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Mass Effect Design Themes: Critical Comparison

Being a huge fan of Mass Effect, I clearly had no choice but to play both games multiple times, and then compare and contrast them!

Matt McLean, Blogger

March 18, 2010

20 Min Read

IMPORTANT: This essay does contain spoilers and assumes you know something about the Mass Effect games. 

Frankly, there’s not a lot to say about Mass Effect 2 that hasn’t already been said elsewhere.  After playing the game, though, I had to go back and play Mass Effect 1 again.  Comparing the games as I played resulted in a great exercise - analyzing each in the context of the other regardless of who has already written what.  By doing so – and by discussing the game with others – I managed to identify the drivers that make each game so good at their own specific things (I often say they are both excellent games that do different things excellently).

I found it helpful to think of each Mass Effect game carrying its own theme or central concept.  In Christina Norman’s talk at the 2010 Game Developers Conference, “intensity” or “a feeling of intensity” was the core theme that drove many of the design changes directly affecting the player experience. 

It was definitely interesting to hear how the selection of a theme unified the vision and ultimately the design decisions for Mass Effect 2, but in a way this made it seem as if the first game had been more aimless.  While that surely wasn’t the intention, it inspired me to find and understand the design theme in Mass Effect 1, which I consider to be “exploration and awe” – that epic sci-fi cinematic experience that makes space feel exciting and limitless – and understand its role in some of the designs of that game.

General Game Progression

In terms of how a player progresses through the game, these themes are clearly laid out.  For example, while both games are described as action RPGs, Mass Effect 2 drove for the feeling of intensity by not only streamlining combat but also creating the feeling that you may have to fight at any time.   

In comparison, Mass Effect 1 emphasized exploration, discovery, and cultural politics – a very classic Star Trek  approach - achieving its space opera vastness by allowing you to actually land on planets and explore (more on this later), as well as by providing XP for virtually everything you could do, which helped to make your time investment in thoroughly exploring the game pay off in little incremental chunks. 

The sequel let this sense of exploration and progress fade a bit in favor of its theme, by waiting until the end of a mission to mete out XP and containing the exploration of planets into side-stories.

Mass Effect 1 even encouraged players to explore their own inventory, upgrades, and attributes, but if you weren’t diligent about maintaining these things, the options could definitely feel overwhelming.  There was also the fact that just by playing through the game you’d pick up so much equipment and so many upgrades, of increasingly better quality, that you may actually end up never using a store in Mass Effect 1.  

What the system does provide is a feeling of satisfaction attached to its management: it’s nice to feel like you are personally providing the best in equipment to each individual squad member.  Mass Effect 2 streamlined the whole experience, allowing players to understand upgrades and attributes on a more at-a-glance basis; but this has the opposite effect of not feeling very hard-won. 

That is to say, you come across general upgrades - like shotgun damage, for example, that performs an upgrade for all the shotguns (all of which can be used by any member of the squad) – by buying them or by coming across them in missions.  To me, this made it feel like my Mass Effect 2 squad mates were made specialists only by their special abilities (i.e., overload or throw or whatever), but never in their weapons usage – and that’s exactly the basis upon which I would select them for my away party. 

Not having to worry much about upgrades or outfitting individual squad members (especially with the increase in number of squad members in Mass Effect 2), and the ease of purchasing stuff, definitely helped to make this part of the experience feel fast-paced and intense.

Even loading areas seem to fall into each theme.  Both games have loading screens, but Mass Effect 2 used them to actively engage you during the inevitable loading periods.  Not only were they really well done and pretty to look at, but they often related to what you were doing: visiting Omega, using a rapid transit car on the Citadel, or even taking the elevator on the Normandy revealed a cool cut-away view.   

This highlights the more passive experience in Mass Effect 1 featuring notoriously long elevator rides that were used to get to different areas.  However, while I can definitely see this interrupting the flow of gameplay, it really complemented the idea of this vast universe occurring around you when news reports of your exploits would come through the speakers or your squad mates would have a discussion with eachother that revealed insights about their personalities.  

