Building a Universe: Mass Effect – We’ve Seen Things People Wouldn't Believe
In Part 1 of this series, I discussed one of the main cores that makes Mass Effect such an impressive series, specifically the creative depth of galactic history as revealed through the races you interact with. In this part, I want to explore the second tier; the graphics and the actual, physical settings you explore as Commander Shepard. The galaxy is a big place, filled with interesting anomalies, unique planets and amazing cityscapes.
The whole galaxy has the feel of a community that is constantly in motion. The designs, be they an uninhabited ice-covered world featuring meteor showers or a cold blue sunrise seems organic. The artists and designers have spent so much time creating a universe that pulls all the right strings to evoke an amazing sense of awe. In spite of this grandeur, BioWare still managed to design the galaxy in Mass Effect with a sense of practicality. This allows even the most far-fetched locations you travel to seem like places that could exist.
While I’m not about to go through every planet and describe just why they make the Mass Effect universe so deep, there are a few that should be singled out because of just how well they liven up the galaxy. With Mass Effect, the designers and artists at BioWare have done something special. With the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games, they had an established universe and aesthetic to work off of. Even Jade Empire had a pretty clear cut set of designs. With Mass Effect, there was no clear jumping off point in the creation of many of the assets. From alien designs to ships, everything had to be congruent, but also created from scratch. In the end, the artists and creators at BioWare succeeded. The various spaceships actually look unique to each species, from the rigid Turian cruisers to the sleek alliance dreadnaughts. Each planet is a reflection of its solar system. And just about everything you interact with actually feels like it is in its proper place.
The technology-based environments all reflect an organic growth from their roots. Most of the technology in the game appears similar on purpose. BioWare was smart to explain that there was a single technology line that every species followed, so instead of looking like they’re trying to save on assets, the similar technologies instead feel more like they just simply evolved from the same branch of technology (mass effect fields). The writers were very smart to actually make this a plot point in the game, and it explains why some things appear so similar. However, though the core technologies might seem similar, when their applications become more complex, we see some awesome differences, be it in the form of how different species use the technologies to build their spaceships or how they build their cites.
Beyond that core of mass effect technology, there are some excellent distinctions that the designers draw between each of the worlds. While all races all used the same technology to advance, they still brought their own touch to the environments. The diversity present in the galaxy is impressive from the design standpoint because everything really does feel different from everything else. Foreign and lost worlds (such as Prothean ruins on Ilos or Feros) look much different from planets that developed extensively pre-contact (such as the Krogan home world of Tuchanka), and those look different from the colonized worlds such as Illium or Port Hanshan on Noveria. Everything feels like it evolved organically from the various species’ natural tastes and preferences.
Mass Effect stands out in large part because the designers have crafted some very unique worlds. The various planets you get to visit, particularly in Mass Effect 2, are all distinct representations of the various races you meet. Nowhere is this more apparent than Tuchanka, the Krogan home world. In spite of the high technology that permeates throughout the galaxy, Tuchanka is still a harsh, decimated rock. Interestingly, this ties into the vast history that exists throughout Mass Effect. Tuchanka is a wasteland courtesy of a nuclear war between the Krogan that occurred thousands of years before the games, long before they were even contacted. But the Krogan love it in spite of its ongoing nuclear winter. Tuchanka is a world that lives out a unique kind of post-apocalyptic scenario, where the race was saved from itself by contact, and then subsequently betrayed post contact for just following their very natures.
The Krogan were already fierce warriors and clan-like to begin with. All nuclear war did was make them tougher. Tuchanka reflects this, with its blasted landscape and tough population. When you go to Tuchanka, it stands in a very stark contrast to just about everywhere else you visit. The closest anything in the first Mass Effect comes is when Shepard visits Feros and sees the massive ruined skyway of the Protheans. Even the relatively serene ruins of Feros pale in comparison to the blasted wasteland of Tuchanka.
The Krogan home world was smartly crafted as an antithesis of the rest of the galaxy. There, the Krogan still live off of technology that is mostly on par with 21st century Earth. Their vehicles are rough, mechanical constructs, large all-terrain wheeled vehicles. They stand as an example of Krogan toughness while concurrently existing in stark contrast to the sleek skycars and shuttles of Illium and the rest of counsel space.
The whole planet is a brown dustbowl, with the only living creatures aside from the Krogan being the Pyjaks which breed like rats, the Varren which are as extreme as the Krogan, and the Thresher Maw, which we had previously only seen on uncharted worlds with little to no atmosphere. Tuchanka was wisely designed to show that while the galaxy is often a beautiful and wondrous place, it can still be quite a mess.
Still, in spite of the planet’s harsh nature and unforgiving population, you leave Tuchanka with almost a renewed awe of the Krogan. Their world might be a huge mess, and so are they, but even amongst enemies, there seems to be a respect for tradition and honor. Wrex exemplifies this, even as he attempts to change it. We leave Tuchanka realizing that the Krogan are even tougher (and more stubborn) than we believed at the end of the first game because we see how open and honest they are. They only care for the two Fs: fighting and mating. But they don’t pretend to be anything different.
