around, you’ve forgotten all about wondering where Cerberus gets their ressources (or why Wilson wants to kill you). I think this is a big difference between books and movies versus video games. When you’re reading a book or watching a movie, you’ve got nothing better to do than sit there and process the story. In a game, you have to choose your gun, scan the room for treasure, kill the trash mobs, read your quest journal. It’s pretty easy to distract players from lacking story elements and if players do notice, most won’t care unless the distractions aren’t enjoyable enough.

3- I was so heartbroken by the ending because the elements fueling my love for the series were 1)pride in my work in making the galaxy a better place, 2)my dear companions and 3)a Shepard that I pretty much worshipped. The ending 1)undoes my hard work, 2)takes me away from my companions (and never properly tells me what happens to them, though the extended cut is an improvement) and 3)destroys Shepard (even the scene where people say “Shepard survives” is useless to me because you don’t see her in the epilogue). I have been offended when told “you just wanted a happy ending”, but after proper reflection, my offense comes from “happy ending” being a simplication. I think I wanted an ending that doens’t consist everything I like about the series being stripped away and thrown into a fire. Or beam of light or whatever.

So after a week of reading and reflection, I’m ready to get back into the game. Have a couple of loyalty missions to redo (I screwed up my romance with Garrus by choosing the wrong options and my best option is a save from two missions ago…I vaguely remember doing that on my first playthrough too. Apparently the right options are obvious, but I always miss them. I suppose I’m as dense as he is.), then some side quests, then off to collect Reaper IFF.

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3 Comments on “Mass Effects 1 and 2, Some Reflecting”

  1. Redbeard Says:

    I don’t know how I missed this!! Welcome back!!

    • Ophelie Says:

      Thanks! ❤

      I've been keeping the blogging on the down low. Haven't found my voice again and it's weird to be writing about single player games. Slowly trying to figure it all out.


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