I chose my eyes and my hair and my face. I chose where I’m from and what I’ve done. I chose my name.
Despite its cinematic presentation (and what cinematic presentation it is!), Mass Effect is rooted in the Western RPG tradition (whether or not it actually is a Western RPG first and not a third-person action game with elements of western RPGs ala Deus Ex), which means players have a significant influence on how their character acts within the game–after all, the game was developed by Bioware, best known for Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic, the epitome of Western RPG tradition. Mass Effect begins with a player choosing their name, physical appearance, and history. Before the opening cutscene finishes the player is already presented with their first choice: will they chastise a sarcastic crew member or listen to their concerns?
Those who have played Bioware’s other games know the drill. The first two-thirds of Mass Effect play like a better, Star Wars-less version of Knights of the Old Republic. The plot is authored, and so are the menu of your character’s responses, but you do have a menu of responses. You always have the choice: fight or negotiate. Kill or don’t. Or, of course, don’t do anything at all, for the myriad side quests. It may not be much of a choice, but combined with the custom appearance and custom “talents” (AKA skills, spells, whatever you level up when you level up in an RPG), most players come to feel a sense of authorship over their character, a sense that they are their character. That’s (generally) the point of Western RPGs, in the way it is absolutely not in their Japanese counterparts.
At the conclusion of the introductory mission, the player’s character is affected by an alien “beacon” and experiences a vision. A player only sees quick cuts of unintelligible images, but when approached by party members, the character starts talking about killer robots and mass extinction. It’s a startling disconnect between player and character, but digestable: alright, so that’s what it was, what now? But the disconnect doesn’t go away; it grows. As the player continues through the game, the character expresses more and more certainty that the killer robots from the vision are the real threat, not the renegade special forces operative the character has been persuing, going so far as to demand action from the Council that rules most of the galaxy. The Council’s response is predictable: you had a vision. We’ll wait for a bit more evidence before starting a war.
The problem with this was that I thought the same thing. Following the “paragon” path (the “good” way, which also emphasizes cooperation), I wanted to agree with the Council, agree to look for further evidence first, agree to continue searching for the rogue operative. But the options presented to me were: demand the Council take action against the killer robot threat, or demand it nicely.