If you’ve spent any time reading my work or watching my videos, then you know I tend to be kind of negative. So I want to change things up this week by talking about something I love. The problem is that I don’t really have a good word for this thing. So I’m going to do what all pretentious and self-important critics do, and make up my own term. And then I’ll explain what it means, why I love it, and why I think the first Mass Effect game is one of the most interesting fictional worlds I’ve ever visited.
To explain what makes Mass Effect so interesting to me, let’s talk about how other game worlds are developed. Different writers have different approaches to creating their fictional worlds, but the overwhelming majority of them are built in a needs-first kind of way.
The writer thinks to themselves, “I need the hero to go on a quest for a magic sword to defeat the bad guy who lives in a hellish wasteland.” They start with that premise as the base and they only add details when they need to.
Then a self-important critic like me will come along and start asking annoying questions like:
- Why do the bad guys want to take over the world?
- How do they obtain supplies in a lifeless wasteland?
- Why are the heroes the only people doing something about them?
- Where did the sword come from?
“Don’t worry about it”, the author tells you. “The bad guy is just evil. He doesn’t need supplies because he has magic. The good guys have to do the fighting because of destiny or something. The sword was made by the gods or whatever. Stop over-thinking it. We’re here for an adventure, not to learn a bunch of made-up history and geography.”
And that’s fine. It’s totally reasonable to make a world that focuses on characters and leaves all the background details vague. In fact, if you’re making something like a movie or a TV show then you’re probably dealing with some severe time constraints. You can’t burn ten whole minutes of screen time explaining the history of the world to the audience. I mean, sometimes you can get away with it, but it definitely goes against modern movie making sensibilities. You usually need to introduce the characters and cut to the action as quickly as possible.
In The Fifth Element, we don’t need to worry about what makes Fhloston Paradise such a unique planet. We don’t need to know about its economics, or leadership. The screenwriter doesn’t tell us how the planet was settled or who lives there. The filmmaker shows us some really obvious Polynesiann imagery when we arrive and the audience immediately gets the idea, “Oh okay. This planet is space-Hawaii. I get it.”
This is a perfectly valid way to tell stories, but for me it’s not the most interesting way to build a world.
A World of Consequences
On YouTube you can find a talk from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone where they explain how they construct their stories. The first advice they give is to avoid writing stories where scenes or plot points would be connected by the words “and then”. Instead, your story beats should be connected by the words “and therefore”. That makes each scene a consequence of the previous scene. The other option is to have the points connected by the word “however”, which takes the audience through an unexpected turn.
Parker and Stone were talking about how to construct a story, but their advice could just as easily be applied to coming up with a setting and building worlds. That’s what backstory is. It’s the story that took place before your story.
And with that, I want to tell you about the backstory of…
There’s this race of tadpole looking dudes called the Salarians. They’re really smart but they don’t live very long, which means they’re really good at coming up with brilliant short term solutions to serious problems.
There are these huge machines called mass effect relays. At this point in the story, nobody knows who built them or how they work. Their origins are part of the ongoing mystery of the setting. These relays allow instant travel all around the galaxy. The thing is, relays are initially deactivated. You can turn it on to connect your current location to a new, unknown star system somewhere else in the galaxy, but there’s no way to turn it off again. It’s like opening a door you’ll never be able to close. The Salarians are inventive and naturally curious, so they fly around the galaxy opening up relays to see what’s on the other side.
Therefore, they stumble on the home planet of beings called the Rachni. The Rachni are space bugs that communicate through some form of telepathy, so there’s no way for the Rachni and Salarians to talk to each other. It’s not even clear that the Rachni understand or care that Salarians represent an intelligent species. Therefore the Rachni pour through the now-open relay and begin spreading through the rest of the galaxy, wiping out anyone they find.
The galaxy fights back, but the Rachni are like space cockroaches. It’s really hard to kill them, and even if you do there’s always more.
However, there’s another race that the Salarians have discovered in their exploring. These guys are called the Krogan. Their homeworld is a hellhole filled with building-sized apex predators. The Krogan have thus evolved to be really tough and aggressive. Their females lay 1,000 eggs in a single clutch, they grow up quickly, they have super tough skin, they’re really strong, and they’re not afraid of anything. They have some industrial technology, but they’re not a spacefaring species. Their technology development has stagnated due to their constant infighting.
Therefore, the Salarians give the Krogans some spaceships and zap guns in exchange for help with the Rachni. The Krogan love this job, since this is a chance to enjoy war on a grander scale than ever before. [Therefore] They wipe out the Rachni, and [therefore] as a reward for saving the galaxy, the Council races grant them some planets to colonize.
