Reaper

Mass Effect's Choices Remain Its Greatest Success—And Greatest Failure

You choices can't change much, but they are still the most important thing in the universe.
May 27, 2021, 1:00pm

The idea of "choice" is one of the great dreams of narrative games and their fans. The concept that you, the player, can build your character's personality and relationship and then the game world bends around those choices, in the way that a game like Civilization will bend around a player's economic and military choices. The dream, of course, is unattainable—writers cannot write dialogue for every possible situation, and any AI that could do it would probably be powerful enough to be a Mass Effect villain—but the attempts to reach it are still exciting and often beloved.

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There's no game series more beloved than Mass Effect for making that attempt. The narratively ambitious space opera trilogy centers the player as Commander Shepard, the (repeated) savior of the galaxy. The choices players make through Shepard have achieved a near-mythic quality—Ashley or Kaidan, saving the Rachni Queen, dealing with the Krogan, or perhaps most important, which companion you decide to have Shepard smooch in each game. More than any other game, the choices that players make create a personalized view of "their" Shepard and their Mass Effect run that sticks in the memory. 

But what exactly is it about Mass Effect that makes it so important in game history? Why is it an event when it gets a belated rerelease like the Legendary Edition? What are the foundations that allow its choices to manifest in such a way?


But first, perhaps the most important thing to say about Mass Effect—and choice in games in general—is that the way they're often discussed isn't actually the thing that makes them good. 

The key issue with choice-based games, that's become increasingly apparent in the decade since Mass Effect, Dragon Age, The Walking Dead, Witcher 2 & 3, Fallout New Vegas, and others, is that choice is a red herring or a false flag or trojan horse, or whatever ominous metaphor you prefer.

There is a paradox of choice, where the more important a choice is in a narrative game with embedded dialogue, the less of an effect it can actually have in the game world.

The reason for this is straightforward: video games are hard to make. They involve animators and voice actors and writers and artists and programmers and directors and so on and so on—it's easy to imagine a version of Mass Effect where, say, responding to fanboy Conrad Verner in at start of that game turns him into the Illusive Man's lead henchman in Mass Effect 3, but that would be expensive, and how many people would do it? Or to put it more simply: every choice that alters the game depending on the choice made means that at least half of players at any given playthrough won't see one side of it. And shouldn't limited resources be invested in the things that players will see?

Take one of the biggest choices in Mass Effect 1: the choice of whether to save Kaidan or Ashley on Virmire. These are the two companions you've had essentially from the start of the game, and could have formed a romantic attachment to. The entire game simply stops at a climactic point, and you have to make a choice between. In Extra Lives, critic Tom Bissell's book on games of the era, he discusses how he left the game on for the day as he agonized over the decision. 

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But once that decision is made, the Ash/Kaidan survivor fulfills the same role either way. In Mass Effect 1 they'll continue as a squadmate but they don't drive the plot. In Mass Effect 2, they'll show up to shame Shepard for working with Cerberus. And in Mass Effect 3, they become a fellow Spectre, help end a coup attempt, and then either rejoin your crew or become a "war asset." What they don't ever do is drive the plot forward as an individual. After the Kaiden/Ashley choice, the survivor necessarily becomes supplemental, not essential. 

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In fact, Mass Effect 3 has seven potential companions, but player choices can get rid of half of them. Never do Javik's discovery quest; have Garrus and Tali die in Mass Effect 2's suicide mission; turn away the Ashley/Kaidan survivor and you're left with only three companions: James, Liara, and EDI. The latter two, unsurprisingly, are responsible for almost all of ME3's plot movement from the player's companions, since they're the ones the game can actually guarantee will be around!

This is consistent across the trilogy. Seemingly big choices like whether the Council is saved or not at the end of ME1 and what to do with the Reaper corpse at the end of ME2 are turned into, essentially, background color for their sequels.

(The only relatively big-budget game I know of that dramatically reshaped its content in response to a player choice was The Witcher 2, which gave players entirely different quest hubs in its middle third depending on a single choice.)

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Players tend to describe the idea of "your choices matter!" as though it's a tree, where there's a trunk of a main plot, and major choices that you make along the way lead you branch after unique branch, until you end up at the tip of one of hundreds or thousands leaves.

