“Mass Effect” in Retrospect

Why the space opera still resonates almost ten years after its last chapter

Commander Shepard, Mass Effect’s player-protagonist.

Last Sunday, November 7, Mass Effect aficionados and video game developer BioWare marked N7 Day – a fan appreciation day created to celebrate a space opera that’s captured the hearts and minds of countless players around the world. This year also saw the release of Mass Effect Legendary Edition, a souped-up version of the original Mass Effect trilogy for current generation consoles and contemporary gaming rigs. The fact that Mass Effect retains a devoted and dedicated fan base nearly ten years after the final entry in the main series first appeared testifies to its status as one of the best science fiction stories ever told.

It’s fairly easy to understand why Mass Effect commands such enduring loyalty. The series creates a lush and immersive world set in the late 22nd century – the years 2183 to 2186, to be precise – in which humanity aspires to find a place for itself alongside a number of other complex and complicated alien species in the Milky Way’s sprawling galactic civilization. From the very start, Mass Effect floods players with detailed accounts about all of the galaxy’s political, diplomatic, social, and technological facets, from the titular mass effect fields and mass relays that make interstellar travel possible to the intricate diplomatic architecture that governs and structures galactic politics. But a cosmic horror lurks beneath the effervescent surface of galactic society: the Reapers, a race of sentient machines that return every 50,000 years to harvest technologically advanced organic life in order to prevent its inevitable destruction at the hands of artificial intelligence and thereby allow less-advanced organic species to survive.

Most of all, though, it’s the rich and fully realized characters protagonist Commander Shepard encounters and with whom she builds relationships (sometimes romantic and intimate) as she fights to save the galaxy that make Mass Effect such a compelling and memorable experience for so many players. Excellent writing and superb voice acting bring alien characters like Liara T’SoniGarrus Vakarian, and Tali’Zorah vas Normandy to life, and it’s the human connections that Shepard forges with these crewmates that makes Mass Effect special. These characters grow and evolve over the course of the trilogy, moreover, reflecting the influence the Shepard has had on them.  It’s a fact the game’s creators understood and exploited to great effect in the Citadel downloadable content, allowing players to simply relax and spend time with many of the characters we’ve befriended over the course of the trilogy.

Despite the dire straits in which Shepard and her crew find themselves, Mass Effect remains an optimistic story at heart and a deeply human adventure to boot. We may stand on the precipice of galactic annihilation, but we can still find reasons to hope. It also reminds us of the necessity to focus on what really matters – our relationships with others and our basic, shared humanity – even when the fate of the galaxy’s at stake.

Fundamental questions about faith in humanity and hope for the future as well as the pain, loss, and sacrifice necessary to make it through the worst of circumstances course through the trilogy as a whole. But they find their most brutal and unsparing expression in Mass Effect 3, where it’s repeatedly hammered home that Shepard cannot save everyone from the Reapers – no matter how hard she drives herself. Nonetheless, there’s something viscerally and powerfully humanistic involved in fighting against the vast, unfathomable, and inescapable cosmic forces that threaten crush humanity and its alien allies under foot. By the end of the trilogy, Shepard herself has become an avatar of existential hope for the galaxy in the face of its foreordained and seemingly inevitable doom.

Mass Effect deepens these themes by repeatedly alluding to the indispensable notion of holding on to our humanity even in the most desperate of situations. When explaining her decision to destroy the base of the enemy Collectors at the conclusion of Mass Effect 2, for instance, Shepard declares, “I won’t let fear compromise who I am.” It’s Mass Effect 3, though, where the importance of holding fast to our humanity comes through the strongest. Justifying a complete change of heart, for example, the hyperactive salarian scientist Mordin Solus (a fan favorite who first appeared in Mass Effect 2) remorsefully notes that he “focused too much on big picture. Big picture made of little pictures.”

