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.
It's clear that BioWare intended to create a new franchise from the word go, and so far it's been a rousing success. If thousands of fans can get riled up over the color of FemShep's hairdo or an inaccurate rendering of Liara's lady bits (it's not what you think - sci-fi fans are being downright chivalrous here) you know you've got a passionate fanbase on your hands.
The grown-up nature of Mass Effect isn't lost on gamers ready for a more mature experience. While Mass Effect 2 toned down some of the suggestive themes and language of the original, the more modern sensibility is still greatly appreciated. Star Trek has been mostly candy-coated since Deep Space 9, and the M rating of the games is used sparingly and effectively in a way that only adds to its appeal for serious sci-fi fans.
Take a gander at the Mass Effect wiki - but not if you've got work to do. Check out the cosplay in any post-07 Comic-Con or E3 gallery. Fans have taken to Mass Effect in an astounding way, creating resources, fan art, costumes and original fiction in volumes that rival the early years of Star Trek and Star Wars fandom in the 1970s. There hasn't been this kind of fanatical love for a sci-fi video game universe since Starcraft wowed us almost fourteen years ago.
Strange New Worlds
The significance of Mass Effect's medium shouldn't be lost on the critical observer. Star Trek took off in 1966, at a time when its persistent world and serialized approach to sci-fi was absolutely groundbreaking for television. Fast-forward to 2007: if you're going to create a long-lasting franchise, TV isn't the way to do it (ask any of us bitter Firefly fans). The opiate of the masses now glows gently beneath the television screen or next to our HD monitors.
Not only is the action-RPG genre the perfect way to hook Generation Y and beyond, it's an incredible way to create emotional investment in characters and events. Consider Star Trek III: the destruction of the original USS Enterprise is a heartbreaking moment, and made for the most memorable part of an otherwise bad film.
Now remember the almost instant destruction of the SSV Normandy in Mass Effect 2. Having just replayed ME1 to brush up, the destruction sequence didn't leave me shocked or saddened, it left me livid. I was furious. Not because they blew up Commander Shepard's ship or killed his crew. Those sorry space crawlers blew up my ship, they killed my crew (and me, but that's just the proverbial syrup on my rage waffles), and the motivation to track down those suckers and make them pay made the entire game a personal experience.
This is the advantage that video games have over almost every other medium: immersion. RPGs and other story-driven games have the ability to tell a personal tale in a fashion that's simply impossible while merely observing. BioWare has developed its RPG system so that it's even more immersive, letting you create a customized avatar whose total in-game experience (characters, choices, skills, equipment and achievements) is almost unique, even among millions of other players.
Not every game manages this level of immersion. But Mass Effect does, and it's a huge part of why it's successful.
To Boldly Go
It's not all shiny for the future of Mass Effect. BioWare has displayed a disturbing tendency to dumb down the gameplay and interface to make the game more accessible (see ME2 and Dragon Age 2), a move that's resulted in massive sales but at least some alienation of core fans. The upcoming move to the movies may be as seamless and enjoyable as Star Trek's forays into video games (i.e., not very). Pleasing core fans is a big reason why The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine are considered as good or better than the original - I'd hate to see Mass Effect 3 become the franchise's version of Star Trek: Enterprise.
But if you wanted to create the next Star Trek, you couldn't do any better than Mass Effect. And as much as it pains me to write this, it’s doing it so much better than the original, at least for the last decade or so. Between stellar production values, an incredibly rich story and universe, and a justifiably rabid fanbase, BioWare's epic is shaping up to be the first great sci-fi franchise of the new century, on any medium.
So long, Kirk. Au revoir, Picard. We had some great times and hope for more with the next Star Trek movie. If you need me, I'll be in the Normandy's cabin, waiting for Mass Effect 3 to drop on March 6th.
Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelCrider.