Mass Effect

Literature’s had a pretty good run, much of it without any fancy graphics and animations and particle effects to bolster the words. Games love text too. Text is cheap. You can paint a picture of galactic chaos or epic history in about the same time it takes to type ‘and then something cool happened’, without having to spend the next week designing armour and creating 3D characters to act it out. Yet despite centuries of practice, most games still haven’t worked out how to present all this (which let’s face it, is often there more for the writers’ satisfaction than our actual enjoyment) in a punchy, satisfying way. What works? What doesn’t? Let’s take a quick look at some of the ways games have handled books, letters, codexes and more. 

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Even when you don’t affect a world that much, it’s nice when it pretends. News stories are one of the best and cheapest ways to both highlight your achievements, and reframe them in interesting ways, from acts of heroism to outright terrorism. Human Revolution wrapped them in one of the sleekest packages for this—the Picus Daily Standard. At once a chance to see what was taking place out of your sphere, and see the effect of your adventures on the world. While even a few years later, the futuristic look feels distinctly retro compared to iPad news apps, to say nothing of whatever direct-brain interfaces we’ll likely have by the time of Deus Ex’s dark not-too-distant-future, Picus keeps it pretty, keeps it punchy, and above all, keeps it brief. 

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Ah, but when it comes to eBooks, things aren’t so smooth. Look at this. Even the original Kindle would wince at these datapad layouts, complete with non-slidable panels, slow refresh rate, poor quality fonts and typography, and non-consistent use of glows. Sure, it’s readable, but it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to, even before factoring in that in the wasteful future of Deus Ex you apparently need a new device for every Wikipedia entry. The crappy quality of this design only stands out more amongst Mankind Divided’s otherwise superbly rendered future, where everything you encounter seems to have emerged fully formed from the brain of a maverick product genius. This, meanwhile, feels like a first attempt at customising Twine. 

Fallout 4

In the not-too-distant future, who needs books? We’ll have computers! Specifically, ghastly green teletype machines that would be tolerable for simple acts like opening doors, but could be much more of a nightmare if the cast of Five Nights At Freddy’s occasionally popped up for a jump-scare. The horrible font. The clackering of the text. The endless pages that try their best  to tell stories of post-apocalyptic horror, despite being locked in an interface that would make even a hardened wasteland explorer decide that whatever happened probably doesn’t matter that much. Even accounting for the 50s vibe of the rest of the game, these are hideous technological throwbacks that knife their own storytelling in the back. The closest they come to being appropriate to the setting is that in using them, the living definitely envy the dead. 

Skyrim / Ultima

What’s an RPG shelf without a few strangely short books that probably don’t need hundreds of pages and a stiff leather jacket? While RPGs have always been wise enough to realise that most players will accept this deviation from reality, it’s still interesting to look at the differences between these two great franchises. Skyrim for instance clearly assumes that all of Tamriel’s readers are half-blind—or possibly playing on a television screen—leading to very slow-paced tales on glorified flashcards. Ultima meanwhile wanted you to squint. But at least Ultima had the advantage that unless a book was specifically screaming ‘crucial plot element’, it was most likely to be flavour, sparing you tediously flicking through shelves in the hope of finding a boost to one of your skills. At least both franchises keep their tongues firmly in their cheeks, whether it’s The Elder Scrolls’ obsession with the Lusty Argonian Mage, or Ultima’s fine line of joke books, occasional explosive booby-trap pranks, and the revelation that wise Lord British, founder of Britannia’s favourite story is “Hubert the Lion”. Can’t sleep without it, apparently... 

Mass Effect

A controversial one here, perhaps, but Mass Effect is one of the games where the built-in Codex arguably makes the world less enjoyable. The game does a fantastic job of introducing everything that’s actually important without relying on it as a crutch, with the dry writing and endless unlockable pages of SF guff coming across as homework rather than a gripping read. Do we really need to know, for example, the origins of every last whiffle-bolt supplier on the Citadel? No. It’s just not that important. Save it for the design bible and tie-in books.

