Welcome to Punished Notes, Vol. 23! For this latest edition, I’ll discuss the Mass Effect series, as the controversial Mass Effect 3 was one of my choices for this very site’s Summer Backlog Challenge. Spoilers ahead for a trilogy that ended a decade ago.
Let’s say you had to bury a time capsule that would be opened roughly 50 years in the future (assuming the world as we know it still exists in some form and hasn’t become uninhabitable due to the unfettered spread of deadly diseases and climate change). Some kind of official governing body overseeing the preservation of historical artifacts of cultural import has tasked you with selecting a single video game series from the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 generation of consoles that best describes that era of gaming and placing it into that capsule. All other gaming software from those years (let’s say 2006-2013) would subsequently cease to exist and survive only through images and archival footage. Despite the apparent frivolity of such an endeavor (and the weirdly specific terms surrounding it), you have to pick something. What would you choose?
Having just completed Mass Effect: Legendary Edition as part of this summer’s backlog challenge, it’s now abundantly obvious to me that Commander Shepard’s adventures through the galaxies would make the most sense.
(For more information on the series as a whole, check out Amanda Tien’s great Mass Effect series summary.)
To be clear, I’m not making the argument that the original three Mass Effect titles were the “best” games of that era, nor would I claim they’re necessarily the most interesting or influential. But to truly understand what it meant to play games on the Xbox 360 and PS3, what players wanted, what artists wanted to create, the ways large corporations sought to package their content, and the conversations around gaming at large during that time, there’s nowhere better to look than Mass Effect.
One for the Ages
Arguably the most innovative feature in the Mass Effect trilogy, the one that elevates its status from “good set of RPGs” to “games we’ll remember forever,” is its approach to emergent narratives. Dialogue choices and split-second decisions in the first Mass Effect would affect the stories in the latter two titles, meaning every single move you make reverberates throughout the whole cycle. For example, choosing to kill Wrex in the first Mass Effect means he won’t exist in ME2 or ME3, thus altering crucial plot developments in those games.
Video games long before Mass Effect offered players branching narratives, but BioWare chose a more ambitious path: making the varied plots in multiple releases interconnected to make each person’s playthrough of all three games feel unique to them. Prior to Mass Effect, RPG franchises would typically tell a completely new story in every entry, with little in the way of characters or setting carrying through from title to title.
The idea that multiple games could be linked in this way with myriad outcomes was not just refreshing to players during the Xbox 360/PS3 era; it felt like a step forward for narrative design, one where the player must make each and every decision carefully. Couple that with Hollywood-caliber acting talent (Martin Sheen, Keith David, and Carrie-Anne Moss all lent their voices to this franchise) and you have the “serious” type of narrative so-called hardcore gamers were craving, one where the story and its cast of characters carry weight at nearly every turn.
The choices you make don’t just determine who lives and who dies, though obviously that’s a large piece of the pie. Mass Effect also allows for romance options, where the player can establish sexual and romantic relationships with a number of characters, including various space aliens. In my playthrough, I chose Liara as my romantic partner in the first game and Garrus in ME2. In ME3, I was given the option to choose either one, a new partner, or nobody at all.
I ultimately stayed with Garrus, but the fact that I had chosen Liara at first was a constant point of tension throughout Mass Effect 3, where I had to actually role-play being “just friends” while also creating boundaries. Sexual partners weren’t just a fun diversion; I actually had to navigate the dynamics of these relationships and how they would affect others in the crew. I probably spent more time worrying about Liara’s potential jealousy than the impending doom of all organic life.
Even the more platonic relationships come with deep, vulnerable moments, as Commander Shepard’s crewmates all come with their own baggage that they’re more than willing to share. The player has no obligation to engage in all these conversations, but they offer fascinating windows into the franchise’s universe, where intergalactic political disputes run rampant but everyone’s personal issues are no less important. Dialogue in Mass Effect operates less through curiosity and more through intimacy, something that not many games prior even tried.
The gaming generation that birthed Mass Effect placed a premium on experiences with added emotional gravity. Gone (to a certain extent) were the days of campy but occasionally sober AAA experiences (Resident Evil 4, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City), as darker color palettes and grim atmospheres took over (Gears of War, Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption).
The Mass Effect trilogy certainly contained these heavier elements (particularly with its focus on *clears throat* optional genocide), but it never lost sight of the actual humanity undergirding all of the darkness. The personal nature of every decision on both a micro and macro level forced the player to truly reckon with the weightier elements of the story, with war and interspecies conflict serving as more than just a backdrop for repeated firefights.
