Mass Effect Made Itself on Virmire

Mass Effect Made Itself on Virmire
Saren and Shepard go one-on-one in the crucible of Mass Effect's Virmire assault. (Screenshot: Bioware/EA)

Eden Prime. Ilos. The Suicide Mission. The Battle of London. A small apartment with one hell of a party on the Citadel. There are many moments and places in the Mass Effect universe to turn to as some of the most memorable, definitive pieces of its story. But few can encapsulate what Mass Effect was, and what it would become, quite like the sandy shores of Virmire.

Players reach the planet Virmire — not to be confused with Marvel’s Vormir — at the close of Mass Effect’s second act. Commander Shepard, up to this point, had been hot on the heels of rogue Spectre Agent Saren Arterius as he worked with a legion of advanced AI soldiers, the Geth. They’ve recruited allies to their cause, helped far-off colonists, and investigated Saren’s allies as they try to uncover just what made one of the most famous agents of the Citadel Council — the unifying political force of Mass Effect’s galaxy, the ruling body humanity is lobbying to represent itself on by offering Shepard’s talents as they become the first Spectre of their species — go bad.

Image: Bioware/EA Image: Bioware/EA

It’s an important moment. Saren has been barely seen, but repeatedly felt, throughout Mass Effect, a specter (sorry) hanging over all of your actions as you investigate his downfall, facing scepticism and political gameplaying all along the way. Tracking him down to Virmire — where Saren is investigating ways to create another army under his command, this time with the Krogan warrior race — is meant to be a moment of cathartic climax.

This is it for Commander Shepard and their crew: the chance to stop Saren, save the galaxy, and have their quest to prove a galaxy-wide threat vindicated. But it’s not the chance to showdown with Saren that makes Virmire so special or so reflective of what Mass Effect is. Virmire is the moment that Mass Effect, in ways big or small, doesn’t just start broadening its sense of scope narratively, but also the moment the game goes “This is a game about choice — and now it’s also about consequence.”

Screenshot: Bioware/EA Screenshot: Bioware/EA

This plays out in ways both game-defining and simplistic, representative of a struggle that will continue across the wider trilogy (and into the Mass Effect saga’s successor, Andromeda) as developer Bioware began to wrestle with the scope of the games’ layers upon layers of player decision-making in its narrative. Up to this point, the consequences players have taken in deciding Shepard’s dialogues and actions in conversation have mostly been character-building.

Inspired by the binary Bioware explored in its Light Side/Dark Side metre in the beloved Star Wars RPG Knights of the Old Republic years prior, players in Mass Effect move their arc up and down along a more specifically moralistic plane, the concepts of Paragon and Renegade. Is your Commander Shepard an idealist who sees the best in all, who can call for peace instead of conflict? Or are they a ruthless soldier, who’s willing to shoot first, ask questions later, and get a job done regardless of cost? These choices can fray or forge bonds with the crew you’ve built over the course of the game up to this point, but it’s at Virmire you see those bonds, and your grasp of who Commander Shepard is, first truly tested.

This begins relatively early on. After Shepard and their team breach Saren and the Geth’s defences, they link up with a squad of Salarian commandos sent ahead of them by the Council to stage a risky assault on Saren’s labs. But while you, the Salarians, and your crew discuss your plan to destroy Saren’s plans for a new army, one of your party is angrily pacing the shore, firing their gun into the sea in frustration: Urdnot Wrex. A Krogan himself, Wrex is furious upon discovering how Saren is breeding an army of Krogan; he’s curing the species of a debilitating sterilization disease called the genophage, a bioweapon deployed at the behest of the Council species after a Krogan expansionist uprising thousands of years prior. The genophage quietly ravaged the Krogan species, creating a mutation that meant only one in a thousand Krogan children survived birth — consigning the Krogan people, once tasked with saving the nascent galactic union from invasion, to a vast period of infighting and decline.

Screenshot: Bioware/EA Screenshot: Bioware/EA

Wrex, already by far the surliest of figures Mass Effect lets Shepard recruit to their crew, has every right to be mad. But he’s not just mad at the world, or at Saren, or the Council — he’s mad at you. Saren must be stopped, yes, but you and the Council are doing so by eradicating the Krogan’s first chance in generations to be cured of a horrifying act of genocide.

Tempers are high and guns are in hand — yours, Wrex’s, your teammates from afar. Your alignment on Mass Effect’s Paragon/Renegade scale, your skills, your road through the conversation with Wrex all come together in this moment in a way no conversation has in the game this far. Will you talk Wrex down, or will you put him down? Will one of your crewmates do it for you if you have neither the charisma or the conviction? You might lose a party member forever. You might avoid certain disaster. In an equally Mass Effect manner, it might not happen at all.

