Essential moments in video game storytelling: Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2: The Suicide Mission
There are countless narrative moments in the Mass Effect games that make the franchise so beloved. And of course, two players can play through the whole trilogy and see huge differences in the narrative moments they experience. The Mass Effect trilogy does a magnificent job of balancing a full-blooded, linear sci-fi narrative with lots of room for story customization. The plot beats are the same for everyone, but anyone can tailor the story and make it their own.
In other words, many key moments differ dramatically from player to player, which makes picking one for this exercise difficult.
However, one part of Mass Effect 2 that is unavoidable, that all players experience, is also its grandest fireworks show. I’m talking about the Suicide Mission. No matter how you experience Mass Effect 2 leading up to its finale, its last level is as narratively satisfying as it is thrilling.
Each Mass Effect game brings particular strengths to the table. But as a standalone title, Mass Effect 2 is its single strongest chapter. It resides in the meaty, uncertain middle of a space opera trilogy. It’s not an accident that The Empire Strikes Back the strongest Star Wars installment, and the same principle applies here. Unburdened with the first game’s task of building this world or part 3’s task of bringing the story to its end, Mass Effect 2 has a blast.
And like any good space opera, the core element of Mass Effect 2’s plot are simple: You are tasked with assembling a strike force for a mission so dangerous it has been dubbed “The Suicide Mission” before you even attempt it. You go on numerous adventures with your crew, bonding with them. Finally, you go together on one last “impossible” quest to save the galaxy.
This being Mass Effect’s take on the space opera, assembling the crew ends up being the most entertaining aspect of the game. Interacting with the crew, learning their histories, going through the fire with them and bonding with them through hardship- these elements are essential to Mass Effect’s appeal.
And they’re essential elements to the sense of buildup that leads up to the Suicide Mission. The mission looms over the game at every step. The characters who join your crew do so with the knowledge that they might not survive. Every interaction you have with them grows more urgent as the final mission grows closer
Mass Effect is well known for forcing players into making difficult decisions. The first game’s approach was simple and brutal in this regard, at one point literally forcing you to pick one companion to live while the other died, with no recourse.
Mass Effect 2 altered this structure. At no point in the main plot are you forced into a Sophie’s choice scenario regarding the lives of your friends. The moral dilemmas are more subtle. A simple revenge mission involving Garrus (one of the game’s most important and popular side characters) ends up becoming a complex statement of both the Shepard’s (the series’ infinitely customizable protagonist) personal moral code and their friendship with Garrus. At other points in the game, two characters with opposing moral views might clash and demand that you take a side, but it’s always possible to talk both of them down. You have options beyond a coin flip. It is your story to tell.
The Suicide Mission is aptly named. It’s possible for the entire squad, including Shepard, to die. More likely is that a major character or two to bites the dust.
But even if everyone survives, the mission doesn’t feel at all cheapened or overly easy. The game does such an effective job developing its tone of finality, of convincing us that the characters have accepted the possibility of their demises, that achieving the perfect ending is immensely satisfying.
The action at the end doesn’t disappoint. The mission begins with a very exciting cutscene, as the crew tries to keep their ship together through a gauntlet of debris and other hazard. We soon realize that the outcome of the scene, and who survives it, has been determined by our decisions throughout the game. There’s a genuine sense of relief when you realize that the shield upgrades you made to the ship early in the game actually saved one of your crewmember’s lives. This is not a cutscene simply telling us a story, but rather showing us that even the smallest decisions we’ve made in the game matter. In this game, installing some upgrades once in a while actually does save lives.
Combat was always something of a stickler for the Mass Effect games, not a drawback but never the main draw either. But sometimes, the setting is more important than the mechanics. The Suicide Mission is well-paced and appropriately challenging for a final battle. In Mass Effect, firefights can sometimes feel like a means to an end. But the battles in the Suicide Mission are breathless exercises action, with bullets flying and biotic detonations sending hordes of enemies scattering while you try to catch a moment of calm that never comes.
And the aspect that most defines Mass Effect– your choices- are also well-integrated. As you dole out duties to your crew members, it becomes impossible not to consider the entirety of your own character’s narrative. When I played through recently, I reflexively chose Garrus and Thane as my squadmates. I didn’t choose them for any combat advantage reasons; I chose them because in this particular story, I wanted them fighting by Shepard’s side. It’s moments like that; not necessarily related to the plot but that allow the player to customize their personal meta-narrative; that bring Mass Effect to life.
Yes, the final boss is one of those robots who glows where you need to shoot it. But the sense of scale in the final battle is unique in the Mass Effect series. The “Reaper embryo” is a daunting and magnificently designed character. And true boss fights are few and far between in this series, and no others feel quite so cataclysmic.
I wouldn’t call the Suicide Mission the single best mission in the Mass Effect series. The Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC might be the series’ narrative apex (I will need to write about it soon), its “best episode” so to speak. Mass Effect 3‘s Tuchanka and Rannoch missions are terrific as well. There are other standout moments throughout the series that Mass Effect fans know by shorthand: Tali’s trial. Archangel. Ilos. Virmire. If you love Mass Effect, you know what those mean.
But for a series whose appeal is largely derived from its individual threads, the Suicide Mission is an example of those threads weaving together at the end beautifully.