I really love the first Mass Effect game. I wouldn’t have written this 120,000 word series if the game didn’t resonate with me on some fundamental level. I replayed it while writing this series, and was struck by just how well it holds up. It’s the lowest scoring of the three games on Metacritic, I’m sure it sold the least, and it seems to have left the smallest impression with fans in terms of memes and quotable moments. But for me it’s an experience I can’t get anywhere else: Large-scale, big-idea sci-fi space opera that’s grounded by technical detail and bolstered by careful, intricate worldbuilding.
Also, it has one of best best videogame soundtracks, ever.
A World by Worldbuilders
If you’re like me and you enjoy asking “What do they eat?” then this is probably the kind of game that will scratch your itch. No, the “food” question isn’t terribly important in a far-future spacefaring society like this one where food problems are basically solvedAlthough Eden Prime is identified as a farming planet and they actually do address ideas like food production and supply lines in the first game.. But the designer did answer a lot of similar questions about how this world works: Where does energy come from? How does government work? What are the different cultures like and how are they shaped by the environments that nurtured them? Given how obnoxiously big space is, how do people get around?
These kinds of questions are why I love sci-fi. Yes, I enjoy a good laser battle or lightsaber duel as much as the next nerd, and I do have room in my heart for the science-fantasy worlds like Star Wars, where it’s all about the characters and not so much about the fussy details. But hard sci-fi stories like Mass EffectNo, Mass Effect isn’t remotely “hard” sci-fi when compared to (say) books. But when compared to most action videogames? This setting is practically made of diamond. really scratch my itch. The details of the setting make them uniquely suitable for asking hypotheticals about what society would really be like in a exotic world of life-changing technology. It gives the world a texture and authenticity that I can’t get anywhere else.
People like to contrast Star Trek and Star Wars as examples of “Science Fiction” versus “Science Fantasy”. But this can be confusing because both properties are fiction and you get into annoying arguments about how fantastical your fiction is. I mean, don’t “fiction” and “fantasy” mean kind of the same thing?
Details versus Drama
I prefer to think of these two genres as “Details First” versus “Drama First”. While “fiction” and “fantasy” are synonyms, Details and Drama are often opposed over the short term, because nothing sucks the drama out of a scene like having someone stop and explain to the audience why that gizmo that worked so well last time can’t help us this time. Conversely, nothing will torment a “Details First” nerd like hand-waving the established rules of the world because some character happens to be believing in themselves a little harder than usualThe Force is probably the clearest example of a “Drama First” element. It’s a nebulous thing, driven entirely by character development and dramatic tension. Force powers get stronger as the plot reaches a crescendo, because it’s driven by the vaguarities of emotions, wisdom, purity, love, hate, or whatever. It’s a mechanical story element that runs on drama.. Sooner or later a writer is going to run into a situation where they need to favor one over the other, which will make it clear which things are most important to this particular universe and its author.
An example of how the two differ:
In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, C3P0 gets blasted into pieces by a group of stormtroopers. His friends find the pieces in the trash and put him back together. In doing so they learn about the stormtrooper ambush.
In Mass Effect, Tali kills a Geth and grabs some data from its memory banks. Her explanation establishes that:
- Geth memory banks are wiped out upon death.
- Tali is a Quarian, the race of people who originally invented the Geth. This gives her expertise that other people are unlikely to have, which is why she was able to recover this data despite rule #1.
- Even with her expertise, she can only recover tiny fragments of memory, which explains why everyone else can’t just go around blasting Geth and then downloading their brains to see what they’re up to.
Presumably C3P0 has some sort of memory banks. He certainly talks about them often enough. But in Star Wars they didn’t fuss around trying to find an adapter that would let them download his brain and find out what happened to him. They didn’t plug him into R2D2 for a scan. They didn’t hook him up to some other computer. They just put him back together and they didn’t find out what he knew until he was able to physically tell them, because the business with directly accessing memory banks would have been wrong for Star Wars. It would have been too technical, and required explanations that would have burned screen time and would have required the writers to establish rules that would need to be followed later.
C3P0 isn’t a device, like a spaceship. He’s a character, like Chewbacca. He’s amusing when he’s exasperated and experiencing difficulty, so the best use of his character is to have him experience a lot of undignified personal hardship. Having him dragged around like a fussy, over-anxious dismembered corpse lets the writer leverage his best traits for comic relief.
The same “drama first” approach to writing wouldn’t play nearly as well in Mass Effect. Saying Tali got the info “because that’s just how Tali rolls” would have felt like a lame cheat, and nitpickers like me would immediately begin asking why we don’t put Tali to work dismantling all the Geth brains Shepard has been liberating from Geth skullsOr whereever they keep them. Doesn’t actually look like they have a lot of room for anything other than that flashlight in their noggin.. Sure, Tali’s dialog establishes her as quick-thinking, technically knowledgeable, and (at least in this case) a bit lucky, but it also establishes the ground rules for how the Geth computer memory works and why we can’t just read their brains after we kill them.
In both cases you have writers who conveniently provide exactly the information they want at exactly the moment it suits the purposes of the story. Both stories are fantastic, but these two universesDon’t go dragging the Star Wars books into this. They’re likely all over the place with regard to tone and genre. run on different rules and require a different approach to resolving difficulties.
