Why Mass Effect is my favourite Sci-fi setting.

Posted on Posted in Short Stories

Mass Effect does what most fiction dreams of doing. It makes you wish you forget it so you can fall in love with it again.

Mass Effect is a sci-fi action RPG by the acclaimed studio Bioware. It is set in a fictional version of the Milky Way in the 22nd century where humanity has just joined an intergalactic community. The galaxy is inhabited by various sapient species who discovered the technology of the long-dead Protheans. They discover ‘element zero’ which can alter the mass of objects depending on the polarity of current passed through it. This technology, this ‘mass effect,’ has allowed for faster-than-light travel, artificial gravity, force fields, and much more.

We follow Commander Shepard of the Human Alliance Navy in his quest to stop the Ancient Sentient Machines called the Reapers that intend to wipe the galaxy of all intelligent life. Problem is, no one believes in the threat of the Reapers and the galaxy cannot win if they remain divided.

Mass Effect checks a lot of boxes that make good fiction- Great characters? check. Interesting world and politics? Yup! An interesting galaxy-spanning conflict? Absolutely. But, these are things that a lot of good science fiction stories have. What sets this franchise apart from heavyweights like Star Wars? Or Dune?


Mass Effect is a video game. Sure, it has the same- ‘go here, do this, shoot them,’ core to it. But, no one said that a game cannot deliver a great, engaging story. Or rather a great story makes the game far more interesting than just the cool space magic mechanics.

As opposed to mediums like novels or films, Mass Effect lets you get deeper in the world. Its core gameplay features are tailored to make this story- Your Story.  It lets you choose the kind of protagonist you want to be, right down to how you want your character to look, their gender, and their romantic and sexual orientation. It has a system of morality where the player has to make a wide range of choice from deciding if a couple should get gene-editing done on their baby to deciding which race survives a war. It involves the player in the events small and large that occur throughout the universe, make choices that have varying levels of impact on the universe and it thus makes it personal.


Mass Effect embodies a lot of Lovecraftian idea of cosmicism- That humans are insignificant in the larger scheme of things. That there is no recognizable divine presence in the universe and the only established power is evolution. The antagonists- Reapers are entities beyond the realm of understanding. An ancient synthetic race that has ruled the galaxy from the shadows, conducting their duties for millennia in a cycle of extinction. Every fifty thousand years they appear to harvest the advanced sentient life, thus recording evolution itself.
But, even in this grim reality, there is hope represented by the will to break this cycle of extinction. And we as the protagonist Commander Shepard must fight against this dreaded, unknowable enemy. We are outgunned, outsmarted and utterly out of our depths in the face of the cosmic horror known as the Reapers who feel no remorse and deliver no mercy.
There is only the cycle, nothing else matters.

But, it does matter, to us, to the people who are alive, to all the races fighting for their survival, to save the friends that we make along the way. This is a story about hope and understanding in the face of a nihilistic end.
We are continuously shown the worst that organic civilization has to offer. Slave trade, unethical genetic experimentation on innocents, murder, extortion and genocide to name a few. Yet, Mass Effect makes an argument that life no matter how horrid, is worth saving because people are trying their best, slowly but surely understanding and coming together. It makes the galaxy worth saving and each loss, each setback makes us feel equal sorrow as the joy of setting things straight and winning. Truly an experience.

World Building

The milky Way Galaxy of Mass Effect

The Milky Way Galaxy in Mass Effect feels lived in. It has a clear history of events that have happened before the humans entered the galactic scene. Perhaps the most intriguing bit is that Humanity is one of the newest races to be introduced to the galactic community. Humans are considered opportunistic upstarts and are universally distrusted. This is one example of the racism found in the series. But, each species has a racial stereotype accentuated and broken by various characters that we meet throughout the series.

Each race has a different history with one another, there are inside jokes, harsh criticisms, mutual respect and unbroken alliances between the various races and it is in flux.

Throughout the universe there are hints of what came before, colonies set up for various purposes like mining, farming, as scientific outposts and military barracks. Each race is territorial and constantly debate on a galactic scale regarding land disputes. It is a reflection of our world imposed on a galactic scale with high stakes and memorable conflicts.


“Stand amongst the ashes of a trillion dead souls, and ask the ghosts if honor matters. The silence is your answer.

Javik, Mass Effect 3

No matter how intricately crafted a fictional universe is, what keeps you invested are the personal stories of the people you meet in it. Long after you put down the game, deep within you they will always end up living. The bromance with Garrus, the quirks of Mordin, the code of Samara, the conflicts of Tali and the mad shenanigans of Grunt all live within you.

The characters are well rounded, distinct, and their stories engaging. You become invested in their lives and struggles, you support them in their darkest hours and they guard your back when faced with the galaxy-spanning conflict.

Each character has a distinct relationship to one another as well, friendships, hidden depths (like Zaeed appreciating his Goddamn art), rivalries and inner jokes. They evolve with the story, develop their own beliefs and affect the galaxy independent of Commander Sheppard. The antagonists- The Reapers are a contrast to all the others because they are unknowable, setting up a very deep and ancient mystery to be uncovered.

In conclusion, Mass Effect is one of the best sci-fi stories ever. It has an interesting world, distinct races and their conflicts and destinies, intricate histories and politics and well-rounded characters along with terrifying choices and devastating antagonists. It is a story about hope in a nihilistic Lovecraftian universe and it thoroughly grabs you by the collar and sends you across the Mass Relay.

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