March 1, 2012
Science Fiction is often referred to as a literature of ideas. Feeling no obligation to depict the commonplace, it gazes much higher, towards the stars, where no subject is deemed too big or too philosophical. It's also one of the most varied of literary genres. It can imagine a better tomorrow – an equitable society free from prejudice and injustice – or a nightmarish world built upon present-day anxieties. It can extrapolate futuristic technology from yesterday's breakthrough. It can even stage the apocalypse.
It's a tradition in which the Mass Effect series is well-versed. But where do you locate Bioware's sprawling saga within such a rich and varied spectrum? It has elements of Hard SF – the Mass Effect relays themselves are rooted in dense theory – but also 'softer', more sociological inclinations, aligning it more closely to something like Star Trek.
Lead writer on the Mass Effect series Mac Walters is acutely aware of this wide tradition, and believes that the series behaves like a sort of Sci-Fi Rorschach test. "I think one of the curious things about the Mass Effect series is, because of the nature of video games in general, it can be different things to different people. We do a lot internally to make sure that our science is based on plausible ideas, so it just isn't about magic in space. We've tried to build a universe that is grounded in plausibility. I think for the player who wants that real SF experience, it can be that."
And that stringent scientific outlook, which gives the Mass Effect universe its Hard SF backbone, was there from the very beginning. A lot of research was done during the development of the original Mass Effect. "The entire writing team was constantly reading and researching and reviewing anything we could," remembers Walters. "Everyone was thoroughly immersing themselves in science at the time, and where these things could really go." After all, they had an entire universe to create.
It's even got to the point where a procedure has evolved at Bioware to deal with those niggling situations when the science is at odds with story. "Say we want to introduce something new – be it a new type of ship or a new ability – and it doesn't quite fit into the IP: we have someone who is our IP science guy. We'll often pass off the idea to him and say, 'How would you explain this in 'our science'?' He goes away and comes back usually a day later, scratching his head, with a few ideas, and we make sure it's in there."
While this exacting scientific aspect appeals to some, from personal experience Walters knows that the series also connects with those who have no interested in the special relativity whatsoever. "I have friends and what they love about it is the characters that they meet. They might be blue and have tendrils, some of them might be reptiles – and that's definitely in keeping with the Sci-Fi genre – but what's more interesting to them is the characters and what they're experiencing. For them Sci-Fi is context, a background; they're really in it for the characters and their relationships.
"Essentially, Mass Effect is a Hard Sci-Fi experience at the boundaries, and what's in between is more of a lite Sci-Fi experience for people who want it to be that as well. And that's the kind of fun of the Mass Effect Universe – it can be what you want it to be."
Find out how Shepard will save the Galaxy in Mass Effect 3.
Surprisingly, one of the strongest science-fiction influences on the narrative of Mass Effect 3 isn't Arthur C. Clarke or Robert A. Heinlein. Walters cites the recent Star Trek reboot as being a big influence on the latest instalment. "From a narrative point of view one of the things I really appreciated was the way the new J.J. Abrams's Star Trek handled itself. I'm a Star Trek fan, but I wouldn't call myself a huge fan of the series – I'm not a die-hard Trekkie – but at one time or another I've watched all of the series. But I just love the new movie, and the way that they've made it contemporary – they've brought it forward, and the fact I can go watch it with friends who aren't even familiar with Star Trek. They just love the movie.
"And this is something I really thought about going into Mass Effect 3. If I can write this story in a way that it honours everything that all the players who had been in there before, honours everything they have done – all the decisions they have made – but at the same time I wanted to introduce new players to this Universe, like the Star Trek movie did. So for me it was a big influence. We actually changed some of our narrative structure – the way that we actually write our dialogue – to emulate [the pace of Star Trek] in Mass Effect 3."