Indeed, Mass Effect consistently argues that maintaining a grip on our humanity matters far more than survival at any and all costs. It’s a point that’s made most directly in a philosophical conversation Shepard has toward the end of Mass Effect 3 with EDI, the artificial intelligence who first appears in Mass Effect 2 and then uploads herself into a Metropolis-style synthetic body near the start of the trilogy’s last entryEDI observes that humans on Reaper-occupied Earth don’t seem to place a particular priority on survival, while the Reapers are “repulsive” because they are “devoted to nothing but self-preservation.” Shepard tells EDI she’s discovered a little humanity, making plain that mere survival isn’t a sufficient goal or motivation for humans or any other intelligent life – even when confronting potential extinction.

It’s a stance also conveyed by the premium Mass Effect places on relationships and personal vulnerabilities. Early on in Mass Effect 3, for instance, Liara asks Shepard how she stays focused “even in the worst situations.” Shepard responds by saying she thinks about her friends and loved ones – the people she’d lose if she failed. Here again, Mass Effect gives the abstract big picture meaning with a focus on the real, flesh-and-blood of the immediate. Humanity and the rest of the galaxy aren’t fighting for survival against overwhelming odds; they’re fighting for each other and their common future.

Shepard and crew, Mass Effect 3.

What’s more, all of Mass Effect’s characters eventually expose their own personal vulnerabilities and insecurities. The player can have Shepard reveal her own self-doubts to close companions like Liara and Garrus, while Shepard herself spends enough time with her crew – alien and human, organic and synthetic – to see them lower their defenses and lay bare their own flaws. It allows players to cultivate a sense intimacy and build a series of emotional connections with these characters in ways that compel us to care about them and their hopes, fears, and foibles.

When played in 2021, though, Mass Effect often feels like a time capsule washed ashore from a more enlightened and humanistic era – one less than a decade in the past. It’s a wide-open window into the in many ways more liberal and vibrant world that existed before the dour pieties and illiberal orthodoxies of the present day seized the commanding heights of American culture and society. Neither Mass Effect’s forthright if often awkward embrace of sexuality nor its optimistic, universalist ethos would likely fly with today’s creative class.

Ironically enough, it was Fox News that attacked Mass Effect over its romance options and sexual content shortly after the game’s 2007 debut – and led to BioWare to shamefully self-censor the 2010 sequel to avoid a similar controversy. Now, however, it’s difficult to imagine the original Mass Effect trilogy existing in the censorious cultural climate that’s evolved over the past ten years. The alluring all-female asarispecies would have to go, as would many of the overt expressions of sexual desire and physical attraction from male and female characters alike across the series – and especially obvious attempts to needle characters in an effort to defuse interpersonal tensions.

The same goes for Mass Effect’s optimistic and universalist ethos. In Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC, for instance, when ex-agents of the human supremacist group Cerberusaccuse Shepard of saving more alien lives than human ones, she replies that she doesn’t care what species they are: “every life counts.” (As presented on the dialogue wheel the choice simply states, “They all matter.”) Prejudice and racism are present throughout the trilogy, expressed by characters of every species against every other. But it’s hard to imagine that two characters cracking jokes about various alien stereotypes (human among them) as a way to ease tension and establish common ground would make it into the game today.

Most of all, though, this ethos finds its expression in the trilogy’s sweeping narrative of an upstart humanity bringing other species together to work together on behalf of the common galactic good despite their manifold disputes and manifest differences. It’s surely no coincidence that a human supremacist group goes on to serve as one of the game’s primary antagonists. Deep in its storytelling bones, Mass Effect holds fast to an old-fashioned sort of liberal humanism that’s wildly out of fashion in our own illiberal and deeply pessimistic times.

Thanks to our collective lurch toward ingrained gloom and entrenched despair over the past decade, however, this fundamental optimism toward humanity and the possibilities of existence has become all the more indispensable. Mass Effect is a story imbued with the aspirational spirit of liberal humanism, a spirit that’s even more precious and indispensable today than when games first appeared. What’s more, something special occurs when deep worldbuilding combines with compelling characters and an emotionally resonant narrative at the same time. It’s a very, very difficult feat to achieve, one that makes Mass Effect all the more remarkable for doing so.

In the end, Mass Effect presents us with a majestic and essentially optimistic vision of humanity and its place in the cosmos, flaws and faults included. It’s one we’d do well to hold onto tightly even – and especially – in the darkest and most perilous of times