I’ve been watching a Twitch streamer play through the Mass Effect Trilogy for the first time, and it’s been bringing a whole bunch of new discussion out of it. Some old topics, such as the ending of Mass Effect 3 – an ending I still whole heartedly enjoyed and supported but could understand why other people were unsatisfied (Granted, not to the level of rioting and threats across the internet that we got.) But also some new ones, like nature of choice and consequence in the games.
I’ve heard some say that Mass Effect 2 is the last time in the series that choice had any real meaningful impact in the series, and I really don’t agree with that at all. There are exactly 5 choices that make any significant difference: Who leads secondary teams 1 & 2, who opens doors, who does the biotic shield, and do you I make them loyal? Some could say I’m cheating with that last one because you have to decide who is loyal out of 12 team members, but really it’s the same choice 12 times, not 12 separate choices. Loyalty is a boolean switch, there’s no sliding scale of loyalty like there is in the Dragon Age games. And really, let’s be honest, everyone is going to do a play-through where they make everyone loyal regardless of Paragon/Renegade or role playing, just so we can ‘beat’ the game. And those choices simply decide if anyone dies. “But Vry,” you say, “You can possible lose enough people that Shepard dies! That’s an impactful choice.” Yes it is, voice in my head. Because you actively have to choose to do that. You know how many people have to die to get that ending? No more than one squad member can survive the suicide mission. Two lived? Bam. Shepard lives. You have to actively sabotage yourself to get that impact. You have to work to level up without making people loyal, you have to make all the wrong decisions, and you have to really want that ending to get it.
The only time in my opinion that your choices had any significant impact in the overall sense of the trilogy was in the third and final game. Because throughout the third game, you see the results of your decisions throughout the series. That one NPC you lent a hand to in ME1 that did nothing? Well, he’s on the Citadel and he remembers you. Missions take on a very different tone based on whether someone lived or died in previous games. In ME2, if someone died, you couldn’t use them in the suicide mission. That’s it. That’s the impact. And EVERY role had at least 3 people who could do the job. In ME3, if those people didn’t live, things tend to go badly. The entire third game was a massive denouement that shows you the outcome of your play-through of the trilogy.
Of course that raises the question, since them living or dying is the result of a choice in ME2, doesn’t that make ME2 more meaningful? Well, that’s debatable. Since it wasn’t till ME3 that made those deaths meaningful. If ME3 made them meaningful, and you replay ME2 with that in mind, isn’t ME3 that makes the choice significant and not ME2? Regardless of where the choice comes from, it’s the third game that gives the choice weight. So I’d say that it deserves the credit for it.
Now, granted I’m not gonna stand here and say that was executed perfectly. The choice of destroy or keep the Reaper base didn’t do much but shift some numbers around, and change the scenery for one scene. But the other games are just as guilty of null and voiding your final decisions. While the weight of saving or destroying the Destiny Ascension will loom over interactions, your choices in terms of the council afterwards are either nullified in ME2 or completely tossed out the window by ME3. My all human council didn’t even last two years while I was dead!
Ultimately, choice is a nebulous thing in the Mass Effect series and always was. The best you could usually hope for is a cosmetic nod or a brief conversation. If there was any game that took in all your choices and gave them more oompf I’d still say it was the last one. Not at the part everyone was expecting but throughout that entire experience. And I’ll say this for the infamous RGB choice: It had a hell of a lot more impact on the narrative than ‘Do I save/destroy the Collector Ship’ or ‘Who do I put on the Council’.