How Mass Effect Challenges Sci Fi's Greatest Achievements

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<LINK REL="stylesheet" HREF="http://guidesmedia.ign.com/guides/uni/IGNE_style.css" TYPE="text/css">Science Fiction is often referred to as a literature of ideas. Feeling no obligation to depict the commonplace, it gazes much higher, towards the stars, where no subject is deemed too big or too philosophical. It's also one of the most varied of literary genres. It can imagine a better tomorrow &#x2013; an equitable society free from prejudice and injustice &#x2013; or a nightmarish world built upon present-day anxieties. It can extrapolate futuristic technology from yesterday's breakthrough. It can even stage the apocalypse.<br/><br/>It's a tradition in which the Mass Effect series is well-versed. But where do you locate Bioware's sprawling saga within such a rich and varied spectrum? It has elements of Hard SF &#x2013; the Mass Effect relays themselves are rooted in dense theory &#x2013; but also 'softer', more sociological inclinations, aligning it more closely to something like Star Trek.<br/><br/>Lead writer on the Mass Effect series Mac Walters is acutely aware of this wide tradition, and believes that the series behaves like a sort of Sci-Fi Rorschach test. "I think one of the curious things about the Mass Effect series is, because of the nature of video games in general, it can be different things to different people. We do a lot internally to make sure that our science is based on plausible ideas, so it just isn't about magic in space. We've tried to build a universe that is grounded in plausibility. I think for the player who wants that real SF experience, it can be that." <br/><br/><img src="http://xbox360media.ign.com/xbox360/image/article/114/1146752/mass-effect-3-details-20110128045009675.jpg" /><br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>And that stringent scientific outlook, which gives the Mass Effect universe its Hard SF backbone, was there from the very beginning. A lot of research was done during the development of the original Mass Effect. "The entire writing team was constantly reading and researching and reviewing anything we could," remembers Walters. "Everyone was thoroughly immersing themselves in science at the time, and where these things could really go." After all, they had an entire universe to create.<br/><br/>It's even got to the point where a procedure has evolved at Bioware to deal with those niggling situations when the science is at odds with story. "Say we want to introduce something new &#x2013; be it a new type of ship or a new ability &#x2013; and it doesn't quite fit into the IP: we have someone who is our IP science guy. We'll often pass off the idea to him and say, 'How would you explain this in 'our science'?' He goes away and comes back usually a day later, scratching his head, with a few ideas, and we make sure it's in there."<br/><br/>While this exacting scientific aspect appeals to some, from personal experience Walters knows that the series also connects with those who have no interested in the special relativity whatsoever. "I have friends and what they love about it is the characters that they meet. They might be blue and have tendrils, some of them might be reptiles &#x2013; and that's definitely in keeping with the Sci-Fi genre &#x2013; but what's more interesting to them is the characters and what they're experiencing. For them Sci-Fi is context, a background; they're really in it for the characters and their relationships.<br/><br/>"Essentially, Mass Effect is a Hard Sci-Fi experience at the boundaries, and what's in between is more of a lite Sci-Fi experience for people who want it to be that as well. And that's the kind of fun of the Mass Effect Universe &#x2013; it can be what you want it to be."<br/><br/><img src="http://xbox360media.ign.com/xbox360/image/article/117/1172082/me3-inline_1306990391.jpg" /><br/><a href="http://pc.ign.com/articles/117/1172087p1.html" target="_blank">Find out how Shepard will save the Galaxy in Mass Effect 3.</a><br/><br/><br/><br/>Surprisingly, one of the strongest science-fiction influences on the narrative of Mass Effect 3 isn't Arthur C. Clarke or Robert A. Heinlein. Walters cites the recent Star Trek reboot as being a big influence on the latest instalment. "From a narrative point of view one of the things I really appreciated was the way the new J.J. Abrams's Star Trek handled itself. I'm a Star Trek fan, but I wouldn't call myself a huge fan of the series &#x2013; I'm not a die-hard Trekkie &#x2013; but at one time or another I've watched all of the series. But I just love the new movie, and the way that they've made it contemporary &#x2013; they've brought it forward, and the fact I can go watch it with friends who aren't even familiar with Star Trek. They just love the movie.