Mass Effect 2 converts all of these things into an optional part of the experience that you have to stop and activate by pressing a button – allowing the player to fly past it if they aren’t interested, maintaining that idea of continuous intense play.  While I think this causes the sequel’s experience to lose a little bit of the soul of the universe, Mass Effect 2 really balanced this in its own way linked to keeping the player feeling the intensity of the experience.

Role of Characters in the Themes

Another area that helped me identify the theme of sci-fi epic-ness in Mass Effect 1 was in the characters of each game.   In Mass Effect 2, you are basically given a list of the team mates you are supposed to pick up – you literally are checking off the boxes as you go.  While this provides a much more direct experience, especially for players who may not be accustomed to exploring much in a game that leans towards being a shooter, I have a greater appreciation for how you meet your team in the first game. 

The experience of coming across them is less varied, but much more organic and natural – you bump into them more or less because they happen to be in an area you’re passing through anyways (i.e., you meet Wrex because he’s being all surly down in C-Sec, and Garrus in the Citadel as you walk in on him arguing with Executor Palin).  Tali is simply someone who has information you need, but she ends up being much more valuable than that. 

Finding your team mates in Mass Effect 1 is much more exploratory and as a result, interwoven into the story and world – these are characters that existed before you ever showed up, doing their own thing.  Mass Effect 2 loses that organic feeling but opens up a potentially unbroken story experience by giving you a list of people and their locations.

That list of characters in Mass Effect 2 featured squad “specialists,” but without spending much time understanding their attributes and unique abilities, their powers begin to feel more interchangeable, especially with a high number of team mates that often share certain abilities.  In the first game, if you were a soldier, you could count on really needing a tech and a biotic to balance things out – but of course, there was a need for this, like bypassing a locked crate or accessing a downed probe. 

In reducing its ideas of exploration, the sequel featured that sort of activity a lot less.  While my perception of interchangeability of characters in the sequel may at first glance seem negative, it also has a positive side – you are encouraged to try out different squad members on a consistent basis just to see how they perform and because there really is nothing keeping you from doing so.  

Mass Effect 1, on the other hand, actually encouraged the player to stick with single characters by awarding achievements for doing so (i.e., completed the majority of the game with the Krogan).  As a result I felt that the squad you choose in Mass Effect 1 doesn’t change as much, acting more as your tight team of traditional action heroes; whereas Mass Effect 2 keeps things a bit more fresh and interesting, especially if you pick a character who isn’t really ideal for a particular mission – leading to more likeable characters overall.

In Mass Effect 1, characters would suggest themselves or other characters for certain missions based purely on the narrative; some characters got mad when you didn’t bring them along on a mission that involved them, again making the universe seem quite large, as if these characters had lives and personalities outside of the Illusive Man’s dossiers.  It’s certainly worth pointing out, though, that Mass Effect 2 doesn’t ignore the fact that the characters and your actions were interwoven with the narrative – this is done by relying on a lot of information from the first game. 

Hundreds of plothooks link to your actions in the first game, and coming across characters from that experience brings on feelings of nostalgia and novelty, because they remember your adventures together.  The level of detail in this regard promotes the continual play experience central to Mass Effect 2 and validates your actions in Mass Effect 1. 

Narrative through the Lens of Theme

The tone found in each respective story, however, is different.  In keeping with the traditional vast sci-fi epic, Mass Effect 1 had a relatively simple storyline – a slow burn, building up to the big final confrontation, with one or two really exciting main story occurrences (i.e., having to sacrifice a crewmate). 

