Mass Effect takes all the tropes of the space opera genre and blasts them into hyperspace. While it clearly borrows from existing adventures in the field – Firefly, most obviously – it is now the quintessential space opera, the thing all other outer space adventures are held up against. You warp from planet to planet meeting different alien races, learning of their culture, and helping solve their problems, all while fighting to save the universe from impending doom. But maybe it would be better if instead of doing all that, you just stayed on Earth.
This is the latest instalment of our weekly column where we talk about how a popular game series would be great… if only it was the exact opposite of what it was. This all came about because I wanted to write about Tony Hawk’s Walking Simulator as a normal article, and everyone shouted at me in the work Slack. Luckily, the more you think about it, the better it gets. So now we’re going to do this each week. You’re welcome.
Mass Effect does a stellar job of creating different star systems (eh? eh?), but even with literal galaxies to explore, what the game does best is to zoom right in. We might be presented with solar systems on our map, but we explore each planet on a very local level. We land in a port or a city, and that’s where the story takes place. Aside from some roving around smaller planets and moons in the first game’s Mako, exploration in Mass Effect is on foot. You don’t need to explore the whole planet to get a sense of Rannoch; as soon as you see the krogans and the rocks and the Thresher Maw, you know what the planet is. You only need Afterlife to know the Omega station. One destroyed church sells you on Thessia. The game uses small details to represent the entire world, and it works.
That’s why an Earth-based Mass Effect could be so interesting. We have visited Earth in Mass Effect 3, both in the campaign and the multiplayer levels, but there’s so much more of Earth to explore. With Rannoch, all that exists of the planet is what we have seen. The rest is all in our imagination. With Earth, we know that’s not true. We don’t see Africa in Mass Effect, but we know it’s still there; so what does it look like in the 2180s? What does Asia look like, or Australia, or another place on Earth that doesn’t begin with ‘A’?
In fact, we wouldn’t even need to hop around different locations. It would be fascinating to see what these other regions of Earth look like in almost two centuries’ time, no question, but since this is Mirror Mode, maybe a Mass Effect game could work by keeping us in the same place. Commander Shepard, and to a lesser extent Ryder in Andromeda, hop from place to place while patching up problems. In fact, it feels like Ryder is stuck between jumping around different locations the way Shepard did, and sticking in one place to really explore every inch of storytelling. Like BioWare learned all the wrong lessons from the Hinterlands in Dragon Age Inquisition.
But if Mass Effect did stay in one place, but made itself much smaller than the dense worlds of Andromeda, we could see the story from a new perspective. How do these races interact with each other outside of the military officers and adventurers that we usually deal with? What are the foibles of modern life, when modern means the year 2183? How do you face down impending doom when you’re not a soldier and have no weapon?
It could happen during the fall of Earth in 2186, or it could happen a few months after (although that would mean choosing a canon ending). It could even happen years before, in the years before Shepard and the Reapers, in the 2170s, with humanity – and life as the galaxy knows it – completely ignorant to how close to the precipice of extinction their daily life totters.
Mass Effect 4 – or would the next one be 5? – will not go in this direction, and will instead send us on another space faring adventure to far off moons beyond the stars. And I’ll probably enjoy it. But I do think there’s room for a smaller story in the Mass Effect universe to be told. BioWare managed to squeeze all of the twisting sagas of the trilogy down to one fabulous party for the Citadel DLC, and even if it’s a similarly brief experience, it would be great to see Mass Effect make room for something like that again.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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