While there are a few interesting flourishes, including Codex entries based on what the universe thinks rather than necessarily the actual truth, the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy it is not. And ironically, it shows the difference itself, in the form of Mass Effect 2’s fantastic Shadow Broker DLC and the unlockable files within, which actually do give you a chance to peer at your party’s dirty little secrets. Jack’s secret love of poetry. Miranda’s online dating life. Tali’s repeated installation of a suit tool called ‘Nerve Stim Pro’. Oh, the blackmail opportunities...

Dishonored 2

Dishonored is a great example of how just a little thing can really annoy. Its text isn’t difficult to read, the font is pretty well chosen, if not exactly conveying the sense of a written document in the same way as many other games with this level of texture and detail, but does it really have to sway back and forth while you’re reading? There’s a time for ambient animation to breathe life into a scene, and a time to make the player feel slightly sea-sick. No. Scratch that. True for the first, not so much for the second. Swish… swish… it’s an effect applied to all the menus and other data screens and really contributes to making reading the lore an unpleasant experience. A shame, because that lore is actually interesting. Dunwall and Karnaca are two of gaming’s best cities, and their depth and backstory is fascinating. If you can stand to actually read it.

The Longest Journey and Life Is Strange

I'm bundling these together because they do the same basic concept—the primary text in the game is our main character’s diary. This serves several purposes, including offering a potted version of the story if you dip away for a while and forget things, but most importantly giving us a direct look inside their head. It’s a technique that only works if you actually like the main character, but fortunately that’s not a problem for either series and its charismatic leading ladies. In particular, it’s a way of bridging the gap between our perception of the game, as an untouchable god-figure, and theirs, as someone for whom all these moral decisions are actual life-changing events. Simply seeing the game from that perspective is enough to make everything carry that much more weight, and it doesn’t hurt that they’re fun reads too.

The Witcher 3

What separates The Witcher from most in-game codexes is its sense of character, with everything being described from the perspective of in-game poet, lover and occasional sidekick Dandelion. The nature of the game also rewarded taking the time to dip into the Codex, given that for a travelling monster-slayer, knowledge is power, and never took away from the fact that while us as players might not know our drowners from our necrophages, Geralt himself was always able to be a reliable source of information and provide the condensed version.

Realms of the Haunting

Here’s a retro classic, sadly not helped by the low-resolutions of the mid-90s. Nothing damages the mood of an otherwise well-made document like peering at it through a letter-box and finding it more poorly compressed than an old JPEG from a lost Geocities page. It’s not quite as bad blown up to full screen though, and even with its technical problems, it demonstrated how to write documents that actually fit the world and contributed to the lore without feeling like extracts from the design bible. Most took the form of letters between the characters, their identities not always immediately obvious, and turning the relatively simple battle between good and evil at the heart of the story into an epic tale of Faustian deals, ancient cults, doomed love, and a deep mythology stretching between multiple worlds. The visual look certainly didn’t hurt, with everything presented as aged pages, hand-drawn maps and messily scrawled journals. And if you didn’t like them, you got to burn several of them as part of a puzzle. Splendid.

The Neverhood

Of course, if you really, really want to make sure nobody misses your game’s lore, there’s always the Hall of Records—aka The Place Where Basically All The Game’s Backstory Is, as carved onto the walls of a corridor that takes about five minutes to trudge through even if you ignore all of the words. Oh, and when you get to the other end? You have to walk back, obviously. You know it’s good stuff when even a game’s own wiki states, and we quote, “it is suggested by most not to read all of it.” Truly great literature. Who could ask for anything less?

But of course, these are just a few cases. Which games have convinced you to pause saving the world to flick through a good book, and when has that background just been so much blah? It’s fun to get lost in backstory, just as long as the writers aren’t too obsessed with their own lore.

Mass Effect

Every Saturday, we ask our PC Gamer writers an important question about PC gaming (see the complete history of PCG Q&As here). This week: do you create yourself in character creators, or someone else? It got weird. We welcome your contributions in the comments, too. 

Tim Clark: Judges those who create themselves

Tim: I literally never make myself and I consider it a substantial character flaw in anyone who does so. Why in sweet Cthulhu's name would I want to look at my own face bobbing around on screen for any longer than strictly necessary? Or worse, my own ass bobbing. One ex-colleague* always painstakingly made himself, and when the rest of the team found out we reacted with borderline (read: actual) disgust. 

