I finally got around to playing the Mass Effect trilogy of games recently; I got the PS3 three-game set, downloaded all the single-player DLC, and went to town. I knew, going in, that Mass Effect 2 is generally considered the peak of the series, so I skipped the first game; my assumption was that I could pick up everything I needed to know as we went.
And yeah, by and large I could. Jane Shepard escaped the Cerberus facility, flew around in a fancy space-ship, and met a bunch of interesting people. About twenty hours into the game, though, small things started to eat at me. Somebody named Wrex was dead and Wreav was kind of a jerk. My lack of knowledge about who Kaidan was made the encounter with him on Horizon confusing. The game clearly expected me to be excited by the Archangel reveal and thrilled to see Garrus again. So I chucked my progress and started anew with Mass Effect 1.
I made Shepard a woman mostly because I got in the habit of defaulting to a woman playing the Saint’s Row games. Making the Butcher of Stilwater a lady made SR2 and SR3’s terrible misogynistic elements, if not palatable, at least possible for me to ignore long enough to enjoy the game. And after a little while, the idea that the Butcher wasn’t a woman by default seemed strange. Whenever I see someone’s Saint’s Row footage (or Mass Effect footage, now) and their PC is a man, the discrepancy is jarring. Some of the Butcher’s lines seem a little odd coming out of a woman’s mouth, but in SR4 at least some of her lines would sound just as odd coming out of a man’s mouth. It is literally true that on at least three different occasions, I have started a new game of Saint’s Row 2, 3, or 4, made a male character, and reconfigured her back to a woman within a couple of hours of starting the game because it just didn’t seem right. It is also literally true that I have looked at Saint’s Row advertisements and promotional art and spent seconds of my life wondering who the white guy in the middle of the group was supposed to be and also wondering why the Boss/the Butcher of Stilwater/the President of the United States wasn’t included.
So it was 75% habit, 15% a vague memory about reading online somewhere that you had to be a woman to romance Garrus and if you didn’t romance Garrus you were playing the game wrong (not that I knew who Garrus was; the game being better with a female Shepard was what stuck in my head), and maybe 10% the hope that with a female Shepard the game would engage my wife’s attention better. She liked Dragon Age.
Going from ME2 to ME1 the only really jarring things were a) I no longer had a cloaking device and b) I had to drive that stupid tank. I’m so glad they got rid of that stupid tank. But playing the first half of ME2 a second time through wasn’t nearly the unpleasant grind it might have been if the game wasn’t so much fun, and this time when Garrus and Shepard were reunited, I felt legit pleased to see him.
My squad selection decision tree in all three games:
1) Garrus gets the first slot (if Garrus isn’t available, it’s so early in the game that squad selection is not very meaningful). If the second slot is occupied by a mandatory party member, we’re done. Otherwise move on to 2.
2) Is Tali available? If so, she gets the second slot. If not, pick a non-krogan party member at random (NB for purposes of this test James Vega and Ashley Williams are krogan).
Having played all the way through all the DLC, I felt like Mass Effect had two basic points:
1) Committing an atrocity now to prevent a future atrocity from coming to pass is basically always straight-up wrong. That kind of thinking led to the genophage, the geth attacks, the Reapers themselves; basically everything bad that happens is done in the name of preventing some supposedly-even-worse future atrocity.
2) Giving a less technologically advanced culture your technology works out poorly, in the long run, for both you and them. Same with stealing fire from the gods. Hence the Krogan Rebellions, the thousand-ish times the Reaper invasion began with the fall of the Citadel, the indoctrination of Cerberus researchers studying a dead Reaper. The master’s tools will never demolish the master’s house.
(Also 3) If you’re ever forced to confront an evil mastermind, it will be surprisingly easy to convince them to shoot themselves in the head. This one has less thematic resonance, though.)
To sum up, Mass Effect is anti-nuke and anti-imperialist. These themes (plus the Leviathan DLC, wherein Shepard meets the apex race and gets the same infodump she later hears from the Catalyst, expressed only slightly differently) tie directly in to the end of ME3; as such I had zero problems with the ending (except that Shepard couldn’t go home to Garrus at the end, which I was pretty sure she’d promised him she’d do everything she could to). I picked the “synthesis” ending, though after looking at all the cinematics on YouTube I think the blue “dominate” ending might be a better fit for the game’s themes (yes, galactic civilization gets the Reaper technology, but the geth aren’t subjected to random genocide out of nowhere), especially as one of the last things Shepard said (in my playthrough) was a promise to Garrus that she’d always be looking down on him; in the “dominate” ending that’s pretty much literally true.
I can imagine playing the game with the shorter ending cinematic, no Leviathan DLC, etc., and being pretty annoyed, though. Nerdrage and fan entitlement always looks crazy silly from the outside, and then something happens in a piece of media that I myself in invested in, and I have to admit that we aren’t always rational about the stories we love (cf the missing sixth season of Community when the forty-year-old burnout would surely have hooked up with the twenty-four-year-old and it would have been sunshine and roses and happily ever after, you hear me?!).
The Leviathan DLC was good, but it was not the best DLC. The best DLC was the Citadel, which turned the game into Saint’s Row for a while, to the extent that my Shepard went from blue responses to red pretty much instantly, because I had to ask myself what the Butcher of Stillwater would say. Also it featured Shepard and Garrus dancing the tango, which simultaneously makes the Citadel DLC the best DLC and Garrus the best romantic partner.
I fully intend to play it again, sometime in the not-too-distant future. Usually upon completing a long RPG my first instinct isn’t to restart, but I expect to enjoy playing a vanguard or soldier or sentinel and romancing Liara instead of Garrus. Toss in a little more variety in terms of squad selection. And maybe on the third playthrough I’ll bite the bullet, play a male Shepard, and romance Tali.