If intensity is the theme for Mass Effect 2, they did a great job delivering it in the narrative: they shock you immediately by killing you in the beginning of the game; abduct your entire crew against your will; and make you think really hard about how your decisions might eventually end up killing your crewmates instead of putting you on the spot.  It’s ominous where Mass Effect 1 had more of a hopeful “Gee whiz, it’s the future!” approach.  The addition of quicktime Paragon/Renegade interruption actions in Mass Effect 2 really ratchet up the intensity by giving the player immediate power to change the course of dialog and narrative.

In the same way, Mass Effect 2 took away some of the player’s power over the story by removing the spirit of exploration in favor of intensity.  While a large part of the Mass Effect community disliked the tank-like Mako missions featured in the first game, at least they allowed you to go to some distant sector and land on a planet where nobody had set foot before, delivering on one of the big premises of epic sci-fi. 

This was an opportunity to see a variety of exotic worlds that were often beautifully presented, a chance to be a deep space explorer.  The game seems to specialize in big, open spaces – the Citadel feels like the huge space station it’s described to be, and contains characters that you can help if you take a moment to talk to them.  Unfortunately, a lot of the gameplay taking place outside of the main storyline consisted of tediously driving the Mako around unforgiving landscapes just to loot a crashed spacecraft or prospect some minerals – the payoff for exploration simply wasn’t high enough, even though it fit in nicely with the theme of the game. 

Mass Effect 2, though feeling a bit more compartmentalized and objective-focused, does a great job of creating a story out of each side mission; they each have a narrative and a uniqueness, which is a big improvement, especially with a heavy re-use of assets in side missions in Mass Effect 1 - although it comes at the cost of feeling less like an explorer and more like a galactic sheriff. 

The removal of the Mako also resulted in the galactic map needing to shoulder the sense of exploration single-handedly, so in Mass Effect 2 scanning planets is a much more involved process.  This is very surprising, as it is notably the only thing that seems to interrupt the intensity of the experience. 

The planet scanning game is further limited by the need to buy fuel and probes – fuel to manually drive a tiny Normandy to different planets and probes with which to scan them.  The whole system is not a very good replacement, because it actually made exploration of the universe more tedious than the Mako did.  It’s like, when you’re caught in traffic, and you take another route even if it’s longer because hey, at least now you’re moving, and making that progress feels good. 

In Mass Effect 2, you can’t move, you’re just stuck in traffic, scanning planet after planet with the only payoff being the fact that you’re getting minerals for upgrades and that you uncover the occasional side mission (no XP).  Perhaps my biggest problem with this is that it doesn’t help tell the story of the game.  I couldn’t tell you that any one planet stood out from another for me (regardless of the excellent written descriptions of each) – the player can’t really generate their own stories to attach to them unless they uncover a side mission via scanning. 

Even the descriptions fall short at times – one planet says you can see words inscribed in it from space (via the actions of an angry pirate), but you can’t; another says it’s an arid world with no oceans but the texture looks like the opposite.  It just doesn’t feel very reliable as a form of exploration or intensity, and because of this, doesn’t seem to fit in either game because it falls out of each design theme. 


Of course, there are things both games simply nailed, and these are core values of the overall Mass Effect experience: a complex, emotionally engaging Hero’s Journey; a complete, consistent, deeply imagined universe; fantastic cinematic narrative design; and great sound design.  The one thing that both games seem to deal with poorly is that if you want to “walk the line” – that is, act on both your Paragon and Renegade desires – there is no benefit in doing so as your abilities to be persuasive in conversation and win the loyalty of your squad mates are diminished. 

After comparing the games and thinking about my findings, it’s easier to understand the Mass Effect experience in not just two parts, but three (even not knowing anything about Mass Effect 3): The first game introduces you to this vast, awe-inspiring world that begs to be explored; the second game focuses more on the difficulty of surviving and winning trust in this world; and my opinion is that the third game is going to deal with life, death, and how you choose to leave the world you came into two games ago – what is the mark you decided to leave?  Overall, each game will do different things really well based on these concepts, producing unique experiences in each.

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