I tend to prefer ladies or robots in terms of character creation, largely because at some point designing any sort of buzzcut dudebro became eye-bleedingly boring. Essentially, if I'm going to spend 80+ hours with an avatar, I'd rather it be a cool lady or sassy robot. Oh, and I don't know if this is relevant to what you're asking, but I will always select an asymmetric bob haircut if available. Even on the robots.*Leon Hurley.

Andy Kelly: Tries to make someone interesting, then gives up

Andy: I always go in with the intention of making someone truly interesting. A unique character that will stand out from the crowd. But then, as I jockey the sliders back and forth, I get anxious about what I'm going to think of this person in twenty or thirty hours. Maybe I'll find them annoying and resent having them as my avatar. And so I relent, dragging the sliders back to the middle, making as generic and unremarkable a human as possible. Someone inoffensive and totally forgettable. A blank slate. As for making myself, I can't think of anything more illusion-shattering than seeing my own face peering back at me when I play a game.

Steven Messner: Shut up, Tim

Steven: Tim is rude and his opinions are mean because I, no matter what, will always make a version of myself in a character creator. This doesn't stem from some narcissistic need to see myself portrayed as the hero in games, but is actually more of an ongoing challenge to try and create as near a likeness to my face as possible. Sometimes I'll even look in a mirror to try and compare my creation with my own face. Making the two look similar is more challenging than you'd think, because character creators—despite all their sliders and eyebrow styles—often don't allow for a wide array of facial styles and nuance. I don't know why I do this, I just do. 

I guess if I'm being honest here, there's probably a little bit of wish fulfillment in recreating my appearance in a character creator too. As a man born without much facial hair, I'm comfortable enough with myself to admit that, yes, I do have some beard envy. I definitely never mess with the muscle sliders though. Nope. Never.

Chris Livingston: creates himself in The Sims so he can be rich

Chris: In something like The Sims I make myself, because I then use the money cheat to give myself a sweet-ass mansion and lots of dope schwag because it's nice that there's some version of myself that has a bunch of expensive shit. I might, like Steven, see how close I can get to making a face that looks like mine in other games, but it's just out of curiosity about how flexible the character creation tool is. In RPGs, I always build someone much different than myself, because as Tim says, I just don't want to stare at my own ass for 60 hours. Any chance to escape my disappointing real-life physique and appearance is most welcome.

Joe Donnelly: WTF

Joe: I'm with Tim. Why anyone would want to reimagine themselves as a slightly/considerably handsomer video game avatar is beyond me. 

Steven, you're such a narcissist. (See gallery above.) 

Tim: Samuel, we need to talk about Joe. 

Steven: Well, well. If my math is correct, I think that means the score is 1.5 for those who don't like their characters to resemble them, and 2.5 for those who do (Since Chris swings both ways I gave each team .5).

Samuel: Oh my god. I did not know this about Joe when we hired him. 

Samuel Roberts: Created himself for a while, then realised he had a boring head

It didn't quite look like this, but I stole this picture from GamesRadar because it made me laugh.

Samuel: I used to create characters based on my own appearance for years and years, but in Mass Effect 2 this resulted in such a profoundly disappointing potato that I was pretty much done with my own face. I captured the chin and everything—Shepard looked like me in silhouette. But he looked so average. Since then, I've just been using the default characters, or creating random ones. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, I created a kind of high fantasy version of David Bowie, which is what I wish I looked like in real life. 

I created a female character in GTA Online who borrowed her look from Dante in the Devil May Cry series, but she ended up looking a bit MTV-presenter-circa-2002 so I tweaked the design. Here's a quick before and after—note that I couldn't be bothered to change the colour of her eyebrows:

Tyler Wilde: Agrees with Tim, unless it's for comedic purposes

Tyler: I am completely with Tim. Why would I want to see my ugly mug in a game (except for comedic purposes)? I like making old dudes with bushy grey beards, the present-day David Letterman look. Maybe that's the look I aspire to personally? Hm. If not an old dude, a black-haired lady who looks like a 2000s shoegazing garage rock singer—like an amalgamation of everyone in the Dum Dum Girls. You know, the more I analyze this the more uncomfortable it makes me. I don't like this question, Sam. 