Let’s go back to the aforementioned time capsule: what better way to highlight for future gamers the defining narrative design of late 2000s/early 2010s than with a somber tale of politics and bloodshed that also involves sex and awkward friendships?
But It’s Still a Game, Right?
Mechanically, the Mass Effect series absolutely resembles what it meant to play a AAA video game on Xbox 360 or PS3, though arguably not quite as successfully as some of its peers. The mid-to-late 2000s in gaming often came with two notable features: over-the-shoulder third person aiming, and cover-based combat. The first Gears of War perfectly embodied this trend in 2006 (and remains one of the better examples of it), and clearly everyone else took note, even BioWare.
The combat in the first Mass Effect at first mimics that of Gears (or other contemporaries like Uncharted) but still maintains a number of role-playing philosophies. Guns don’t require the collection of ammo, but rather have “cool-down” functions (i.e., if you shoot long enough, you’ll have to wait for a couple of seconds while your weapon recharges). You can customize your guns in many ways with numerous modifications, including changing what kinds of ammo you shoot (normal, incendiary, poison, etc.). Your team also includes allies with unique abilities, though mostly everyone spends their time leaning against a wall and unloading bullets at enemies.
The latter two Mass Effect trilogy titles would largely forego these quirks in favor of a more standardized third-person shooting experience. Out were cool-downs, and in were standard ammo pickups, some customization options (but considerably fewer), and more player abilities based on what class you selected at the start of the game.
The changes made complete sense at the time: Mass Effect 1’s combat sequences were clunkily designed with too many enemies, occasionally inaccurate weapons, inconsistent AI, and a lack of aesthetic flair (save for the final few missions). Mass Effect 2 would provide considerably more interesting combat sequences (including larger boss battles), as well as more streamlined shooting and ability mechanics. Mass Effect 3 would further polish these mechanics, bring back weapon mods (though, again, not quite as comprehensive as ME1), and even present much improved melee combat.
(Side note: ME3 definitely plays the best of the three on a minute-to-minute basis, but I think ME1 was the most interesting, and I wish BioWare had worked more on refining that game’s mechanics instead of leaving many of them behind.)
Smoothing out Mass Effect’s combat made the series more palatable to the average player, who was more likely to play an action-based game like Gears or even Uncharted than an esoteric, hardcore RPG. Anybody could enjoy the experience of playing Mass Effect, even if they had never played an emergent narrative RPG before. The problem with the mechanics, however, was that they smoothed out the experience so much to the point that there’s very little role-playing at all in combat sequences. Besides the weapon customization in ME1, it doesn’t actually matter all that much how you choose to approach combat scenarios, and it’s not even particularly necessary to go out of your way to upgrade anything. If you’re good enough at shooting and patient enough behind cover, what difference does it make?
Such combat mechanics underscore how the Mass Effect trilogy embodied this generation of games, not just in concrete terms: Besides games designed specifically around shooting as the primary verb (like Gears or even Army of Two), the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3’s libraries were riddled with experiences that included cover-based third-person shooting largely as a means to an end. Nobody played Uncharted because of the guns, and even shooter-heavy games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption gave players lock-on mechanics in shootouts, making strategy and skill largely afterthoughts secondary to the “movie-like” nature of the gameplay. The Mass Effect games needed combat to keep players interested, but also proved that the quality of that combat didn’t really matter all that much.
By no means am I knocking this trend at all. In many ways, it was good for gaming at the time, as creators could showcase more ambitious narratives with a more movie-like feel. Obviously, AAA gaming would inevitably become overrun with these types of experiences, but the Mass Effect trilogy (particularly ME3) occurred right in the midst of the zeitgeist and ended before the third-person cinematic action game started to become a little stale. Something with these mechanics would have had to end up in the time capsule, so I’ll take the one with aliens creating small singularities out of thin air.
The Business End
For better or worse, Mass Effect also embodied what the financial side of gaming looked like from 2007 to 2012. First off, trilogies were all the rage during this era. Cliff Bleszinski’s run with Gears of War started in 2006 and ended in 2011. Bungie’s final three Halo titles all released between 2007 and 2010. The first three Uncharted games concluded in 2011, after which Naughty Dog moved on to make The Last of Us before returning to Nathan Drake’s adventures without series creator Amy Henning in 2016.
