I wonder if science fiction is really so easy to misunderstand. If sci-fi is just men in tight outfits scrambling across fake plaster rocks until the one in a red shirt gets killed, then of course the whole enterprise is ludicrous. But that’s never been the draw. It’s not “new stars, new gas giants” that the Enterprise seeks, but “new life, new civilizations”. Kids might tune in for the guy in a plastic lizard suit, but adults stayed for the idea of a man without emotions. Could you really live like that? What would it be like? These are the real voyages of the Enterprise in particular and sci-fi in general: not out into space, but inward into the lives of the people out there. Nobody cares that Tatooine is an arid terrestrial with a surface rich in silicon oxides that suffers from persistent dust storms; they care about Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and what they do in that vast desert. Surely the talented writers at BioWare understand this. Yet, though they set up an intriguing story about people in their sci-fi epic Mass Effect, they inexplicably delivered a game about the rocks.
Mass Effect, in its fiction and its science, clearly belongs to the same genre of space opera as Star Trek and Star Wars. Although the game gives somewhat more consideration to real physics than the other titles, its handling of biology rests at the same level. Most alien species, with the exception of the agreeably freaky hanar, look more or less like us, right down to the mammae, with various kinds of funky head designs to disguise the fact that they have relatably human faces and bodies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Although it is true that the medium of videogames frees the developer from the practical limitations that make such “aliens” necessary in live-action, actually implementing a radical design in a believable way (for instance, constructing a set of conversational mannerisms) would be incredibly difficult and would not be guaranteed to yield a creature human players could relate to. Anyway, an exploration of biological possibilities is every bit as much beside the point as the exploration of rocks. What the best sci-fi really explores is ideas about other ways of being — exploring people.
Mass Effect grabs hold of this possibility early on when we are introduced to the Citadel, an enormous space station of mysterious origin that serves as the seat of galactic politics and culture. Here dozens of races butt up against one another, and we are offered glimpses of intriguing new cultures: the libertarian militarism of the turians, the intensely political salarians, the religious hanar, and the slow-speaking elcor who preface every statement with a description of its emotional underpinning. Not all of these races are so interesting (the plight of the quarians quotes far too literally from Battlestar Galactica), but I found the possibilities exciting, especially given the relatively weak position of humanity in this milieu. I thought that the powerful conversation system and the generally well-written characters could be leveraged into an exploration of this rich society. Instead, I was given the 2183 equivalent of an ill-handling dune buggy and sent on the Johnny Shepard Good-Times Tour of the galaxy’s most desolate shitholes. Bouncing across the tenth absurdly craggy moonscape to the fifteenth identical base, I wondered why I was still playing.
The answer should be the story, which is a very standard space opera, delivered with just enough cleverness and originality to stay interesting despite its scenery-chewing villains and reliance on played-out fantasy tropes. The player must track down the turncoat galactic agent Saren, who has forged an alliance with the Reapers, an serially-genocidal machine race from the depths of space. He and most of his organic allies have had their minds corrupted by Sovereign, an enormous ship which at first seems to be merely connected to the Reapers. At least in the order I played its missions, the game seemed to time its revelations well and develop them properly.
Yet I came to have three main problems with this tale. The first, a minor point, is that the Conduit spits its passengers out inside the Citadel structure. We are told that a mass relay works by nullifying the mass in a corridor between it and its terminus. The troubling implications of this process for the intervening matter — station, spaceships, and lovely Asari maidens — are not discussed, but I presume the sentient components of that matter would object. The second problem, more concerning, is that the Reapers’ behavior is fundamentally inexplicable. The writers eventually give up on explaining their motivation, dismissing the question by telling us that evil metal gods work in mysterious ways.
The final problem, which might be fatal, is that there is no logical reason anything in the story should happen at all. Consider that Mass Effect carefully demonstrates that (1) the Citadel Council trusts Saren completely (Citadel mission), and (2) it is possible to sneak geth soldiers, tanks, and artillery emplacements past the galaxy’s most advanced weapons scanners (Noveria mission). Would it not have been considerably easier for Saren to just import a couple thousand geth to the Citadel, walk into the control chamber, and let Sovereign in, relying on the Council’s trust for the element of surprise? The only thing that prevents him from doing this is that he showed his hand in the player’s first mission on Eden Prime — that is, Saren only needs the Conduit because he was trying to find the Conduit. Hiding the terminus in plain sight on the Citadel was a clever move by the writers, but it ends up being too clever by half, because it only delivers Saren to a place he could have easily reached anyway, were he and Sovereign even half as intelligent as the game wants us to believe.
Nonetheless, the writers managed to hold my interest up until this last, unsatisfying reveal, thanks in large part to solid characters underpinned by excellent voice acting. While some of them have one-note personalities, that single note is played very well, and others show unexpected depth. Codex entries and his own early actions prepared me to see Wrex portrayed as a low-rent Klingon clone, so the elaboration of his backstory as a thoughtful civic leader really worked. Sadly, the ultimate payoff for exploring these stories always seems to be yet another trip to yet another prefab base on yet another hunk of lifeless rock.
The strength of Mass Effect is not its larger plot or barren worlds but its characters and societies. The problem is that although the game’s best mechanic is ideally suited to explore that angle, it’s left hanging in the wind in favor of a standard power fantasy reliant on wobbly systems. As a shooter the game is merely passable, and the mechanics only get worse from there. The exploration and vehicular combat are irritating, the inventory and party management is trash, and the AI seems only marginally better than that used in DOOM. The hacking / surveying / finding artifacts minigame is a boring, mindless chore. In contrast, the conversation system and the cinematic presentation shine almost every time they appear, making for the most satisfying in-game discussions I’ve ever seen. Why not take that system and run with it? Why should the most interesting parts of the game be trapped in the completely non-interactive Codex?
I believe BioWare can get this right; they are halfway there already. They have created a universe which, like the best science fiction, is ripe for the exploration of new ideas and new ways of living. Unfortunately, all Mass Effect let us explore was the plaster rocks.