Jarred Walton: Doesn't care that much

Jarred: I'm in the same vein as Sam: I used to try and model myself. The difference is I didn't stop because I look boring and average, but I stopped because most character editors (Tyler's NBA career notwithstanding) don't allow me to create anything even remotely similar to my handsome mug. Or maybe it's just that I lack the artistic talent to make it happen properly. More likely is that the Elder Scrolls Oblivion character editor gave so many options with such horrible results that I couldn't take it anymore. But I'm long since past even trying to make a character that looks even vaguely Jarred-esque. I'd rather play the game than play dress up (not that there's anything wrong with playing dress up).

Jody Macgregor: Used to make Garrett from Thief for a while

Jody: I make other people. For a while I tried to recreate Garrett out of Thief in every fantasy game, and then I went through a phase of treating it like I was making a character in a tabletop RPG complete with names chosen from those random tables you sometimes get in the rulebooks. My Commander Shephard was a severe middle-aged woman because I thought it made sense for someone in that role. 

The exception was The Sims 2, in which I made myself and my girlfriend pretty accurately. The thing is, The Sims 2 is the one that added Wants and Fears for characters, so at some point a thought balloon over my girlfriend's head popped up to explain that she had developed a new Fear, which was that I would die. I decided not to make myself in a game again after that.

James Davenport: Character creators are for experimentation 

James: No character creator can match these cheeks. 

But really, I don't like seeing images of myself so I'd rather not make my Stepford Self in a game, weird skin all stretched back and textures blurred. My latest experiment has been to try and make characters that look like my partner instead. If she walks by when I'm playing I'll take the opportunity to say, 'Hey, look, I made you!' which got me an Aww, that's sweet! once, but the returns have since diminished to Is that what you think I look like? Bad plan. Bad bad plan. I also tried to recreate my cat Charlie as a palico in Monster Hunter, but he just doesn't give a shit. Back to the aesthetic minefield of the randomize button. 

Mass Effect - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Jay Castello)

acejamheader

Asexuality is one of the most misunderstood identities under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Among other issues, it s extremely rare to see asexual characters in games or wider media, and when they do appear, they often fall into harmful stereotypes. January s Ace Jam invited developers to go some way to change this by creating games that feature characters on the asexual spectrum, and treat them respectfully. (more…)

Mass Effect

I remember not being very taken by Mass Effect's main theme, the first time I heard it. Next to what I'd read about the game, a tale of alien liaisons and sizzling gun battles amid the stars, the title music seemed dreary, the wrong kind of spaced-out. A decade later, I listen to it while crossing a certain footbridge in London, on my way to the abandoned mall food court where I'm writing this. Somebody has scrawled "change" plus a few choice sentiments about austerity policies on the wall at one end. The council has repainted that bridge a few times in the years I've lived nearby - right now it's an incongruous green and purple pattern, like a coral reef hammered flat - and every time, that unknown soul has returned to scribble the message anew. A gesture of defiance, or ironic futility? I couldn't tell you, but as the languid drone of Vigil's Theme fills my skull, I read the words again, ponder their relevance to Mass Effect's storyline and find myself ludicrously close to tears.

Every great musical composition is a survivor, struggling against the tides of history. Before written language became ubiquitous, oral artforms such as ballads, folk songs and sung epics were important ways of passing on knowledge from generation to generation - arguably, modern music continues to serve this function alongside other kinds of media, preserving scenes and sensations if not the detail of chronologies. Lyrical structures like rhyme and alliteration have their roots in a wish to codify laws, divine precepts or the genealogies of families in a digestible, memorable form.

As vehicles for knowledge, oral traditions have major downsides. The untimely death of a bard may wipe away decades of learning, and compositions mutate as they are sung or recited, misheard and adapted, losing and acquiring associations in hindsight. A famous example is the English folksong "Ring o Rosie", often taken to be a gruesome taxonomy of Black Plague symptoms, which may actually refer to a game played by 19th century children to sidestep a prohibition on dancing. But these artforms are also enduring in a way other types of preservation are not. The elusive nature of musical memory, stored in several parts of the brain as muscular performance, sensory stimulus, spoken word and malleable abstraction, allows it to weather upheavals both within the life of the individual listener and the life of a community.

