The best way to think about the Mass Effect video game franchise is as the science fiction version of a soap opera. It’s space opera, in other words, but more General Hospital than Madame Butterfly. Although the series has plenty of intergalactic action and alien intrigue, it’s fundamentally a game about characters and relationships, in which much of your time and energy is spent talking to people — and aliens — about how they feel.
More than any other major video game franchise, the Mass Effect games are built around conversation. There’s plenty of combat, and as the series has progressed, the action has become more intuitive and more exciting — especially in the latest installment, the new Mass Effect: Andromeda, which has given the series’ signature cover-based third-person shooting a fast, fluid makeover.
But in the 40-plus hours it takes to complete one of the Mass Effect games, you might spend half the time strolling through non-combat areas, chatting up various species of alien, gathering gossip from the residents of a space station, or questioning local authorities about area politics. Even when you’re exploring the combat areas, you nearly always travel with friends and allies, all of whom offer a continuous stream of low-level snark, warnings, useful information, and opinionated commentary on the situation.
It’s a big-budget sci-fi franchise built on small talk — and it offers a tantalizing hint at what it might be like to play a video game that truly allows you to say whatever comes to mind.
The Mass Effect universe is complex. Really, really complex.
The Mass Effect franchise has been around since 2007, when the first game debuted on the Xbox 360 to rave reviews; it was one of the games that helped sell the system. A decade and three follow-ups later, it’s still one of the most beloved series in the world of gaming, and arguably the most successful original space opera of the past 10 years in any form.
Part of what made Mass Effect so appealing was that it dropped players into a fully realized science fiction universe, complete with complex political machinations and a web of long-simmering alien rivalries. This wasn’t a game that started small and then slowly grew into something larger. It started big — and then became much, much bigger.
Over the course of the game, you encounter races like the Krogan, a group of misunderstood brutes who look a little like salamanders crossed with velociraptors. And you meet the Salarians, a race of twitchy scientists and administrators who are generally hated by the Krogans because they invented a disease that wrecked Krogan fertility. That disease, however, was unleashed by a third race, the Turians, following a Krogan uprising. Like many of the races found in the game, the Turians are participants in a multi-species alliance known as the Citadel Council, which acts as a kind of intergalactic United Nations. The Asari, another member of the Citadel Council, are a single-gendered species that present exclusively as feminine and were one of the first to settle the galaxy.
The game also features even weirder creatures, like the massive and inscrutable Elcor and the networked artificial intelligence of the Geth, a creation of the high-tech, ultra-sensitive Quarians. And I haven’t even mentioned the Protheans, a long-defunct race whose leftover ancient technology plays a key role in holding interstellar society together, or a handful of other races who play key roles.
The point is that there’s a lot of information to absorb right from the beginning. At times, the sheer amount of cultural and historical detail borders on overwhelming, and trying to keep track of it all sometimes feels like cramming for some sort of sci-fi social studies lesson.
This is a franchise designed to appeal to people who enjoy memorizing lore and assembling complex timelines — and the most devoted fans take it very seriously. In 2012, when a Mass Effect tie-in novel made a number of errors in the series canon and timeline, a group of fans put together a categorized and color-coded list pointing out dozens of mistakes in a collectively edited document more than 5,500 words long.
Some of the biggest decisions in the Mass Effect games are simply about what to say
The Mass Effect games don’t just traffic in distant sci-fi mythology, however. All of the games’ lore and backstory are personalized through interactions with an array of individual characters — most of whom count as friends, but also allies, rivals, colleagues, and enemies. And much of the game is spent simply getting to know these people and their views on the world.
Your mediator for these interactions is the player character, who in every game is the human commander of a starfaring ship. In the first three games, that character was Commander Shepard, a highly skilled human soldier. In Andromeda, that character is Ryder, part of a Pathfinder team whose job is to explore new worlds for potential human habitation. Both Shepard and Ryder are avatars whose gender and character abilities can be customized according to player whims. They are essentially ciphers; it’s less that you become Shepard or Ryder and more that Shepard and Ryder become you — or who you want to be in the game, anyway.
And the main way you decide who you’re going to be is by interacting with others. As each of the games goes on, you pick up more crew members, and you are encouraged to spend time visiting with them in between combat missions. Typically you visit them in their quarters or at their workstations, and you inquire about what they’re thinking, where they’ve come from, what they want from their lives, and what they think is right or wrong with society. Through the in-game conversation system, which allows players to pick from various flavors of response, you reflect on their views, building a complex relationship history with each of the characters you encounter.
In contrast to so many big-budget action games, which boil every choice down to where to go and whom to kill, some of the biggest decisions in the Mass Effect games are simply about what to say. These are games in which words have consequences, and it is imperative to think carefully about what your words will be.
The game tracks the status of your relationships, like an algorithmic gossip intent on maintaining a fluctuating ranking of the social status of everyone on the ship. Depending on how things proceed, your relationships can lead to everything from heated arguments to solid friendships to (sometimes awkward) romantic entanglements. At times, endearing yourself to one crew member will cause another to like you less; part of the challenge is to maintain a balance, in hopes of not offending anyone too much.
There is some strategic “game value” to these relationships — they can open up new missions or reveal useful information — but for the most part, they exist for their own sake. The franchise is a conversation simulator, a game of questioning, listening, and figuring out how to respond.
Andromeda further improves Mass Effect’s conversation system, but there are still limitations
Outside of the ship, many of Mass Effect’s quests are structured around conversation. Early in Andromeda, you reach a massive space station that serves as a mission hub, and you can spend several hours touring the facility and conversing with the locals, learning about the station’s politically tumultuous recent history (a dead leader, a violent insurrection, resource shortages, and administrative power struggles) as well as helping locals solve various problems.
There’s something almost journalistic about these parts of the game, as you move from person to person, pressing them for useful details and amusing color, and then judging what they say against their personal quirks and biases in hopes of coming up with a complete picture. It’s not too hard to imagine a Mass Effect spinoff focused entirely on a space station news reporter.
Like reporting, it is tedious at times, but more often it is fascinating, and Andromeda’s improved conversation system, which lets you pick from a varied list of responses calibrated to express different emotional tones, is more intuitive than ever, allowing conversations to flow in ways that are both nonlinear and surprisingly natural.
And yet there is still something limiting about the way the game presents its talk, because in the end you are still only ever presented with responses that have been written by the game’s creators, with questions that have been programmed into the system and voice-recorded for you. You are never really choosing your own words; you are choosing someone else’s.
This is a limitation imposed by technology rather than by choice. Games cannot replicate natural conversation, with all its potential for variation and tangent, and even if they could, it would be impossible to keep players on anything like an overarching story track.
And yet the Mass Effect franchise, at its best, offers a tantalizing hint of a game that could overcome these inherent limitations, one that allowed players to simply explore the universe, chatting with strange aliens and making unexpected friends among them, uninhibited by the demands of action gameplay or even narrative itself. A game about basking in the small pleasures of getting to know another person, or another culture, through conversation alone. Now that would be something to talk about.