Unlike these other franchises, Mass Effect offered players the chance to feel like a three-part story arc truly belonged to them. The series obviously garnered critical acclaim for this, but it was also a brilliant marketing strategy. If you thought Mass Effect 2 looked cool in commercials, maybe you’d be more likely to buy its predecessor first, and if you loved ME2 you’d certainly pony up another $60 to see how everything ends. Making the trilogy this way was an enormous creative risk for BioWare, but it’s also no surprise that Electronic Arts—a company known for fully embracing every monetization scheme imaginable—acquired the developer in hopes that the three Mass Effect titles wouldn’t just be three lucrative projects, but rather something that would always be marketed as a collection.
Mass Effect notably released before two key design philosophies really took off: live services games and massive “Ubisoft-style” open worlds. The franchise did, however, go all-in on paid downloadable content, a controversial yet extremely prevalent trend that in many ways defined the business end of the Xbox 360/PS3 generation. Every single Mass Effect entry during this time presented multiple paid DLC packs, with the trilogy as a whole releasing 20 paid offerings (Mass Effect 2 had a whopping TEN available DLC options). Many of these packs were fairly cheap and would eventually be included in later re-releases of the games, but it’s hard not to feel nickel-and-dimed if you were a consistent day-one purchaser, especially considering some of the best character interactions occurred in some of these expansions (notably Lair of the Shadow Broker and Citadel).
The most egregious example of this greed came in the form of From Ashes, the first DLC offering for Mass Effect 3 that launched on the same day as the main game itself. In this extra set of missions, Commander Shepard discovers a living Prothean named Javik who was suspended in cryogenic stasis for 50,000 years just before the rest of his people were obliterated by the Reapers. Javik subsequently joins Shepard’s crew, can participate in combat missions, and has a unique set of dialogue options.
So, where’s the controversy? First of all, releasing a paid DLC pack on day one implies it was ready for the main release… so it should have just been included in the base game. Second, there was evidence that the content of From Ashes was included on the Mass Effect 3 disc, meaning EA intentionally locked players out for an extra ten bucks. Lastly, Javik ends up being one of the more memorable characters in the whole experience! He utters some of the sharpest comments and insults to the rest of the crew, completely overturns Liara’s lifelong work research of his kind, and provides a unique perspective and key background lore. Javik isn’t like Kasumi or Zaeed in Mass Effect 2, where their absence wouldn’t have much of an impact on the overall narrative experience. No, the Prothean’s presence in Mass Effect 3 makes the story richer, and it’s confounding that he was presented as an inessential piece.
The Mass Effect series was certainly not unique in its avarice and cynicism. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion charged for horse armor. Asura’s Wrath and Bioshock Infinite offered stories that felt incomplete without DLC. The NBA 2K series introduced virtual currency around this time. The generation that oversaw the release of all these games normalized the idea that the consumer always has more cash to fork over, and publishers were going to do whatever it took to get that money. That said, Mass Effect was every bit a part of this trend, and gaffes like the release of From Ashes in some part underscore its legacy.
OK, But What About the Real Controversies?
These games absolutely dominated the wider culture of video games during their time (and for many years after), meaning they also attracted their fair share of bad-faith criticism and toxicity. Notably, the pearl-clutching response by the chuds over at Fox News about sex scenes in Mass Effect 1 reportedly caused BioWare to pare down queer romance options in Mass Effect 2 (a few options would be added in Mass Effect 3).
While these reactions resemble nothing more than a parade of idiotic misogynists and queerphobes raising their fists at a world not perfectly designed for all their needs and desires, BioWare itself certainly didn’t help matters. Again, it was their decision to cater to bigots by making Mass Effect 2 less queer. It certainly didn’t help that these games had a tendency to objectify female bodies (while also lacking much variety in body shapes outside of “tall and jacked” or “slender with a dumptruck ass”), and that the janky character creator failed to offer diverse hair and skin options. Much of the negative response to Mass Effect’s creative choices still feels unfair, but that doesn’t mean the series is above reproach in that regard.
I chose to highlight these controversies because they underscore how conversations around video games had started to shift throughout the years Mass Effect reigned. If you want to understand an era of video games, you can’t just look at the works themselves; you need to understand the context surrounding their releases and how players and critics received them.
The discourse around violence and satanism of the ’90s had shifted to sex and sexuality by the mid-to-late 2000s, starting with the infamous “Hot Coffee” minigame in Grand Theft Auto: Sand Andreas. The Mass Effect trilogy certainly put more effort into personal relationships than many games before them, and they were wildly popular, so of course they became an easy target. While AAA games would largely normalize sexual encounters (including queer options) in the years following Mass Effect 3’s release (e.g., The Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Dragon Age: Inquisition), the trilogy was ahead of the curve, and therefore had to deal with the Helen Lovejoys of the world.