Read more…

Mass Effect - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Fraser Brown)

punch

To celebrate Mass Effect s 10th anniversary (crikey!), animator Jonathan Cooper, currently at Naughty Dog, has shared 10 animation-related facts about the game on Twitter. There are a lot of interesting titbits, like the mo-cap being filmed on the same sound stage as Gone With The Wind, or Cooper being inspired by Ricky Gervais Extras when it came to picking the close-up camera style for conversations, but nothing beats the story behind Anderson punching Udina in the face. Udina was a worm, so it s a popular scene, but probably not with the actor playing Udina. He actually got clocked on the jaw. It happens to the best of us.

Mass Effect

Xbox Game Pass gets Gears of War 4 in December, Microsoft has confirmed.

It's a high-profile addition to Microsoft's Netflix-style game subscription service, which lets you download and play games for a monthly fee.

The Coalition's third-person shooter was one of Microsoft's big Xbox One and Windows 10 PC games in the run-up to Christmas 2016, so it's nice to see it added to the Game Pass. The addition means all the Gears of War games are included in an Xbox Game Pass membership.

Read more…

Mass Effect

Remember 2005 British TV comedy series Extras, written by The Office duo Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant? The one where Gervais played an actor stuck making a living as an extra, and where a string of guest stars like Ben Stiller, Patrick Stewart and Samuel L. Jackson appeared? The late, great David Bowie even popped up in Series 2. Good, wasn't it?

Anyway, it turns out the show's awkward, close conversations were the unlikely inspiration for a very well known series of video games: BioWare's Mass Effect.

Mass Effect animator Jonathan Cooper shared the detail on Twitter in celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the US release of Mass Effect 1.

Read more…

Mass Effect

As the series hits its ten year anniversary, a look back at Bioware’s amazing first chapter.

Look, for a moment, try to forget That Ending. Yes, it was disappointing, but if there’s a scene that truly marked the end of BioWare’s original space trilogy in suitably tear-jerk fashion, it’s the one that capped off its final DLC, Citadel. One last night of partying before the end. A moment of reflection before diving into oblivion. Commander Shepard, flanked by a team of misfits forged by fire into a family, stands for a moment by their ship to consider the future. “We’ve had a good ride,” the closest says.

“The best…” replies Shepard, taking one last chance to appreciate it.

There's a lot to appreciate.

Out of this world

Mass Effect remains arguably BioWare’s tightest and most successful series, and one that’s as much a departure from the company’s comfort zone as it was a natural continuation of its direction back in the mid-2000s. Knights of the Old Republic in 2003 was an attempt to make RPG combat especially look cinematic and exciting despite being overtly based on D&D rules and not afraid to drop terms like THAC0 in polite company, while Jade Empire attempted to both look like a Wuxia movie and combine arcade action with RPG stats and storytelling. Dragon Age: Origins would re-target the fans won over by Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights—at least for one game, before looking to a wider audience. Mass Effect meanwhile would start out by looking to the future and an AAA audience up for an epic adventure, but that didn’t want want to roll dice or juggle a million stats just to kick a little alien ass. It was still an RPG at heart, but a considerably faster paced one than most of the audience was used to.

The premise is a simple one. Humanity is very much the newcomer in the intergalactic community, and not particularly trusted—not least because our first contact with the avian Turian race led to what became known as the “First Contact War’. Ouch. Luckily, since then things have improved, and we’re bopping around the galaxy to explore and colonise with the help of a network of ancient relays and their hub, the Citadel. Now, we’re ready to make our next big step towards legitimacy with the appointment of our hero Commander Shepard as the first human Spectre—a space-cop with pretty much unlimited authority and autonomy, if not apparently a regular pay cheque. Good timing too, as a Lovecraftian threat from the darkest parts of space—the Reapers—is about to threaten the entire galaxy… and nobody believes they even exist.

