Mass Effect has a beautiful central conceit. Despite its doom and gloom, “man versus machine” conflict, its vision of the future belongs to the idyllic, optimistic science fiction of the Star Trek mold. That 1966 show broke new ground by not questioning an African-American woman’s position amongst professional, space-faring intellectuals, essentially saying to a Civil Rights-era America that no, there’s no turning back the clock on this equality thing. Mass Effect one-ups this concept for the twenty-first century. Nowadays, we don’t just have women of color as second-string communications officers, but anyone of any gender, race, or sexuality can become the true-blue hero of his or her own version of Star Trek.* The game is an elbow nudge to the side of every Proposition 8 supporter and Men’s Rights Advocate; in the future, that bullshit is ancient history, and a badass is a badass regardless of skin-deep qualifiers. Plenty of games allow the player roleplay women and minorities, but few create a defined enough protagonist for the result to have impact. Pay no attention to that surly, steroid-gobbling he-man who adorns almost every piece of the game’s promotional art. If you want the true Mass Effect experience (and, with apologies to Mark Meer, a hero who doesn’t sound entirely comatose), a female Commander Shepard is the way to go.
But sadly, this isn’t the year 2183. Here in 2012 (or 2007, when Mass Effect first released), even brave, well-intentioned work is often undone by unchecked hypocrisies and subconscious subscriptions to ugly social norms. Due to either the possible financial gain or just not knowing any better, Bioware hampers its message of equality — if not the central thesis of Mass Effect, certainly its most interesting and unprecedented — with its slavish devotion to the white, middlebrow, male nerd fantasy. Perhaps this is part of the draw, welcoming those not usually invited to the omnipresent pop culture Boys’ Club that is Geek Entertainment to witness what they’ve been missing all these years. But judging Mass Effect simply on that one merit overlooks how much of its worldview remains frustratingly in line with the male gaze.
Note, for example, how every major female character in the game is still a sex symbol with great tits and a perfect hourglass figure. (In the Art of the Mass Effect Universe coffee table book, Casey Hudson and art director Derek Watts label a hilarious, alarming number of the female characters’ designs as “need[ing] to be sexy.”) Or that these female squadmates’ personalities run a rather limited range from demure (sweet, sincere space babe Liara) to vaguely shrewish (racist, God-fearing human Ashley). One can’t miss the first-glance intent of the exotic, hyper-sexual design of Liara or Tali. These are characters constructed for the Xbox hordes to ogle first, and engage with as characters second. Their looks and personalities are, at times, so base that it’s as if Bioware accidentally stumbled upon a strong female character with the “FemShep” protagonist. Is simply grafting a female voice and appearance onto a male personality what elevates that character far above their other creations? (This is not uncommon in iconic science fiction; Ripley from the Alien movies was a role originally intended for a man.)
Something feels similarly amiss with the game’s elective homosexual element. For starters, the original Mass Effect only includes a gay “romance” storyline for the female version of Shepard. This is already suspect, given the nobody-wins media double standard of creepily fetishizing lesbian sex while underplaying or outright dismissing male homosexuality. And unfortunately, what FemShep finds in her relationship with Liara feels pretty cheap and silly, even by interspecies lesbian pop-space-opera standards. (Why, oh, why didn’t I just pursue boring, brooding — but still recognizably human — Super-Hunk Kaidan Alenko, or just allow my poor Shepard to remain strictly celibate?) Their flirting and eventual doing of the deed is one of Mass Effect‘s few truly embarrassing elements; I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s dialogue and softcore filmmaking on the level of Tommy Wiseau’s infamous and gratuitous cult disaster The Room. It’s soul-crushing enough watching real people uncomfortably simulate fictional sex when the story barely calls for it; witnessing a dead-eyed CGI doll canoodle with a blue-skinned, generously proportioned alien contains all the leery charm of a Star Trek fetishist repurposing Tanya Chalkin’s “Kiss” poster for his Microsoft Paint-heavy DeviantArt page. (And before you accuse me of being some Fox News prude, I want to point out that Eyes Wide Shut might be my favorite movie ever. It’s also, coincidentally or not, the movie I imagine would be the most hilarious to see Bioware try to adapt into a video game. “Tell me more about your top-secret Illuminati masquerade orgy,” I imagine Uncanny Valley Tom Cruise (or Theresa Cruise!) inquiring of a party-goer, who of course will respond with a helpful, on-the-nose explanation of every intriguing mystery in that weird mansion.)
