Yes, this post contains spoilers for the Mass Effect series. All titles are fair game. You have been warned.
I've been thinking about Mass Effect a lot; about what the series means to me, why its ending has been so controversial and what separates it from similar games. I've come to a couple of conclusions and this is my attempt to lay them out.
I'm starting with a reflection on my Mass Effect experience. This is the story of Commander Shepard as I saw it. All of that surface level stuff -- the battles with Saren and the Reapers, Cerberus' constant meddling, the siege of Earth -- is ultimately unimportant. This series is great because it allows the player to inject their own humanity into Shepard. You determine which losses are the most painful. You choose Shepard's motivations. The choices you make within the game aren't nearly as interesting or important to crafting your Commander Shepard as those you make outside it.
Mass Effect: A summary
Mass Effect is a love story set against the backdrop of a universe's fight for survival. By the end of the first installment, Shepard had fallen for Liara. It was a love that blossomed slowly and awkwardly, just as you might expect from a romance between a gruff, military-man and a bookish, blue alien. After Shepard's death and resurrection -- the latter achieved with the help of his beloved -- she seemed to be gone for good, toiling away on some sort of vague revenge plot. Shepard was heartbroken.
He had visions of life after wartime: settling down with Liara on a remote planet, one or two little blue Shepards running around. But that was all gone. She couldn't be bothered. All he had left was a photo.
Fate brought them back together for what seemed to be his final mission. But things were different. She was cold and obsessed with her research, uttering no more than a "Hey, Shepard" when he stopped by for a chat. When they did talk, the word "friend" got thrown around a lot, each time chipping away at his cyborg heart. This unrequited love was starting to fester. It poisoned Shepard, the boy scout.
He started to lose his cool, snapping at crew members and throwing around his galactic clout like a common thug at The Citadel. How, after all this time and devotion, could she think they were only friends?
He became obsessed with past failures, especially the death of Urdnot Wrex. He let that situation on Virmire get out of hand and it ended with the death of a friend. Curing the genophage was his path to redemption. He owed the Krogans that much.
And he found solace in others. Shepard was the savior of entire species. He did so much for so many, but after all this loss, he was breaking down. Luckily, Garrus was always there to lift him up; a true friend. Shepard had no idea what he would do without him.
But it always came back to Liara. For some reason she was hiding her feelings all along. She too had dreams of peacetime, of settling down. It only took embarking on a mission to save an entire galaxy for her to spit it out, but it was enough. He needed to win and he needed to survive. For her.
In the end, Shepard chose the only option that gave him a chance to be reunited with his love. He destroyed the reapers, knowing full well the consequences the galaxy would suffer. He didn't care.
Pieces of me
That probably doesn't sound anything like your Commander Shepard, now does it? And that makes perfect sense. It's reflective of my flaws and tendencies, primarily a romantic vision of lost loves and an obsession with failure.
Shepard is a manifestation of the player. We pour bits and pieces of our personalities and personal histories into this hollow, spaceman (or woman) shell. Not only does it endear the character to us, it builds a much more believable protagonist, one with real human flaws and ambitions. It makes Mass Effectan infinitely better story.