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Hard Science: Why I Love Mass Effect

May 29, 2010

…Apart from the obvious, I mean.  Mass Effect is simply an excellent series; anyone who doesn’t love it just has no taste for the genre.  But I could never just leave it at that.   I have this pathological need to define everything I like, ideally in the nerdiest possible terms.

And what could be nerdier…than science?

Did you know that the speed of light is variable?  Anything traveling faster than the local speed of light will release Cerenkov radiation as it decelerates.

On the surface, the Mass Effect series is a classic space opera very much in the style of Star Trek.  You’re the captain of a futuristic space-mobile from which you can explore the galaxy, discover new and exciting alien species, save the galaxy from a couple of said species if they get too exciting, and maybe bang a blue-skinned alien chick while you’re at it (I think Captain Kirk had a preference for green-skinned alien chicks, but you get the picture).  All great fun for the casual RPG player, but Bioware didn’t stop there.

See, both Mass Effect games so far have included a codex, which is basically an in-game encyclopedia of anything you might need to know about the game universe.  Reading it is entirely optional; you already know everything you need to save the galaxy and/or get laid (in the game).  For science wonks like me, though, it’s a godsend.  Not only do they explain everything there is to know about the game’s setting, but they do so using actual science and logic.  This isn’t like George Lucas frantically trying to cover plot holes with even bigger plot holes; someone at Bioware took a single fictional element and just kept applying known scientific laws until they got a universe that was, in a word, awesome.  And they didn’t even have to modify the phase variance.

Did you know that, due to a quirk in balancing gravitational forces, objects will sometimes be gravitationally attracted to an area of empty space?

The fictional element in question is actually a literal element, known as Element Zero (or eezo).  The properties of this element are very specific, and adhered to rigidly throughout the game: Applying an electrical current to eezo in one direction generates a “mass effect” field that increases mass within its bounds.  Reverse the current, and mass is decreased instead.  Now consider the implications: Ships with mass effect technology can decrease their mass, allowing them to reach or even exceed the speed of light.  Artificial gravity fields can be created for comfort or practicality.  It becomes possible to cheaply manufacture materials in extremely high- or low-gravity environments, opening up new frontiers in practically all fields.  Oh, and foot soldiers are able to carry around a device that launches miniature shells with the force of an atomic bomb.

Cool weapons tech aside, it’s the ability to travel at FTL speeds that really opens up the galaxy.  A network of relays that use mass effect technology on an enormous scale can ferry ships from one point of interest to another while maintaining a refreshingly accurate sense of scale.  Everything in the game is internally consistent; it’s such a relief to be able to poke at a game’s underpinnings and see them actually hold up to scrutiny.  For every plot hole you think you’ve found, the authors have already considered it, found an explanation, and written a codex entry explaining the science.

Did you know that a Bose-Einstein condensate is a supercooled state of matter where all of the atoms are identical and occupy the same space?

But even that plot hole immunity is just a nice frill.  We all know how to enjoy a setting that, when you really think about it, makes absolutely no goddamn sense.  The real benefit of all this careful research is that the universe is suddenly believable on a level that other sci-fi games couldn’t hope to reach.  It’s not just the product of someone’s overactive imagination; you can almost convince yourself that this is what life will really look like in a century or two, and that makes it all so much more interesting to explore.  Bioware just did such a thorough job of constructing this universe that there’s really nothing about it that’s inconsistent with known science.

Nothing.  At.  All.

All right, all right, fine.  Those of you who have played the game, heard of the series, or were paying attention several paragraphs ago obviously see the big hole here: Aliens.  Not only do they exist in Mass Effect, but they are humanoid, they’re fuckable biologically compatible, and (in the words of Ben Croshaw) they speak English in pleasant North American dialects.  “Gosh, mister know-it-all blogger person,” I hear you all sneering in perfect unison, “looks like your precious Bioware didn’t think of that one, did they?”

To all you doubters, I say this: Pshaw.  Mostly because I’ve always wanted to say that, but also because you are all unequivocally Wrong.  Bioware did think of that one, and planned accordingly.  All the various alien races are heard speaking English (even the Hanar, who have no vocal cords and communicate through bioluminescence) because you and everyone else is equipped with an automatic translator.  Which, conveniently enough, also explains the accents: Shepard speaks with an American accent, so the translator naturally responds with whatever she would find most familiar.

Meanwhile, most of the aliens are biologically similar to humans because (spoiler alert) all life in the galaxy has been directed along specific evolutionary paths by the game’s omnimalevolent gods; that is, the Reapers.  Sovereign even said as much in the game: “By using [the mass effect technology left behind by the Reapers], your civilization develops along the paths we desire” (to give this quote its proper gravitas, imagine it being read by James Earl Jones in a guttural tone three octaves below his normal voice).  As for the Reapers themselves, their existence plays off of a common enough archetype that we don’t even bat an eye at their implausibility. (end spoiler alert)

Did you know that Isaac Newton is the deadliest son of a bitch in space?

