Editorial from guest contributor Michael Crider.
The venerable Star Trek franchise turned 45 years old last September, leaving many a tear in nerds’ eyes. But not just because it’s a major milestone in one of science fiction’s most beloved franchises – for many Trekkies, it’s also a lament over the sad state of the Trek universe. Roddenberry’s final frontier is a long way from what it could have been, and in many ways should have been, by now.
The last two television series were passable at best resulting in there being nothing currently on the air for the franchise, and the lion’s share of the spectacle that was the original Star Trek movies are best forgotten. Even the shiny new J.J. Abrams Star Trek of 2009 leaves a lot to be desired to long-time citizens of the Alpha Quadrant, being much more popcorn flick than thoughtful speculative fiction. But there is a bright new hope in the eyes of Trekkies everywhere, and it’s coming from an unexpected source.
BioWare’s Mass Effect games capture the spirit of Roddenberry’s futuristic vision in a way that hasn’t been seen since The Next Generation, and the fact that it’s taking place in an interactive medium doesn’t just make it different, it makes it even better.
These Are The Voyages…
Like many PC gamers, I picked up Mass Effect when it was made available on one of Steam’s fantastic online sales. I jumped in immediately, expecting a run-of-the-mill cover shooter with a fairly basic sci-fi backdrop. What I got intimidated me at first: not unlike the Star Trek premiere ‘The Man Trap’ from 45 years ago, there’s almost no context or guidance to steer you through the ruthlessly complex world. But after a few hours of trudging through the relationships of the Federa… er, I mean the Alliance, the pseudo-military powers, the rich environments of the Normandy and the Citadel, it was clear: BioWare was building a brand new Star Trek out of scratch.
It shouldn’t be hard at all for Trekkies to spot both the overt and the subtle shout-outs to the Star Trek universe. Commander Shepard lives and works with diverse people of different races and species. He serves a higher, if somewhat idealistic power through his superiors, but isn’t afraid to defy them when he knows he’s in the right. Exploration (at least in the first game) is a reward of its own, and players who want to dive into the backstory and history of everything from the different races to that annoying guy who always asks for your autograph can do so at their leisure.
The similarities aren’t just thematic, either. The Normandy is the newest and coolest in universal conveyance, just like every main Trek ship since TNG. Your crew is split along three basic skill trees (though they can intermingle) even if they aren’t wearing red, gold and blue Lycra. Even the major races have their parallels: the Krogan are a dead ringer for Star Trek III-era Klingons, the Salarians are even pointier than the Vulcans and the Geth and their human husks are spiritual descendants of the Borg.
Not that BioWare is trying to hide the similarities. A host of voice actors from Star Trek (including Michael Dorn as an ME2 Krogan -natch) and other sci-fi TV favorites are present in both games, and feature heavily in Mass Effect 3 as well. Trekkies will note a feel and similar layout to the ship’s interior, and you’d have to have all the subtlety of a brick not to pick up on the Normandy II’s highland engineer…
New Life and New Civilizations
All this isn’t exactly revolutionary. TV series and video games have tried to replicate the Star Trek formula before – the difference is, BioWare is succeeding.
After just two games, Mass Effect’s backstory and universe is at least as dense as Star Trek‘s was when the original series finished out its third and final season. Players can spend dozens of hours just piecing together the cultures of the various races and factions – and they have. BioWare’s experience in the likewise dense lore of Star Wars was no doubt a big help in this area. The subsequent DLC, novels and comic books have only made the backstory broader.