Get your consoles warmed up, friends! Today we've got special guest Susan with a post about why we should play Mass Effect, including why it's awesome, where its shortcomings are, and why it's a worthwhile gaming experience.
Red, Green, Blue (or, five reasons why Renay should play Mass Effect and you should too.)
As you may or may not know, certain residents of Lady Business Towers are on a bit of a scifi kick at the moment! And as a massive fangirl of this series, I feel that I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn't at least TRY to convince both them and you to give Mass Effect a go - or at least that it is definitely relevant to LB’s interests.
So, in a cunning and subtle attempt to lure you all in, here are five excellent reasons why you should play these games.
Because you like epic scifi and worldbuilding.
In the year 2148, explorers on Mars discovered the remains of an ancient spacefaring civilization. In the decades that followed, these mysterious artifacts revealed startling new technologies, enabling travel to the furthest stars. The basis for this incredible technology was a force that controlled the very fabric of space and time. They called it the greatest discovery in human history. The civilizations of the galaxy call it...
I'm not sure how to describe the story of Mass Effect as a whole, except that it follows one woman and her crew through a story that starts with millennia old technological mysteries, rogue secret agents, and sentient robots (for given values of sentient and robots) — and ends with that same woman trying to save all life in the galaxy. It also has explosions, snark, intense friendships, badass ladies, optional romances and almost more world-building that it could be possible to keep track of — all good things! All of the best things on a massive scale!
I am serious. There's an entire galaxy that you can explore, and by the time you hit the third game the scale of the story feels like it fills it entirely. Part of the reason that it feels so epic is the world building. There is so much going on! There are four major alien species and at least half a dozen secondary ones — who all have intertwining species-wide backstory and rivalries and prior conflicts and differences of approaches/opinions and goals as a species and as individuals! It does feel like you're only seeing a little bit of the whole, which is fun!
Plus, most of the questions you might have about the world-setting are actually answered, which is wonderful. Even if they're tiny things like "Why are all of the aliens speaking English?" or "Why do all of these buildings look the same?!" ("They're not, everyone has real-time translator modules" and "Because there's one company doing pre-fab buildings for colonies with standardised layouts" respectively.), or big things like "So, how does that species breed?" The setting for Mass Effect is one that I love and really want to play around in, and I really want everyone else to enjoy it.
Because you love female characters.
Let’s talk about Commander Shepard, because quite frankly I find her kinda revolutionary.
Commander Shepard of the Alliance Navy is a soldier and in charge of her own ship. A female soldier whose authority over her crew is never questioned as a result of her gender or race. Who demands respect — and mostly gets it! Even if it's just because she carries a grenade launcher!
Commander Shepard, saviour of the galaxy, who — regardless of the backstory traits you pick for her — is canonically not trying to save the world because of parental issues, love, children, self-esteem issues, betrayal, or sexual trauma. She does it because it is her job and her duty. I'm sure I must have encountered female protagonists like that before, but I can't think of any. Plus, female protagonists with the options to be kind or pragmatic! Whose skills aren't doubted! Who is badass as hell! Who has a loyal crew and devoted friends and — this doesn't happen enough.
There is a case that could plausibly be made that she is primarily written like that because the script has to be predominantly gender neutral as the player gets to choose the gender they want to play? But honestly, the first time I saw someone playing Mass Effect, they were playing a renegade male!Shep and I just went "Huh, generic scifi shooting game, bored now," and ignored the hell out of it. Male!Shep's story seemed like every other military scifi franchise out there, and there was no reason for me to pay attention to it! But if you attach all of those tropes and features to a female character, suddenly you have my attention. (Rachel Bach actually talks about something similar to this in her SFF in Conversation post at the Book Smugglers.)
But I'm going to be honest here, here is the best thing about Shepard's place in the Mass Effect universe: she is not the exception.
I mean, she's exceptional! She's Commander fucking Shepard! But you know how some franchises and universes have The Badass Lady and All Of The Other Ladies? (With bonus points for The Badass Lady being the warrior and All Of The Other Ladies falling intro traditionally feminine roles?) Or how there's sometimes only one lady, full stop?
Mass Effect does the opposite of that!
Your party has female soldiers and engineers and thieves and spies and scientists! It has women who aren't (initially at least) comfortable with fighting and women who are stone-cold killers! It has multiple ways of being badass — in combat and in support roles!
And there are even more different types of women when you leave your ship! Villains and heroes and villains who can be persuaded to be heroes! Business women and barkeeps, scientists and engineers, parents and doctors and killers, mercenaries and detectives and slaves. Basically, any role in which you could reasonably expect to find male NPC, you can find a female one. (But the reverse is not always true, which we are going to Talk About in a second.)