Wrex is, technically, an optional recruit, so you may just leave him behind, testing Mass Effect’s metrics of choice and consequence in a different way altogether. But this is not Virmire’s climax, it’s the opening for a mission that pushes Mass Effect’s narratives for better or worse beyond the player’s initial comprehension, setting the stage for grander moments to come.

Screenshot: Bioware/EA Screenshot: Bioware/EA

Whether or not Wrex survives, Mass Effect players confront loss at Virmire either way. After chasing Saren down and confronting him, Shepard and the player are faced with a more binary, but no less devastating choice: two of your first party members, Ashley Williams and Kaidan Alenko, are split off early on from your group as part of the plan to infiltrate the base.

One goes with the Salarians, a distractionary force that quickly finds themselves overwhelmed by Geth forces while the other is carrying a nuclear payload to wipe the facility off the face of Virmire. However, they get pinned down before they can safely prime the bomb for remote detonation. Only one is reachable, and without Shepard’s support, the other will perish, either brought down by enemy fire alongside the Salarians or in the ensuing nuclear fallout.

If the Wrex choice is Mass Effect at its most complex when it comes to dialogue systems — morality checks, skill checks (conversation abilities like Charm and Intimidate, unfortunately, never make it over to the sequels), paying off past choices, and then the conversation itself — the “Virmire Survivor” decision (as it’s now known) is surprisingly simplistic despite being presented as the dramatically defining outcome of Virmire.

Kaidan and Ashley’s characters are left fairly unexplored up to this point in the game, as if one of them is guaranteed to be written out hung over their arcs. It’s only in the brief period of Mass Effect left after Virmire that they begin to grow — and, given Mass Effect’s late-aughts penchant for heteronormativity, those characters will only really grow deeper if your Shepard is the opposite gender to them, opening them up as potential romance options.

Screenshot: Bioware/EA Screenshot: Bioware/EA

Beyond the first game, the survivor’s storyline is pushed aside in Mass Effect 2 almost entirely, as if attempting to write and integrate for the two parallel universes Virmire can create for players was a branch too much. Even though they can play a significantly larger role in Mass Effect 3, either Ashley or Kaidan’s stories are once again compromised, leaving them almost strange, familiar shells of each other, two square pegs forced to slot into a circular hole.

And yet, the decision to save either one of them at the other’s expense is burned into every Mass Effect player’s mind, its impact on player choice in the later games for better or worse aside. Choosing between Ashley and Kaidan is the first real reminder to the player — dozens of hours into this space fantasy — that Commander Shepard, heroic as they are, is imperfect, that sometimes their victories are pyrrhic, and that consequence (the true currency of Shepard’s saga across the trilogy) will always be there to collect its dues.

Yet it’s not these choices alone that makes Virmire what it is, as large and defining as they are. Potential losses aside, Virmire is indeed where Saren’s plans are laid bare, but not in the way any Mass Effect player at the time could’ve predicted. In the depths of his labs, Shepard and their party discover that Saren and the Geth have a master: a horrifying, ginormous technological being called Sovereign. It’s not Saren’s ship as previously believed, but a sentient creature dominating Saren and his allies’ wills as the vanguard of an invasion that could — will — wipe out organic life as we know it. Sovereign is the harbinger of the Reapers, revealed as the cyclical harvesters of eons of species and galactic civilizations before it came for your own.

Screenshot: Bioware/EA Screenshot: Bioware/EA

In a single moment, Shepard’s worldview, the player’s worldview, is blown wide open. Mass Effect becomes not the story of one person and their team hunting another, but a fight for survival. Sovereign presents itself as a threat so huge and abstract that, unlike Saren and the Geth, it cannot be faced down the barrel of Shepard’s gun. Unlike the decisions you make along the road to this revelation on Virmire, it cannot be stopped with a silver tongue or vocal strong arm. All the battles, the losses, and decisions you have made, on Virmire and leading up to it, suddenly find themselves paled in comparison, reframed to be a vital thread in a much larger, much more ominous tapestry.

It’s this that makes Virmire the moment Mass Effect as a story evolves. Putting aside the grand action of its base-under-siege mission structure — an archetype Mass Effect returns to time and time again in future entries — it exposes what the saga is about, not just holistically in terms of expanding the true nature of the threat Shepard and their crew faces, but for good and ill, the consequences of the player’s action (in combat or out of it), laid bare and made fascinatingly vulnerable.

Before Virmire, Mass Effect is a compelling adventure. But on those sandy shores, it lays the groundwork to become a saga destined for something far more special.