But that's not the way these video games tend to be made. Instead, their narratives are more like a braid, perhaps with a central strand that's thicker than the others. The strands of narrative choice may split off and wander in their own directions, but they always end up coming back to and reconnecting with the central story.

Make a choice too important and a strand gets disconnected, which fragments both the story and the resources required to create the story. 

But if choice isn't merely a difficult thing to add to a narrative game but can actually backfire thanks to the paradox of choice, then why is Mass Effect, a series built fully and lovingly on the dream of choice, so beloved and acclaimed? Why does it sit on the peak of narrative franchises along with Ultima and Fallout and not much else? The answer, I feel, lies not in the choice part of the idea that "every choice matters!" but instead in the matters


What's important is not the actuality of the game world changing according to every narrative choice the player makes, what matters is the perception that the game world has changed. A great game built on narrative decision does the job of convincing the player that it sees what they've done, it understands it, and it will acknowledge it in an appropriate fashion.

The key to choice-based storytelling is not that the choices have effects, then, but that it responds to choices effectively—and that's what Mass Effect does well consistently across its trilogy, and that's the key to its decade-plus of popularity.

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I realized the importance of responsiveness versus choice playing a seemingly entirely different game from Mass Effect—Supergiant's Hades, one of 2020's games of the year. Hades was a game that didn't have significant narrative choices; it was an action roguelike that expected constant failure and death instead of the conventional narrative progression of Mass Effect. And yet it had the same kind of feeling to me —and to the sort of art-drawing, thirsty fans who attach themselves to characters of the most effective mass media.

And the key was responsiveness—Hades talked back at me, acknowledging everything that I was doing at the level that I was thinking about it. I chose a certain set of gods for my build that game, those gods talked to me. I died on a run, the characters back in the Normandy—or Hades' palace, as it were—talked to me about how I died. It was like Hades said "I see what you did, here's some good writing about it." And that was far, far more reinforcing than whether those "choices" mattered to the narrative. It's like an announcer in a sports game —if they can get the narrative right, the player can respect the game more, if they don't, it all falls apart. 

This can be seen in one of the key narrative innovations of the Mass Effect series: the indirect dialogue choice. In most previous RPGs, the dialogue options your player character chose was direct, that is, the line you clicked that said something like "Tell me more about the Super Mutants" would just have your character say "Tell me more about the Super Mutants"—whether voiced or unvoiced. In Mass Effect, however, players are presented with dialogue options that present the feeling that Shepard is supposed to establish with her next line. This has two really effective consequences: that Shepard seems like a character who exists outside of merely being a player avatar, and that by not showing exactly what the next line is going to be, players will pay more attention to the voice acting.

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But there's also an unintentional effect: when it fails, it shows how the system is supposed to work. In perhaps the most famous example, going through a conversation with Wrex in Mass Effect 1 with seemingly neutral dialogue options for Shepard leads to her comparing humanity's difficult but brief First Contact War with the Turians with the near-genocide the Turians dropped on the Krogan historically. This is a jarring moment because Shepard, the hyper-competent and, depending on player's style, hyper-sensitive Commander suddenly drops false equivalencies like a clueless white college student saying that Irish indentured servitude is the real historical oppression. It's a jarring moment for many reasons, but one of the key ones is that the relationship between player choice and game responsiveness fails. Shepard isn't supposed to say that! "My Shepard isn't so clueless, stop, stop, you're digging your own cancellation grave, Shep!"

Situations like that end up illustrating just how well Mass Effect normally handles being responsive. Take one of the biggest decisions of the trilogy—the decision to free or kill the Rachni Queen in Noveria in Mass Effect 1. If you look at the practical effects of this decision, there's almost none. At the end of the conversation, the queen disappears, whether dead or fleeing. If she survives, in Mass Effect 2 there are some news pieces about it. And in Mass Effect 3 there's a side quest that involves the Krogan Grunt taking on a group of Rachni—the dialogue in that can change if the queen is alive or not, and the effects on the "War Assets" change, but the level design and pacing are essentially the same either way.