Okay, here is a slight tangent: I finished Remember Me recently! It's a fun game with a female protagonist, cool world-building, moral ambiguity, and poor life choices! All of the enemies are men or robots, with female villains being specific and named one-shot bosses. All of the insults the male enemies use are specifically gendered and somewhat misogynistic — stuff like "You might break a nail!" when you hit them or "I know you're enjoying this!" whenever they hit you (Project Unbreakable (TRIGGER WARNING: rape) has plenty of examples of this being used by rapists and abusers, so in this context I find it INCREDIBLY creepy).
On the other hand, in Mass Effect, none of the insults are particularly gendered! If I walk around a pirate nest after I've cleared out, I can find female pirates — which is nice a nice change from the all-male enemies in Remember Me! The game's not perfect in this regard — again, it's something we need to Talk About — but having female pirates trying to blow my faces off and not being called a bitch by anyone feels pretty revolutionary to me.
In addition to that, it has female characters with different viewpoints and doesn't punish them for it! As an example; one of your party members takes you to one side and asks you if you're really sure about bringing aliens on board your military vessel. She's partly raising legitimate security concerns and partly acting on her backstory — but what comes out of her mouth is awe-inspiring levels of xenophobia. And on the one hand, I'm appalled! One of my crew members holds views that I find morally repugnant! But on the other hand, one of my female crew members holds views that I find morally repugnant — and the game doesn't treat this as her only trait. She is a good soldier, loyal friend, and devoted to her family... But happens to be anti-alien. The game gives her complexity — and gives your Shepard complexity by extension based on your reaction to her (You can engage with her views or ignore them, call her out or agree with her, as you choose.) THE GAME GIVES YOU A FEMALE CHARACTER WHO IS ALLOWED TO BE WRONG, WHO CAN BE A DECENT PERSON WHILST ALSO HOLDING OBJECTIONABLE VIEWS and this is something I don't see enough of. ... Or at all.
This is, of course, not to say that it doesn't have awesome male characters (I will keen and flail forever over Garrus, Thane, James, Steve, Joker, Mordin and Kaiden) — but I can find awesome male characters with different motivations and backstories in any scifi story. This many awesome women in one place? This many different stories? Please, if you know where else to find them, let me know.
(Becky Chambers has some thoughts on this in a wider context over at The Mary Sue.)
Because it's not perfect and I really want to talk about it!
A million light years from where humanity began and we walk into a bar filled with men drooling over half-naked women shaking their asses on a stage. I can’t decide if that’s funny or sad.
So, all of those things I said that we would Talk About? It's time. While I will rave about the game and the variety of roles it puts female characters into, it is nowhere near perfect.
One of my major problems with it is that its diversity only goes so far.
- There are a handful of characters with physical and mental disabilities, some of which have varying degrees of severity and treatment by the end of the game. (But someone really need to talk about Ardat-Yaakshi when they get to them, because I have FEELINGS about this that can't be explained without spoilers.) There aren't as many as there could be considering that you're exploring the entire galaxy — but it's something.
- There are characters of colour throughout the galaxy — but there aren't any named characters of colour on your crew between the Mass Effect prologue and Mass Effect 2 unless that's how you've built your Shepard.
- There are lesbian, gay and bisexual characters! Even in the background, talking about their spouses! My main problem with this is that there isn't actually a homosexual romance option until the third game (I would class Liara as a queer romance option, rather than an explicitly lesbian one?) which is somewhat weird to me? But on the other hand, there's an explicitly bisexual character who doesn't express interest in a female Shepard? Which is a little nice in the "Bisexual doesn't mean automatically mean interested in you" but disappointing in the "Aw, but explicit on-screen representation!"
- The asari (who are a mono-gendered female-presented species - it is not clear whether the female identification is done on their behalf by the translator implants.) are bearing the burden of nearly all of the female-presented alien representation in this series! While I was playing the game, I just assumed that there were lots of aliens in the background and I couldn't recognise them because I didn't know the cultural markers? But then the game and comics actually picked out female turians and it turned out... Not so much? And we don't hear any female volus, vorcha or batarians — or at least if we do, the effects on the voices make them indistinguishable. There might be more female krogan as the one that is named has a specific cultural role and costume, but if they are there they’re not representative. I understand why there aren't more female salarians or krogan — the former is a matriarchy that specifically only breeds ten percent of its population to be female for political and social reasons; the latter has been the victim of a biological weapon that has reduced its fertility rate and makes female Krogan something of a commodity for lack of a better word — but it's weird that there aren't more of the other species.
