Plus, one bonus bit of sci-fact.
By Joe Skrebels
Mass Effect’s something of a sci-fi gumbo, a universe so big that BioWare has seemingly dropped in a bit of any futuristic property you care to name. The Quarian-Geth conflict? Battlestar Galactica. The Rachni Wars? A touch of Starship Troopers. A.I. banned by traumatised organics? Hello, Dune.
Some references are more explicit than others though. A lifetime of committed nerdery means writers, artists and developers are bound to unconsciously include elements of the things they like. Which is why, for this list, we’re only looking at the influences BioWare has specifically picked out in interviews, books, and in-game. From artistic starting points to the gaming classics it wanted to emulate, this is the sci-fi that made Mass Effect what it is today.
The Look – Syd Mead
Like any game with a whole art department full of paintbrush-jockeys behind it, Mass Effect draws on a huge number of visual references, from Spanish neo-futurist architecture to electron microscope imagery of insects. One debt weighs heavier than most, however. Meet Syd Mead.
Mead is a futurist illustrator with an eye eager for smooth lines, classic cars made modern, bright colours and, perhaps most of all, optimism about the future. Mass Effect’s artists have repeatedly paid him lip service since the first game, and you can see his influence on everything from the look of the Citadel to the original’s chunky Mako moon buggy. Extrapolating a little, his looks at the more mundane aspects of future life – work, leisure, traffic jams – are directly related to Mass Effect’s working societies. Aliens had this all figured out long before the humans got there, so Mass Effect’s galaxy seems more or less functional, livable – just like Mead’s depictions.
The Music – Blade Runner
Perhaps not coincidentally, our last influence, Syd Mead, also created much of the look of Blade Runner, but Ridley Scott’s replicant goose chase became key to Mass Effect’s soundscapes as much as its landscapes. The first game in the series drew more than heavily from Vangelis’ vintage synth score, with composers Jack Wall and Sam Hulick creating occasionally warm, but more often oddly empty tracks to provide a mood appropriate for the oscillating wonder and terror of unknown space.
Subsequent games took a more cinematic, orchestral turn (even bringing in Hollywood heavyweight Clint Mansell for the third game), but even the early tracks from Andromeda’s soundtrack still hide an occasional bleep or bloop to remind us of where it’s come from.
The Gameplay – Deus Ex, Halo, Starflight
BioWare’s history is more focused than most, tracing a pretty clear line in RPG thinking throughout various eras of game development – Mass Effect seems like a no-brainer in retrospect. From Baldur’s Gate to Neverwinter Nights to Knights of the Old Republic (more on that in a paragraph or two), this is a company obsessed with the pleasing upward creep of stats, and personal stories with cosmic significance.
And yet now-departed creator Casey Hudson always seemed more keen to talk about the non-Bioware sci-fi games he loved. Deus Ex’s freedom of choice and branching storylines, Halo’s satisfying gunplay, and MS-DOS classic Starflight’s open-ended galaxy exploration all fed into his vision. Mass Effect ended up unlike any of them, but the hallmarks are perhaps even more noticeable under the precision-engineered surface of the fourth game than any before it.
The Morals – Knights of the Old Republic
Bioware’s own history can’t be ignored, of course, and Knights of the Old Republic is a curious case of a developer both improving on and rejecting its older work. Its basic ideas – a grand storyline to become a part of, conversation-combat dynamic and a preoccupation with space-nookie – all remain, but one was very consciously altered for the developer’s own universe.
Out went a Light and Dark sliding morality scale, in came Paragon and Renegade, two separate meters representing a single idea – Shepard is always working towards one goal, but how he/she does it is a matter of internal debate. Morality is still key, but it became more nuanced. Andromeda aims to take that a step further by ditching even those dual scales, but there’s no doubt KOTOR’s ideas still hang around in the margins like a smiling old Force Ghost.
The Crew – Firefly
The crew of the original trilogy’s Normandy (well, Normandies) were assembled as part of a military force, with strict roles and ranks. They might have arrived through myriad means, but they had a single focus. Mass Effect: Andromeda’s aiming for a different feel, and with it comes a new inspiration.
Bioware has cited Firefly’s ragtag bunch of buddies as the new cultural lynchpin. Joss Whedon’s spacefaring show was remarkable for making its crew feel more like friends (or at least dorm-mates) than colleagues. I’d argue the last trilogy’s pilot, Joker had more than a hint of Alan Tudyk’s Wash to him, but Andromeda’s seemingly going further, making disparate talents and desperate people its key to getting you attached.
The Asari – Star Trek’s Orion
Bioware’s thought process here is as simple as it can be – the team liked the bright green skin of Star Trek’s recurring race, and went for Caribbean Sea blue for their own. The similarities run deeper, though.
