Strangely, I have had friends and colleagues, some of whom are either non-gamers, or casual gamers (read: Facebook games players) come up to me and ask “What is Mass Effect?”
I have thought about it, and came to this conclusion:
Mass Effect is the story of one soldier. That’s it. When you come right down it, despite the Reapers and geth and everything else, it is the story of Commander Shepard. The enemies are the meat of the story. The entire story is told through the eyes of Commander Shepard. Like a typical epic movie, it starts off with Commander Shepard being evaluated for entry into the Spectre ranks of the Citadel. Then he discovers ancient artifacts that warn of an imminent invasion of a machine race, the Reapers. The next 2 games detail his exploits in trying to get the authorities to believe that an ancient race of machines is coming to wipe them out, but no one believed him. In the end, he had to work with a shady company (Cerberus) to gather info to fight the Reapers, and eventually (in its current incarnation), give his/her life to save the entire galaxy after uniting all the races under one banner.
Many parts of this story contain controversial topics which may or may not relate to current global situation. For example, in the Mass Effect world, same-sex relationships is not frowned on. Anyone and everyone is free to pursue a same-sex relationship (including Commander Shepard). On the other hand, you have the Genophage – an engineered disease which the Salarians developed, and delivered by the Turians, to the race of Krogans, to limit their population. Only a few out of a thousand births produce a living Krogan. The rest are stillborn. That means less than 0.01% of births produce a living baby. Atrocious? yes. Why was it developed? Because in the eyes of the government, Krogans reproduce too quickly and their numbers would overwhelm every other race in the galaxy if left unchecked. Thus the genophage was decided to be introduced, “for the good of the galaxy”.
Yet in the face of this injustice, the Krogans still fight for survival. They are akin to the Klingons of Star Trek – feared warriors that fight for honour and glory, and fighting is their way of life. Only the strong survive, and that is due in no small part to the genophage. Every Krogan looks out for only himself, and the chance to get a female pregnant. Depending on how you played ME3, the genophage may or may not be ended with Shepard’s help.
However, some topics seem to have been “left behind” in later games. For example, biotics appeared to be a frowned upon in ME1, but no mention of this social stigma is mentioned in ME2 and ME3. Biotics are like the “magic” of Mass Effect world. Humans exposed to Element Zero (or eezo) while in the womb may or may not have mutated to be able to manipulate mass effect fields, hence giving them powers like mages in fantasy lore. Humans (and it appears) and Asari needed implants to help control this ability. This topic was prevalent in ME1 and a number of missions were in the game to assist or destroy biotics. As I said, this is strangely missing in ME2 and ME3. By the later games, it seemed that everyone had “accepted” Biotics into normal society and they are treated as equals, or “no different” than other people.
In fact, by ME3, it may even appear that people come to revere biotics – There is a scene where Liara T’soni comes up to the Captain’s quarters on the Normandy and tells Shepard that she is making a time capsule which contains everything they knew about the galaxy, and wanted Shepard’s input on his/her own entry in the time capsule. If you select the option to tell Liara that it’s her call, Liara will mention that Shepard is a “powerful biotic” that helped to free the galaxy.
In the Mass Effect world, humans are the second-class citizens of the galaxy. This is in stark contrast to many sci-fi stories where humans are either the founders (Star Trek is a good example) of are very important to the galaxy. Humans are the youngest race to achieve space-flight, being only a few hundred years. Other races like the volus, elcor and so on, have been spacefaring for thousands of years. Many of the other races have already had space flight when humans could barely speak and form communities. In this world, humans are often derided, frowned upon and shunned. In ME1 you can sometimes hear aliens telling humans that they should never have left their own system.
In ME2, this tone seemed to carry on, but less obvious. Mainly because the second game had you working with a pro-human shady corporation to advance human interest against the impending invasion of the Reapers. In ME3, when the Reapers attacked, humans had to beg the Council for help (and get turned down) before Shepard embarked on a quest to unite the galaxy against the Reapers.
In fact, Turians have the largest military fleet in the galaxy, and Asari commandos are the best and most feared special forces available. Krogans are the shock troops of the galaxy and well… humans are lumped together with other “lesser races” where we have nothing much to speak about.
So, what is Mass Effect? It is a story of a single soldier that can make a difference, and opening our eyes to a world where humans are not the dominant species, and aliens bicker like humans.