Perhaps this encounter just feels exploitative because Bioware puts sex on such a pedestal. Labeling these in-games relationships as “romances” is an overstatement. They’re a few scenes of lame flirting climaxing (hurr) in a groan-worthy copulation cutscene, a minigame where the prize is literally the person (most likely a woman**) you want to take to bed. I have no problem with the game giving you the option of a one-night stand. People are people, after all, and we all approach love and sex differently. But when a quick shag that’s never spoken of again is the player’s only choice (and I should stress I’m solely talking about the first Mass Effect here), the writers are either, A.) including sex just to titillate and play to the “horny loser” stereotype of their fanbase, or, B.) saying that sex is the paramount experience of a relationship, the “prize to be won,” so to speak. Which is odd for a company that prides itself as being so thoughtful and respectful about such matters. Did no one at Bioware think that putting in a lesbian sex scene with no emotional comedown comes off as pandering, a bit Spike TV-ish? Couldn’t they animate Liara into the game’s denoument, conversing with Shepard about their relationship? I know they have an insane amount of player choice to accommodate for, but that’s no excuse to half-ass such a crucial character relationship. It’s a balance Bioware still struggles with even today; the “Gay Planet” fiasco in their MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic could be an Urban Dictionary entry for “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back.”
Of course, asking Bioware to be all things to all people is absurd (despite the fact that it often markets its games that way). Some of their branching paths and choices are bound to be more developed than others, and it makes sense that the cream of the crop would be the ones most attuned to the writers’ natural worldview. Which is why I’m still not entirely sold on their formula as the pinnacle of how to construct a video game narrative. Not that I’m against plot-driven player choice; I think that, in the right hands, allowing the player to make Important Story Decisions can touch upon a game’s major themes and raise genuinely thought-provoking questions. But as wonderfully equalizing as the “Commander Shepard” ideal is, are character traits like gender, sexuality, and race really so arbitrary that we can toss them around and expect a story to remain unaffected? (Especially when that story’s writers aren’t particularly skilled at articulating certain points of view?) What if you could play as a male protagonist in, say, Portal? You would lose the whole thematic thread of two incredibly intelligent, incredibly different women engaging in a battle of wits within the typically masculine world of science. And no one seems to have trouble relating to The Walking Dead‘s black protagonist, in a game that grips players through the same irreversible story decisions that Bioware employs. I would love to see Bioware create a game with a non-negotiable gay or female protagonist, forcing the player to filter his decisions and dialogue through that perspective. Immediate empathy with an avatar is one of the greatest gifts the interactive medium has to offer; why are we wasting that on the narcissism of crafting our own “True, Personal Canon Narratives” or whatever? There’s a reason the most successfully modifiable games, such as Skyrim, are shells of stories.
Mass Effect‘s overarching narrative is also a noble effort underrealized. True, it’s refreshing to play a game where aesthetic and gameplay follow the story’s blueprint and not vice-versa. I just wish that story wasn’t expressed entirely through blatant exposition. Mass Effect is an epic that should remain rollicking and adventurous even as it explains the complex rules of its world; it’s nowhere near thoughtful or meditative enough to earn its many chatty, turgid conversations. The payoff of even its most climactic, tense missions is usually a computer yammering at Shepard for several minutes about a long-dead alien race. I’m sure players raised on traditional RPGs don’t see a problem with major story beats taking place within a stilted, interrogation-style dialogue, but here it is at odds with the game’s “interactive movie” sensibilities. Bioware’s writers still don’t understand the difference between being Dungeon Masters and being storytellers in a visual medium. Even in an RPG, there is no excuse for rambling, exposition-heavy dialogue when action, setting, and plain old intuition could do the job just as well.
The universe’s backstory and lore carry the plot and characters, a backwards approach that renders Mass Effect‘s most prominent elements underdeveloped. Even Shepard’s closest crew members feel like tragic pasts filtered through a single personality trait. Why tell us about these characters and show nothing? Why not go to Tali’s spaceship gypsy caravan, or fearsome warrior Wrex’s dying homeworld? The story gives no reason why the chase to find Big Bad Saren couldn’t locate its MacGuffins at these places — places the characters have rooting interests in — instead of random planets no one has any connection to. Perhaps the writers were more concerned with creating a universe of scope than crafting characters we care about. Perhaps they just knew Shepard would need somewhere to run around in Mass Effects 2 and 3, a storytelling sin as heinous as any of poor Saren’s misdeeds. (Yes, I did just compare sequelization to attempting to wipe out all organic life in the galaxy. I take this shit seriously, folks.)
