Building the World of Mass Effect

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.


Just one example of a great character in this world.
Just one example of a great character in this world.

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.

Shepard's a busy guy, but even he needs time to relax.
Shepard’s a busy guy, but even he needs time to relax.


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.

  3 comments for “Building the World of Mass Effect

  1. Cronimus
    April 3, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    The Mass Effect Trilogy is definitely one that captures the interest of the player. The universe is quite drawn out with its lore and characters. I would have to agree that you do gain a much greater feeling for a character if you can be in charge of their options rather than just accepting the story as it goes along without you having a say. I believe that if a player is more invested in a game and character they will come back for more. Mass Effect creates a solid balance of both story and player choice, but I feel that if there was too much player choice for a game it would get convoluted and lose the sense of play that we desire. I’m relatively sure that people wouldn’t enjoy a game as much if it had choices as trivial as, “Would your character prefer apple or orange juice?” However, one thing I would disagree with is that maybe they were right to have Mass Effect 3’s ending like it was. Do you really just want to abandon that character that you’ve worked so hard on when you know there’s a life ahead of them to live? Won’t you want more action and more play time with them? I think that the ending was not a flaw, but rather a hard choice the developers had to make.

    PS. Your meme use is fantastic.

  2. April 4, 2013 at 11:30 am

    I feel I need to preface with the statement that I absolutely love the Mass Effect universe. Based on the combined total number of hours I have spent nearly double the time playing Mass Effect than I have spent playing Skyrim. That aside, I feel that Mass Effect genuinely fleshed out a universe which the vast majority of players can connect with. Certain sci-fi games don’t have the right balance of story and character development. Halo, if you do your homework, has an intriguing story and developed central characters. The problem is that casual gamers don’t go the extra mile to find out that backstory, they would rather have that information given to them through the main story. With Mass Effect much of that story is available in the main story line. The games, especially the first one, reward completion of side missions with additional background information and money/equipment. What really helped me connect to the story was that I was able to directly affect the morality of my Shepard. In conversation or in action the choices I make shape the character in the way I feel s/he should act. In order to prevent rehashing everything that was already said I’ll end this thought. The surprising part to this game was finding out what choices other people made as compared to the choices I made. For Mass Effect 3 an infographic was released which detailed the choices people made in their games. Check it out.

    • Evan
      April 15, 2013 at 10:31 pm

      I’d definitely agree with you that Mass Effect does a much better job than Halo with regards to fleshing out the universe, especially considering the quantity and popularity of both of their respective supplementary materials (of which Halo has an absurd amount, and only recently really explored things such as the Forerunners in-game). It’s difficult to incentivize that material I think because it requires more money and effort, thus you have mostly only bigger fans who bother with the material. Similarly, it’s tough to pack enough material into a very linear FPS as opposed a less linear action RPG with no shortage of side quests and activities to do as well as choices to make, which really makes for a more immersive and detailed game (especially considering the amount of information in the codex alone).

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