What Ars Technica Learned From 369 Hours of Mass Effect

Having played through the entirety of Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, and Mass Effect 3 over the course of nearly 400 hours, one of the editors at Ars Technica has penned this four-page piece to tell us about the experience and "the simple lesson" he took away from the sci-fi trilogy. A healthy excerpt, free of any significant spoilers:
Instead of a galactic civics lesson, Mass Effect focuses on a human, the forever-first-nameless Commander Shepard, and his fight against the ancient Reapers, an enemy that aims to rid the galaxy of advanced sentient life for a whole bunch of really complicated reasons. That fight is the central focus of all three games, though Shepard's path from soldier to savior twists and turns and doubles back on itself like a demented snake.

The feel of the Mass Effect universe permeates every scene, and in that way it feels a lot like other good Bioware games. In Knights of the Old Republic, for instance, you never forgot you were in Star Wars the sounds, the colors, the costumes, the look and feel of each room and character were all carefully tuned. Mass Effect is the same. The future is a cool blue neon with glowing flecks all around it. Orange and yellow and green floating computer screens and omni-tools. People and aliens all dressed head to toe in form-fitting slickness. And curves everywhere the future is dominated by curves, from the Mass Effect logo down to every nook and cranny on every spaceship.

The Mass Effect games work because Bioware gives Shepard a ship, the Normandy, and then stuffs that ship full of powerfully realized teammates. It isn't the worlds, the combat, or even the plot: it's the people who make the story worth following. By the time Mass Effect 3 turns the corner to its final stretch, you've fought and bled and laughed and cried with this collection of humans and aliens for so long that it really does feel like the crew are friends, as dumb as that sounds.

In my playthrough of the entire series, the things I most wanted to experience again were the more personal character bits most of which weren't major plot moments. In Mass Effect, I wanted to listen to Garrus and Wrex and Tali rib each other during the Citadel's interminably long elevator rides. In Mass Effect 2, I wanted to watch Tali and Shepard in the engine room as Tali says achingly poignant things to him about how long she has waited for him to notice her. More than anything else in Mass Effect 3, I wanted to watch Shepard shoot bottles with Garrus. I actually found myself rushing through major plot points and important missions. They were almost a chore I had to complete to reach the character moments I really wanted to play again and again.


Mass Effect's brilliance, and the brilliance of its characters, is that it drew from me some similar feelings of loyalty and devotion to my squad. That bond made a full "role-playing" replay of all three games difficult. This is coming from the guy who's never done a "light side" playthrough of Knights of the Old Republic I've force-choked my way across the galaxy a half-dozen times and laughed as I did it. My first time through Mass Effect years ago was played as a horrible reporter-punching crazy person. My grand role-playing tour of all three games required me to start Shepard out in a dark place: a veteran of Torfan, where he learned that the ends justify the means. This set the stage for him to experience an archetypical hero's journey, and learn through experience that in the war against vast powers and principalities, small personal victories matter just as much as large campaigns.

As I started up Mass Effect in this light, I struggled. It was impossible to sustain that level of arrogance and meanness, even though I knew it was a game. I kept running into characters I loved. I wanted to hug Garrus the first time I saw him.

Foreknowledge of the "best" outcomes of all the many series plot lines also ended up interfering with a lot of the "role-playing" decisions. In some situations, even if I felt Shepard likely would have chosen the "renegade" dialogue option, knowing the potential negative consequences made it impossible make the choice. Squadmate Liara T'Soni's naïveté grated heavily on renegade Shepard on my long-ago first playthrough, but knowing how good a friend the character is destined to become made me soften my approach this time.