As I played through the final game in BioWare’s masterful Mass Effect trilogy, I found it strange to think that no one else knows my Commander Shepard, an ebony-skinned woman in her late thirties with a messy, lightly silvering bob. Thanks to a system that carries custom avatars forward from one game to the next, millions of players have differing perceptions of what Shepard looks like. (I suspect in most cases he's a man, which just seems wrong to me).
Stranger still is that the discrepencies in our perceptions go far beyond Shepard’s appearance. I’ve made thousands of decisions over the trilogy’s 150-hour arc, and all of them have been logged and fed into what I can only imagine to be a wildly complex narrative algorithm designed to ensure plot continuity. Everything my Shepard has done – the political decisions she’s made, the alien species she’s helped or condemned, the characters she’s saved, killed, and sacrificed, the romantic interests with whom she’s flirted, made love to, and cheated on – has altered the story in ways both subtle and overt, ensuring that my experience of Mass Effect is unlike that of anyone else.
Taken as whole, the series represents an extraordinarily ambitious – and culturally progressive (more on the series’ controversy-inducing social agenda in another story coming later this week) – work of interactive storytelling.
It’s also one of the most compelling speculative fictions yet created in the world of games, filled with worlds and species that work together to create a believably vast and organic virtual universe. Thanks to a surfeit of historical detail, terrific artistic design, and an excellent cast of actors (including the likes of Oscar-nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo), species like the matriarchal Asari, warlike Krogan, science-driven Salarians, and nomadic Quarians have become almost as real to me as exotic cultures on Earth. Their natures, philosophies, and plights are engaging enough to bring out the armchair xenobiologist/xenosociologist in just about anyone.
And it’s not just alien-laden space opera. You can tell at least a few hard sci-fi writers have infiltrated BioWare’s team of talented scribes by the science-y descriptions of hundreds of worlds and astronomical phenomena that can be called up on command. Granted, text accounts of microbial life evolving on an asteroid and star-sized gas giants that have failed to ignite aren’t for everyone, but this geek found them fascinating. They add a level of depth and authenticity to the star clusters we explore that you won't find in any other game. I made a point of reading every one.
It's worth adding that the complexity of the series' sprawling narrative means Mass Effect 3 will likely consternate newcomers. Despite BioWare’s claims otherwise, trying to dive into the series at this point would be akin to trying to make sense of the Star Wars universe by watching only Return of the Jedi.
Indeed, we've spend so much time investing ourselves in this massive, rich, and nuanced galaxy that it seems a shame it all must end.
But end it does.
The final chapter begins on Earth in Vancouver near the end of the 23rd century (check out our interview with the series’ art director to learn more about his team’s take on the future architecture of Canada’s west coast metropolis). The threat of the Reapers – a race of synthetic beings that wipes the galaxy clean of advanced sentient life at 50,000 year intervals – has finally materialized. These Mountain-sized machines arrive to crush not just humanity’s cradle, but every civilized planet in known space.
It falls to Shepard to unite the galaxy’s mistrustful and warring factions into a single fighting force capable of repelling the galactic invaders. We travel to scores of planets, carrying out missions with intent to earn trust, goodwill, and, most importantly, gratitude bestowed in the form of war assets that will be used in the final battle against the Reapers.
As in past Mass Effect outings, BioWare has done a superlative job of creating a sense of scale and desperation – and not just via the number of locations visited and diversity of races threatened by extinction. Gorgeous level design delivers sweeping vistas of grand cities and alien landscapes that give the proceedings a galactic epic-ness and show us exactly what is at stake in this final fight.
It would be easy to become lost in the enormity of it all, but BioWare cleverly anchors our experience to Shepard, who keeps things personal and manageable. Her – those of you with male avatars will need to bear with my choice of pronouns; I can’t imagine my protagonist as anything but my so-called “FemShep” – fear of responsibility takes the form of nightmares in which a child she failed to save before leaving Earth repeatedly burns to death.