No, it’s not the gameplay, which is a pretty basic mix of cover-based shooting and (shudder) resource harvesting. The dialog is engaging, yes, but many players opt to skip it.
It’s not the characters, though they’re certainly charming and much more well executed (literally and figuratively) than those in most games.
Somehow, against all odds, it’s not even the main story, which falls under the umbrella of a few major tropes and ultimately leaves plotholes scattered everywhere.
No, dear reader, the real genius of Mass Effect is the mass effect.
If you’re the kind of player who skips cutscenes and tends to ignore prompts to read “database entries,” it’s entirely possible you’ve played through the entire Mass Effect series without even understanding the titular phenomenon. It’s rarely (if ever) said aloud in the game, and its existence is pretty much assumed the same way we assume everything runs on electricity that somehow comes out of a wall. If this sounds correct, you probably have a vague inkling that the mass effect has something to do with physics, right?
Yes, the mass effect is a fictional property of the game’s quantum mechanics. Basically, the substance known as Element Zero (Eezo/eZo) is discovered to have a unique property: when an electrical current is run through it, Eezo generates a field that changes the mass of matter within it.
So, who cares?
But how could something as mundane as a hi-tech potato battery be compelling?
From a purely scientific standpoint, such a discovery would be monumental, as it would directly tie together two forces, electromagnetism and gravity, that researchers have spent half a century trying to unite. The models and theories that describe each separately make so much sense, yet there doesn’t exist a way to combine them in our universe. If Eezo and the mass effect existed, it would mean one of the final hurdles of contemporary physics had been solved.
Or, at the very least, worked around.
But mathematics and chalkboard scribbles aren’t sexy, so Bioware created a society fueled by the technological wonders that would come about with the ability to manipulate mass at will. The designers gave us cars and barges capable of decreasing their own weight to that of a feather, easily propelled with almost no energy expenditure. They crafted guns that could generate powerful gravitational forces that turned specs of dust into life-ending projectiles. They made nimble starships and unimaginably large buildings.
They invented a scientific means for magic.
With just a wave of the hand
Some sci-fi universes like Star Wars don’t really like to get into the whole magic thing. Yes, it’s a world full of amazing technological advances, but when it comes down to it, George Lucas’ explanation for the Force is that
midochlorians “um, it just exists.”
In many other sci-fi RPGs, characters with telekinesis or other magic-like powers are said to be aliens, mutants or “that guy with the magic powers.” See: Phantasy Star. It’s just built into the story haphazardly because the designers were told by someone in a suit that “kids like having magic.” A fun inclusion, but usually a senseless one.
But Mass Effect is different because Bioware chose the mass effect to function with the spark of the current that’s at the core of every living thing: our nervous systems. You see, it wasn’t enough for the designers to bring together electricity and gravity; they would also include biology. And in creating biotics (people who could be trained to control the mass effect via Eezo implants and neural focus), they also united technology and magic in a seamless, beautiful way.
All of a sudden, the person capable of flying and throwing enemies into space wasn’t an unexplained freak. That character was living proof of the mass effect.*
Raising the narrative stakes
Interspecial sexual relations aside, the mass effect explained technology. It explained society. It even explained magic. Bioware was able to craft an entire fucking universe with one incredibly simple idea. The only way Bioware could outdo itself was if somehow the mass effect could explain the story. You can probably see where this is going.
Yes, the mass effect in and of itself was also the pivotal plot point to the entire series’ narrative.
It may not be obvious thinking back on it, but the mass effect is what made the entire storyline possible. Its existence allowed for advanced space exploration. It allowed humans, Turians, and other scientifically-minded races to take to the stars and discover the Mass Relays. The mass effect is what allowed them to activate these relays, bringing them to the Citadel at the hub of the galaxy. It’s what made interplanetary diplomacy and all the associated drama, possible.
And, of course, it’s what made the Reapers’ trap so diabolical.
Because if you were an ancient, organic life-hating machine waiting at the galaxy’s rim to harvest meat, how would you know when your meal was ready? There’s no such thing as a space-sized turkey timer for galactic civilization, and simply cruising through each star system every 5,000 years would be a waste of time and energy.
But the Reapers knew that in a universe with a single unifying force, the mass effect, all intelligent life would eventually discover, exploit, and depend on its power. And all intelligent life, if given a convenient connection to other like-minded species, would begin to form a greater galactic society of trade and propagation. Yes, there would be war, but in the eyes of beings who measure life in millennia, such conflicts would seem fleeting.
It’s so simple, it’s almost delicious to type: create the Mass Relays and use their activation as your signal that organic life has sufficiently spread throughout the galaxy. It’s the most sinister, gigantic dinner bell ever rung.**
Elements of style
Say what you will about the flaws of the Mass Effect trilogy. Yes, it drags at points and blasts through others needlessly. Some characters are a little too stereotypical to take seriously, while others are essentially plot vehicles for PG-13 nudity. But at the end of a long day of punching reporters and screwing aliens, the player hasn’t experienced just another story. They’ve experienced a marvelously woven tapestry.
They’re lived in a universe where every force, from the neural impulses that drive us to mate to the universal threats that drive us to extinction, are one and the same.
And hey—if that doesn’t impress you, you can always have fun shooting bad guys with space guns that just so happen to run on that same power source. Awesome.
* And, if you were lucky, possibly someone you got to have sex with. Just saying.
** Of course, in space no one can hear a dinner bell ring. But you get the idea.