A few days ago, I was having a conversation with a friend about current events when he joked that we only had to wait a little more than one hundred years until humans could find alien ruins on Mars that would reveal the secret of intergalactic space travel. Like any gamer, I immediately recognized this as the plot of the Mass Effect series, and I responded by saying that I knew the alternate history presented in the games better than my own. Of course this was obviously an exaggeration, but it did make me think about what a huge and unique world that the designers of the game had painstakingly created. Playing Mass Effect, and other games like it, it is clear that the developers put much love and effort into creating a rich, living world. That begs a question though: what makes a good videogame world?
You can ask me anything about Mass Effect lore and I will probably know about it; from the creation of the sentient Geth to the First Contact War between humans and aliens, I have completely absorbed myself in this rich, albeit fabricated, history. What makes this an amazing world? According to Seamus Sullivan, in a seminar during a “Writing for Games” conference, the most important factors for building a convincing game world are the story and main character. In terms of story, the Mass Effect trilogy follows the main character on a quest all over the galaxy in order to stop an ancient threat from wiping out all intelligent life. The premise alone demands a world just as large in order to contain it. The fact that this is a danger on a galactic scale implies that more than just Earth is at stake. The world needs to be a vibrant and living one; it needs exotic, unexplored worlds to fill the rest of the enormous galaxy as well as colorful species and races to inhabit them. With new races of sentient beings comes the need for cultures and histories for each. In the games’ history, when the humans are finally able to travel across the galaxy, they not only meet the other alien races who have made the same discovery, but they also discover that they are the probably the last ones to do so. The rest of the galaxy has been going on without them for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. While many other games would write this off with a few throwaway lines, the writers make sure to give each and every race an intricate and involving history. With the present galactic threat looming, this living world makes it seem much more imperative for the main character to stop it.
Sullivan’s other criteria for a good video game world is a good main character. A good character in a video game is the same as any other medium: a fully realized character with goals and desires. This is what sets Mass Effect apart from other games. In a game like Bioshock, the main character has a distinct personality and goal and is placed in a world rife with atmosphere and history while being led by the plot. In Mass Effect you decide the personality of the main character and have almost total control over his or her actions. One could argue the same for games like Skyrim, but the difference is that in that game, you are the character. In Skyrim, you are placed in a diverse world and are able to do whatever you want, making the world feel more like a playground; it feels like the world was only made for you. Mass Effect exists somewhere in the middle between games like Bioshock and Skyrim. Commander Shepard already exists in the Mass Effect universe, and you are the one to guide his or her existence, like a playwright revising a character’s lines during the actual performance. Regardless of what the player wants, Shepard is an inhabitant of the world with a specific role to play. Also, although you choose the dialogue, Shepard isn’t restricted completely by what you select. You are creating Shepard’s personality from the ground up, which makes him (or her) feel more like a living addition to the world.
In the end, Mass Effect holds a special place in my heart for creating a unique and vibrant world. I’ve been entranced by the various cultures and histories of its denizens, and it definitely helped to have a character like Shepard to interact with them. Although the series has had a few missteps (not even going to mention Mass Effect 3’s ending), its amazing world will always keep me coming back.