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On the other hand, the game's responsiveness about the Rachni Queen makes it seem like one of the biggest deals in the galaxy. In the first game, everyone on your ship will have an opinion on what happened after—as will the Citadel Council. In the second game, those messages of what the Rachni are up to serve to reinforce that yes, that first game happened. And in the third, that side quest where you seem to have to choose between Grunt and the queen after a slog of a bug hunt feels like one of the most intense choices of the game (although it technically undercuts itself by letting Grunt live). 

Likewise, the Ashley/Kaidan choice ends up being effective throughout the series because the survivor does interact with Shepard, and Shepard does continue to note the death of the other. Those stands in contrast to the endgame decisions I mentioned above, where the trilogy doesn't really act like the Council's death or the Reaper corpse's salvaging are especially important.

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This all combines with the choice itself determining who players' Shepard is in a fascinating, science fiction way. Is she a ruthless conventional wisdom type who's willing to consign the galaxy's old boogeyman, the Rachni, to extinction once again? Or is she the poet-warrior, who recognizes the apparent enemy's nobility and grants them a chance at redemption? The game's writing and science fiction flair aid the choice, with the Rachni given a thorough alien and oddly compelling form of communication through taking over others' bodies when their "song" is insufficient. Who your Shepard is—or was—in Mass Effect 1 combines with how Mass Effect as a series responds to that one moment's choice in a consistently riveting fashion.


A second key to making choice work is pacing. Making a choice and seeing a reaction is one thing, making a choice and then seeing that reaction handled appropriately is reinforced by having the player have to work for that responsiveness. It is extremely easy to talk about Mass Effect as though it is a narrative-only game, because the narrative has such emotional strength; it's also easy to talk about Mass Effect as a narrative failure, because in many ways that narrative can be superficial or manipulable. Likewise, Mass Effect's level design and combat can often be easily dismissed because it supports the narrative which drives motivation. (Indeed, occasionally I see calls for "a Mass Effect without combat because that's what people really want!" on my Twitter feed.)

I personally have a pragmatic response to this, which is that Mass Effect, despite obvious flaws like that easily gamed morality system or combat that occasionally feels perfunctory, works in general—so what is about that combination that's so appealing? And I think this leads to the straightforward answer that combat serves as a form of effort , and exerting effort before or after a choice reinforces the importance of that choice. In other words, Mass Effect, like every other video game, should be viewed as a holistic experience—"gameplay" reinforces "story" and vice versa; instead of them opposing one another. 

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Perhaps more importantly, Bioware, the developers of Mass Effect, recognize this and grow more confident in showing it as the series progresses. Mass Effect 1 is structured like a traditional Bioware game, with five key quest hubs and dozens of side quests, with that responsiveness is distributed chaotically. Some of those quests, like the Noveria one that ends with the Rachni choice, have a really strong feel to them; others, like the main quest that introduces the Cerberus organization, have no real choice and dubious pacing in addition to being missable. 

Mass Effect 2, however, figures out a really effective way to structure itself that takes full advantage of the need to pace itself for maximum effect. The game is structured around its companions—recruit them in a quest, then befriend them at your leisure on the Normandy, then do a "loyalty quest". The recruitment quests are fairly standardized, 30-60 minutes, while the loyalty quests take the more varied form of short stories, some that are almost entirely combat, some that mostly narrative, but all that end in a character-centered choice that defines your relationship with the related character. Mass Effect 2's genius was that it recognized that using companions as a vehicle to define Shepard, attached to instead of separate from the broader science fiction themes of Mass Effect 1, would invest players.

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This combination of level design, the feeling of responsiveness, and pacing combines in the "Lair of the Shadow Broker" expansion to create the pinnacle of the series. In "Shadow Broker", Commander Shepard is called upon to help her former companion from the first game, Liara, who's been treated at arm's length for the bulk of Mass Effect 2 up to this point. This turns into a fantastic action-oriented buddy comedy, a science fiction Rush Hour, where all of Shepard and Liara's complicated history turns into background dialogue during car chases and firefights—the latter of which are some of the best-designed in the series.

