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Mass Effect & Emotional Storytelling – The Greatest Story Ever Told

The Greatest Story Ever Made

Updated: Dec 14, 2022 9:18 am
Mass Effect & Emotional Storytelling – The Greatest Story Ever Told

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It was once said that emotion and reason are two horses that are pulling us in opposite directions by Plato. He believed that emotions were primitive and disruptive to the normal and optimal function of the mind.

Plato was an idiot.

Don’t get me twisted here – Plato was an extremely intelligent man with an inconceivably large legacy on modern civilization and modern schools of thought. But his ideas surrounding emotional responses and emotion when mixed with reason are totally wrong.

There’s a reason he was vastly eclipsed by one of his own students, after all. 

Now, you’re probably reading the title of this feature and wondering what the hell any of this has to do with the Mass Effect series, and I honestly don’t blame you. Trust me though, there is a point to all of this.

Mass Effect Accomplishes What Most Games Cannot

Revisiting Eden Prime In Mass Effect 3
Revisiting Eden Prime In Mass Effect 3

Emotional storytelling is core to any good story. Look at some of the biggest stories ever told and you’ll see that extremely obvious truth. Without the characters of Jack & Rose in Titanic, you wouldn’t care when that movie ends with them both in a state of dire peril. Without the emotional beats of a story scattered throughout the pages of Tolkien’s magnum opus, The Lord Of The Rings, you wouldn’t care whether or not Sam & Frodo made it to the fires of Mount Doom, and you wouldn’t feel a twisting knot in your heart every single time that Sauron got close to The One Ring. 

The same can be said for any great video game narrative. When you personally think of video game stories, what comes to mind? It’s likely your mind jumps to different places than if I’d asked you for great video game characters when you’re thinking about design. In a story, you need memorable characters for sure, but you also need memorable locations and plot elements. It’s why games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, The Last Of Us & Red Dead Redemption 2 endure in the mind. It’s also why the Mass Effect trilogy will forever and always remain one of the greatest RPG series ever made, and why every single possible competitor will fall at a final invisible hurdle.

You seem, Mass Effect is the greatest story ever told. That sounds like an extremely bold claim, especially in the face of so many incredible stories, but I wholeheartedly mean it. Nothing can ever approach the feeling of discovering the sheer scope of Saren’s plan or stopping The Morning War in Mass Effect 3. I mean god, several side-quests in Mass Effect 2 reduced me to tears, with the companion-specific missions and The Lair Of The Shadow Broker DLC in particular simply turning me to dust. It’s some of the best side-quest work in a video game, and some of the best character development in a video game. And it’s all OPTIONAL. You can choose not to do it! And if you choose not to do it, you’ll face the issues that stem from that! It’s something I wish more games did, that more gamers cared about, enough that more games adapted this incredible model. 

As a person, I’m what you might fondly call a mess. I suffer from acute severe depression, anxiety issues, and a whole host of self-loathing problems. I consider video games as an outlet to channel some of that pent-up rage, sadness, and frustration, and RPGs are quite possibly the epitome of this. You get to design a full character, run through the gamut of refining them exactly to your tastes, and make them exactly what you want them to be. In an RPG as deep and wide-reaching as Mass Effect, you don’t own choose who you are, you help to shape who other people are. The way that your companions react is based upon your actions, and the ramifications of your choices are felt throughout the entire universe, even in small throwaway lines of dialogue.

There’s a seemingly minor character on Noveria in Mass Effect 1, Gianna Parasini, that seemingly matters very little. You talk to her once in the original Mass Effect, grabbing a drink with her at a bar. You’ll then go through the rest of this game not thinking about her ever again, then you’ll move on to Mass Effect 2. In Mass Effect 2, there’s a sidequest surrounding her that you’ll only get if you stopped to grab that drink with her in Mass Effect 1. Then she appears AGAIN in Mass Effect 3 emailing you asking for help, and this isn’t the only instance of a seemingly minor decision leading to more complications or more help down the line. This becomes especially apparent by the time you reach Mass Effect 3, the culmination of everything that you’ve done in the series and the realization of what you have become. You can be either anything on a wide-reaching moral spectrum in the Mass Effect series, and what you do will create problems for you.

The Suicide Mission, Or How I Became A Nervous Wreck

The Citadel During Wartime
The Citadel During Wartime

When I think of memorable characters in video games, or indeed in any medium, some of the first that I think of are the blue-skinned Asari, Liara T’Soni, or the Turian, Garrus Vakarian. I think of my Commander Allison Shepard, a character that I molded and played as if it was literally me. Every decision I made was with my own moral lines, my moral compass informed everything I did. Rather than go pure renegade or pure paragon, I chose my own path through this massive universe, this wide-ranging cosmos. I let my emotions inform these decisions because it felt right (Screw you and your teachings Plato), meaning that I would always favor certain characters over others.

