Why the moral core of Mass Effect is more vital than ever

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition provides a fascinating opportunity to revisit a classic. The series had a lot to say when it was released, but after a decade of chaos and fearmongering, its moral storytelling is more relevant than ever.

I was but a naïve youth when I first played Mass Effect. I had been excited to hear that acclaimed RPG developer Bioware were working on a title that shot for the stars of sci-fi, rather than skulking around in the dungeons of fantasy.

Despite being amenable to both genres, there was something fresh about the prospect of a space opera RPG. Particularly one rendered in stunning 3D, and made by a team with a proven track record of combining immense scope with compelling, humanistic storytelling.

Unfortunately, when Mass Effect was originally released, I was a card-carrying member of the PlayStation brigade. Its exclusive Xbox release meant that I wasn’t initially able to play the game, and almost lost interest in it entirely.

When I finally got my hands on a PC copy, I wasn’t ready for the revelation that it proved to be. Quite simply, it changed what I thought a video game could be.

If you were like me and missed Mass Effect when it first came out, then Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is a wonderful opportunity to correct that. The characters, along with the fully-realised far future world, are brimming with detail and depth. The trilogy tells an epic tale you won’t soon forget, and the performance upgrade means it’s never looked better.

the citadel
Screenshot: Mass Effect / Bioware

The moral centre of Mass Effect

What struck me immediately about the original Mass Effect game, on my recent return, is its optimistic tone. The game does a stellar job of immersing you in its world without smacking you over the head with unnecessary exposition. You learn important information by asking questions, meaning that patient exploration and conversation are critical to progress.

As I sauntered around the Citadel starting area, refreshing my memory and becoming reacquainted with the game’s mechanics, I found myself speaking to all manner of aliens.

A short and stout Volus explained to me the tribal nature of his species, and how they rely on trade and diplomacy to succeed despite their physical limitations. An Elcor, without a hint of emotion in their voice, prefixed their sentence with what they were feeling so I could better understand their predicament.

mass effect elcor
Screenshot: Mass Effect / Bioware

These seemingly trivial details, and the way Mass Effect encourages you to notice them, come together to make a tapestry that is rich and complex. However, the underlying philosophy is that understanding and empathy are virtues you should embody. You must understand the universe if you are to save it. You must have compassion for other entities, no matter how different they are, if you are to solve their conflicts.

Make no mistake: violence exists in the world of Mass Effect. This isn’t a far-future utopia where everyone just hugs and gets along. There are interspecies wars that span generations of bloodshed, with colonial themes of racism, genocide, and conservatorship working to ground the fiction in our own world’s shameful history.

As humanity searches to find its place in the stars we are reminded of the pitfalls of our own nature; the way that we fear what we do not know, and then destroy what we fear.

The alien races of Mass Effect are saddled with this same problem, yet the game urges you to work against it, utilising compromise and a level head to create the most acceptable outcomes. The barrel of your gun, while necessary at times, isn’t portrayed as being an effective solution.

mass effect
Screenshot: Mass Effect / Bioware

Welcome to the grey zone

The Mass Effect trilogy encourages the player to explore different solutions to the problem at hand. As I wrote before, asking questions is important so that you can best understand the consequences of an action. However, despite a somewhat clumsy Paragon versus Renegade reputation system, you will find yourself crawling around in morally grey situations.

Most of the characters are extremely well written, and generally have reasonably sound rationales for the moral positions they hold. Potential love interest Ashley Williams, once you grow closer to her, will start spouting rather racist anti-alien rhetoric. Like most racists, she will try to explain why she holds these views; well enough so one can understand her, but not well enough that it seems she is right.

This debate can carry on for the majority of the game’s main narrative arc, and by the end, while there isn’t exactly a reversal, there are signs of development.

During this time spent discussing alien politics and race relations, I found myself reflecting on how these same issues are broached in our own world. Most of us aren’t brave enough to confront problems in such a forthright fashion – we only feel comfortable doing it through the avatar of Commander Shepard.

Nonetheless, I’m convinced that there is real value to this virtual, moral problem solving, even though it’s performed through proxies. By forcing players to make moral decisions, you are getting them to examine their own thought processes, experiences, and biases. Especially considering the way most in-game characters will question your actions if they disagree.

This process reminds us of our own agency, and therefore our capacity to change ourselves as well as others.

The ability to change the world

The very nature of RPGs means that Mass Effect is focused on consequences. If you are going to role play, then it’s assumed your behaviour can change what happens, otherwise what’s the point? What makes Mass Effect different is the scope and emotional resonance of these consequences.

A great deal has been written about the trilogy’s final ending and a perceived lack of cause and effect. However, to focus on that conclusion is to forget what the real themes of the series are. At the heart of Mass Effect isn’t a war with the Reapers, it’s a war with our own nature.

We are defined by our actions, and understood by our intentions.

mass effect reaper
Screenshot: Mass Effect 3 / Bioware

This sort of messaging may sound somewhat preachy and self-indulgent, although it really never comes across that way while you are playing. The moral framework is impressed on the player through gameplay mechanics rather than any explicit communication, meaning there is nothing to stop you from acting like an asshole if you want to. But as I made my way through the game, I was filled with an optimism that is difficult to explain.

The moral core of Mass Effect is focused on making a difference; using your empathy, intelligence, and bravery to fix the things that you can. It’s an old-fashioned ethos that, at least in my experience, has become rather rare in video games. In a way, it seems the perfect antidote to the cynical malaise so often associated with our current times.

Modern games often tell moral tales, but few allow the player to participate in a way that relates to their own thought process. The fact that Mass Effect insists you do makes it a remarkable artifact of video gaming history that still deserves to be played.

While there are certainly aspects of the game, even with the Mass Effect: Legendary Edition facelift, that feel dated, the crux of what makes the trilogy special is completely intact.

Few games have managed to create a world as intricate, fleshed out, and full of mystery. Even fewer have managed to get you to care about it.


Mass Effect: Legendary Edition releases on PS4, Xbox One, and PC on May 14.