The Mass Effect series is one that has widely praised for the wide range of choices that the player can make throughout the games. Though in this discussion the focus will be on the Mass Effect series rather than the franchise (meaning no Andromeda – though I did quite like that one). With the major criticism of the ending of the third game, though that will be discussed later, choices in Mass Effect are a key point in why it become so popular. Bioware, the creators, itself is often praised for the depth of choice that their RPGs offer the player. Because of this these choices deserve examination, though this will be far from any sort of definitive work nor is it meant to be. Rather just my own rambling thoughts on the Mass Effect series.
Before discussing Mass Effect’s choices and how they become integral in the game as a whole, there must be a discussion on what types of choices are there. Choices in video games can be broken down in to three board categories of what the choice affect in the game. First is the Ludo-choice: a choice that the consequence deals with the gameplay. An example of this within Mass Effect is whether you put a skill point in the shotguns or rifles skills. This choice affects the gameplay of Mass Effect but has very little effect, if any, on the story of Mass Effect.
Ludo-choice is contrasted with Narrative-choice, where the choice’s consequence deals with the story of the game rather than the gameplay. An example of this is when you as the player gets to choose to save the council at the end of Mass Effect 1. This choice doesn’t make Commander Shepard any mechanically different, they do not get stronger with pistols or sniper rifles. Rather it shapes the narrative, the space, of Mass Effect universe.
The last category of choice is Ludonarrative-choice, where a choice affects both facets of the game. This can be seen in the first Mass Effect when the player has to choose to have Ashley or Kaidan die during the course of the main plot-line. As this not only affects the story from that point onwards but also changes the composition of the team. Do you really need a soldier? A Sentinel?
Within these three modes each of the Mass Effect games are loaded with choices, and some of them are very compelling while some are not. However not all choices need to be equal. In fact it would be a very odd game if all the choices you made where somehow of equal weight. This rising and falling tension (created by both plot events and the protagonist’s own prior choices) is a key component of any storyline that a person would care to create. As tension builds both within any given act/chapter and as a series as a whole as well. One of the, admittedly few, things that the ending of the series did well was imparting to the player the scope of the choice and the consequence of what Commander Shepard did there. The consequences felt big. Sadly it also felt very disconnected from the rest of the series as a whole, but that is another matter. The framing of this choice helps the feel along a lot. The space that Commander Shepherd was standing in looked the part. This choice was of a much larger scope than if you punched that reporter that one time. Taken as a whole the Mass Effect series did an outstanding job of being able to manage the scope of the choices that you were asked to make at any given point in the story.
The core strength of the Mass Effect series was its ability to integrate past choices in to future one. With the notable exception of the series ending choice, many times what you choose would have lasting effects that are reasonable. Which is key, if you have a choice with no real consequence then it feels false. While if you have a choice that the consequence of is truly nonsensical then the choice feels cheap or pointless. Ensuring that the players’ choices matter in terms of consequences can be a difficult task, but one that Mass Effect does well.
Compare this game with another one of Bioware’s games, Baldur’s Gate
(1998). Although Baldur’s Gate is my comfort food of video games, it does not deal with ludonarrative or narrative choices as well as the later Mass Effect did. Though in both you can clearly see Bioware’s commitment to telling a well-crafted story.
In Baldur’s Gate the game simply doesn’t ask you to make any choices that truly effect the main plotline. All major plot beats are played out in the same way for any number of different protagonists. Good? Evil? It works out the same in the end for the plot. Though some choices could affect how people saw you, it was fairly limited—if your reputation score (which really was a measure of morality but that’s a different story) got low enough, some NPCs would leave your party and Flaming Fist mercenaries would attack but only when the players reputation was very low. While in Mass Effect the paragon/renegade measure the players actions, though it would change to a reputation meter in Mass Effect 3. This would in the first game affect if you could by more in to the charm or intimidate skill lines changing your dialogue choices, but would also give Commander Shepherd minor bonus to their combat skills. The major aspect however is how people throughout the game notice it. You actions have results that spring logically from the choice that you made.
Because of how well the Mass Effect series incorporates meaningful choices in to the game, it becomes the standout feature of the games. While the game does have its own aesthetic, few design choices stand out as truly unique (Though I do love me some Tempest ship design it’s far from truly novel). Nor does the game have standout combat, though once again it is proficiently done and the heat sinks of the first game were an interesting idea.
As with many Bioware games the storytelling was outstanding, yet Mass Effect became more of a cultural icon than Dragon Age, Knights of the Old Republic, or any of the infinity engine games (Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale). Though each of those games is well known in their own field, but in terms of raw sales Mass Effect 1 beat out Dragon Age: Origins as per the NPD Group tracking numbers, though they were in the same neighborhood of copies sold.
But what both Dragon Age and Mass Effect have in common in a dedication to player choice. Making what the player does in the game space matter is vital to getting the player invested in to the game.
Screenshots where taken from EA official website.
As a total sidenote - I absolutely love the Mass Effect 2 launch trailer Link