After the events on Eden Prime, the original Mass Effect sent its players to the Citadel, which serves as their introduction to the broader world of the setting.
This Citadel section isn’t perfect – in particular, there are pacing problems; Shamus covers them and others here in his retrospective on the series – but it accomplishes several goals:
- It serves as a breather after all the shooting on Eden Prime, as well as the frustration of not being taken seriously by the Council.
- For the first time, the player is given a measure of freedom and autonomy, giving them a sense of ownership over the story’s outcome. The game also tries to get them in the habit of being self-directed, gradually removing the rails found in the early part of the story.
- We see the wealth and resources of the Citadel government. The Presidium Ring – the swankiest, most upscale neighborhood on the station – looks like a five-star hotel. It’s certainly nicer than the utilitarian, military-style corridors of the Normandy. We get the sense that Shepard is lucky to even be here. One of my favorite throwaway details of the series is a conversation you can overhear in the second game, in a different section of the station, between two Krogan. They’re talking about the Presidium, a place that neither of them has ever been, and one mentions that he “heard an Urdnot went up there once.” Those who know their Krogan tribes will figure out that that was probably Wrex, and also realize that for even one Krogan to be admitted into the Presidium is considered a rare, noteworthy event (to them, at least). The game deftly communicates that the Presidium is a place of great power and security, but that it also has an exclusive, snobbish, authoritarian quality.
- The quests in the area involve us taking on a local nightclub owner and crime lord, showing that all is not necessarily law-abiding, even here at the heart of the Council’s power. We meet Garrus for the first time in this part of the game, and his initial introduction is as a sort of hard-boiled cop archetype. Later, we can recruit Wrex, initially introduced as an amoral mercenary. We also meet Tali, who’s regarded with suspicion by the authorities because she’s a Quarian. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all of the recruitable party members in this section (a cop not taken seriously by his superiors, a Krogan gun for hire, and a member of an exiled and distrusted diaspora) are outsiders of one kind or another.
- Certain mysteries within the story are introduced here. Players will encounter both the Keepers and the miniature Mass Relay that will eventually feature in the Ilos mission. Both foreshadow later revelations about the Reapers.
Between all this, I believe that Mass Effect‘s Eden Prime and Presidium Ring sections serve as an effective introduction to the game, despite their pacing problems. A comparable section in a hypothetical Mass Effect 4 would seek to accomplish similar goals. As the Presidium Ring gave us a sense of the state of political/diplomatic play in the Milky Way before the Reaper invasion, its Mass Effect 4 incarnation should do the same for after.
The last entry introduced three aspects of the setting going forward: a refugee crisis, technological regression, and cultural tension. Now it’s time to show the player what these actually look like up close, which means it’s time for us to discuss what we want the moral of the game to be.
Some of you may be apprehensive after reading that last sentence – after all, are games supposed to have morals, like they’re interactive Aesop’s Fables? On the one hand, no. Your typical RPG aspires to be less hamfisted and preachy than the word “moral” usually implies. On the other hand, the Mass Effect series has usually endorsed a pluralistic, inclusive approach to its own universe. Characters espousing any kind of essentialist view of this species or that one are consistently framed as being in the wrong. And though it seems like a thousand years ago now, it’s actually only been thirteen years since various news entities sounded the alarm about the game supposedly being a “lesbian sex simulator.” Bioware has endured, and occasionally even relished, conservative backlash against its games.
In short, the series shares more than elements of its visual aesthetic with Star Trek – it also shares a deliberate, self-conscious attempt to put a hard (or at least hard-ish) sci-fi future into an idealistic frame. Note that an idealistic frame doesn’t disqualify dark themes – if anything, it makes them more dramatic thanks to contrast. The refugee crisis/technological regression/cultural tension aspects of the setting are inevitably going to wander down some poorly-lit alleys. It’ll be up to the writers not to allow excessive cynicism or nihilism into the script.
