Mass Effect Trilogy

Every one of us wants to be the hero of our time.

Mass Effect Trilogy is a sequence of three Mass Effect games that form an epic, almost mythical, rise of a human hero in the face of a galactic annihilation. I can safely say there has not been a game that touched me this deeply since my innocent childhood. At the end of the trilogy, I was ravaged by the sense of resolution it offered. I was obsessed for days, thinking about what had happened during my experience and about my companions. Despite the fact that I am now writing about the game, please note that it is impossible for me to convey in mere words the full extent of the beauty I experienced. Consider playing! (buy)

I will first give an overview of the game plot. Then I will be more technical and attempt to explain why the game succeeds. Then I will conclude with a general impression of the game. I will avoid focusing on minor details about game mechanics (which in my opinion are just means to an end), but clutch to the big picture. There are spoilers, but they are essential to illustrating why the game is so mighty.

Plot overview: what it means to become a hero

(This plot is based on the game decisions made by me. There are many other possible plots depending on how the decisions are made.)

Specific aspects about Mass Effect that make it soar

Enormous scale

Each game takes around 30 hours to complete, with a moderate dose of self-initiated exploration (some take as long as 80 hours). The total number of hours for the trilogy adds up to almost 100 hours.

There are certain types of emotion that arise only from a long journey. Were you touched at the end of the seventh installment of Harry Potter or the third Lord of the Rings movie? During the 100 hours of play in Mass Effect, you surf the galaxy in your personal ship Normandy, meet countless characters and get to know them (across the three games). This is enough time to evoke the feeling of being glad to see an old friend.

As a specific example, you recruit an alien character in Mass Effect 1. He is somewhat irksome and rebellious, but you eventually grow to like and even respect him for his other qualities. By the end of the first game, you feel like he is a genuinely great pal. Now, in Mass Effect 2, he is nowhere to be seen, off to take care of his own business. Only 20-30 hours of additional play into the game will you encounter him again. The gladness of seeing each other's face is mutual.

Nearing the end of trilogy, you will have spent so many hours, having experienced even emotions that only come attached to the waning of age. This galactic community that you have grown so attached to is counting on you to stop the invaders. The sense of duty, honor, and resolution that you feel about saving the galaxy is a result of the sheer scale of the game.

Open-ended relationship with companions

In Mass Effect, you can have romance with your crew members. The developer Bioware is famous for a dialogue system that allows you to communicate with the game characters, however limited. At any point of play, you can choose to hang out in your ship, visiting your crew members in their own cabins. In this private space, you can have conversations that touch on intensely personal issues of your members (which can initiate side missions).

Let me provide a specific example. One of the galactic species is called the Asari. They have bright blue skin, and are one of the most advanced civilizations in the universe. In Mass Effect 1, you recruite an Asari named Liara T'Soni. When I first saw her, I had no particular feelings, mildly repulsed by her exotic appearance.

But as I progressed through the game and got to know her better, I learned to appreciate the strange mixture of qualities in her. Fiercely intelligent in mind but pure in heart, beautiful and terrible at the same time, remarkably capable yet humble. In the real world, it is probably very hard to find someone in which these qualities coexist.

Eventually, I developed genuine liking of her. Strangely, I have rarely if not never felt the feeling of having a crush on someone in real life. The sensation of happiness and the beating of the heart upon just thinking about the character came to me as both bizarre and pleasant. I really think it is a cool outcome. Think about it; a virtual character has taught me what it (kind of) feels like to be in love.

At the end of Mass Effect 3, in the final stance against the Reapers, Liara is killed in a combat. But the situation is too urgent to mourn for her. When my time has come to sacrifice myself to save the galaxy, at the moment I initiate a procedure to turn myself into an immortal but dead program, the memory of Liara flashes on the screen (presumably, the game stores which characters you have romance with and show them at this point). There is no way I can describe how I felt at that moment, on seeing Liara's face one last time.

Tight restraints for maximal impact

For most of the game play, special sound and visual effects are very reserved. There are cutscenes and background music, but these are mostly for a storytelling purpose. It is clear that the developers concentrated on improving the game experience itself without relying on easy "cheats" of flashy visuals and grandiose music.

To me, Mass Effect put the Japanese anime and games in stark contrast. J. products tend to be too enthusiastic to impose appropriate restraints that are crucial to achieve truly powerful experiences. Wild moves will be displayed too often, dramatic music will be played too frequently, etc.

On the other hand, Mass Effect is strictly regularized. It focuses on the core experience at all times (not the immediate entertainment specific to that given moment). Consequently, the story alone is immensely enjoyable. When you add additional components on top of this already powerful base, its emotional impact shines forth blindingly.

For instance, in Mass Effect 3, there is a certain signature piano piece --- a deep, poignant, sorrowful yet resolute score. This piece is only played at the most critical moments. (In my play, I think I encountered this piece only twice, one in the beginning and one in the ending.) In the ending, when my Shepard chose to give up her life and grabbed those controllers to begin disintegrating her body, this music began trickling down the screen, touching the very bottom of my inner being. This kind of narrative power only comes from careful reservation. As C. S. Lewis said,

Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
Mass Effect certainly listened to this wisdom.


Playing Mass Effect Trilogy has taught me
  • How good it feels to rise to become the hero of our time
  • What it is like to sacrifice myself to save the world
  • What it is like to have a crush on someone
In the aftermath of finishing the trilogy, I would daydream about the memories created in this world. And, strangely, this made me happy and contented. It is as if I already lived out a fulfilling life to reflect on --- a life worth living. Actually quite liberating.
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