What sci-fi movies could learn from the Mass Effect series
In addition to being one of my favorite videogames, Mass Effect is, so far, one of my favorite sci-fi trilogies of all time. While it has yet to stick the landing, (oh god i’m so excited for ME3 oh god) I have no doubt that it will stand amongst (or at least nearby) the great science fiction epics of our time, along with Star Wars and, erm, I guess The Matrix. Either way, Mass Effect is a wildly cinematic game that I think many of the recent blockbuster films could learn a few lessons from.
Aliens should be weird
“Oh, what’s that? You’re tired of aliens that are just people with a different skin color? Alright, well how about these weird, floating, purple, featureless squid things that speak in the voice of, like, a computerized robo-angel? Or, like, some lizard-gorilla’s that cant’ express emotions?”
The aliens in Mass Effect feel, miraculously, truly alien, which is something that is rarer than it should be these days. Obviously, since the target audience for any film is likely to be human, then it helps if the aliens or somewhat relate-able, but the simple truth is that any real aliens that we would encounter would probably be so wildly different from us that we couldn’t even imagine them. Like, I dunno, some kinda toaster oven with a face. (Shut up. I said we couldn’t even imagine them, didn’t I?)
While the Mass Effect games certainly have their fair share of ‘humans with a different skin color’ aliens, they also populate their universe with some truly bizarre races. Perhaps this is a result of having so many different aliens in the series, but either way, it’s refreshing to see aliens like the Volus, who are essentially disease-sensitive space-midgets.
Everything has consequences
Many sci-fi films these days feel like a series of set-pieces strung together, like ideas with nowhere to go. As a result, sometimes it feels like we are being presented with things we can’t even use, like being handed a juicy-looking steak and then being told that it is poisonous. Or given a house, and told that it’s ours, assuming we can somehow get the 3,000 vipers out of it. (Clearly, I rule at analogies.)
By virtue of being a game where your decisions carry over to the sequel, each major action in the ME series has a consequence. I’m sure many things will be paid off in the third game, but my point here is that actions and ideas matter, and have long-reaching effects. If you’ve invented some kind of new hover bike, I don’t just want to see it in one (probably awesome) chase scene. Use it every time the characters would probably use a hover bike! Sci-fi concepts shouldn’t exist just to be like ‘hey, look at this!’ They should have an impact.
In the Mass Effect games, the technology has weight, as do the biotics. They influence the ways in which people behave, and in which they react to each other, as well as affecting the forward momentum of the story. People don’t just shoot blue stuff out of their hands cause it’s cool. They do it because they have to.
The Big Moments need to be BIG
Very few games that I’ve played build to a climax as nicely as the Mass Effect games, as they really do feel structured like a movie. Despite having twenty-plus hours to fill, they build through a three-act structure, with each major story beat feeling totally earned. None of the major moments in the plot feel like an after-thought, with each one having a lasting effect, but even more than that, feeling Important.
During a key mission in the first game, you have to plant a bomb while also fending off an attack from the villain, Saren. No matter what you do, one of your party members has to sacrifice themselves, which means that when you leave the planet, it really feels like something just happened. A goal has been accomplished, yes, but as a result, someone who was once a member of your crew no longer is, which has the effect of making the mission feel important.
The same applies to the finale of the first game (and the second one, for that matter). By the time you reach that point, it feels like everything is on the line. For a genre like science-fiction, it seems like a no-brainer that the stakes need to be high at any given time, but it’s something that many films these days forget, cause they’re so wrapped up in their, I dunno, laser-boats.
Epic doesn’t mean impersonal, AKA Relationships matter
Oftentimes, sci-fi films can get so lost in the Big, Epic Story that they’re telling, they forget what really matters: the characters. And, even more-so, the relationships between them. The best genre-fiction uses it’s crazy concepts like an engine, to drive forward the relationships of the characters, which is something that Mass Effect has done better than any other game I can think of.
In fact, the entire second game is centered around the idea that the most important thing is getting to know your crew. There are occasional plot missions, but mostly you’re either doing loyalty quests, or recruiting new crew members. It seems odd at first, until you get to the final mission, and realize that your success totally hinges upon your knowledge of the people that follow you. Getting to know your crew members was the main mission all along, which is actually pretty neat. (Yes, I just said neat. Shut up.)
While games are finally beginning to be seen as a platform for story-telling, Mass Effect, of what I’ve seen, is miles ahead in terms of character development. Sure, it’s not all perfect, but at least their trying. Plus, in ME2, Mording will sing ‘Modern Major General’ for you if you’re nice enough, and that’s awesome.
The possibilities are endless, AKA Explore, explore, explore
Something that Mass Effect understands is that it has a whole galaxy at its disposal. Rather than be afraid of it’s scope, it embraces it, with space-adventures aplenty. Not only does it allow you to explore, but it encourages it. Even more than that, it understands that by the very nature of it’s genre, it can do literally anything and we will accept it.
I took a screenwriting class in college, where the professor threatened to fail anyone who wrote a script set in a dorm room, because ‘you can literally write anything, so why confine yourself? Use your imagination.’ In Mass Effect, because there is so much space to explore, nothing seems outside the realm of possibility. On each planet, the developers can throw whatever they want at us, and we probably won’t question it. And if we do, it’ll probably just be on some message board, so who really cares?
My point is that science-fiction is a great genre because the bounds of what you can do with it are exactly as large as your imagination. Mass Effect allows the developers to take us to the craziest corners of the galaxy that they can dream up, and then lets us shoot whatever we find there. What’s not to like?
When shit blows up, make it mean something
I sort of covered this before, but the major sequences in these games work so well because they have weight, because when things are exploding, we know who it affects, and how it affects them. So much science-fiction these days is empty spectacle, which may be why so many people have such disregard for the genre.
Look at the Transformers movies. I’m sure plenty of people like them, (although I don’t really get why) but who do you know that thinks they’re the best movies ever made. Probably nobody, right? And yet, tons of stuff explodes in those movies! Big robots are punching each other all the time! If you ask a lot of people, that’s exactly what they want from a Transformers movie.
So why doesn’t it work? Because we don’t have anyone to care about amidst the explosions. It doesn’t affect anything. In the Mass Effect games, there’s a whole crew full of people to get to know. In Transformers we just have Shia Lebeouf (AKA The Beef) and some cars. And I don’t know about you guys, but the only thing I give less of a shit about than cars is Shia Lebeouf.
So there you have it. The Mass Effect games, and of course the devs and writers behind it, seem to know the ins and outs of sci-fi, so why don't movies?