Simply put, your enjoyment of Mass Effect will come down to how much you enjoy selecting text from a dialogue tree. While technically a third-person cover shooter (arguably the defining genre of this console generation), Bioware’s dialogue wheel is Mass Effect‘s true central mechanic, its hook. Selecting a phrase and witnessing Shepard impart it is to this game what the Jump Button is to Super Mario Bros. If it’s a mechanic that tickles your fancy no matter how many times you employ it, you might just be a fan for life.
I suppose I’m more of a Jump Button guy. Too many of Mass Effect‘s dialogue options strike me as window dressing, the three-pronged differences in tone so miniscule they just make me aggravated with the entire process. I can feel the game pandering to me, offering me the most basic level of interactivity to keep me engaged through another otherwise drab cutscene. There are situations where it works beautifully, when proper disbursement of set-up and pay-off makes Shepard’s words feel meaningful. There’s a fantastic confrontation with Wrex — one that can easily result in his death — where the differences in approach feel totally earned. For once, the dialogue builds upon what the player knows about the character and Shepard’s relationship with him: Wrex is so desperate to cure the bio-engineered genocide of his people that he might sacrifice a crucial mission for his own agenda. Talking him down (or potentially just offing him) feels like an actual situation, where Shepard’s actions and people skills have consequences integral to the story. Perhaps I’m missing the point and a lot of Shepard’s dialogue is just there for “flavor.” But personally, I wish every dialogue choice I made felt this crucial.
Compare this tense encounter with Wrex to how completely unrealistic and forced the Paragon/Renegade morality system feels in most situations. Basically, depending upon how Shepard treats the people she encounters, the player received either Paragon or Renegade points. Paragon points, awarded for being kind and reasonable, allow Shepard to play Space Jesus and keep people on the straight and narrow. Renegade points, awarded for being kind of an asshole, allow Shepard to play Han Solo (except, for some reason, racist) and shoot first, ask questions later, etc. This dichotomy, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with the way any real human being has ever acted ever. It is merely an attempt at the simplified character categorization Bioware clung to until very recently, another colorful meter to fill so that dialogue scenes feel like they’re actually contributing to the game somehow. This system leads to some pretty ridiculous, eye-rolling scenarios; even within a genre-entertainment power fantasy, I don’t buy that anyone, regardless of how “charming” or “intimidating,” could talk down a committed terrorist within a few lines of dialogue. A game’s mechanics should never trump its emotional logic.
The slapdash Paragon/Renegade conundrum indicates what I found so frustrating about Mass Effect, even while I was enjoying it. Bioware never fully commits to making “just” a video game; its sights are clearly set on crafting an epic universe that transcends the medium. Yet the writers and game designers do nothing to move beyond gaming’s clunkiest, most tired tropes, like filtering a character’s decisions through a convoluted, fairly arbitrary point system. Nothing about the game itself is quite fresh enough to warrant the fanfare and self-seriousness with which it often greets its own mythos. Generic zombie enemies litter many levels, while most missions feel structurally and mechanically repetitive. It all feels a bit generic for something so lovingly crafted, a dogpile of over-used sci-fi tropes and blandly “awesome” genre standbys, hoping to coalesce into something greater than the sum of their parts through quantity alone.
Side quests also illustrate the divide between ambitions and grasp. I love the ambience of exploring Mass Effect‘s many outer worlds, how the game contrasts the calming beauty of space with the creeping terror of the alien. Traversing the galaxy and combing its many planets for mysteries is some of the most memorable open-world exploration I’ve encountered in this sort of game. The galaxy map and the planets themselves employ a phenomenal color palette, refreshing compared to most titles’ endless greys and browns. Here, the designers perfectly capture Mass Effect‘s intended scope, its wide-eyed wonder at the vastness of its subject. But they don’t trust us to content ourselves with that, and instead of finding objectives for the player to complete that keeps with this tone, they shoehorn in cliche game missions straight out of a lesser franchise. Why ask the player to shoot identical enemies in embarrassingly re-used environments, aside from the fact that that’s “just what you do” in games? Why not live up to the Bioware reputation of (comparable) nuance and humanity, and allow the player to engage with these planets and their inhabitants in a more thoughtful, organic way? These same-y side missions are neither worthy setpieces nor intimate diversions. They are padding, existing only to reach the obligatory thirty-hour duration mark required of “serious” RPGs.