So… That ending…
Let me start off by saying two things that can both be true:
- I understand that the culmination of five years and three games where every single decision carried weight should offer more than a small handful of bland outcomes that almost every player could choose. No matter how you played throughout the entire experience, your choices only really affected what kinds of cutscenes occurred after you made your final decision, and that’s kind of a bummer.
- The backlash to this admittedly disappointing set of endings was totally out of hand, largely unwarranted, and sadly inevitable.
Overall, I was satisfied but not amazed by how my first full playthrough of Mass Effect concluded. It certainly didn’t help that the final mission largely consisted of shooting hordes of enemies without much variety. But I didn’t think the ending was bad, just unspectacular. (It also helps that I was prepared for disappointment after ten years of hearing everyone’s complaints.)
Clearly, players did NOT love BioWare’s creative vision for the ending(s) of Mass Effect 3. It felt as though most of their decisions throughout all three games made little difference in the end, largely betraying what fundamentally made this series so enticing to players. While I don’t want to get too deep into how fans reacted (and how BioWare catered to the mob with free DLC), I can understand the ire to a certain extent.
Still, a project as ambitious as Mass Effect could never have fully nailed the landing. It was never realistic to expect, like, ten unique endings where the decisions you made in the final minutes of the experience mattered less than the dozens you made in the nearly 90 hours before it. Plenty of games have experimented with that many endings, but rarely are more than two or three of those endings memorable (or even viewed as canon). Mass Effect 3’s final moments, and the vitriolic response to them, highlight a broader issue in gaming that has only gotten worse over the past decade: game companies overhyping a product, underdelivering, and players drinking the Kool-Aid before even knowing what was in it.
We’ve seen this happen countless times in recent years, and the problem will only get worse as development cycles get longer and players continue to raise expectations. Though one could argue Mass Effect 3 fits into a different category, since mostly people had gripes with the ending specifically and not the game as a whole, it was a harbinger of this trend, as AAA studios find it increasingly difficult to meet the lofty standards they set for themselves.
So, back to the time capsule. The best case for keeping Mass Effect over its many illustrious peers is simple: We will likely never see anything like the Mass Effect trilogy ever again. The live service model—which undeservedly has a stranglehold on AAA gaming—would make the original Mass Effect a single entity that continually receives updates and story expansions over a period of at least five years. Instead of three games with roughly 30 hours of content each, we would get one enormous game full of boring side missions and a slough of monetization opportunities in the form of quests for loot.
Beyond that, you could make the argument that with every major franchise that dominated the PS3/360 era, the best entry released in a different generation (e.g., Uncharted 4, Halo 2, Gears 5, Red Dead Redemption 2, Dark Souls 3). With Mass Effect, all of the relevant franchise entries came out for the same consoles; they didn’t continue a story that started with the PlayStation 2 or Xbox, and all later entries will be narratively separate from the Shepard era. The PS3 and Xbox 360 had tons of great games, but the Mass Effect trilogy feels like it really belongs to that generation more so than any other series.
Honestly, you could argue that none of the Mass Effect games were the best overall games of that era, the best RPGs of all time, or even the best RPGs of that era (I’ll still take Oblivion). But they definitely mattered more than just about anything else in that time. The kind of relationship fans of the series have with these titles surpasses that of nearly every other new IP that emerged on the Xbox 360 or PS3. These somber sojourns through intergalactic war and genocide uniquely struck a chord with its audience, and one would be remiss in examining the cultural mores of gaming from 2007 to 2012 without properly acknowledging that. Love them or hate them, the Mass Effect games defined their generation.
-Overall, I would say Mass Effect 2 is the best of the trilogy, due mostly to the loyalty missions and dubious ethics of the broader narrative seeping through in every mission.
–Mass Effect 1 is probably the worst all-around game, but it had the most potential. It tried the most cool ideas and felt most like an actual RPG, though not all the ideas worked and the combat was fairly bland.
–Mass Effect 3 probably has the highest highs of any of the three (the Quarian/Geth storyline was especially captivating), but also contained too many simple “run and gun” missions that played like Gears of War but worse.
-Random things in the entire series I liked: Silversun Strip, toxic ammo, underwater graphics (Leviathan DLC), dancing in clubs, Javik reveal, Aria T’Loak, Garrus researching sex with humans
-Random things in the entire series I disliked: Councillor Udina, thresher maws, boring-ass James Vega, probably-would-have-voted-for-Trump Ashley Williams, too many Cerberus-related side quests in Mass Effect 3.