Mass Effect Characters Need a Whole Trilogy to Appreciate

Sometimes you need a game or two to warm up to each other, you know?

The following will contain some character spoilers for the Mass Effect trilogy but no real major plot developments. 

Playing through the Mass Effect: Legendary Edition remasters gives me an appreciation for just how far these games came in the course of one console generation. While Mass Effect 2 and 3 were leaps ahead of the original when it came to mechanical overhauls and a more cinematic direction, something sticking out to me this time is the shift in character writing and presentation. 

The original Mass Effect sets a strong foundation for what’s to come, but I have to wonder how it feels for new players hearing about squadmates like Garrus Vakarian and Liara T’Soni for years only to be greeted with the least interesting iteration of each of them. I’ve been doing my best not to approach newcomers playing Legendary Edition with the “it gets better later” spiel, as I don’t want to take too much away from Mass Effect as a foundational work for a universe I love. But that foundation means pretty much no one in Mass Effect became the incredible standouts they did until the series started toying with finality, rather than leaving hanging threads to dangle above a sequel that didn’t exist yet.

Eric Van Allen touched on this last year at USGamer with a write-up about Garrus’ evolution between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. In the first game, Garrus is a Citadel Security cop fed up with all the red tape that entails. His arc in the first game is all about you, as Commander Shepard, nudging him in the direction of restraint or toward taking the law into his own hands. It’s largely consistent with the game’s Paragon and Renegade morality system, and culminates in a companion quest to find a criminal Garrus lost track of and deal with him accordingly. 

But compared to his arc in Mass Effect 2 (which is, admittedly, nearly identical in terms of themes), it’s hardly presented with the same gravitas. ME2 has Garrus looking to take down an ex-teammate who betrayed him, leading to a similar conclusion as his quest in the first game. But the difference is that, rather than having static characters stand across the room from each other, the scene is set with Garrus perched up above Shepard and his target with his rifle in hand, ready to take the shot. Dialogue options and interrupts will determine whether Garrus will assassinate his foe or find it in his heart to forgive. But these types of sequences are what elevates his relationship with Shepard and can earn understated scenes of connection like shooting bottles as target practice in Mass Effect 3.

The same thesis of what Eric wrote is actually fairly applicable across the board for Mass Effect. What I’ve come to realize is that almost all of these people became the iconic, beloved versions of themselves we’re still talking about later. Except for Urdnot Wrex, who does get a great, game-defining confrontation on Virmire, almost none of the instances that made these people memorable are really in the first Mass Effect

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The original Mass Effect is one of the only games Bioware’s put out in the past few decades that’s strictly table setting for something to come. The Dragon Age series has made standalone stories a pillar of its storytelling (to its detriment), so companions come and go with a complete arc, as the game operates on the understanding that you might not see those party members again.

Meanwhile, friends like Tali’Zorah Nar Rayya spend a lot of the first Mass Effect explaining lore and establishing her worldview against the synthetic Geth, which pushed her people from their homeworld, but how the series would actually use that worldview and make it into something tangible in her story is all Mass Effect 2 and 3. Kaidan Alenko recounts the history of humanity intentionally exposing children to a material called Element Zero, which would give them telekinetic powers. But humans were so unwilling to be seen as weak in the eyes of the galactic community; these children were poorly trained and too powerful. Kaidan establishes that he fears his own abilities, but what that actually means for him, in the long run, is a question raised but unanswered until he returns as a squadmate in Mass Effect 3

Obviously, a trilogy isn’t going to have every defining moment frontloaded in its first entry. Still, I think I’m just surprised in replaying the first Mass Effect that characters I adore feel remarkably unremarkable in this game. I know full well that developments like Liara’s ascension to the Shadow Broker are coming. Still, without that context, it makes me feel like a newcomer would easily come into these games later and wonder what all the fuss was about. But Mass Effect 2 and 3 are less sure of the future, so they say more in the time they’re given. The second game is about a suicide mission, so everyone involved is looking to settle affairs before the big day. And the third game is about a galactic apocalypse, so everyone is finding their place in a world that might not last much longer. Both games are so tied to the possibility of an end they don’t let their casts linger in limbo by the end like the original Mass Effect does.

This is all to say; I hope newcomers that are still working their way through the first Mass Effect can see past some of the more dated presentational issues and mostly unfinished arcs knowing moments that wrote the Normandy crew’s names in the stars are coming, and that each of them is all about the sum of their parts rather than just one game.

Except for Ashley Williams, who was racist in one game and then just vibed for the rest of the trilogy without confronting it.