My personal favorite three characters were the Krogan Warrior, Urdnot Wrex, the aforementioned Liara T’Soni, and the already-mentioned Garrus Vakarian. Each character has their own unique voice, their own unique way of interacting with you, and their own path. These aren’t your cut-and-dry NPC characters, these are characters with stories. Liara T’Soni, for example, goes on a journey from a shy flirtatious Asari scientist in the first game to a loving yet deadly crime lord by the close of Mass Effect 3 (and yes, I romanced Liara because I have taste. Sorry Garrus fans!). 

BUY NOW: Mass Effect Legendary Edition – Green Man Gaming

And those missions….. God. I know people say the ending to Mass Effect 3 is ‘bad’ but firstly, they’re wrong, and secondly, they’re wrong. There is context required as to why I think this though, and it ripples back in time through the series to the final mission in Mass Effect 2. 

It’s rather fondly referred to as the ‘Suicide Mission’ by fans, and it’s referred to as this for a goddamn reason.

The entirety of Mass Effect 2 carefully takes time to build up a universe around you. You visit brand-new planets in addition to older, more recognizable locales, you interact with inhabitants that help to inform your opinions on the world around them. There’s a space station in Mass Effect 2 that is representative of the grimy underclass, the part of humanity that favors capital over anything else, and that values money more than people. Some of the first impressions I got simply seeing how that place was designed was “Oh, this is an underplanet”. It’s a planet that’s just the underbelly of a city but stretched for a massive space station. Think Coruscant from Star Wars if it was just gangsters everywhere. 

It’s here that you first meet up with Garrus again after your death (oh yeah, spoilers! Mass Effect 2 opens with you dying in the cold vacuum of space, an absolutely brutal death for a character you spent roughly twenty hours getting attached to, more if you’re me and you played the DLC), work out what he’s been up to and realize that for him life kept going, and he’s been places that you simply weren’t privy to.

The point I’m attempting to make is that Mass Effect 2 grows the world around you in a way the first game doesn’t have time to do, and because of this your crew also grows substantially:

Mass Effect 1

  • Kaiden Alenko
  • Tali’Zorah nar Rayya
  • Liara T’Soni
  • Garrus Vakarian
  • Ashley Williams
  • Urdnot Wrex

Mass Effect 2

  • Kasumi Goto
  • Grunt
  • Thane Krios
  • Jack 
  • Miranda Lawson
  • Legion
  • Zaeed Massani
  • Tali’Zorah van Neema
  • Samara (Or Morinth)
  • Mordin Solus
  • Jacob Taylor
  • Garrus Vakarian
  • Liara T’Soni

Mass Effect 2 has over double the squad members that Mass Effect 1 has, which is incredible growth. And a deadly thing for you, the player.

All of this means you’re so much more attached to the characters on your ship, and it’s why the second you start the suicide mission you’re more than likely to have your heart ripped out of your chest. Commander Shepard and her entire team take on the Collectors, finally trying to eliminate the thing that has been threatening and dogging them for the entire game, while also taking the population of entire planets to convert into their soldiers.

If you haven’t upgraded the items you need to upgrade on your ship, you will immediately lose members of your squad as the Collectors notice you approaching and take action against you. It’s here where your choices in certain conversations will bite you in the ass. Did you keep all team members happy? Or did you side with a certain member over the other, while forgetting to patch things up with the other member? Because if you did the latter, you’ve completely lost the loyalty of the member you didn’t side with.

And this means you’re going to lose them.

There are multiple companion-specific sidequests in Mass Effect 2 that are referred to as ‘Loyalty Missions; these missions give you incredible depth on your team members and also make it so that they trust you more (though honestly you probably could have guessed that).

Once you land on the Collector’s planet, if you haven’t lost team members already, you’re faced with a series of decisions. Who do you send as a distraction team? Who will be your man in the vents, taking out defenses along the way? Who’s going to be part of your lead strike team? You have to make these decisions and you have to make them quickly because there’s the feeling of a ticking clock over your head. Everybody you’ve become emotionally attached to, everybody you care about, everybody you love, they all are reliant on your decision to ensure their survival. The first time I played, I panicked and made the wrong decisions, something that emotionally scarred me to such a degree I purposefully do not make those decisions replaying the game.

READ MORE: Mass Effect Legendary Edition System Requirements

It is possible to lose every single squad member in the final mission of Mass Effect 2, in varying degrees of brutality. The scene is set for a truly incredible showdown in Mass Effect 3, the tone of which is set just by how deadly this mission is. You feel every single shot crawling down your back, and every single noise made by your companion makes you nervous and worried.  

And as a final blow, you can watch yourself die. And if you die, that’s it. There’s no Mass Effect 3, you lost. The universe died, burned to a cinder while you lay dead for the second time over decisions that you made, issues that you caused, and problems that you are the main factor in. You can’t do anything about that. And you know what? That’s beautiful to me in a way that no other game will ever manage to match.

