Mass Effect or Star Wars?
Notwithstanding the title of this article, I want to make one thing abundantly clear before I begin to defend my position: I am a big fan of Star Wars films.
I’m certainly not a die-hard fanatic by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t have Star Wars-themed bed sheets; I don’t cosplay as Darth Vader on weekends; I don’t queue outside the cinema for days on end prior to the release of the next installment, just so I can be amongst the first to see it; and I don’t have a room chock full of official action figures, complementary novels, signed posters, and commemorative crockery. Nevertheless, I have a great deal of affection for George Lucas’s sci-fi masterpiece.
The thing is, despite its cultural significance and some genre-defining qualities, for me, personally, Star Wars isn’t the pinnacle of science fiction. Despite its flaws, I actually believe BioWare’s Mass Effect series offers a marginally richer, more immersive, and coherent universe.
Allow me to explain my reasoning.
Having seen each of the various Star Wars films multiple times before I got my first taste of the Mass Effect trilogy, what struck me most when I first booted up the 2007 original was the rigorousness of its approach to the scientific concepts that underpinned its universe.
Mass Effect seemed to place a far greater emphasis on realism, whereas Star Wars was more willing to bend the fundamental laws of science to suit its narrative requirements. Two areas illustrate this point particularly well: interstellar travel and the portrayal of alien life.
Star Wars’ solution to the problems posed by the former was the hyperdrive. A propulsion system powered by hyper matter, the hyperdrive enabled spacecraft to reach the speed of light and thus cross over into an alternate dimension called hyperspace, wherein the distance between two objects – Tatooine and Coruscant, say – was drastically shortened. It’s a seemingly elegant solution; one that allowed ships to essentially ‘jump’ from one end of the galaxy to the other along pre-determined ‘hyperspace lanes’. However, it always felt rather vague and just a little bit too straightforward, especially when compared to the FTL (faster than light) technology featured in Mass Effect.
While similarly based on a rare and exotic fictional substance – in this case, Element 0 – the explanation as to how FTL travel works in Mass Effect is far more comprehensive. Namely, the FTL drive creates a ‘mass effect field’ which, after enveloping the ship, simultaneously lowers its mass and increases the maximum speed at which light can travel within the field, thus enabling the craft to travel hundreds, even thousands of times faster than the speed of light (186,000 mps). Yet, in order to ensure the concept is as watertight as possible and accurately reflects the unimaginably vast distances that separate the stars in the real world, in the Mass Effect universe, it can still take days, weeks, and even, in the case of the intergalactic journey at the start of Andromeda, centuries to reach a specific destination.
This is only a condensed version, admittedly. But even in this rather simplified form, there’s a degree of believability in the Mass Effect solution that isn’t always present in the Star Wars films and, moreover, none of the obvious irregularities that exist in the latter; almost instantaneous deceleration, for example, or, more specifically, how Han can manually pilot the ship to exit hyperspace within the very atmosphere of a Starkiller base in The Force Awakens, despite the fact the Millennium Falcon is supposed to be traveling at the speed of light at the time.
The differences aren’t quite so noticeable as far as their respective depiction of alien life is concerned. Indeed, though the Star Wars Wiki puts the number of intelligent species recorded at a staggering 20 million, for a galaxy that’s described as being roughly the same size as the Milky Way, this isn’t actually a particularly unrealistic tally; if the famous Drake Equation can be relied upon to provide a reasonable estimate, that is.
The issue for me is how these physiognomically distinctive species are capable of surviving and thriving in the same environmental conditions. The Hutt, the Kowakian, the Tusken Raiders, the Rancor, the Jawa, and human beings all live together in apparent comfort on Tatooine, for instance; breathing the same air, eating similar foods, and enjoying the same temperatures. That, and their ability to communicate freely in their respective mother tongues without any discernible technological aids.
Galactic Basic Standard (the galaxy-wide lingua franca) explains away some of the difficulties as regards inter-species communication, but it’s still hard to believe the Mon Calamari are capable of producing human language or that Count Dooku would be able to understand the thrumming, rhythmic language of the Geonosians in the prequel trilogy.
