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Mass Effect: Meaning through Design

How does game design outside the realm of story or dialogue communicate meaning to the player? An analysis of the information within Mass Effect 2's design and comparisons to Mass Effect 1.

Basil Allen, Blogger

October 4, 2012

15 Min Read

In the years since its release to the public, much has been said about the story and narrative of the Mass Effect series. Since Bioware is a company known primarily for their emphasis on story, their fans naturally focus their love and hate primarily on story elements and how those elements came together to create meaning.  Yet, while many have written about the other design elements of these games, I have seen few delve into the various details of these elements and how these details in design create meaning.  Hence, this essay.

The question I am concerned with is thus: how does game design change over the first two games of the Mass Effect trilogy and how do these changes make or reinforce meaning for the player?  What are the details that make playing Mass Effect 1 an entirely different experience from playing its sequel?

To answer this, let us look at the point of view of the second game. After playing the first installment, how do the differences in the design of Mass Effect 2 formulate meaning?


Me, You, and the Galaxy we live in


The first of the two major changes brought about by differing design choices occurs in the relation between the player and the world he inhabits. In comparison to Mass Effect 1, the galaxy of ME2 is a smaller, more crowded place; it is a known quantity, not the vast, empty expanse seen in the first game. As the perceived importance of the galaxy has lessened, the importance of Shepard and his/her crew and ship is emphasized. In essence, the world of ME2 is focused less on places and ideas, and more on the people who inhabit those places.

Bear in mind that, while many of these changes are implied by the stories and plots of the Mass Effect games themselves, these non-story design elements emphasize meaning on their own merits. Story and design can communicate meaning with different levels of understanding, or can even communicate meanings that contradict each other (the root of Ludonarrative Dissonance). With that said, let’s look at the different ways the player’s relation to the galaxy has changed.


(1) The Map


In both games, the player can explore the galaxy by navigating different star clusters, solar systems, and planets, but how the games make this possible does not remain the same. Whereas ME1 handled exploration with a target reticule, ME2 makes navigation happen through the Normandy; moving between planets or solar systems requires an on-screen Normandy to travel the distance between destinations. In other words, map navigation is no longer only about planets and solar systems: it is about the player’s ship. The Normandy is integral to map travel.

(Now, obviously, the Normandy was always necessary in order to travel the galaxy – no ship, no motion. The point, however, is that ME1 did not emphasize the ship in map navigation, while ME2 does. This, like all design details, may seem insignificant by itself, but it is important when many other details support the same conclusions.)


When looking at individual planets in ME1, only a fraction of the planet’s surface was visible on screen. The implied size emphasized its significance; likewise, the player’s limited viewpoint diminishes his own significance. In ME2, this changes radically. Planets not only are fully visible, the player can literally rotate them. In addition, the description window and text for planets have reduced in size.

It should be noted that exploring the galaxy in ME2 has become a matter of resources: fuel is expended moving between solar systems and probes are used in order to gather resources for upgrades. While these resources are easily replenished, their mere existence makes the galaxy intertwined in matters of economy. Exploration is now a question of cost.

Finally, compare the galaxy map on the actual Normandy CIC deck. In ME2, the Milky Way is not only smaller, but lower; the perch from which the player observes it does not rise as high. In fact, when the player is not between the display area and the elevator, the map disappears entirely; it cannot exist without us.  Clearly, the Cerberus designers of the SR2 did not have as much esteem for the galaxy as for the ship that would travel through it.


(2) Normandy


As long as we are on the CIC deck, let’s talk about the Normandy. The ship has expanded to nearly twice the size of the SR1, composing four decks. Many spaces that were absent in the original Normandy are present: bathrooms, kitchen, and crew quarters. Cerberus has made several luxury additions, such as a much larger laboratory space, an armory, a separate gunnery station, a room to house the AI core, and several spare rooms/cargo holds.  The most lavish of the additions is the captain’s cabin, which can be personalized with spaceship models, fish, a space hamster, and ambient music.  Basically, the Normandy is bigger and better.

As I mentioned above, the galaxy map disappears when Shepard leaves the area immediately behind it. When this happens, a large hologram of the SR2 replaces it, where no such holograms existed on the SR1. If you include the full hologram of the SR2 in the communications room as well, the new Normandy has two full representations of itself on display at (almost) all times.