- On the topic of female representation, let's talk about how women are presented. The game isn't shot from the male gaze as much as it could have been, but it's definitely still got touches of it in the way that the camera tends to focus on Miranda's ass when you talk to her, or the fact that the asari Consort… is, or in the way that Samara's costume physically cannot fasten in the front, or in the way that the very practical gunnery chief got a makeover between games that left her more glammed up than the woman who is explicitly weaponising her sexuality (Here's a direct comparison.). I admit I filed those under "Weird but liveable", in that it's a scifi game in the current market and I will take a certain amount of fanservice for awesome story — but then I got the art book. It's a really good book and I loved seeing all of the design process — but. But with a lot of the female characters, and with the asari especially, a lot of the commentary seemed to be "We needed to make her sexy" or "She needed to be sexier" even when there was no characterful reason for it. They explicitly designed exotic dancers and prostitutes — but only female ones, because why would they need multiple genders there, amirite? Not even the Consort, who has the most famous escort agency in the galaxy, has male employees! (I'm sorry Nay, I know how you feel about brothels in space.) But they designed at least two of the races specifically with "are they desirable as love interests" in mind. But some of the potential character designs are so bad and impractical in the name of sex appeal that it burns. This post has some examples of scans.
BASICALLY, Bioware made a mostly-feminist and somewhat diverse game completely by accident and I really want to talk to someone about it!
Because you love Tremors.
(Taking these out on foot is 100% the way to go. Even the Krogan think that is ironballs mode.)
(... Yeah, I didn’t fight a single one of these in the Mako.)
Because it's a genuinely good series.
I've seen seven different people play through these games, in pretty much every combination of gender, class, alignment, and party — some of them repeatedly. I still keen and flail and cheer for the romances (did I mention the romances? Because HI BELIEVABLE, AWKWARD, CHARMING, ILL-ADVISED ROMANCES, I LOVE YOU. ALL OF YOU. PLEASE LET ME MARRY ALL OF YOU AT ONCE.). I still burst into tears at death scenes that I've seen five times before.
And yet I still play it, even though I've seen it before. Even though I know the story and the parts that will make me rage and the parts that will make me cry. Even though me and the gameplay don't get on. Even though I know exactly how it's going to end.
I still play it, and I still find things that I've never seen before. If that isn't the definition of a good game, I don't know what is.
Helpful for plot to make sense:
- Arrival (Mass Effect 2) This is a mission that you can do at any time, but should really be played at the end of the game — I'd say this was essential just because the plot of Mass Effect 3 makes so much more sense after you've played it.
- Leviathan (Mass Effect 3) This mission is creepy as all hell, and makes the notorious ending of Mass Effect 3 make SO MUCH MORE SENSE. Plus, when I realised that this actually built on a casual throwaway mention in the first game, I had a full-on squee.
Helpful for being awesome:
- Lair of the Shadow Broker (Mass Effect 2) This DLC explains a lot of Liara's development between ME2 and ME3, and is also a lot of fun — plus it shines a bit of a light on how the Shadow Broker operates, and some more of the galaxy!
- Citadel (Mass Effect 3) This is just so much fun, and is basically the best DLC for people who want to see the Normandy crew being the loving murder family we know them to be, while the game pokes a little bit of fun at itself and proves that it can be crack. (PROTIP: if you want to hear about Grunt's escape from the hospital or Traynor's Epic Space Chess Rivalry, YOU NEED THIS DLC. Plus, if you didn't need your heart anyway this DLC can break it for you in about five sound clips.) Also unlocks minigames and shooting ranges!
- Omega (Mass Effect 3) Do you like Aria? Do you want to team up with Aria against a bigger enemy in something that feels a little bit like Aliens? Do you want to meet Aria's awesome ex-girlfriend? Then this is the DLC for you!
Fun and/or interesting:
- Pinnacle Station (Mass Effect 1) Pinnacle Station is kinda eh as DLC, but if you are like me and SUCK at third person shooters, it is actually really handy! It is basically a series of shooting ranges (including time trials and hunting missions) and I ended up mainlining them all in an attempt to a) learn how to shoot, and b) level up to the point where I didn't NEED to shoot. It's helpful from a gameplay perspective but doesn't really add anything.
- Kasumi Goto (Mass Effect 2) KASUMI IS A MAGICAL THIEF WHO TAKES SHEPARD TO A FANCY PARTY SO THEY CAN ROB SOMEONE. SHE GETS SHEPARD WRITTEN UP IN BADASS WEEKLY. SHE TURNS INVISIBLE AND SHANKS PEOPLE OCCASIONALLY. I LOVE HER.
- Zaeed (if playing Renegade) (Mass Effect 2) Zaeed tells very entertaining stories and I like him as a character, but he is best for a Renegade Shepard and that is kinda the opposite of how I play Mass Effect. If you want mercenaries who are ACTUALLY in it for the money, Zaeed is the way to go!
- Project: Overlord (Mass Effect 2) This is another creepy one, with additional body-horror, Geth, and plot.
- From Ashes (Mass Effect 3) Javik is one of my favourite optional characters. He is a really interesting viewpoint and cracks me up! If you want more backstory about the world setting of Mass Effect, this is an awesome way to get it.
All of my thanks go to Lex and Jilliferium, who were my sounding boards, fact-checkers, and played Mass Effect 3 for me while I sobbed in corner. Bonus thanks to Jodie and Nay for making sure this made sense for me!