The valiant Commander Shepard has just embarked on a final journey to save the galaxy from the ravenous Reapers, bringing the first Mass Effect trilogy to a close. What once seemed like an odd idea, blending RPG mechanics with a shooter-style combat system, has blossomed into one of the best-known and most successful game franchises of this generation. The original Mass Effect was a bit of a sleeper hit, but by the time the series really hit its stride with Mass Effect 2, plenty of gamers fell in love with Shepard's choice-heavy space opera. The series has helped inspire plenty of trends in the game industry, as well.
Along with TES: Oblivion, Mass Effect helped usher in the rise of the Western console RPG this generation. While major Japanese franchises have moved to portables or faltered on large consoles, Western RPGs have expanded from the PC and achieved a great deal of success on consoles. Games such as Fallout 3, Fable 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dragon Age, Skyrim, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and The Witcher 2 (already out for PC and coming to consoles this spring) have kept the WRPG on a roll over the past few years, and the Mass Effect series deserves credit for sparking gamer interest in the genre. In fact, Mass Effect 2 has proven to be a great gateway to WRPGs for a number of gamers who previously only enjoyed the Japanese version of the genre.
Mass Effect's blend of RPG and shooter has also inspired quite a few developers, starting a trend of working RPG game elements into different genres of gaming. Some of these experiments have been quite good, such as the excellent co-op RPG/Shooter Borderlands and the Zelda-inspired Darksiders. Others haven't quite hit the spot with gamers. Do we really need an experience grind in competitive multiplayer shooters? That stuff should be cut out of games that are meant to be purely contests of skill between players.
Of course, the narrative elements of Mass Effect have had an effect on the game industry as well. Although the Paragon/Renegade dichotomy is a bit simplistic as RPG alignments go, it seems to have brought a desire to make moral choices in games back into the mainstream. Even some action adventure games have started allowing players to choose between playing the hero or the anti-hero. The conversation wheel, which makes dialogue feel more lifelike than the traditional encyclopedia-style conversation system, has proven particularly popular with gamers, despite occasional hiccups that happen when a chosen response has a different tone than the player thought it would. It's the most natural feeling conversation system we've seen yet in an RPG, and has set the standard against which other games are measured when it comes to making dialogue choices in games.
Not everyone is happy with the various trends that the Mass Effect series has started or embraced. Some members of the traditional RPG fan base believe that the RPG elements in the series are too watered down, particularly when it comes to combat. Gamers who enjoy slower and more strategic combat have expressed disappointment in BioWare's embrace of faster-paced combat systems, and some hardcore RPG fans dislike the streamlined mechanics, especially in Mass Effect 2. Granted, BioWare has been experimenting with how best to design hybrid games as the series has moved along, and Mass Effect 3's systems are less streamlined. Detractors of the series may never be pleased, but it appears that this generation has swung solidly in the direction of streamlined mechanics and action-based combat in RPGs, for good or ill.
Beyond game development issues, the Mass Effect series has sparked conversation on several social issues in gaming this generation. The first game took some heat from socially conservative circles for including a (somewhat) same-sex romance between the female Shepard and Liara, a member of a mono-gendered alien race that happens to be anatomically equivalent to human females. Rather than back down on the issue, BioWare has attempted to become more diverse and inclusive with its romance options, including several more-alien species as love interests in Mass Effect 2 and a gay male romance option in Mass Effect 3. Of course, Mass Effect is developed in Canada, where gay marriage has been legal for almost a decade, but BioWare's continuing efforts to be inclusive in romance options has provoked a great deal of useful discussion and debate in the gaming community.
The series has also sparked discussion around the portrayal of women in video games. Commander Shepard's female version defaulted to an ordinary-looking, no-nonsense military woman in the first two games. After being disappointed that less than twenty percent of players choose the female character option (and missed an excellent performance by voice actor Jennifer Hale), BioWare decided to put more emphasis on female Shepard during the promotion of Mass Effect 3. In doing so, however, the company put several "sexier" versions of female Shepard up for fan vote, causing controversy over diluting Shepard's original personality and focusing on sex appeal as a ploy to get heterosexual male gamers to choose a female character option. The eventual "FemShep" trailer featuring a strong, determined Shepard showed that a sexpot portrayal wasn't actually BioWare's plan, but the controversy was a valuable lesson on marketing to a modern, socially aware audience. Both male and female gamers are increasingly sensitive to the portrayal of female characters in games, and demand that female versions of characters be taken as seriously as the male versions.
Finally, the promotion and launch of Mass Effect 3 has fully embroiled BioWare in the current debate over downloadable content. The addition of a multiplayer mode to Mass Effect 3 was somewhat controversial, although the actual gameplay in that mode proved popular when its demo was released. Gamers remain skeptical about the motivations behind the multiplayer mode, however, as it's associated with an impressive array of merchandise with pack-in DLC codes. Even more controversial is the addition of "Day One" DLC including an exclusive party member. This kind of DLC is particularly controversial in narrative-driven games like Mass Effect, and it will be interesting to see if the sales of future BioWare games are affected by the marketing decisions made in Mass Effect 3.
The game industry is a complex, multifaceted environment, so it's difficult to tell exactly how many of the trends above were started by the Mass Effect series. Still, Mass Effect either pioneered or popularized the above development trends and sparked often-raucous discussion over various game development and social issues. The series has made the world of game development a more interesting place, especially for RPG fans. As one of the iconic game series of this generation, Mass Effect has helped ensure the continued health of the RPG genre and brought forth plenty of issues that will be debated within the gaming community for years to come.
Date: March 7, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*