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Building Worlds With Words in 'Mass Effect 2'

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Friday, Mar 12, 2010
Mass Effect 2 creates a well realized world that feels alive, even when we're not playing, by using only words.

Codices are nothing new in games. In fact, they’re quite old. They’re an effective tool of world building, allowing developers to explain traditions, cultures, technology, or other facts that would seem extraneous if forced into the main story. However, in Mass Effect 2, the codex is more than just a tome of fictionalized history. Such “extra information” is used to bring the world to life as well as to describe it.


Mass Effect 2 has an extensive codex, covering all the usual facts, but the actual sub-page on the main menu labeled “Codex” is just one part of a much larger well of extra information.
  
Every uncharted world has its own summary, its own history. This information, unlike a normal codex entry, has no bearing on rest of the galaxy. There’s nothing especially revelatory about these summaries, they’re just little asides in a much grander story. One world has been mysteriously bombarded from space tens of thousands of years ago. One world is ripe for colonization, but its high gravity makes it uncomfortable for any species other than the bulky elcor. Some worlds have atmospheres perfect for capturing the discharged energy of passing ships, other worlds are pirate havens, and there are a surprising number of extrasolar captures across the galaxy. This information is irrelevant to me personally, but these short stories give me a slightly more intimate look at the galaxy described in the coldly factual codex. I’m reading about things on a planetary scale instead of a galactic scale.


Mass Effect 2 is also filled with incidental dialogue, and these passing conversations are more than just jokes, they provide a highly personal look at the differing alien cultures. It’s one thing to read that asari live for 1000 years, longer than any other species in the galaxy, but it’s entirely different to hear how this lifespan affects relationships. We can eavesdrop on an asari/turian couple buying a fish. The turian complains that “It’ll be dead in a couple of years.” His mate rebukes him, “The important thing is to embrace the time that you have to spend with the fish.” To which the turian groans, “Is this the lifespan talk? I’m not having the lifespan talk.” It’s a funny exchange, but it also addresses a serious question: how do you pursue a personal relationship when you’re guaranteed to outlive your mate? From the conversation, it seems that this is something that the asari worries about more than the turian. She’s not talking to him so much as she is reassuring herself. Even something as trivial as treating “the lifespan talk” as “The Lifespan Talk” shows how big an issue this is to an inner-species couple. Through conversations like this, the writers are able to say so much with so few words.


But for as well as Mass Effect 2 uses incidental dialogue and mini codex entries to explain the working of its universe, these techniques are not new. Other games have used them before. However, Mass Effect 2 has yet another world building trick, one that couldn’t be done in the last generation of consoles because it requires an internet connection: The Cerberus Daily News Network (which you can conveniently follow outside the game here or here).


When you hit the start button, you’re taken to a main menu that presents you with two computer screens. One screen contains the usual options, Resume, Load Game, Extra Content, Credits. The second screen contains a snippet of news about some current event. Every day the news is updated with a new blurb, and because it changes every day, it creates a very noticeable sense of the passage of time.


When playing any game, it’s easy to think that events in game happen within a shorter time span than they really do. Dragon Age is supposed to take place over the course of a year, and I only know that because a character makes specific mention of that time frame. If not for that character, I would believe that the whole game took no longer than a month. The story of Mass Effect 2 is far more condensed, so it wouldn’t surprise me if all the events were meant to last a week at most. But when I played the game, I played it over the course of many weeks and every day that I came back to it there was a new headline in the Cerberus Daily News Network to greet me, a headline that reinforced the passage of time in the real world.


While I was building my team, a comet crashed into a hanar colony and turned the entire planet into a disaster zone, a famous socialite named Aish Ashland submitted fake DNA to the Hollywood Bank of Fame, economic data was stolen from the Citadel Council and a Spectre was assigned to hunt down the thieves, and the raloi became the newest species to discover and be welcomed into Citadel space. These were the stories that dominated the news while I was saving the galaxy from the Collectors. This was the galaxy that I was saving, one that came together in charity, gossip, celebration, and conspiracy. But things have changed since then. Those stories were distinctive to a few weeks in February, and the news cycle has, for the most part, moved on since then. These daily headlines framed my adventure within a larger context of current events, giving my actions a unique sense of time and place. 


Mass Effect 2 uses all these systems—codex entries, mini codex entries, incidental dialogue, and daily headlines—to build a world that feels real and alive. However, what’s most impressive about this is that the game manages to create a world that feels just as well realized and complete as Liberty City and does it by using only words.

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