Video Games

You Don’t Play Mass Effect for the Space Fights

All that action is really just a stepping stone to the romance.

A woman with red hair wraps her leg around an alien, whose hand is around her waist. They are holding hands, dancing in a club with low, purple-tinted lighting.
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. BioWare/Electronic Arts

When a video game is remastered, the expectation is that it will look better, perform better, and generally fix the mistakes of its original incarnation. BioWare’s Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, released last week, is no exception to the rule—the compilation features remasters of the entire Mass Effect trilogy, and by all accounts, the changes made to the science-fiction action role-playing games are improvements. But let’s be honest—for anyone who’s played the games before, the appeal of returning to the series doesn’t lie in shinier graphics or faster loading times. Rather, the point of going back is to revisit your old crush.

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Or, if we’re being really honest, crushes, plural. The great pleasure of the Mass Effect games is their expansive storylines, focusing on the player character Commander Shepard, a space navy soldier caught in the middle of a millennia-old war, and the ability to alter the flow of the story depending on how you choose to play. In myriad conversations, players can choose prickly or friendly dialogue options, and they can even choose to kill or spare characters in heavier moments in the game. Most crucially, however, the directions that conversations take will affect who Shepard falls in love with.

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To bring in a more recent point of comparison (the first Mass Effect was released in 2007), the series isn’t too different from 2019’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Three Houses, nominally a tactical role-playing game, boils down to a relationship builder—a dating sim. Yes, battles are what move the story forward, but what you do in between them, talking to all of the other characters and gradually getting to know all of them, is what really makes Three Houses engrossing. The same goes for the Mass Effect games, as the player can take the time to really become friends with the soldiers and mercenaries around them in between shoot-’em-up missions. The action is obligatory, a stepping stone to the friendships and romance, rather than the other way around.

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BioWare has become a master at these kinds of games, with its other big franchise, Dragon Age, following a similar structure, just in a fantasy realm instead of outer space. What the studio seems to realize is that crafting engrossing, escapist storytelling is just as much about developing meaningful relationships as it is building a believable, fictional landscape. The people are as important as the setting. And, at the end of the day, what isn’t appealing about being able to romance an alien or an elf?

Lest you think that I’m saying this just out of interspecies lust, it’s worth noting that these relationships—platonic and romantic—make key events in the games that much more emotional. If you’re not invested in these characters, why would you care whether they live or die? And don’t you want them to, after building up your bonds, care whether you live or die, too? Even years after completing these games, I remember the experience fondly, largely because of the emotional ties forged between my character and those around her. (For the record, I romanced Thane Krios the first time I played through the Mass Effect trilogy, but I may try to smooch Garrus Vakarian this time.)

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There’s no way to really touch up these emotional throughlines—they can’t be “upgraded” the same way that gameplay and visuals can. There’s no change necessary to lure people back, especially given that the multiple routes the player can take promote replaying the games in the first place. The remastering work that has gone into Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is the cherry on top of the cake; your old flames look better than ever (and one of them has finally gotten a key reveal that I won’t spoil here). Diving back into space feels less like a nostalgia trip and more like picking up right where you left off, ready for another heart-to-heart.

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