Mass Effect wasn't the first game to let you take a character from start to finish, but it was one of the higher profile ones. 

Action stations

The first game was a big hit, but a distinctly flawed diamond. Many of its quirks would later become in-jokes, like the endless elevator rides used to poorly hide new areas loading in, or the fun-vacuum Mako rover that made exploring new planets about as much fun as getting a root canal on a Wurlitzer.

By far the biggest weakness though was combat. Much like KOTOR before it, it was caught between its RPG core and Hollywood longings, only this time with the RPG side buckling under the pressure. The result was a game where combat was something of a chore—not much fun, mechanically fiddly, and with enemies slightly dumber than toast. Later games would fix this by doubling-down, simplifying even further, and effectively becoming an all-out third-person shooter broken up with extended conversations and social zones. It made for some awkward lore moments, like guns that canonically had effectively unlimited ammo now conveniently needing pick-ups, but no matter.

Luckily, underneath all of this, the world that BioWare created immediately established itself as a place worth dealing with all this and more to experience. On a broad level, It’s every great SF trope mixed together, from the sexy all-female asari race to the central plot about wise precursors and enemies from beyond the stars. We’ve seen more of this before, in some form at least, with Mass Effect’s universe owing a particular debt to Babylon 5 in terms of both setting and aesthetic, and Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation sites for big plot.

The tactical combat attempted to combine everything from standard RPGs and make it exciting. In practice it just made the action clunky. 

Zoom in, though, and BioWare’s universe is stuffed with originality, with humour, with sharp writing, great characters, and relationships that aren’t just beautifully written, but take full advantage of the trilogy format to grow. Your initial team-mates, Kaidan and Ashley, aren’t perpetually locked in your shadow, and have their own military careers going on. By the time Shepard and his/her Turian BFF Garrus take time out to go target shooting in Mass Effect 3, you’ve been part of that relationship and emotionally invested in what happens next in their romance or friends for the best part of 60 hours and several years of actual game. Likewise, you’ve seen Tali’Zorah go from scared child on the run to military badass and potential saviour, Liara T’Soni from simple archeologist into the all-powerful Shadow Broker, Miranda from a cold human supremacist with a vacuum packed bottom into a defrosted ice-princess with a vacuum packed bottom, and Jacob Taylor… well, Jacob is there too. 

While not all of these plots start in the first game, it’s hard to look back on the first Mass Effect without factoring in what everything became. Rather than piling on new lore with each new instalment, BioWare instead chose to dig a bit deeper. You hear about the quarian fleet in the first game, for instance, but it’s not until the second that you get to pay it a visit. Likewise, the alien homeworlds are saved for the third game where their destruction can feel meaningful, for the same reason that the Star Trek reboot opted to blow up Vulcan rather than some random little world in the beta quadrant.

That’s not including some of the bigger decisions that don’t simply affect the fate of the galaxy, but some of your best friends. Where does loyalty to them end and the needs of the wider universe begin? Can you risk starting a galactic war in the name of ending one? Who do you pick when both sides have equal value to their claim, but a classic Star Trek diplomatic situation is off the table? At least in your current run through things.

Big decisions

While big decisions are part and parcel of many an RPG, few have done a better job of creating thought-provoking ones where there may be no ‘right’ answer, or a past decision may have shifted things dramatically between games. The two biggest in the original Mass Effect are whether or not to release an alien threat called the Rachni, which seems reasonable enough, and which of your starting crew members will die on the planet Vermire. There’s no getting around making that choice, and whichever you pick to make the sacrifice is gone for the rest of the series, along with hope of slipping in a quick romance.

While covering it properly means skipping ahead a little, the biggest example set up in the first game is the krogan genophage. Krogan are a species of incredibly fast, territorial, aggressive breeders that once threatened the galaxy simply by existing. To deal with this, another race created the genophage as a viral way to curtail their overexpansion—specifically by rendering most of them sterile. Unfortunately, that just means they're now dying off, and unsurprisingly pissed with the rest of the galaxy.

Much of Mass Effect was an evolution of KOTOR/Jade Empire three party members, basic tactics, fixed classes. 

