A Desperate Kind of Hope: The Many Themes of Mass Effect

Mass Effect has some of the most iconic music in videogames.

It’s easily recognizable, both due to its quality and the fact that the original trilogy was a very formative experience for a lot of people. To this day I can’t boot up the first game without spending a moment simply sitting at the menu, and not just because I consistently forget that the PC port doesn’t come with controller compatibility. I discovered the franchise in high school, not long after Mass Effect 2 came out, and it was a source of comfort and escape for me during a bad time in my life. Every time I play one of the games I hear the menu music and I get swept away, remembering the characters and choices I encountered that defined my teen years.

And the menu music is perfectly chosen to encourage that response. It plays during some of the most impactful moments of each game and manages to encapsulate some of the core events and ideas of each game.

“Vigil,” the menu music for the first game, is slow and steady and kind of soothing, but ultimately kind of sad as well. It’s a song that paints a story of perseverance in the face of immense struggle, of a lone AI left as a light in the darkness as Shepard and their crew barrels into an inevitable war with a system designed to literally break other people down and turn them into agents for their twisted agenda. As the first game of the franchise, we understand that this is, in essence, the role that Commander Shepard is thrust into once Sovereign is defeated. Most of the galaxy is content to believe that the threat has been dealt with. It’s down to us, as players and as Commander Shepard, to stand as the lone sentinel against the tragedy to come.

The second game takes that idea, of standing in defiance, and centers it around one pivotal mission. “Suicide Mission” is not just a story; it is the story. It’s fast, and frantic, and kind of desperate. Every crew member you recruit, every mission you do, every planet you scan is in service of making sure you are prepared for the climactic run against the Collector Base. If you don’t do enough, people are going to die; if you try to rush through just the main quests, potentially everyone can die, including Shepard.

But “Suicide Mission” doesn’t have the same sense of melancholy that “Vigil” carries. The waiting is finally over. The tension of the track comes from the knowledge that the war has arrived, and what comes next will define not just Shepard’s survival, but that of the entire galaxy. No matter how many people die, the Reapers will be defeated. The galaxy will carry on with or without them.

And it does.

Mass Effect 3’s “We Face Our Enemy Together” plays just before we begin the final battle for Earth. It’s the culmination of years of work, of a desperate race to unite the different races of the galaxy for one last stand. It wasn’t easy; the Reapers are designed specifically around the strategy of divide and conquer, literally turning the people fighting them into ground troops in their campaign against the Milky Way. The galactic governments are slow to rally, and while they face their own struggles we lose people. Most players will lose Mordin, abandoning his long-held belief in the bigger picture to right the personal wrongs he’s done to the krogan; they’ll lose Thane, struck down defending the salarian Councillor and choking on the air his body can’t process quickly enough. Thessia is decimated by the Reapers, due in no small part to the asari government’s refusal to cooperate with the rest of the galaxy they view as lesser.

But they do rally. In the end Shepard stands with a massive unified army against a seemingly endless cycle designed to destroy them utterly.

“We Face Our Enemy Together” is, appropriately, a mixture of triumphant refrain and military march, but it also serves as a sort of funeral dirge. The war has come, and everyone will lose someone; I remember distinctly, the first time I played Mass Effect 3, feeling sort of relieved that at least the people who had died so far had sendoffs worthy of them – Mordin and Thane’s deaths are tragic, but they’re also appropriate. They die, but their deaths send up sparks of hope into the future. Thane helps preserve the stability of salarian leadership; Mordin restores hope to an entire people by reversing the genophage.

But near the end of the game, if you’ve sided with the quarians or managed to broker peace with the geth, you get a news alert about a group of quarian soldiers killed fighting on Palaven. One of those quarians is Kal’Reegar, who many will remember from Tali’s recruitment on Haestrom and an epic “fuck you” he delivered to the Admiralty Board in her defense.

“We’re already dead,” the news article quotes him as saying. And so they don’t risk extraction; they stand, and fight, and die, and through their deaths they manage to hold on to some key infrastructure until krogan reinforcements arrive to secure it.

People unite against the Reapers, in big ways and small, and they die. They fight the war on every front they can, and they win, but those wins are not cheap, or easy.

The main trilogy’s ending is ultimately appropriate. Whatever you pick, life goes on. The Reapers are dealt with. Against all odds, against the best efforts of your enemies and the worst instincts of your allies, the Milky Way survives, and you have to have faith that those left behind will know how to pick up the pieces. Because you, both as Commander Shepard and as a player, will never get to know for sure.

Taking the menu music from the first three games, we get a clear, if generalized, picture of what happens, and what’s important. From the slow, steadfast refrain of Shepard’s vigil at the end of Mass Effect 1 to the desperate defiance of 2’s suicide mission and ultimately the militaristic bittersweet triumph of 3, we know that survival, cooperation, and – most importantly – hope are key elements of the story we have the opportunity to experience.

And Mass Effect: Andromeda not only honors, but ultimately enhances all of these ideas.

Let me be clear: Andromeda is my favorite Mass Effect game. I understand this is not a popular position to take, and that’s fine. I’m not trying to say it should be your favorite of the series. A lot of the backlash against it was ultimately kind of petty, in my opinion – user interface has never been the selling point of mass effect, anymore than animation or gameplay. I will remind you, again: the original Mass Effect trilogy does not have controller support for PC, which is a pretty big oversight considering controller is how most fans were introduced to the series, and offers a significantly better experience. The root appeal of a Mass Effect game ties back to the strength of its story and characters.

And I could write an entirely different article about that. Fortunately for you, this article is about the menu music, and so you will be spared the worst of my incoherent rambling on that front. Just know, unless something changes, that will be in your future, it will be the first draft, it will not be edited, and you will all hate it.

Andromeda’s menu music comes from its overarching theme, “A Better Beginning.” The song starts out slow, almost tentative; we don’t know what’s coming anymore than Ryder and their crew does. Slowly, it begins to introduce these soft piano chords, little drops of hope against a background of uncertainty; as it begins to swell it picks up in tempo, becoming almost as frantic as “Suicide Mission” and just as desperate. The Milky Way immigrants have a lot to overcome in this new-to-them galaxy, from the Scourge that seems to destroy everything it touches, to the hostile kett invaders who have spent generations wearing away at the native angara’s spirit and numbers. Andromeda is in a state significantly worse than the Milky Way would have been, and we have been given the task of building a future there.

There is no going back, anymore than there would have been any going back for the survivors of the Reaper War. But through all the in-fighting, all the distrust and death that await us, there are still these steady, stubborn beats of hope. The Initiative and the angara manage to come to terms with each other. Ryder and their crew build settlements and make sure that this time, they’ll thrive. You find more Pathfinders, explorers and leaders to help their people move forward through the unknown. The kett are beaten back. And at the end of the game, when you’ve found Meridian and gotten every other planet up to 100% habitability, you discover that Habitat 7, the inhospitable wasteland where you start the game, where your father dies, is going to become a settlement after all. It won’t be easy – there’s no magic alien terraforming device to use. But through your actions you’ve inspired people, to get up and keep trying no matter how insurmountable their task seems to be.

Mass Effect 3 ends with the ending of the Reaper threat. We came through it, a little battered, having to cling to faith that what comes next will be worth the sacrifice; Andromeda picks us up and drops us in a galaxy in a state worse than we could have imagined, where it seems like every hope we have on hand has been dashed, and then asks, “so how do we make this better?

This is, in my mind, the beauty of Mass Effect. It’s not just about cooperation in pursuit of survival; it’s about the lasting, desperate hope that no matter what comes our way, we can build a better tomorrow.

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