Sunday, March 04, 2012

Is Mass Effect's Setting An All-Time Great?

Mass Effect's greatest strength is its setting. It presents a universe of staggering diversity and complexity. It is well-populated, presenting your Commander Shepard with a wide range of different situations to respond to and to shape your character, which is integral to Mass Effect's character development and entire narrative system. But that's not the only way that the Mass Effect universe makes the game better. It also connects Mass Effect by connecting it to many of the great science fiction universes in the history of the genre, and it does so by moving outside the normal SF setting used by video games.

Most science fiction games use this as a premise: humanity is starting to explore beyond their normal boundaries. They come across something alien, totally unexpected, frightening, and most of all, dangerous. For example, Gears Of War does not take place on Earth specifically, but it is humanity's push towards the frontiers of their domain that leads to the disaster of Emergence Day. In Halo, initial exploration into space becomes an all-out war with the Covenant followed quickly by the Flood. Or, in the Half-Life series, experiments in dimensional travel lead to war with an alien invasion force.

These can all be summarized as "First contact goes horribly wrong" in one sense, but in another, it's even simpler: most science fiction video games take their cues from the Alien film series. In the first Alien, the main character, Ripley, is the member of an exploratory spaceship which uncovers an alien killing machine, forcing her to survive by her wits and whatever is available. The discovery of horrifying, murderous alien life is a staple of games, from Doom to Half-Life to Dead Space

In the sequel, Aliens, Ripley returns to the planet which housed the aliens, with a squad of elite soldiers. For all their bravado, the squad is quickly decimated, forcing the smaller and smaller number of survivors into increasingly desperate measures, ending with Ripley confronting the alien queen by herself. The initially militaristic opening with an increasing focus on individual heroics against an implacable, dominant alien force brings to mind the original Halo and Gears Of War. There are no negotiations, no conversations. The world is filled with violence and desperate attempts to survive.

Mass Effect's universe, on the other hand, is filled with a range of aliens willing to negotiate, converse, and perhaps fight as a last resort. The big enemies of the game, the Reapers, are totally alien in this world, as they exist only to destroy. Commander Shepard great political struggle over the course of two games is convincing the political leaders of the galaxy that these enemies - evil incarnate - actually exist. Everyone else is used to problems with political solutions.

This is what separates Mass Effect from the vast majority of science fiction games, and makes it comparable to some of the best science fiction settings of all time The vibrant universe of Mass Effect may seem initially comparable to the two great science fiction properties, Star Wars and Star Trek. But Mass Effect's setting is different from those two. Most Star Trek stories are built around exploration, with space as "the final frontier". Meanwhile, Star Wars presents a universe that has always been, with humans as the dominant species of the galaxy. Mass Effect portrays humans as late arrivals to the galactic scene - but arrivals which threaten a precarious balance of power.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a newer style of science fiction epic became commonplace in literature. In David Brin's 1983 novel Startide Rising, humans are a "wolfling" race, which developed intelligence and interstellar travel on its own, causing them to be frowned upon by a conservative galactic order. When a human ship discovers a ancient artifact believed to be related to the "Forerunners", perhaps the original spacefaring race in the galaxy, it triggers a massive galactic conflict, as the humans try desperately to survive, build alliances, and discover what the hell the artifact means. Sound familiar?  Startide Rising seems to wield the same crucial influence on Mass Effect that George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice & Fire is to Bioware's Dragon Age.

Startide Rising isn't the only piece of classic science fiction literature to have echoes in Mass Effect. In Sheri S. Tepper's 1989 novel Grass, a huge, living plant-like organism exerts mental control over the world's colonists, much like Mass Effect's Thorian. And the climactic scene where the Reaper Sovereign reveals the AI plans, motivations, and sheer disdain for life is reminiscent of the Technocore from Dan Simmons' classic novel Hyperion. Finally, the scenes on the Citadel that comprise much of the first portion of the game seem much like the most literary of science fiction television shows, Babylon 5, a show whose humans also upset the galactic balance of power, and started working to make it better. In Mass Effect II, the centrality of the Cerberus organization and the game's darker, more conspiratorial tone aligns it with shifts in the science fiction styles of the 1990s, much like the hopefulness of Star Trek: The Next Generation morphed into the grittier Deep Space 9.

Part of what makes all of these stories so successful is that they have a history, a feeling that this is a wider universe. Mass Effect does better than most games at making its setting feel lived-in. The First Contact War between the humans and turians provides some background, but Mass Effect does best when describing the history of the tough, violent krogan peoples. The krogan history - their uplift (a term taken from Startide Rising), their defeat of the rachni, their rapid and dangerous expansion, and their depressing defeat at the hands of a fertility-suppressing bioweapon - provides many of the best moments in both games, most notably the assault on Saren's breeding pens in the first game and Mordin's loyalty quest in Mass Effect II.

But the Mass Effect games' storylines generally don't flow from the dense, varied history of the universe as well as the krogan-based plots do. None of the three major council races, the asari, salarian, or turian races have anywhere near as complex history as the krogan. This is the main thing preventing Mass Effect's universe from having the strength of the classic SF literature stories. Yet Mass Effect is remarkably successful at evoking those stories even if it doesn't quite match them. Its universe is one of the most successful settings in mainstream game history, but still behind the very best of science fiction settings across different mediums.

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