This doesn’t mean that a details-first story can’t have any drama at all, of course. It’s details “first”, not details “only”. After all, without drama, what’s the point? This is supposed to be entertainment. It just means the writer has to make sure that the drama follows the established rules of the universe. The foundation of details rewards people who examine the story and suggest all those places hidden just off-stage. In their own way, details enhance drama by constraining the writer and limiting their ability to resolve seemingly intractable problems with a deus ex machina.
In a details-first world, if you say that “megashields are impervious to hand blasters”, then you can’t hand-wave that rule at the end of the story when the hero uses a hand-blaster to shoot through megashields by saying, “Well, he’s the hero and he’s just a really good shot.” In a drama-first world, you probably wouldn’t waste time explicitly saying something like “megashields are impervious to hand blasters” because that would eat up precious screen time and the audience probably doesn’t care. A character might say something like, “I can’t shoot through that with THIS!”, but that leaves all kinds of room for interpretation. It’s a character defining what they can do, not setting a rule for the universe as a whole.
Worlds like the one in Mass Effect 1 are hard to do. It’s easy to lose track of the details and riddle the thing with annoying and distracting plot holes. And sometimes writers get carried away and simply bury the audience in exhausting technical details. Balancing the need for good pacing with the needs for a coherent technical background is immensely difficult, which is why I’m grateful that BioWare made the effort.
An Episodic Structure
Mass Effect 1 feels episodic, almost as if it’s a season of a television show. The pilot episode (Eden Prime) presents you with a several interconnected mysteries: Saren’s goal, the mystery ship (Sovereign), and the Prothean artifact. Each subsequent episode has you visit a new location and meet new people. You solve some local problem, and in doing so you get another piece of the puzzle to help you understand the overall mystery.
The other thing I find interesting about the location structure of Mass Effect is how similar it is to Knights of the Old Republic. You have a brief section aboard the (Endar Spire / Normandy) followed by the tutorial area. (Taris / Eden Prime.) Then you go to the area of MASSIVE WORLDBUILDING AND EXPOSITION DUMP (Dantooine / Citadel) where you become a (Jedi / Spectre). Then you’re finally free to move around in your own ship and choose to do three mandatory locations in any order. Once those are done, you have the stakes-raising chokepoint mission on (Leviathan / Virmire). Then you go to the hidden mystery world of (Rakata / Iilos) where the BIG SECRETS ARE REVEALED, which leads to the final battle on the (Star Forge / Citadel).
It’s not an exact matchup. Taris was massive compared to Eden Prime, and KOTOR has an extra location to visit between the chokepoint and the endgame, but the similarities are still really blatant. (Jade Empire also has a similar structure, but it doesn’t map quite as neatly as the other two.)
The process of landing on a new planet, meeting the locals, and then unraveling their local conundrum is a very “Star Trek” way of doing things. This is still an RPG and the story is still driven by side quests, but this “planet of the week” structure saves us from the nested nonsense of your typical RPG where you have to:
find a net…
to catch a chicken…
to impress the butcher’s wife…
so she will return the stolen cow to the dairy farmer…
so the dairy farmer will point you to a cave…
where you can defeat the bandit leader…
and rescue the King’s daughter…
so you can get access to the royal library…
where you can find the map…
so you can find the location of the artifact…
so the sage can use it to reveal the prophecy…
so you can learn the location of the Nega Sword…
so you can… etc
You’re never seven levels deep in some nested sub-sub-sub-sub quest where you’ve totally forgotten how your current task relates to the overall goalAlthough the Witcher 3 makes the case that this kind of structure can work, as long as you’re willing to spend the money on characters, cutscenes, and dialog.. Feros doesn’t feel like pointless busywork that’s distracting you from the business of Reaper-fighting, because Feros is its own place with its own arc. The story on Feros would be satisfying even if it was removed from the overall story in a way that (say) chasing a chicken to to recover a cow to fight a bandit leader wouldn’t.
In the next entry we’re going to start working our way through these episodes and looking for what makes Mass Effect so special.
 Although Eden Prime is identified as a farming planet and they actually do address ideas like food production and supply lines in the first game.
 No, Mass Effect isn’t remotely “hard” sci-fi when compared to (say) books. But when compared to most action videogames? This setting is practically made of diamond.
 The Force is probably the clearest example of a “Drama First” element. It’s a nebulous thing, driven entirely by character development and dramatic tension. Force powers get stronger as the plot reaches a crescendo, because it’s driven by the vaguarities of emotions, wisdom, purity, love, hate, or whatever. It’s a mechanical story element that runs on drama.
 Or whereever they keep them. Doesn’t actually look like they have a lot of room for anything other than that flashlight in their noggin.
 Don’t go dragging the Star Wars books into this. They’re likely all over the place with regard to tone and genre.
 Although the Witcher 3 makes the case that this kind of structure can work, as long as you’re willing to spend the money on characters, cutscenes, and dialog.
In Defense of Crunch
Crunch-mode game development isn't good, but sometimes it happens for good reasons.
A programming project where I set out to make a Minecraft-style world so I can experiment with Octree data.
Video Compression Gone Wrong
How does image compression work, and why does it create those ugly spots all over some videos and not others?
Project Button Masher
I teach myself music composition by imitating the style of various videogame soundtracks. How did it turn out? Listen for yourself.
So what happens when a SOFTWARE engineer tries to review hardware? This. This happens.