Opposite of Tuchanka is Illium, the Asari planet featuring massive skyscrapers and ultra-modern, clean aesthetics. It is a planet that exists on the fringe of galactic legality, but hides that behind a veil of beauty. While the Krogan are honorable and fierce, their world is in shambles and their culture failing. Illium is the opposite, and was designed to deceive. Everyone seems civil, and for the most part that is true, however just about every major character you meet has some deep issue buried behind the curtain of politeness. There are a few exceptions, namely the Asari Matriarch Bartender, but even she has a secret that is only revealed through careful reading (and the Shadow Broker DLC, again, a situation that stands as a testament to the writers).
The further you delve into the planet, the more you can see the corruption that underlies the world. You get to see that Illium is just as dark a world as Tuchanka, just in a different way. You stumble across slave labor in a set of towers that are visually astounding, you encounter mercenary groups that lure in powerful, young Asari only to get them killed as they fill their heads with dreams of power. Illium is a lie, but a beautiful one, and it is very cool how the artists were able to capture both the inherent beauty of the fictional Asari architecture, but also make the race more subtly flawed. The Asari on Illium fool themselves into thinking they’re superior because of their ability to create such a beautiful world, but as Commander Shepard we get to see the dirtiness underneath the surface. Illium shows us the opposite of what Tuchanka does, that the Asari might be older and wiser than most of the other races, but they aren’t anywhere near as perfect as their cities might lead you to believe they are.
While those two worlds show just how the designers could convey the difference in the races through the worlds and how the native species interact with them, there is a broader contrast that we get to see in Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect was great at setting the stage, but most of what we saw was either human or Prothean. Mass Effect 2 allowed for us to get a much broader picture of what we were fighting to save, both good and bad.
The best and most apparent contrast in the game was the contrast between the clean, structured and beautiful aesthetics of the Citadel and the chaotic, cluttered and scummy underworld of Omega. Omega exists as a wonderful foil to the Citadel. It’s filled with dark alleyways, cluttered shops and surprisingly, posh excess. This reflects the balance that the universe of Mass Effect is so good at portraying. That there is a sort of delusion in Citadel space, that because the places are clean, the people are able to delude themselves into believing they’re totally free from corruption, and Omega appears to laugh this notion off. It is dirty, but it does well for itself. The council doesn’t seem quite as naïve as some of the Asari on Illium, and C-Sec certainly isn’t, but in spite of this, the Citadel seems to match Omega in both opulence and corruption.
The Citadel is orderly on its face. Even the massive warehouses you visit are clean and well lit. In spite of this façade of cleanliness, you still encounter a lot of corruption and backroom dealing. From Turian racists to former C-Sec agents gaming the system to promote fraud, the Citadel is not without some major issues. On the other hand, Omega is chaotic on its face, but just as orderly in reality. This is thanks in no small part to its leader, Aria T’Loak. Aesthetically, Omega looks just like what you’d expect a smugglers world to look like. It is loud and confusing in its layout. In addition, there are places like Afterlife, the opulent club that stands as Aria’s seat of power, which stand in stark contrast to the junk shops and cluttered back alleys you visit. One of the best visual supports of the contrast between the two space stations is the color choice. Omega is swathed in reds and oranges, contrasted directly to the Citadel with its use of blue and white. Shaded in red, Omega has a strict sense of order, which, while not always strictly followed, still sometimes seems like a better alternative to the false face of the Citadel.
Again, there is an element of honesty to Omega where the corruption is present on the face, and thus people can easily work around it. Meanwhile the Citadel features an astounding bureaucracy that attempts to get in the way of anything proactive being done about the corruption. We first see this level of corruption when we meet first Garrus, and this is confirmed pretty quickly when Shepard attacks Chora’s Den to rescue Tali. Of course the Citadel is something Shepard can deal with, but it is interesting to see the corruption which seems to underlie the station interfere with even day to day activities in such a supposedly lawful place.
But it isn’t just the various environments and their contrasts that bring out the character; it is also the consistent quality of the art throughout the series. Mass Effect is impressive as a series because just about everywhere you go you’re granted some impressive vistas, be it the tropical beauty of Virmire or the massive human city visible in the distance on the planet Bekenstein. One of the best moments in the games is the amazing cinema that you are treated to as you fly to the Citadel for the first time. The combination there is of music and visuals that still gives me chills as the massive space station is revealed. The artists at BioWare definitely know how to create awe inspiring visuals.
The artistry present in Mass Effect does more than simply stun you with the overwhelming scale of the galaxy. It also manages to create a sense of wonder that few games can compete with, and it does so consistently over the many hours of gameplay. Much like the history behind the universe of Mass Effect, the visuals are a large part of the reason the games are so impressive and have already created a legacy that should last quite a while.