The game yanks at your heartstrings, and it doesn’t stop. Your emotions are what leads you to make your decisions, and at the end of the day what gets you into the most trouble throughout the entire series, yet it’s so satisfying to do, and it’s an experience that I wouldn’t trade if I was offered the entire world and more.

Then Mass Effect 3 comes along and redefines everything I thought I knew about the storytelling of the Mass Effect series. You see, Mass Effect 3 is the final culmination of everything that came before. All the stories, all the romance, and all the love poured into this series by you and the designers. Yet I don’t want to fixate on the ending of the Morning War, the final beautiful stages of the Reaper Conflict, or the numerous different battles that are staged on planets of people you care about deeply. The greatest stuff in Mass Effect 3 isn’t even in the main game, it’s in the DLC chapter, Citadel. 

How Mass Effect 3: Citadel Emphasises The Journey You’ve Been On

From Left To Right:
Urdnot Wrex, Garrus Vakarian, James Vega, Javik, Grunt, Jack, Tali'Zorah vas Normandy, Miranda Lawson, Steve Cortez, Jacob Taylor, Kaiden Alenko, Samara, Samantha Traynor, Liara T'Soni, Shepard, EDI, Joker
From Left To Right:
Urdnot Wrex, Garrus Vakarian, James Vega, Javik, Grunt, Jack, Tali’Zorah vas Normandy, Miranda Lawson, Steve Cortez, Jacob Taylor, Kaiden Alenko, Samara, Samantha Traynor, Liara T’Soni, Shepard, EDI, Joker

Citadel is like a slice-of-life anime, in a weird way. Instead of centering on the heightening tensions of cosmological political tensions, the growing fear of an all-out war that will decimate every living being in the galaxy, it focuses on your little misfit family that you’ve come to know and love through every skirmish.

It’s hyper-focused, with the first part focusing on a plot to clone Commander Shepard and tarnish her legacy. It’s here we get to really see the squad dynamic play out, with everybody working together for the final time and a final quest that really works quite well as an epilogue for the series as a whole. You really feel the sense that these misfits that were thrown together through circumstance and led through battles that they really shouldn’t have survived (and that some didn’t, regardless of your choices throughout the games) are close friends, found-family, and would do anything to help each other out.  

Once you defeat your evil clone and her handler, then the really fun parts of the Citadel DLC start and make for some of the greatest pieces of storytelling in all of fiction. Once again, this is only possible because of the ties that bind, because of the way that you have interacted with everybody throughout the games, and the sheer amount of time that you’ll have spent just talking to them on your ship, the Normandy (a living breathing character in and of itself, but this is already a long article and talking about that beautiful maiden of a ship would probably double the word count, so maybe another time). Anyway, I digress. In order to celebrate everything that has happened so far, and everything that you’ve been through with some of the most memorable, you do the only logical thing.

You throw a goddamn party.

READ MORE: Mass Effect 2 Review

Everything about this party is amazing, with in-jokes thrown fast and thick. Commander Shepard’s dancing in the first Mass Effect game is an oft-discussed meme, with the awkwardness almost palpable. In Mass Effect 3: Citadel, that dancing is ribbed mercilessly. Everything that people have ever mocked the Mass Effect series for (with great love, may I add) is on display and turned into a brilliant joke, one that feels like it was well-earned. You rapidly realize that these characters aren’t just friends, they aren’t just NPCs used to shepherd (heh) you from point A to point B to point C. They’re living, breathing entities that you become emotionally attached to, that you invest yourself into, that you pour yourself into. For my money, Mass Effect is the only series that has ever accomplished this, and three of the greatest games ever made. 

It’s made all the more beautiful and wonderful by that final shot of the DLC. That final shot, of you and your crewmembers staring at the beast that is the Normandy, the greatest ship in all of fiction. You started your journey on that ship, met all these brilliant individuals, created bonds that will last a lifetime, and it’s time to go. Nothing can last forever, not life, not love, not friendship. It’s time to let go.

The Future Is Wide Open

My hopes for the next game in the Mass Effect franchise aren’t exactly high. Mass Effect Andromeda took all the goodwill that the series once had and destroyed it with an incredibly buggy launch experience, and facial animations that stuck in the minds of gamers long past the release of the game. That’s not to say Mass Effect Andromeda is particularly bad in the current state that it exists in, but it simply isn’t anything approaching the levels of Mass Effect 1, Mass Effect 2, and Mass Effect 3.

All I need from a future installment in the Mass Effect series is what the series has already given me in the first three games in the series, taking full advantage of next-generation capabilities and hardware. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition has proven that Bioware still has what it takes to do right by the Mass Effect series, and I hope to see that reflected in the future of the series.

Happy N7 Day, Mass Effect.

And shut the hell up, Plato.

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