(3) Away Missions


The most obvious change to planet-based away missions is the removal of the Mako. This also removes the vast planet surface, so missions in ME2 all take place in small predetermined locations. These locations, unlike the planets in ME1, are singular in purpose (e.g. stop the missiles from launching). In essence, away missions have shifted away from exploration of an open environment and towards a goal for the player and his crew to complete; the galaxy exists primarily for the benefit of the people within it.

As a side note, it is interesting that these locations have a much greater variation in layout, size, and appearance. The buildings in ME1 largely all had the same layouts, as if built from prefabricated, standard designs. This is supported by the story, as ME1 takes place in the Attican Traverse, an area of space still considered to be on the ‘frontier’.  When compared, the variability in locations of ME2 (found in the Terminus Systems and Council Space) indicate an area of space that has been settled for a longer period of time, and is perhaps even more populous.


(4) Friendly locations

Combat-free planets and stations, with the exception of the Citadel, have been expanded in ME2. Whereas Feros and Noveria were essentially medium-sized areas for single away missions, Omega, Illium, and Tuchanka are full of various side quests, shops and dance clubs (with the exception of Tuchanka; instead of dancing, you can punch a monkey). These areas are full of things for the player to do, actions to perform.  Large crowds have been added in inaccessible, but visually prominant, sections of the map to assert a more populous location. In addition, since these friendly locations are now comparable in size to the Citadel – a place which, in ME1, towered over all but the galaxy itself – the game now emphasizes the sheer variety of interstellar locations, how societies are thriving in more than just one central location. Wherever you go, the galaxy is full to the brim with people; it is crowded.

One trick that game designers often use to make a place feel more alive and ‘real’ is to add ambient noise and/or conversations (one of the best parts about The City in Thief are the discussions that happen between guards caught unawares). In Mass Effect 1, these conversations were rare, and the galaxy was much quieter for it. For Mass Effect 2, the designers dialed up the frequency of these conversations, and the galaxy is a much noisier place.

(Once again, I must make a side note.  I find it interesting that most of the ambient dialogue of ME1 is directly tied to Shepard or the actions that Shepard is connected to. A fan asking for the commander’s autograph. An elevator news report on the fate of the Feros ExoGeni colony. A conversation in a bar regarding rumors of the rogue Spectre, Saren.

(Yet, in ME2, most ambient dialogue is not connected to Shepard in any way.  A Volus ruthlessly betting on the stock market. A Krogan discussing his feelings about a son that may be his. Friends talking about why they are considering joining a mercenary group. This change in focus would seem to de-emphasize the importance of Shepard and her crew, contrary to other evidence. However, I wonder if this only serves to show how the galaxy treats Shepard, and not in whether Shepard is or isn’t less important; a matter of attitude. In other words, while galactic civilization of ME2 doesn’t seem to care as much about Shepard, their underestimation and ignorance may still be sorely misplaced.)


(5) Modularity


There is one last element of game design that informs the player how his relation to the galaxy has changed, one that can be found throughout Mass Effect 2. This last element is one of modularity; a change from smooth, unbroken locations to a separated, parsed-out experience.  This emphasis on modularity makes the galaxy feel less like a big, endless space and more like a place that exists primarily for Shepard’s use.

Compare, for example, the journey into Noveria’s Peak15 complex with the journey through the Archangel recruitment mission. On Noveria, the player exits the Normandy’s docking area, enters the Noveria base, takes several elevator trips, enters a garage, enters the Mako, exits the base, travels across the snowy landscape, exits the Mako, enters the Peak15 complex, takes more elevators, and finally boards a tram which fades out and into the arrival at the hot labs. This entire process is unbroken, except for the fades in and out (and this does little to break the sense of an unbroken area, since the player never exits the tram car during the fade).

For the Archangel recruitment mission, the player starts outside of the ship’s docking area (we never see Shepard disembark), travels within Omega, and then encounters a loading screen during the holo-trip to Archangel’s base, followed by squad, power, and weapons selections screens. The player then travels through the mercenaries’ camp, into Archangel’s base, and then underneath the base to seal the tunnels, after which the player is then ‘warped’ back into the base during a cutscene. The journey is broken into smaller pieces.

The techniques seen in this recruitment mission can be found in almost all of ME2’s missions; recruitment and loyalty missions are separated from primary hub areas such as Illium or the Citadel. Cutscenes often move Shepard from one area into another (the cutscenes of ME1, by comparison, usually left Shepard where she was immediately before). Seamless elevator rides have been removed. At the end of all missions, the player is shown a mission summary screen from Cerberus before returning to the ship. Even the Normandy itself, previously an unbroken craft, is divided by its four decks, each one prefaced by a loading screen.