In Mass Effect 3, you have the chance to fix things… but will that just doom the galaxy down the line? Making things more interesting is that at this point in the series they can have one of two leaders, former party member and rough diamond with hidden depths Urdnot Wrex, or if he’s dead, his more aggressive cousin Wreav. Neither is exactly a dove, but Wreav is unquestionably the more hawkish and vengeful of the pair, and longs to harness krogan resentment to launch a war against their oppressors. The catch is that long before any of this, still in the first game, Wrex discovers that the villain, Saren, may have an outright cure and he’s willing to kill Shepard over it. How many other games introduce plot choices and dilemmas that take five years to finish finally playing out?

While inevitably the nature of the story means you don’t necessarily face the true consequences, the games do a fantastic job of both setting up the stakes for these beyond the pragmatic ‘get 25 War Assets’ change by showing every side of it in characters that you’ve hopefully come to respect and like. Whether galactic scale or personal, every quest matters deeply to someone, and usually characters you’ve known and hung out with for at least a couple of games by the point that their big quest starts. Everyone comes to the mission with baggage, and how you deal with it can be as important as any action bit.

My favourite Shepard

At the heart of the group though is always Commander Shepard, arguably one of BioWare’s greatest inventions since MDK 2 brought us atomic toast. Rarely has a character felt so much like a collaboration between player and developer, with Shepard coming across as a character with weight and presence in the universe as a hero, as a Spectre, and as a beacon of hope, while still leaving key decisions like origin, morality and romance and opinions to be driven by player choice. The female variant in particular immediately won hearts thanks to Jennifer Hale’s fantastic voice acting and instant control of any military situation, kept relatable and grounded with a dry sense of humour and human failings like romantic inexperience and exquisitely terrible dancing.

Her popularity really caught BioWare by surprise, especially as statistically most players went with the male Shepard. Despite BioWare’s history of being one of the better/more forward-thinking companies when it comes to sexual politics, Mass Effect 2 in particular is full of unfortunate animations that make it obvious that all the motion capture was done for a male character, from the way that Shepard sits while wearing a dress to the position and coding of characters snuggling in the romances. Likewise, when it came to the lack of homosexual relationships, BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka defended their absence by saying that Shepard was ‘a defined character with certain approaches and world views’, forgetting that in addition to the chance to sleep with several asari, the—ahem—booby prize for not getting into a real relationship is to have Shepard’s assistant Kelly do more than feed her fish. It took until Mass Effect 3 for the female Shepard to even get a custom face rather than just an editor default, which looked terrible next to the ‘standard’ Shepard, and to unlock the ability to play for both teams.

Worth about a thousand Reddit comments, at least. 

While in retrospect this might seem ‘typical BioWare’ it’s worth remembering that Mass Effect had its share of controversy back in the day. These were ridiculous at the time, never mind now, but back in 2008 pundits were coming up with lines like—this is 100% real—“And because of the digital chip age in which we live—"Mass Effect" can be customized to sodomize whatever, whoever, however, the game player wishes.” 

The fact that the most you got to see was one short sex scene featuring a little side-boob or a blue bottom moving up and down for a couple of seconds was immaterial, mostly because the critics subsequently admitted to not having actually seen the game before railing about it. Fox News guest Cooper Lawrence was unamused when gamers took to Amazon to give her latest book the same treatment, commenting "In hindsight, I would have liked to have had the opportunity to play this game before appearing." What an intriguing idea!

You know you’re onto a loser when even anti-gaming activist Jack Thompson rolls his eyes and calls it a contrived conspiracy. However, as it would continue to do with Dragon Age 2 and 3, BioWare pushed back rather than folding under the pressure, greatly helping to normalise adult content in games intended for adults, paving the way for more ambitious mature content in games like The Witcher 2/3 (both of which were a far cry from the original game and its tacky sex cards) and Dragon Age Inquisition. Still, even Mass Effect 3 had characters chastely taking showers in their underwear. Just in case.