“But wait!” you cry, your finger jamming into your Renegade Interrupt hotkey in an attempt to cease this blasphemy. “Bioware totally addresses all of these complaints in Mass Effect 2 and 3!” Well, dear reader, I completely believe you. In fact, I’m roughly ten hours into Mass Effect 2, and actually enjoying it immensely. The combat and mission structures are more intuitive and engaging, the hub worlds more atmospheric and flavorful, the characters certainly less stock. (I like Garrus in particular a lot more now that he’s Batman.) It’s simply a more dynamic, less stiff version of this universe, at last willing to poke fun at its own ridiculousness and endear itself to the player with something approaching a personality. (A first for a Bioware game, in my book!) Its greater focus on setpieces and scripted events renders it sort of a Mass Effect: Half-Life 2 Edition. It’s probably why some hardcore fans hate it, but that’s about as tailor-made for me as the first game is for people still pissed that Fox canceled Firefly.
It’s still not perfect. I still have a major bone to pick with how Bioware’s writers deliver exposition (wouldn’t the Illusive Man be a lot cooler and more, er, elusive if he weren’t quite so gabby?), but I’m willing to reserve judgment until the story and missions really get moving. Oh, and there’s still this weird rule that every female character’s outfit can’t leave much to the imagination; I’m seriously asking here, just how intolerably male gaze-y are these games when you play them from a dude’s perspective? I understand the sense of betrayal some feel that Mass Effect 2 betrays the original’s reputation as a “true” RPG/epic/piece of “hard sci-fi.” Yet at the risk of sounding snarky, I’d rather have a viscerally engaging game experience than pat myself on the back for navigating a cobwebby menu system or parsing out that “Cryo Rounds VI” is probably a better weapon upgrade than “Cryo Rounds V.” But the important thing is, Mass Effect 2 helps me understand the appeal of Mass Effect, to the extent that this review now feels a bit like saying nasty things about a perfectly palatable acquaintance because of a bad first impression.
And you know what? Despite my laundry list of complaints, there’s still a lot to recommend about the first Mass Effect. Jack Wall and Sam Hulick’s score, first and foremost, is excellent, perhaps the best soundtrack I’ve heard in a Western video game. It’s muscular but never overbearing, the sort of ’70s-tinged electronic prog that you’d never admit to liking in certain circles, but is pretty undeniably awesome. The voice cast hovers anywhere from excellent to at least above average; at worst, they sometimes sound worn out from the sheer amount of lore and exposition they must recite. I’m certainly not the first person to praise her, but Jennifer Hale deserves all the credit she’s given for rendering Shepard a believable, multifaceted protagonist, even when the player (and writers) makes choices that work against that.
Mass Effect isn’t the best third-person cover shooter, but it’s often better than it’s given credit for. Squad mechanics are simple but workable, and certain weapons like shotguns possess surprisingly pleasant feedback and crunch. And after a laborious introduction, the game is even well-paced. Like the best RPGs, Mass Effect knows how to dribble out just enough reward and achievement to keep the player locked in. Is carrot-on-a-stick, to-do list gaming the deepest connection we can have with these virtual worlds? Of course not, but I can still appreciate the skill necessary to craft an “addictive” experience. And even if I did want to take issue with this approach, the game’s final third does feature some exquisite pay-off. Bringing down Saren’s research facility is great mission design; engaging in crossfire and biotic showdowns across the tropical lair’s bridge system is tactical and natural. And yes, the ending is suitably epic, with the seat of galactic power coming under fire and Shepard strapping on a spacesuit to scale a tower in zero gravity. Even without being exactly invested in the story, I found this leg of the journey a satisfying and fitting final trial.
Mass Effect is an odd mix of ambition and ambivalence. While I enjoyed my time with it, I never forged an emotional connection with it, or engaged with its broad sci-fi themes. It feels like the product of incredibly passionate people who have yet to find their voice, who know everything about Star Wars and pen-and-paper gaming but too little about love and life. Mass Effect‘s greatest inspiration is obviously the longform, sprawling TV space opera, the Babylon 5s and Star Treks and Battlestar Galacticas of the world. Many great television shows take a moment to find their feet. (When’s the last time you watched those first few Star Trek episodes? I thought so.) I’m willing to chalk up Mass Effect to the “awkward first season” syndrome, full of promise but unsure exactly how to realize it.
*Never mind that a major plot point is that in the future, we all start directing our prejudices toward competing alien races. I’m a little too cynical to buy that bigots of any era would have to look that far beyond their next-door neighbors to find some difference worth hating, but I suppose that’s why they call it “science fiction.”
**And yes, I’m aware Liara is technically a genderless Asari, and that in Mass Effect 2, there’s a tongue-in-cheek explanation for her species’ voluptuous design. Still doesn’t quite excuse it, though.
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