<br/><br/>"And this is something I really thought about going into Mass Effect 3. If I can write this story in a way that it honours everything that all the players who had been in there before, honours everything they have done &#x2013; all the decisions they have made &#x2013; but at the same time I wanted to introduce new players to this Universe, like the Star Trek movie did. So for me it was a big influence. We actually changed some of our narrative structure &#x2013; the way that we actually write our dialogue &#x2013; to emulate in Mass Effect 3."<br/><br/> <object id="vid_5b26838cbb699c57bd165f41310c6523" class="ign-videoplayer" width="480" height="270" data="http://media.ign.com/ev/prod/embed.swf" type="application/x-shockwave-flash"><param name="movie" value="http://media.ign.com/ev/prod/embed.swf"/><param name="" value="true"/><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"/><param name="bgcolor" value="#000000"/><param name="flashvars" value="url=http://www.ign.com/videos/2012/02/28/mass-effect-3-a-tour-of-the-new-normandy"/><param name="wmode" value="opaque"/></object> <div style="width:480px"><a target="_blank" href="http://www.ign.com/videos/2012/02/28/mass-effect-3-a-tour-of-the-new-normandy"><center>Take a tour of the Normandy</center></a></div><br/><br/>Although J.J. Abrams's Star Trek may have influenced the narrative structure of Mass Effect 3, making it more cinematic in tempo, the spectre of classic Trek is present throughout Mass Effect. Gene Rodenberry's original series was recognised for its ground-breaking diversity, and its multiracial, multicultural crew has become a staple of every series. The crews of the Mass Effect games push this egalitarianism even further. "I think at its heart one of the things that Sci-Fi, that speculative fiction, allows us to do is to look forward to a time when things are what we always wish our world could be right now," says Walters. "There is a sort of idyllic society out there, and the potential for an idyllic scenario on your ship if you want it." <br/><br/>But whereas each Star Trek crew would have one crew member who was more obviously Other &#x2013; be it Spock, Data or Odo &#x2013; Mass Effect brilliantly inverts that template, making the human race feel like the alien. "We also threw in the complication, which not a lot of other Sci-Fi does, that humanity isn't at the centre of all this. Unlike Star Trek's Federation, we're actually the outcast &#x2013; a sort of pariah in some ways. Shepard embodies that &#x2013; never really trusted, never really supported." <br/><br/>The affinities between Star Trek and Mass Effect aren't superficial. It isn't all Warp Drives and Mass Relays. People adore Star Trek because of its characters, not its plots. And ultimately, the same is true of Mass Effect. While the inter-galactic threat of The Reapers is a brilliant narrative device, throwing the Universe into jeopardy, it's ultimately a conceit that allows the characters and their relationships to take centre stage.<br/><br/><img src="http://xbox360media.ign.com/xbox360/image/article/117/1172082/mass-effect-3-20110426090956618_1306974185-000.jpg" /><br/>Cerberus shock troops? Not a problem.<br/><br/> <br/><br/>"The beauty of Mass Effect is that there is a Sci-Fi part, which gives a context to the Universe and provides a framework and a structure for a lot of the things we're doing and for the story we're telling. But at its heart, and I think this is something that Bioware excels at, it's a character-based drama. No matter what these characters are going through on a grand scale &#x2013; you've got Reapers attacking, the Galaxy is about to end, which you can't relate to &#x2013; often they are experiencing something personally that is something we can relate to. And for those moments, those interactions, I always encourage the writers and myself to take those from anywhere. It could be from real life, it could be from a book, or it could be from Downton Abbey. It could be from anything you could imagine, and I think that's one of the beauties of the series."<br/><br/>Mass Effect blends together disparate SF traditions with consummate ease. Utopian and dystopian, hard and soft, it demonstrates that video games, at their very best, can also be about ideas. But ultimately, for Walters and his team &#x2013; as it was for Gene Rodenberry over 50 years ago &#x2013; it's the cast of well-rounded, unpredictable characters that really lie at centre of the Mass Effect series and its success.<br/><br/><DIV CLASS="IGNE_divider"></DIV><b>Daniel Krupa is IGN's UK games writer, and frequently has trouble with tribbles. You can <b><a target="_blank" href=" https://twitter.com/#!/danielkrupa" target="_blank"> follow him on Twitter </a></b>.</b><br/><br/><br><br/><br/>&#169;2012-03-01, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved
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