How A Trilogy Changed The Way I Roleplay: A Look At ‘Mass Effect’

I completed “Mass Effect 2″ early last week and, I’ll be honest, the only reason that it took me so long to complete (about 40 hours) is that I was busy relishing every last moment of it. BioWare managed to wield a massive axe so deftly that lopping off entire mechanics that we’ve so often associated with RPGs (inventory management, exploration) felt like a choice of zen-like clarity. But it wasn’t until the final moments of the game, when I finally set my course for the Omega 4 relay, that I began to discover how “Mass Effect,” as a franchise, has changed the way I roleplay.

WARNING: I’m about to discuss how the game ends. So yeah, spoilers.

Just like the first “Mass Effect,” “ME2″ builds to a final moment where your choices dramatically change the future course set for your crew. Characters, your crew, even Shepard can die, and I personally dealt with the loss of three of my squad mates (Thane, Grunt, Mordin, I will miss each of you). And it’s their deaths, and my willingness to accept them, that’s revealed to me how I was playing “Mass Effect 2″ differently than I play most RPGs.

Once on the Collector Base, “Mass Effect 2″ forces the player to select squad mates to accomplish specific tasks that are crucial to the success of the “suicide” mission you’ve set out on. The game is quite clear about educating the player as to which characters are best suited for each leg of the mission, and had I followed my noggin, I probably wouldn’t have lost any of my team. Though in these final moments I suddenly realized that I, the cerebral me, was no longer part of the picture: I was really playing as if I were Shepard, not some player trying to get the “best” ending.

I sent Thane on a suicide mission. I knew it. I sent an assassin to do a tech expert’s job. But over the course of the game I bonded with him, I trusted him, I felt that he was the only person my Shepard knew could get the job done. And to top it off, Thane was at peace with his life. Sure, as a player, I was well aware that just about any member of my team would be able to succeed (that’s the way a dynamic story works), but there was no way I was going to send Miranda or Tali — who my Shepard hates — to get the job done. Thane was the only man for the job, despite how happily I would have sent Zaeed to his death. Stupid Zaeed.

Grunt was much the same for me. I trusted him. He was a warrior, and when I told him to watch our back, I knew he’d lay his life on the line to succeed. Mordin, on the other hand, was just dead on the ground after my final battle. I have no idea why that happened, but I can mourn and live with it.

Which really gets me to my point here. BioWare was quite clear that they were making a game designed to evoke emotion in players, and I’ve realized that the reason they succeeded (for me at least) is that this whole story is much grander than this single game. The story is a franchise, a trilogy. I went into “Mass Effect 2″ with a rich history — a knowledge and opinion of my previous actions and the resulting outcomes. The reason I did feel was because I was living with choices, and not loading up a previous save to better my outcome.

The original “Mass Effect,” on the other hand, was mostly a clean slate. I had to learn to like my Shepard based on my choices and actions. Choices and actions that are part of canon by the time “ME2″ starts. That is an incredible feat for BioWare to accomplish. My Shepard, like your Shepard, is a unique legend with a narrative now set in stone. No other RPG has been able to convey a history so richly, and for that, I am immensely appreciative.

Admittedly, I have gone back and replayed the ending to snag up the “No One Left Behind” achievement, but I won’t be using that save when “Mass Effect 3″ rolls around. I’m living with Shepard’s choices, and keeping my own intellect out of the picture. But I’ll really miss those guys…

How did you’re your campaign end? Are you happy with the results?