[therefore] After the war ends, the Council makes a new rule: Nobody is allowed to open new mass effect relays, just in case there’s another Rachni-like species hiding behind one of these doors.
So we have peace, right? It seems like we ought to have peace at this point, however… the Krogan are prolific breeders. Outside of the horrific conditions of their homeworld, there’s nothing keeping their numbers in check. Therefore their population explodes. Pretty soon they run out of space to live. They’re overcrowded and they’re pretty much born with itchy trigger fingers, so war is inevitable. [therefore] They attack the other races to claim more space.
Once again, the Salarians solve today’s problems by creating tomorrow’s problems. They come up with the Genophage – a disease that will infect the Krogan and inhibit their ability to breed. They want to use it as a deterrent. They figure maybe they can threaten the Krogan into backing down.
However, one of the other Council races isn’t nearly so shy about using biological weapons on a planetary scale. The Turians are militaristic and disciplined. They also have a strong bureaucratic streak. They’re less interested in haggling for peace and more interested in gaining the upper hand in a military sense.
So [therefore] the Turians use the weapon, Krogan birth rates fall, and the war sputters out as attrition finally takes its toll on the Krogan population.
Things are peaceful until Humanity shows up. Humans build their first spacefaring ships and begin exploring the mass relay network with no idea of who they’re going to encounter. They don’t know anything about the Council or the law prohibiting opening new relays. Therefore they’re not shy about opening the first relay they find. The Turians find the Humans in the middle of opening a new relay and decide to stop them. A battle ensues. Humans do really well considering their status as newcomers, but they’re totally outmatched by the superior technology, fleets, and experience of the Turians. Eventually the misunderstanding is cleared up and humanity joins the galactic community, but [therefore] the battle leaves a lot of hard feelings all around.
All of that – everything I just told you – is just the backstory to Mass Effect. That’s what happens before the start of the game. What I love about it is that this is a series of consequences. All of that stuff happened for a reason. Galactic history was shaped by both the technology used and the personalities of the races involved, and each event was a consequence of the things before it.
I call this style of worldbuilding…
Looking back, you can see that a lot of it was sort of inevitable. The Salarians were bound to run into the Rachni eventually, and that would lead inevitably to war, which would lead to the prohibition against opening new relays, which led to the violent first contact between Humans and Turians.
People made mistakes, sure. But everyone involved made decisions that were understandable based on who they were and what they knew at the time. Nobody had to be cartoonishly evil or painfully stupid to make this story happen. Yes, the Krogan and Rachni were incredibly destructive, but their actions are still understandable from a species and character standpoint. And just to be clear, sometimes it’s fine to have cartoon evil bad guys and idiotic blunders in your story. It depends on the tone of the story you’re trying to tell. I just really appreciate it when the storyteller takes the high road and makes something more nuanced.
More importantly, this history isn’t just background flavor. This stuff is all directly related to the events of the game. Your crewmate Ashley is dealing with some family-name guilt for how her grandfather acted during the first contact war with the Turians. Your buddy Wrex is wise enough to see that his people are dying out due to the Genophage and he’s trying to come up with a way to change that. Kaiden was deeply affected by the prejudice and abuse that humanity suffered at the hands of the Turians. The start of the game deals with an attack on a Human colony, which is part of Humanity’s ongoing struggle to expand geographically and politically and carve out their own place in the galaxy. Everyone is a product of the environment they grew up in, and everyone’s thinking – good or bad – is shaped by the events of the past. You don’t need to sit through all that exposition and read all those codex entries if you don’t care, but those details are there if you want them and that additional understanding can make the world richer and more interesting.
And despite all this depth, I actually skipped over a ton of details. I left out the important histories of the Protheans and the Asari. I also skipped over the stories of the Volus, Elcor, Quarians, Hanar, and Geth. There’s so much here and it’s all really good, but I think you get the idea.
The setting of Mass Effect is a masterwork of worldbuilding. It’s inventive, incredibly ambitious, beautifully detailed, and filled with interesting moral conundrums that resist simplistic good / evil binary analysis and instead forces you to really think about the people involved. This gives the setting an incredible level of verisimilitude. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, and we don’t get nearly enough of this sort of thing in video games.
So why does this matter? What makes Domino Worldbuilding better than just leaving things vague? As it happens, I have a numbered list that will answer that question:
A Numbered List
1. Games can (and should) have more details than movies.
We often compare games to movies because both are visual mediums, but in terms of plot density and story length, games are actually a lot closer to books.