All around the universe

Awkward bathing aside, the Mass Effect series is arguably most notable for BioWare’s willingness to go outside its comfort zone and explore new ideas. The first game, for instance, is functionally the same design as its previous RPGs—four worlds, each with a lost Thing on it. Mass Effect 2 goes more non-linear with most of the game being about assembling a team in bite-sized, punchy missions designed to showcase each in turn and then earn their loyalty. Mass Effect 3 wraps the individual missions up into a meta game called ‘Galaxy At War’, trying to make it feel like a concerted campaign against an unstoppable enemy that demands the feuding races finally start to work together towards an escalating common goal. After all, in the first game, it only takes one Reaper by the name of Sovereign to almost bring the galaxy to its knees. In the third, you’re surrounded by them and their Inception Horns Of Doom, without ever crossing the Voyager Borg threshold where they cease being scary. 

Indeed, the more you play, the more it becomes clear that their true power is their ability to cloud and control minds—Indoctrination—versus firepower. There’s even a fan theory that Shepard ultimately loses the battle—that what we see as an intentionally bland series of final battles and a Final Choice that boils down to little more than picking between red, green and blue tinted finales, is actually just their mind breaking under the psychological pressure. It’s not completely impossible (though the more accepted reason for the bad ending is that it was rewritten at the last minute) but it is the kind of stretch that normally requires a Stretch Armstrong doll and a few minutes in the oven.

The Geth are a great example of Mass Effect peeling back its layers. Initially a brainless enemy, dealing with them eventually becomes a big moral issue. 

Crappy as those five minutes in some sixty hours are though, obsessing over them does Mass Effect a huge disservice. The rest of that time is pretty much non-stop action, ideas, refinements and cinematics that continually reinvents itself and tries to push the state of the art.

Did all these ideas work? No. Galaxy at War in particular was much criticised prior to release for seemingly demanding solo players jump into multiplayer to get high enough scores for a good ending (not true). Most of the DLC was distinctly disposable, with the exception of Lair of Shadow Broker and Citadel, and perhaps Leviathan. The less said about the assassin Kai Leng, the better, though we hope he finds his way back to his home anime dimension as soon as possible. Etc. etc.

But to think back on Mass Effect shouldn’t be to focus on its flaws, but rather the warmth of its characters, the excitement of its set-pieces, the scale of its universe, and the sheer passion with which BioWare brought it to our screens and kept the momentum going for years. It’s a truly magnificent trilogy, a highpoint for interactive SF, and even though it started on slightly wobbly foundations, there's no arguing that it's not a hell of a ride.

Mass Effect

Yesterday was November 7—N7 Day, in the parlance of Mass Effect fans, an occasion to celebrate all things about BioWare's hit sci-fi series. To mark the special day, BioWare released a "Ten Years of Mass Effect" video looking back on the history of the series and the things that made it special—and, despite the failure of Mass Effect: Andromeda to meet expectations, expressing hope for the future. 

The video features a number of BioWare mainstays, including the Shepard and Ryder voice actors, reminiscing on the making of the series, and the impact it's had on them personally and professionally. There are the requisite bits of trivia, like how the Vorcha voices were made and why the "SSV" designation for the Normandy was rejected. But while much of it feels like a eulogy, it's a line at the end that fans will want to hold onto.

"The future of Mass Effect, I think, is really bright. People just want to know more about this place, these characters," the narrator says. And then someone else takes over: "I think people keep coming back because it feels like home."   

It's an interesting way to wrap up, because it's an implicit rejection of the entire premise of Mass Effect: Andromeda, which was all about finding a new home. That attitude is evident throughout the video, in fact, in the way it very clearly focuses on the original trilogy despite coming in the same year as Andromeda's release. But the promise of a bright future, vague though it is, is encouraging. Andromeda may have flopped, but Mass Effect? Yeah, that's good stuff. 

Mass Effect

BioWare has celebrated a decade of Mass Effect by releasing a new video featuring developers involved in the much-loved, now much-missed space franchise.

Today is 7th November, known to Mass Effect fans as N7 Day - BioWare's annual celebration of the series. This year is also the 10th anniversary of the original Mass Effect's launch back in 2007.

It is a muted acknowledgement of the series' milestone. The future of Mass Effect is uncertain, at best. While some in the video below speak of the franchise in the past tense, others still say it has a "bright future". Time will tell.

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