I can say that I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I actually like Star Trek too, but Star Wars is by far the winner in that particular fan-battle for me. Mostly, when it comes to Trek I just love Bones. But Star Wars has a special place in my heart. I’m one of those people who actually enjoys the EU (well, most of it), hates Episodes I,II, and III for their trashiness and failure to understand what made the original trilogy so compelling. I also want to put out there that I come down on the side of Ewoks are awesome and making a fuss about them seems to me like the fanboy doth protest too much. It’s “cool” to hate on Ewoks, I think and well, you know everyone has a little “Yub-Nub” inside them if they’d just admit it.
But since Star Wars it’s been really difficult to find another sci-fi epic with the scope, the characters, the music, and the story to match the original trilogy. I’ve looked. I’ve wanted it. As a consumer of stories, whether books or movies or games, what I’m looking for is to be drawn in, to be absorbed in a universe so much that I want to live there – that I don’t ever want the story to end… That’s what Star Wars gave to me, a universe to live in even after the stories were over. I haven’t found that again in the years since.
A while ago I wrote a love letter to Mass Effect. I had just finished the second game and I was still in that gamer high that comes with really enjoying something. After finishing the third game I realized that Mass Effect is the worthy successor to Star Wars that I’ve been waiting for. My wife and I (she also played through the trilogy at the same time I was) have spent countless car rides and lazy afternoons discussing the ins and outs of the Mass Effect trilogy experience and I think that there is a lot worthy of unpacking in the trilogy.
First though, a little aside. I would probably not be writing this if not for a post a friend of mine pointed me to at io9. It’s a pretty strong title, “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation.” It’s why I picked the grandiose title I did for this post. But I struggled with what the author of that piece had to say. It’s not so much that anything he said was wrong it’s just that reading it I sorta felt that he missed the trees for the forest.
I’ll admit, I am a big Lovecraft fan but the whole “humans don’t matter” and “we’re all just tiny blips on an uncaring universe” bits were utterly lost on me. I don’t think cosmicism is the big draw for the ME trilogy – I also don’t think it’s terribly accurate – I think that it achieves its success the way all good stories tend to. It’s a well drawn story with compelling characters and a universe that feels lived in and complex even when you only see little bits of it. I will agree that it takes full advantage of its medium to achieve that greatness in a way that a movie could not, but that’s about where the author of that post and I diverge in our enjoyment.
But what is it that makes Mass Effect so compelling as a gaming experience? Well, I can only speak for myself but it’s fairly easy for me to point it out. First, it is the consistency. That may seem weird but stay with me. There is a real feeling of time passing and of change between the games but there is a solid consistency of characters, a persistence of events and ideas that create this feeling that it really is all one story. One slowly unveiled story with a layers of plot and information that are about more than just moving to the next battle scene. Don’t get me wrong, the battles and the combat mechanics were a ton of fun, but biotic gunfights pale in comparison to the fact that I can have a party full of characters that I am invested in. It’s an interesting side note that I find it fascinating to talk to people about who they choose for their companions and why. Some people look at me like I’m crazy when I ask that question but some people get it and then we can have a great conversation. Feel free to answer that question in the comments if you want.
That consistency to the universe made it a place I wanted to go back to and explore. Even though there were changes between the games and shifts in emphasis in game-play, the universe itself was this place that I could feel comfortable in. I had decided that when my Shepard retires he was moving to Rannoch – a truly beautiful planet.
And the consistency of characters in the universe was a wonderful surprise. Getting Ashley back in ME3 after the way you part in 2, meeting James Vega, fighting alongside Anderson, chasing the Illusive Man, going to a casino with Miranda, getting Garrus a date, seeing Wrex be a leader… it went beyond consistency and became a living thing with a life outside of your viewpoint character. This is what I always look for in a story and I think it is what boosts ME over a million other tales that are out there. It’s why I fell in love with Star Wars, from Luke looking to the horizon and then returning home years later to rescue a friend. There is a magic in compelling characters that cannot be denied. And it’s a lesson for me as I craft my own game worlds. I always try to create compelling NPCs and I try hard to walk that line between them being memorable and them being in the way of the PCs. This is an advantage that a video game has over a tabletop game (blasphemy, I know) because you never lose focus on the viewpoint character because, well, you can’t. Mass Effect did this with a masterful hand.
This is a little long so I’ll try to stop ruminating and get to the point…
Mass Effect has the magic of Star Wars, it captures the epic tone, the compelling characters, and the scope and vision of a universe full of danger and wonder that is just waiting for intrepid souls. There is something about the universe that draws me into it and makes me want to stay. I want to live there and I never want it to end. I can only speak for myself, but that pull makes Mass Effect the most significant, important sci-fi experience I’ve had since the first time I sat down to watch “A New Hope” and despite all worries I’m excited about the possibilities that will come out of a Mass Effect 4. I can’t wait.
One final note. If you’ve played the games and you haven’t played the Citadel DLC you have done yourself a disservice. Talk about a perfect little package. I played the whole thing with this pleasant little smile on my face and I look back on it now a few months removed and I have that same smile. I don’t want to give anything away but suffice it to say that the whole thing is pretty much just the entire ME cast being awesome and running amok. So. Happy.
In closing, I’m still getting back into the swing of posting again and I promise, Wednesday I’ll get back to gaming proper. I’m trying to figure out if it’s possible to create a version of the card game “War” that works well as a task resolution system for an RPG. More on that to come.
See you Wednesday, and as always, thanks for reading.