by Kyt Dotson
Mass Effect is the first in a series of video games that will eventually end with Mass Effect 3—the series is exemplified by a passel of science fiction tropes that run most epic storylines and drives a very real narrative that has struck a chord with both the gamer community and science fiction fans alike. My review will cover only the literary aspects of the Mass Effect story and the universe that it sits in; if you’d like to know how it functions as a game, you’ll probably have to look elsewhere. Mind, it’s actually an excellent game and you should play it—and then you should play Mass Effect 2.
The Mass Effect universe presents itself as one that has been lived in long by numerous alien races and humans are essentially late to the scene. In the story, humanity pushed themselves off their pudgy butts and thrust themselves into space to finally explore and colonize and promptly discovered a vast network of interstellar travel devices called “mass relays.” Essentially, the mass relays are gigantic artifacts left behind by a precursor civilization thought to be the Protheans that form an interstellar travel network permitting faster-than-light (FTL) travel. Unbeknownst to humanity, numerous other races had already discovered the mass relay network and had already colonized many of the worlds within.
The mass effect, while eponymous to the video game series, is actually also a unifying force of the universe—in essence, it’s an effect that can manipulate the effect of mass. Using an extremely rare element, “element zero” and an electrical field, the mass of an object can be increased or decreased; this can be useful for generating impenetrable force fields (like shields) or allowing the rapid acceleration of heavy masses for example spaceships (for FTL travel) or bullets in guns. Like any video game, Mass Effect tells a story surrounding a dangerous universe full of strange politics and stranger conspiracies.
As it turns out, the mass relay network has a focal point, a crossroads where a giant space station sits, called the Citadel. The alien races who make up the Council—the biggest empires in known space; humans not yet among them—inhabit the Citadel and keep it running. They didn’t build it; much like the mass relays they simply discovered it and colonized it. This brings up questions about the reasons why the previous race who built the network and the Citadel left it behind for it to be discovered. This actually becomes a central theme in considering the makeup of the universe and humanity’s role in it.
Like any other story for us as an audience, humans take the central role and the protagonist—in this case the player—is the first human Spectre. The Spectres are essentially elite agents of the Council races who receive special dispensation by the Council to enable them to enforce laws and investigate dangers to the universe. Our protagonist, Commander Shepard, finds herself (players can choose either male or female) thrust into an investigation of the most perilous situation the universe has ever seen: the potential invasion by a far superior race bent on enslaving or destroying all sentient life.
Here, the “geth” are introduced as protectors of this newfound threat. The geth are essentially a race of synthetic-intelligences created by another race known as the “quarians,” rebelled against their creators, and fought a war that drove the quarians off their own planet into a life of space-gypsyhood. Since their expulsion from their home, the quarians have done little but mope about the fact and run around in a vast armada of ships called the Flotilla and plan to retake their homeworld. The geth, however, began to spread and terrorize the universe and now ratcheted up to attacking colonies and unearthing further artifacts.
Amid these artifacts, one in particular is uncovered that appears to foretell a terrible machine-race of spaceships that strips the universe of sentient life every so many millennia and also describes it as an event happening soon in the timeline of the game. Beset by this vision from the artifact, Shepard sets off with her powers as a Council Spectre to uncover exactly what’s going on, how the geth are involved, and what this expected invasion might look like.
Not to mention how to prevent it.
The expected invading race of sentient machine-race ships is given the dread name “The Reapers” and lies at the core plot of the narrative. With each mission played out the closeness of this potential invasion and the intent is expounded. Each of the difference races within the universe and those of the Council have their own opinions on the so-called “Reaper invasion” and what it might mean for them. The origin of the mass relay network, the Citadel, the mysteries of the different artifacts, and the disposition of the universe itself are questioned as Shepard investigates.
Needless to say, players who work their way through all the dialogue and spend time with their shipmates, the missions, and follow the story will be subjected to a lot of philosophizing about the way the Mass Effect universe works and why the races are where they are now. They’ll also find the characters charming, effected of inner lives, and also a sense of dread and expectation from what will happen to them. As the story progresses, the characters and the missions begin to reveal a bigger, broader picture much in the same way a science fiction novel would.
The Reaper invasion provides a ticking clock and a Sword of Damocles to drive the player forward in the narrative and give a reason to drive through the plot as it unfolds—although sheer curiosity and the need to feel the sense of a job well done works to a similar effect.
If you’re willing to put down your science fiction books for about six to ten hours of gameplay and dialogue and willing to pick up a controller and explore an interactive universe, you could do worse than play Mass Effect.