I’ve always been a fan of a great story. Ever since I learned to read, I couldn’t keep my face out of books. Whether it was Michael Chrichton’s Jurassic Park or Michael Stackpole’s X-Wing series of novels set in the Star Wars universe, I’ve always loved stories that incorporated romance, comedy, drama, conflict, tragedy, triumph, and a range of other emotions and themes.
This love of storytelling stretches across mediums. I grew up with Ringo Starr and George Carlin telling me about the adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine, and the lessons he learned along the way. Many of the movies and TV shows I’ve come to love as an adult focus on telling an incredible story, whether it’s a corrupt, self-destructing anti-gang police unit in a fictional district of LA, Soviet spies masquerading as ordinary American parents, or survivors of a genocidal attack searching desperately for their new home while still being hunted by their attackers.
Stories have always been present in video games, too, but I didn’t come to appreciate them until later, when I noticed how much they could impress me. Looking back, I think about the Super Mario and Star Fox comics I couldn’t wait to read in the monthly issues of Nintendo Power magazine, and I wonder if they contributed to making those among my favorite Nintendo-exclusive games. They fleshed out two different stories in a way the games never could.
It began with TIE Fighter, a Star Wars flight simulator on PC that cast you as one of the Imperial Navy’s countless TIE pilots. Though the flight mechanics were very simple, the story was rich and deep. Deployed to a remote Outer Rim outpost, your career begins with hunting Rebels fleeing the Battle of Hoth depicted in The Empire Strikes Back, and evolves as the Emperor’s agents take notice of your loyalty and piloting skills. They eventually enlist you to fight against traitors to the Emperor in Imperial uniform, as you fly alongside Darth Vader to rescue his master during an attempted coup. Throughout the game, menus are presented as the flight deck of a Star Destroyer, and briefings are delivered by an Imperial officer (and sometimes a cloaked representative of the Emperor’s Secret Order).
Another flight simulator from my youth, Fighters Anthology, reinforced the storytelling that I came to expect in my games. Mission briefings contained a “Situation” section that described the geopolitical situation in a given combat theater as you prepared to take to the skies in a fighter or bomber. It’s thrilling to dogfight Russian MiGs over Ukraine or the Baltic republics, but understanding my place in those fictional wars gave meaning to the sorties I was executing against enemy armored columns.
I came to appreciate this situational context in any setting. The original Doom series of games had minimal emphasis on story, instead making you a faceless Doomguy running around with shotguns, plasma rifles, and the infamous BFG9000, gunning down demons and zombies. In 2004, Doom 3 recreated the premise and much of the gameplay, but introduced other human characters, along with PDAs and discs scattered around the ravaged facility. The audio diaries and video files you scavenged contributed to the dread and horror of the poorly lit research facility teeming with twisted, fearsome creatures.
Not all games tell their stories with words. Half-Life places you in the shoes of Gordon Freeman, a scientist at the secret Black Mesa research facility where a portal is mistakenly opened with an alien world. When creatures pour into the facility, Freeman is caught in the crossfire between the powerful alien creatures and special operators sent to exterminate the aliens and all witnesses. Freeman doesn’t speak, and the people he encounters don’t say a ton, but Half-Life is a clinic in creating atmosphere, from the introductory tram ride to the frantic battles breaking out between soldiers and alien beings. Half-Life 2 reprised this amazing atmospheric design, with the same mute protagonist being returned to a dystopian earth occupied by an alien government that had defeated the combined human armies of the planet after a mere seven hours.
Most games push you along a linear path with limited choices as to how you fulfill your objectives, and no room for dissent if you want to go your own route. Even the Grand Theft Auto series of games, which revolutionized the open-world style of games, left the player limited choices in terms of what ultimately had to be done to advance the story. Other games, such as Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim offered the open world with lots of options to be cruel or kind, but the dialogue is mediocre and every character is animated roughly the same during conversation. When you’re not staring at a beautiful vista, the immersion is limited.