With that extensive preamble out of the way, let’s get back to the concept of the series having a “moral.” If I had to summarize what I consider to be a key message of the series into a single phrase, it would be “diversity is a competitive advantage.” In the first game, that message is borne out by the composition of the council. It consists of Turians (noteworthy for their military prowess and capacity for discipline and self-sacrifice), Salarians (noteworthy for their scientific achievements, curiosity, energy, and ingenuity), and Asari (noteworthy for their diplomatic skills, patience, perspective, and skill at administration).
Each of these qualities is shown to be the product of historical/social/anthropological circumstance, and an asset to the Citadel government as a whole. A council that had only Turians, or only Salarians, or only Asari, would not be as effective. Furthermore, in a trope that’s almost universal in sci-fi, each of the three council races are depicted as being culturally homogeneous. Meaning that, with very few exceptions, Turians/Salarians/Asari each have a single, universal language, culture, and broad set of historical/religious assumptions, rather than many. This is not necessarily “realistic” from a world/galaxybuilding perspective, but simplifies the setting in way that’s useful for storytelling purposes.
Humans, by contrast, are still diverse. Mass Effect is set in the relatively near future, and the setting presumes that, thanks to the discovery of Prothean remains on Mars, humans achieved space travel before their species united culturally, not after. In the first Mass Effect, for example, we meet Kaidan and Ashley, each of which has a very different personality, cultural background, and way of viewing the world they inhabit. Both have reasons to be resentful towards, or at least suspicious of, aliens. And yet, in both cases, their character development consists of them moving away from prejudicial attitudes.
I can’t speak for others, but I always felt that, within the context of the setting, humans’ fresh experience with bridging cultural divides (resulting from the unique timing of their technological advancement) was intended to be among their decisive advantages as a species. The text of the game never quite made this explicit, but I still consider the reading to be sound, and to be a potentially effective campaign hook.
If we decide to foreground this particular concept, we can use it to set up one of the game’s main themes: different species working together vs. different species working alone. This series’ last entry mentioned “cultural tensions” as being an inevitable result of post-Crucible circumstance: the various races of the Milky Way rallied to the cause of defending earth, succeeded, and proceeded to get stuck here in what would have quickly become desperate circumstances.
No matter how well humans managed to treat them, they would have cause to feel snubbed and underappreciated. Not only that, they would have cause to want to go home. No exile wants to live in Babylon forever, no matter how nice the Hanging Gardens are. This would, quite organically, lead into a second source of conflict and drama: the question of whether to reactivate the Solar System’s Mass Relay.
For the inhabitants of post-Crucible Earth, this question would be rich in complications. The details of the setting support the idea that to this is a decision fraught with risks and uncertanties. The activation of a dormant Mass Relay was what, once upon a time, led to the Rachni invasion, a major event in the Council’s history, leading to the elevation of the Krogan, and, eventually, the Genophage. Anytime you open one, there’s the risk that something terrifying will show up from the other side. The inhabitants of Earth (both human and otherwise) would, quite reasonably, wonder if maybe the Reapers themselves were still out there somewhere. They were, after all, an overwhelming, implacable, and inscrutable opponent. A lingering fear of them would likely persist long after their defeat.
Meanwhile, Earth’s stranded alien populations would want to go home. In the original series, one of the most affecting stories was that of the Quarians – the race whose callousness and hubris had led to their exile, and whose biology, immune systems, and sentiment prevented them from simply settling down on another planet. Post-Crucible, all of the stranded communities of Earth would be in similar circumstances, leading to similarly fraught emotional circumstances.
With all this in mind, we can design a gameplay area to introduce the player to all of these conflicts: species working together vs. working alone, displacement/homesickness, and the question of whether to reactivate the Solar System’s Mass Relay – and its attendant opportunities and fear of the unknown – or not. The hope is that, taken together, the various disparate elements of the new setting could combine to produce some of the “domino” worldbuilding that made the series so intriguing and durable in the first place.
Some of the more cynical among you might, at this point, assume that worldbuilding of this type is beyond Bioware’s current creative capabilities – that the only arrows they have left in their quiver are badly-worn cliches and generic “epic” storylines. However, I suspect that Bioware’s talent for storytelling is not yet exhausted – that some of their more recent games contain evidence for hope of a revival. More on that in the next entry.
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