Mass Effect's level design is used to pace the series throughout its whole run. It's in this way that the cover-based third-person combat, which could be seen as a relic of its circa-2010 design, makes perfect for the overall product. Cover shooters are designed to have a slow, methodical forward progress—you clear enemies, you move forward. The levels and enemies can also be manipulated to create that feeling of progress, or chaos, in a variety of ways that can encourage the narrative mood that designers are aiming for. That isn't accidental—in a Game Developers' Conference talk, designer Dave Feltham discussed how level and encounter design was used to maintain players interest and momentum in Mass Effect 3's Tuchanka sequence, one of the other greatest successes in the series. 

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(Indeed, this is an underdiscussed aspect of why the much-derided sequel Mass Effect: Andromeda lacked the punch of its predecessors in the Legendary Edition. Its jetpack added a superficially exhilarating component to its combat, but it ended up making most of those fights feel like they were lacking a sense for forward progress, which leads to the narrative feeling less effective--because players didn't work for it in the same way!)

Beyond Tuchanka, one of the marvels of Mass Effect 3 is just how streamlined it makes that essential responsiveness. There was a conceit through the series that after doing a mission, you'd have Shepard run through the Normandy, talk to the relevant people, and get a proper reaction from the game. But this could be awkward, where you'd start on the same dialogue screen every time and not necessarily know if you'd actually get new dialogue. In Mass Effect 3, you run through the ship, and conversations start automatically with the relevant new dialogue -- every character reacts to every relevant choice. Wanna know what EDI thinks of the choice you made involving the Quarians and the Geth? It's not hidden, just go check out her room. It's a game that has adapted itself to how players have come to play it, and one of the greatest apparent benefits of the Mass Effect trilogy being made over multiple years instead of all at once.


At the end, however, this effective responsiveness to player choice, while not actually understanding the potential pitfalls of choice, led to the single biggest hit to Mass Effect's reputation: its ending, and its fallout. Socially, the ending was a disaster, with almost every party mishandling the reaction in a way that ended up helping create space for "fan"-oriented harassment movements to thrive. It also overshadowed most discussion of the text of the ending in favor of positioning it as part of the culture wars.

And yet the ending actually was infuriating, at least to me personally, and the distinction between "responsiveness" and "choice" helps explain that. The ending had a choice, a big one, between the three potential options of Control, Destroy, or Synthesis. But those endings all led to roughly the same place: a cutscene that had the Reapers removed as an enemy and the galaxy surviving, albeit painfully. But it wasn't responsive. Shepard's previous choices didn't seem to make much of a difference, nor was there detailed information about the galaxy as a whole and especially the characters that gave us a reason to care. The seemingly biggest choice in the trilogy wasn't responsive to either the past or the future.

But Mass Effect's serialization and responsiveness from its developers came through in the end. Several of its additions and expansions started slowly patching up this core mistake. The "Extended Cut" of the ending had more characters appear in the lead-up to the ending, where previous choices could determine their fates. "Leviathan" made the awkward info-dump at the end of the game less absurd, parcelling it out across the game. And perhaps most importantly, "Citadel" came along to give players and their Shepard a final goodbye. (It turns out Mass Effect really was the friends you made along the way.)


One of the strangest things about the Mass Effect trilogy is that nobody's really done it better. The series was a glorious mess of ambition, choice, space opera, cover-based combat, and serialization that is both compelling on its own and seems like a foundation for a new direction in game design. Yet there isn't much—Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity series makes a brave attempt, but changes setting dramatically between games; Bioware, on the other hand, seems to be terrified of pushing ambitious choice-based narratives following the ending backlash, as Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem all tend to pull their punches, or not have them at all. 

The true joy of Mass Effect, demonstrated in the Legendary Edition, is that a decade or so ago, one ambitious series of games tapped into something genuinely amazing, a responsive RPG where the idea of playing the role of Commander Shepard genuinely worked, even if it was messy. Maybe it'll never happen again because nobody wants to make these kinds of games again; maybe it can't happen again because there can only be one first successful attempt at it. But regardless, we have an accessible Mass Effect trilogy now, with all its exhilaration and annoyance and history and baggage. That's a win.