In a famous switcheroo, the Orion were famously revealed to be a female-dominant society – the Asari are a female-only race. Orion ladies are also famously seductive, regardless of species – we’ve seen more than one member of Starfleet fall for their charms over the years. Asari, seemingly never to be one-upped, can reproduce with any… compatible species, but always spawn more pure-bred Asari through sheer force of biology. Your move, Roddenberry estate.
Thane Krios – Hellboy’s Abe Sapien
Tragic assassin, Thane Krios (and the Drell species he’s a part of) was something of an answer to the Asari, with BioWare’s female development contingent apparently saying that if there was going to be fish-man, he’d better be a damned handsome fish-man.
The artists’ reference point for aquatic sexuality came from (occasionally David Hyde Pierce-voiced) Hellboy boffin, Abe Sapien. Apparently it’s as much Sapien’s placid, intelligent character as his looks that made him fit the bill. Just a tangential point – the Asari went blue from a green inspiration. Thane went green from a blue inspiration. I’m onto you, BioWare.
EDI – Metropolis’ Maschinenmensch
If you’re an artificial intelligence looking for a robot form, you can do much worse than looking to the Maschinenmensch for inspiration. The second Normandy’s AI, EDI eventually gets herself a new body, but the design team had a very old inspiration.
Also known as Maria, Fritz Lang’s silent movie android was a purposefully sensual bucket o’ bolts, giving new form to her inventor’s lost love. Given where Normandy pilot Joker and EDI can end up (spoiler: he worries about “breaking a bone just from some light over-the-clothes action”) it’s a natural jumping off point for BioWare giving a body to the disembodied voice he’s falling for.
The Reapers – Lovecraft’s Old Ones
The work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft appears as an influence in every second bit of pop culture these days, but BioWare made the connection pretty stark from the outset. Lovecraft’s “Old Ones” are unfathomably old, unfathomably powerful and generally just cannot be fathomed, besides their wish to make all galactic life comparatively irrelevant.
The original Mass Effect trilogy’s big (big) bads share some key similarities, inhabiting the starless dark of the cosmos, emerging to purge all intelligent life, only to allow it to regrow over a few more millennia. Some races openly regard them as gods, while party member Legion goes full on-the-nose by calling them the “Old Machines”. Oh, and Lovecraft’s underwater Cthulhu-kid? Leviathan. The Mass Effect ancient aquatic race that can compete with the Reapers? The Leviathans.
Pretty Much Everything – Greek Mythology
Greek myth is seen by some as the birth of science fiction, with constant refrains about the gifts and curses of acquiring new technology. It’s no wonder Mass Effect invokes it almost everywhere. In Greek mythology, Cerberus guards the overworld from Hades’ terrors. In Mass Effect, the Cerberus organisation sees itself guarding humanity from the terrors of space. Charon is the ferryman between Hell and the living world; the Charon relay is the conduit between Earth and the rest of the galaxy.
Prometheus stole fire from the gods to help mankind survive; the Protheans created the Citadel and mass relays to link and bring together younger intelligent races. The Aegis was a mythical piece of armour used to protect the gods; the Aegis Pack was… some DLC armour and a sniper rifle. It all works. Basically.
The Sequels – Fandom
With the original trilogy released over so many years, and a style custom-built to engender love/hate relationships with its characters, it’s no surprise Mass Effect built up a huge fan creation community. More surprising is the fact that that community fed directly back into the games themselves. BioWare developers have constantly referenced how fans reacted to well-received features – loyalty missions are back in a big way for Andromeda because of the love for Mass Effect 2’s use of them.
Even better, Casey Hudson would browse DeviantArt to see which characters were resonating most with players. The reason Garrus became a romance option in Mass Effect 2 was because there were so many drawings of that particular fantasy after the first game.
The Science Itself – Science Fact
One area Mass Effect didn’t need to draw from fiction was, funnily enough, its science. The actual universe has more than enough of that stuff to go on, thank you. When it was still in the planning stages, much of Mass Effect’s technological outline was based on the relatively obscure theory of dark energy – a form of energy scientists think results in the universe’s expansion, and a proposed “fuel” for faster-than-light travel. By the time the game hit release in 2007, papers on dark energy were being published more frequently, chiming with what Mass Effect was depicting.
Mass Effect’s more personal tools also come from a relatively sensible place. Omni tools are just incredibly advanced 3D printers, hard light technology – seen in a few places across the game universe – is already in its (very) nascent stages, and the hypervelocity guns our heroes use are already functional in the real world – they just require an entire battleship’s power to run right now. Who needs writers when you’ve got scientists, am I right?
Wait, no, come back.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s UK News Editor, and he got a little obsessed with Abe Sapien during the course of this feature. Follow him on Twitter.
An interesting read via IGN Video Games