My first experience with such a game was Knights of the Old Republic, an RPG from BioWare set in the Star Wars universe 4,000 years prior to the events of the original trilogy. An obscure soldier for the Republic suffering from a bad bout of amnesia, you soon discover you have Force-sensitivity, and begin learning the ways of the Jedi. But as you travel the galaxy looking for clues to the whereabouts of a mysterious superweapon, your dialogue choices and actions let you walk the path of the light side, or give in to the aggression and violence of the dark side. The story features one of the greatest plot twists of all time, but it’s all elevated by the ability to choose whether to save the galaxy, or conquer it for yourself.
A sequel was released from a different studio that let the player see the impact of his or her decisions in the previous game, and offered more compelling (and sometimes morally ambiguous) choices to do good or harm in the galaxy. Unfortunately, the game was rushed through production, and was published despite missing huge chunks of its story.
In 2007, BioWare published Mass Effect and elevated the standard for storytelling in gaming forever. The story takes place in 2187 after humans have discovered alien technology that makes travel across the galaxy possible, and are trying to fit into the community of older and more powerful galactic civilizations. Mass Effect and the subsequent two games in the trilogy featured beautiful and terrifying worlds, vehicles, and characters. The music and sound design perfectly complement the atmosphere of the galaxy that Shepard explores. While the first game has limited variety in its various planets, Mass Effect 2 and 3 create truly unique and memorable locations, with events occurring around you that contribute to the immersion.
Adding to this is the Codex, a section of the in-game menu that serves as an encyclopedia to the game world. It describes, in detail, the many cultures you encounter, the technology seen and used throughout your travels, and major historical events that have shaped the galaxy that Shepard inhabits. It’s almost completely narrated, as well, so you can sit back and listen as a you’re told all the relevant information with a clear and succinct delivery.
This depth and breadth of the game world gives real weight to the decisions that you make in the Mass Effect trilogy. Meanwhile, your character forms strong relationships with the friends and adversaries you encounter. Shepard may makes choices that will result in the death of a valued squad member, the eradication of a planet or race, the upending of the galactic political order, or even establish a romantic relationship that causes joy or sorrow. Additionally, Shepard’s dialogue is fully voiced by a male and female lead, giving the series one of the most cinematic feels of any game I’ve ever played.
Herein lies the difference between BioWare’s trilogy, and the experience of Fallout and Skyrim. Though they’re fantastic games, the immersion falls short. The Mass Effect trilogy uses all mediums at its disposal to help you understand its universe, its characters, and what your decisions will mean to it in the short and long term. It feels like a cinematic experience, especially in the second and third entries of the series. The story is ambitious and grand. Shepard must stop a rogue agent bent on returning an ancient race of powerful, genocidal beings to the galaxy; he or she must then team up with a violent terrorist organization to investigate the disappearance of human colonies; and a final, desperate battle to save earth and the rest of the galaxy.
There are many other games with acclaimed stories supporting superb gamplay. Red Dead Redemption, The Last of Us, Dragon Age: Origins, and numerous others deserve credit for giving players a story worthy of the time and attention that players are willing to give to a great game. I would contend, however, that none can rival the epic scope, degree of choice, or range of outcomes that Mass Effect offers. It remains the greatest end-to-end video game story written to date.
I stand by that assessment despite the very controversial ending to Mass Effect 3 which generated very agonized and loud backlash from some fans, and resulted in BioWare publishing an “Extended Cut” ending that further explained the final fifteen minutes of the game, and it’s aftermath. The outcry from fans reinforces how invested many became in the character—and the narrative—they created with the help of the game’s writers. I’ll reserve my opinions on the ending for another article, and I won’t offer any spoilers here. To me, it doesn’t change anything I’ve put forward.
The bar is set really high when Mass Effect: Andromeda drops on March 21, beginning a new story in this incredible universe. But no matter what, the original trilogy will stand for a long time, if not forever, as the pinnacle of video game narrative design.