Sometime after releasing the first Mass Effect, Bioware must have realized that their codex reads like an Encyclopedia of Cool Shit in Science (hence the little ”did you know…?” segments I’ve been sprinkling throughout this post).  So in the sequel, they started integrating some of it into the regular game world in the form of random easter eggs.  I remember I was walking through the citadel at one point when an advertising pillar addressed me—by name—and started trying to sell me something.  This makes sense; in the future, all advertising will probably be targeted with laser precision due to better data mining techniques.  And the product that the ad was selling me?  A coffin.  For my “upcoming funeral.”  Because the military had publicly listed my status as KIA.  No matter how smart technology gets in the future, it still won’t be able to deal with the occasional curveball.

Even better, you can also find a drill sergeant explaining to his recruits the finer points of combat in space—not the Hollywood jet-planes-with-lasers dogfighting, but the more realistic view.  I’ll end with a video of that, since it so nicely demonstrates my point that Science is Awesome:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2010 8:29 pm

    Great piece, man.

    I think a lot of games are missing their potential because they’re robbing the player of everything they could familiarise with. Sure, that’s cool in something like Ratchet and Clank, because you expect everything to be crazy-over-the-top, but I think a lot of fiction has suffered due to neglect. Even I, someone of a lesser science-geek eschelon, still found the world they created to be familiar, and in some cases welcoming because I could associate with it, which may even tie into familiarising the people within the fiction to the outer space experience, which is a great level of complexity. Contrasting Mass Effect to something like EVE online, I felt distanced and insignificant, possibly just because they created their own version of reality. But I guess a game that involves spaceships blowing up other spaceships for phat space-booty doesn’t really demand that kind of gravitas.

    • May 30, 2010 10:40 pm

      Thanks, I’m glad you like it!

      As I understand it, EVE’s distancing effect comes mostly from the fact that you’re only interacting with ships. The lack of a voice and human(oid) face on the other end is dehumanizing when compared to Mass Effect and other character-driven games, which is ironic given that only EVE actually has other humans to interact with. Of course, my understanding of EVE and R&C is limited by my aversion to MMOs and console games, respectively. So I really have no idea what I’m talking about.

      Actually, let’s run with that. You’ve probably played through a good variety of titles; what are some other ones that do/don’t create a plausible world for the player, and why? I’m working on a theory that the plausible ones seem much bigger in scope (if not in geographic reality) simply because they aren’t limited to the contents of the author’s imagination, but my own experience isn’t broad enough to back that up.

  2. May 31, 2010 2:14 am

    Alright. Well, going back to Half Life 2, I think that is a fine example of exposition and design, even though most of the “world” is concealed. For instance, the Combine’s motives are never very clear, let alone the details of the invasion, and you never know which country you’re actually in. It all creates this sense of mystery and attachment to the narrative, whilst drawing you closer to the faces you pass by. But you probably already know about that, so moving on.

    Final Fantasy 13 had this bizarre effect on me where I found myself suspended half-way on my opinion. I found the plot/ character development compelling, but the game never made enough of an effort to really draw you into the world. This is something me and my friend (the chap who sometimes writes on my blog) were discussing, particularly how the first good few hours of the game make a conscious effort to almost exclude you from the world. I know the game will use the fact that it wanted to reveal everything in a sequence of flash backs in its defense, but I just don’t know if this is good story telling. So we said, instead of the game starting with you in a cutscene on a train, it would start much earlier, giving a fleeting, but necessary glimpse of the views that had transpired. These would include a Wallace Breen like announcement of “Those for the purge, please board the trains to Pulse immediately”, shots of people being dragged from their houses after coming in contact with L’Cie and so on. Little things that give clues as to what is happening in the current situations, and letting them all satisfactorily fall into place, instead of the game giving you the pictures in the first volume and the text in the second. At double the price. At any rate, I’d expect Jon Blow to be clambering all over it.

    So what have we learned? Paradoxically, Half-Life 2 succeeds in not giving away the background where FF13 somewhat fails. Why? Because Final Fantasy is a sadist. It knows exactly what you want to know, and keeps it from you in an irritating effort to suspend mystery, whilst Half-Life 2 lets its world do the talking, and dribbles story only when absolutely necessary. I had this feeling through FF as if I was never part of the world; as if I could be running down a blank corridor throughout the whole game, and get the same narrative effect. It really does separate the player characters from the world whereas Half-Life 2 does everything in its effort to give you a sense of place.

    Anyway, I’ve banged on for long enough.

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