Even short linear shooters take somewhere in the ballpark of five hours to finish. This means the shortest AAA games are longer than even the longest Hollywood blockbusters. And those are just shooters! Your average RPG is probably something in the neighborhood of 40 hours long. That’s enough time to watch the extended editions of all three Lord of the Rings movies, back-to-back… three times in a row. And you’ll still have enough time left over for the double-feature of Avengers Infinity War and Avengers Endgame. Plus a random episode of Star Trek!
Since Games are so much longer than movies, the writer isn’t under such severe time pressure. Sure, they can do everything the brute-force way and turn the game into a movie with lots of cutscenes, but the author also has a lot of other tools to communicate setting details to the player. There are player-directed expositional dialogs, ambient NPC chatter, radio chatter exposition, and lore items like books, codex entries, and datapads.
The point is that there are lots of ways to passively communicate setting or plot details to the player and plenty of time to do it in.
2. It’s useful for avoiding plot holes.
The audience is going to spend more time thinking about and questioning your world. You know how some movies make sense at first, but then after the movie is over you’re getting something out of the fridge and you suddenly think, “Hang on, if Buzz Lightyear thinks he’s a real space ranger and not a toy, then why does he act like a toy when humans are around?” This phenomenon is called Fridge Logic because it doesn’t hurt the movie while you’re watching it. It doesn’t bother you until later.
The problem is that in games, players spend a lot more time with your story. You usually don’t plow through an entire game in one sitting. They’re going to take breaks to eat and sleep and maybe go to some sort of job. Which means there are a lot more chances for the player to reflect and discover a fault that would have gone unnoticed in a two-hour movie.
Making your setting a series of consequences will force you to think things out ahead of time, which makes it less likely that you’ll create confusion or immersion-breaking inconsistencies.
3. It makes things easier on future teams.
We live in a world where endless sequels are the norm. Maybe you’re fine with that or maybe that bothers you, but that’s how the entertainment business works these days. Any halfway successful game is going to have a sequel, whether it needs one or not.
Since sequels are inevitable, it would be really smart if the initial designer would create some sort of framework. Putting in the effort to establish a coherent setting makes the world more interesting now, and it also makes things easier when another writer takes over later. If you can establish a clear set of events, characters, rules, and get a firm grasp of the tone, then it can act as a guide for future writers so the setting doesn’t immediately fall apart into a meandering pile of retcons and plot holes with no coherent theme. It means the story can feel intentional instead of feeling like a disjointed mess because nothing was planned out and the team had to make things up as they wentOf course, the later writers aren’t obligated to respect your guide. I’m sure there are examples of games where later writers ruined a series by ignoring the intention of the original author, but I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head. I know there was a goofy space game a few years ago that had this problem, but I can’t remember what it was called..
4. Makes the setting more real.
The most important reason to use a domino approach to building your world is because it gives the setting a sense of verisimilitude. It feels more real.
In our world, Hitler didn’t rise to power because the story of planet Earth needed a bad guy. He rose to power because of the many interactions and consequences that preceded him. We’re used to living in a complex world, and having a similar level of complexity in our fictional worlds can make it easier for us to immerse ourselves in them.
So that’s what made the first Mass Effect game special. I don’t know why more games aren’t designed this way. Now that so many franchises are embracing the 40-hour open world collect-a-thon grindfest template, it would be really nice if we could spend some of that time discovering a rich world with a complex and well-thought-out history.
EDIT: In the video and the text above, I had “lazy” refer to Fallout 4 and “aggressively stupid” refer to Rage 2. This is 100% backwards. Rage 2 is a lazy world with little effort put into the setting. Fallout 4 is a big pile drooling nonsense that conflicts with itself, other Fallout games, and common sense.
 Of course, the later writers aren’t obligated to respect your guide. I’m sure there are examples of games where later writers ruined a series by ignoring the intention of the original author, but I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head. I know there was a goofy space game a few years ago that had this problem, but I can’t remember what it was called.
Push the Button!
Scenes from Half-Life 2:Episode 2, showing Gordon Freeman being a jerk.
The Terrible New Thing
Fidget spinners are ruining education! We need to... oh, never mind the fad is over. This is not the first time we've had a dumb moral panic.
The Best of 2012
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2012.
Linux vs. Windows
Finally, the age-old debate has been settled.
Final Fantasy X
A game about the ghost of an underwater football player who travels through time to save the world from a tick that controls kaiju satan. Really.