N7 Day: What Mass Effect Means to Me
Julian gets nostalgic for his Commander Shepard on BioWare's made up PR day.
It’s November 7th, which is a very important day. No, no, not the fact that the Presidential election is over; I’m talking about vital, pressing issues. Yes friends, today is national N7 Day, so I thought I’d take some time to wax nostalgic about the Mass Effect series and what it’s meant to me. It’s no secret around PixlBit that I’m a pretty rabid Mass Effect fan. Heck, I hosted an entire podcast about the series. With the trilogy wrapped up in a neat little bow (more or less), what better day to shine a light on the saga of Commander Shepard?
Now, I should state for the record that I don’t buy into these PR-made event days, but at the same time I suppose the BioWare hype train worked, because I’ve been thinking about the series a lot lately. Part of that has to do with the fact that the trilogy concluded this year, and part of that has to do with the fact that I just completed my fourth play through of the first Mass Effect game.
That’s kind of unheard of for me. When I was a teenager, I’d replay my games all of the time, because I didn’t have very many, and what else was a nerdy only child to do? Working for a video game store from the age of 17-25 afforded me the ability to play the newest games in rapid succession, so I rarely looked back after completing a game, instead trading it in for the next big thing. That’s carried on into my 30s, and I usually finish a game in a week or two before putting it on the shelf forever.
Mass Effect was different. It was my introduction to the Western RPG design style, and its focus on character, world building, and decision making blew me away. If you had come to me in 2004 and told me that in a scant three years I’d be having a discussion with a party member on the existence of God or exploring a universe every bit as robust as Star Wars and Star Trek I would have laughed in your face and called you a loon. As a staunch console RPG player I was used to the traditional fantasy-based Japanese developed games. When I got my hands on Mass Effect my view on what an RPG could be shifted drastically.
Mass Effect gave me an unprecedented level of freedom and control over my game. I created a Commander Shepard that represented the best of my former game store boss and Admiral Adama from Battlestar Galactica. I was able to play him as an intergalactic Captain America, doing good and defeating ne’er-do-wells all over Citadel space. He gained the trust and respect of a diverse crew of humans and aliens. All this was done against a backdrop of a universe rich with history, lore, and the type of believable future technology that writers like Asimov and Heinlein would approve of.
Over the course of the series, I grew strongly and inextricably attached to my Commander Shepard and the crew of the SSV Normandy. The Mass Effect series is home to some of my favorite video game characters ever, from Garrus to Tali to Mordin. While I wasn’t as pleased with the way the series stripped off its deep RPG battle mechanics in favor of something more in line with modern shooters, the epic tale of Commander Shepard and his struggle against the Reapers is the stuff that all great sci-fi comes from. I’m not ashamed to admit that the final game in the trilogy choked me up on more than one occasion.
Of course, I can’t talk about Mass Effect without bringing up the ending, but I won’t spoil anything here, in case you’re on the fence about picking up that Mass Effect Trilogy bundle and are reading this out of curiosity. Even before BioWare crafted new ending scenes to what was shipped on the Mass Effect 3 disc I was satisfied with the conclusion of the story. It didn’t end the way I would have liked, but I’ve always felt that the Mass Effect games all have weak endings. It’s everything leading up to those endings that is special, and all of the special moments I shared with my crew (both current and former) over the course of Mass Effect 3 was what I had come for, and I wasn’t disappointed. The additional ending bits were very welcome, and answered a lot of lingering questions, but at the end of the day, Mass Effect 3 is all about the time I spend with my Shepard and his crew saving the galaxy, and not about the final five minutes of the adventure.
With that said, I always come back to the first Mass Effect. It’s my new “desert island” game—that game you’d pick if you were stranded with nothing else to play. I’ve played it in its entirety—that’s completing every mission and side quest—four times now, and it wasn’t just for the achievement hunting. There were things in my fourth play through that were still new to me, and playing as an all-biotic adept class was a far different experience than my original infiltrator. Mass Effect is the equivalent of video game comfort food; I can play it when I’m feeling down on gaming and it always picks me right up. And whenever I finish the game the first thing I do is create a new Commander Shepard with a new backstory and a plan in my head for how his or her saga will play out.
Sure, it’s janky and full of bugs. The level design is fairly repetitive and the Mako still sucks. But there’s always a complete sense of the unknown when I start up a new Shepard. Beyond that, I’m a sucker for the deep RPG components to the game, as well as the huge number of powers and how crazy they can get. There’s nothing quite like setting off a fully leveled Singularity into a room full of mercenaries, canisters, and packing crates, even if the maelstrom of physics is just a bit too much for the game engine to handle.
Mass Effect has had a huge impact on the way I look at RPGs, morality in gaming, and storytelling. It’s hard for me to go back to games that don’t give me this level of creativity and involvement in a fictional world, and even as I crank through Halo 4 while you read this, there’s a part of me that’s ready to continue one of my other Shepard’s stories, or an entirely new one. And isn’t that the hallmark of a classic game?