In addition, progression through the story also uses a modular design. At first, only a few star systems are explorable; all others are locked until the Horizon mission is complete. The Planet Tuchanka is only available once either Mordin or Grunt asks for the player’s help. Many other star systems are unavailable until crew members unlock their loyalty missions or a new phase of the main quest is unlocked; this is true even for star systems that appeared in ME1. The galaxy must wait for the events within it in which the player can take part.


Moody Blues


The second major design change between these two Mass Effect games is not one of information, but of mood. Mass Effect 2, as anyone could tell you, is a game that feels much more like an action title than its predecessor. Emphasis is more on the physical and less on the cerebral.

Now, there are many obvious reasons for this. Combat, of course, is more visceral than in ME1; enemies are directly affected by attacks, whether staggering under a headshot or panicking while on fire. All weapon upgrades have been removed, giving less stress on the ‘planning ahead’ process of combat than on the actual ‘fighting’ process.  In conversation, the ‘Interrupt’ system is another focus on actions rather than words.

However, most of these sorts of elements have been touched on before in countless articles and reviews (there is a reason Bioware games are often given the shorthand ‘guns and conversation’). Instead, I’d like to focus on two areas of design that I feel are often overlooked.


(1) Appearance


The changes in visual design from Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2 are quite striking. In terms of color balance, ME1 is overwhelmingly blue; the Normandy is blue, the Citadel is blue, Noveria has a snowy bluish tinge, Virmire is blue sea and sky. The galaxy is dominated by cool colors, with a few red or orange highlights. Psychologically, this has a calming effect on the player.

ME2, by contrast, uses much fewer cool colors. The Normandy replaces much of its blue with grey. Omega is almost completely devoid of cool colors, emphasizing reds, pinks, and magentas amongst the great black backgrounds. There are still areas that are largely blue in color, like the Citadel or Illium, but even these are full of large swathes of warmer colors; the Citadel is now visually busy with neon lights, stressing, among other things, a giant wall of orange directly outside the entrance, and Illium features a sun of prominent orange light.


In fact, orange is the dominant color of ME2. Consider the great red-orange sun behind the Illusive Man at all times; the orange holograms of the Normandy that are present in all loading screens between decks (and in many other loading screens, for that matter); the orange in all menu screens; the orange glow that accompanies the Collector General.  Most missions with the collectors, for that matter, are overwhelmingly orange (and brown) in hue. This change to warm colors has an effect of stimulation and excitement in the player, highlighting a mood of action over cognition.

Apart from color balance, lighting itself has moved from a soft focus to harsher illumination. Locations have a greater contrast in lighting between hot, bright sections and stark shadowy sections.  This dynamic lighting encourages a likewise dynamic mood.


(2) Music


While the actual content of the music in Mass Effect has surely changed through the different entries, for now I’d rather focus on when it occurs. Many players may never notice, but there is a significant change in the use of music: there is no mood music in friendly areas. In ME1, the Citadel, the Normandy, and Feros were all accompanied by ‘mood music’, compositions that did not come from the environment itself (e.g. the music coming from a dance club).  These pieces helped set the feeling that a particular area might evoke.

In ME2, all non-combat areas are music-free, save for those that come from locations within the environment. There is almost no soundtrack, with a few exceptions during cutscenes. However, while conversation and exploration are now silent affairs, combat is not - all hostile environments use music.  This simple change stresses sequences of action over exploration or even conversation.

(There is one glaring exception to this rule: music in the galaxy map is not only present, it is identical to the music used for that purpose in ME1. Considering all the changes in how the map and exploration are treated, this is an odd choice from the designers.)




Given how much Bioware games are known for their stories and characters, it’s refreshing to know that their games can still communicate so much to the player without using a single word.  Mass Effect 2 is certainly worlds apart from Mass Effect 1, just from these elements of design (and, no doubt, there are many, many aspects that I have missed).

It makes me wonder: as I have not experienced the third game in the series, how does design alter meaning for Mass Effect 3?  How does the player’s relation to the galaxy evolve? What do its locations and interface tell us about the world around us? And, more intriguing, do changes in design in ME3 outline an arc in meaning for the series as a whole? Given how long I’ve discussed this topic on the first two entries, there has certainly got to be much more hidden under the surface for the third; we just need to find it.

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