Friday, November 19, 2010

The compelling universe of Mass Effect

We all have our guilty pleasures in life. I’ve always appreciated a good story in a book or movie. Actually caring for the characters would keep me involved flipping pages or sitting two hours at one time.

Over the past 10 years, video games have begun improving their stories to the point where one has to take them seriously as story-telling material. Sure, you had the mythology of The Legend of Zelda in the late 1980s, but a quick recall of that original game and you'll find very little story to it. It wasn't until arguably the greatest video game of all time, The Ocarina of Time, was released in 1998 that Zelda's story really took off. Which now brings me to the Mass Effect series

Commander Shepard
The title character is Commander Shepard. The plot is a typical hero journey: unassuming hero is discounted by many, has to prove himself, goes on a wild journey with compatriots, and ultimately has to save the galaxy from nearly impossible odds. Sound familiar? There are many parallels with Shepard's journey to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, and the way the galaxy is fleshed out is similar: this is Space Opera first, science fiction story second. The story is the critical element. You develop relationships with your crew members as you tackle obstacles, sometimes romantic in nature. You are drawn to their struggle, as each character actually feels alive in the real world. They each have their own back-story of triumph and heartache. You genuinely feel for these characters.

But the main draw is the overall universe, you can't help but feel completely in awe. I can't describe the feeling in my stomach when I finished the game the first time; I felt almost sick because I knew in my heart that this world did not exist, but what I would give to experience it if it did. The rush, the excitement of the unknown, the adventure, it was incredible. When game designers can make an environment like this, they have accomplished their goal ten-fold.

Mass Effect 2 built on this to even greater detail (watch the launch trailer to understand the epic nature of this game). Choices in the game this time had actual life and death in-game consequences (as opposed to the relatively linear play of ME1). The characters were fleshed out in greater detail than the original, and there is a longing to be riding along with Commander Shepard and his crew as they race against time and nearly impossible odds again (with the final mission aptly named “Suicide Mission”). You can actually beat the game AND HAVE EVERYONE IN YOUR CREW PERISH based on decisions you make.

Some people in the media have gone as far as saying that with the source material Mass Effect brings, it could be the Star Wars for the current generation. Those who are old enough to remember being in theaters in 1977 recall the raw emotion of seeing George Lucas' universe unfold before their eyes. They were drawn to the adventures of the characters and the story. There is nothing magical; stories like this have been told for eons: The Odyssey, Beowulf, etc. Who is to say that the Mass Effect series can't evoke similar emotions? I know it has for me.

This is what the Mass Effect series is. The universe captures your imagination because it feels so real – a nightclub lit with flames, deadly family reunions, a friend accused of the inconceivable – these are the sights and events that cast shadows in your mind and heart. This is a galaxy you want to explore that is populated with characters you are glad to know. It's the kind of game that you return to, not just because it's fun to play, but also because its universe is a place you wish you could call home.

1 comment:

  1. You're doing some nice work Matt. Have a great Thanksgiving.