Mass Effect’s far smaller roster of distinctive sentient races (reflecting the relative infancy of space travel during the time in which the games are set and perhaps BioWare’s own views on the rarity of complex life), on the other hand, often rely on specially designed full-body suits with in-built breathing apparatuses and real-time communication tools in order to live and work together communally. The Volus, for example, must wear protective suits at all times whenever they leave their ammonia-based homeworld, whilst the Drell are forced to live beneath climate-controlled domes on the Hanar homeworld, so different is it from the arid landscapes of the now-dead Rakhana.
It’s far from perfect, of course. Although the evolutionary differences between the games’ various intelligent species provide an additional layer of scientific authenticity (the Turian’s metallic plating or the Krogan’s multiple backup organs), it’s hard to ignore the fact that the majority of these races are roughly 6-feet tall, bipedal creatures. While the sultry, all-female Asari specifically comes across as little more than a male fantasy, rather than a plausible alien race.
Even so, Mass Effect offers what I think is a more realistic depiction of alien life in a universe that subscribes to the established laws of physics and, though perhaps less creative in the designs of these species, is just as capable as Star Wars of capturing the player’s imagination and evoking that sense of the mysteriousness of space.
At this point, I should mention it isn’t just Mass Effect’s, in my mind, superior approach to the science of science fiction that initially won me over. Although the finale of the original trilogy is a bit anti-climactic, I also feel Mass Effect trumps Star Wars in terms of its storytelling too. A slightly more controversial argument perhaps, but hear me out.
For starters, three of the seven numbered films – A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens – follow broadly the same plot; indeed, the similarities between episodes IV and VII are well documented. Each revolves around the efforts of a rag-tag rebellion to free the galaxy from the shackles of a tyrannical government and sabotage a giant space station/weapon capable of destroying an entire planet with a single attack, culminating in a seemingly hopeless, last-ditch effort to destroy said weapon that succeeds largely as a result of Jedi intervention and some extraordinary individual acts of heroism.
It’s a timeless premise certainly, and a highly satisfying one to boot, but it also robs the series of narrative diversity. In fact, as poor as the prequel trilogy undoubtedly is (both for its failure to recapture the spirit of the original films and for making some truly egregious mistakes, e.g., casting Hayden Christensen as Anakin, placing so much emphasis on Midichlorians, thinking Jar Jar Binks was a whimsical, charming character etc. etc.) at least the screenwriters attempted to tell a more varied, complex story that offered something other than the standard tale of good vs evil.
There’s a noticeable lack of diversity in the personality and motives of the series various antagonists too. Darth Maul, Count Dooku, General Grievous, and Orson Krennic are all depicted as nothing more than ambitious, power-hungry pawns of Darth Sidious and the Empire, while the Emperor himself, despite protesting that centralized rule would benefit everyone in the galaxy throughout the Star Wars saga, it’s clear that, in reality, his only desire is domination and control. True, Darth Vader is an excellent villain; his internal struggle is arguably the most interesting aspect of the original trilogy, and his final steps towards the dark side are the main draw of the prequels. The problem is, he’s basically the only one that offers anything different.
Conversely, though Mass Effect can’t claim responsibility for such seminal moments as the confrontation between Luke and Vader at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, it does possess a more compelling central narrative, supported by an array of equally complex intertwining sub-plots and intriguing antagonists.
The Reaper War is perfectly paced and relentlessly interesting, due in no small part to the nature of the reapers themselves who, while outwardly resembling Emperor Palpatine in as much as both seem to be cruel, callous, and only interested in their personal goals, are convinced that what they’re doing is for the greater good; indeed, a certain twisted logic suggests they might actually be right. The sub-plots referred to above, meanwhile, give BioWare the scope to tackle a broader range of themes within the wider central narrative – the Quarian-Geth conflict, for example, which addresses the growing concerns of some individuals in the real world as to what would happen if humanity created genuine synthetic intelligence; or the Genophage and how such biochemical weapons cause as much harm to innocent bystanders, in the long run, as enemy combatants – adding to the complexity and authenticity of the Mass Effect universe itself, and generally making it a far more engaging experience.
Nonetheless, I would say Star Wars has the edge, in a certain sense anyway, when it comes to the extensiveness and depth of its lore.
With so many people adding to the Star Wars universe over the years, it’s become a branch of mythology all of its own; the sci-fi equivalent of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Even a precursory look at the Star Wars Wiki throws up countless pages detailing everything from the startling variety of alien life and planets, to the history of the Jedi order and the development of space travel.
Moreover, there are some truly unique features that set it apart from every other science fiction universe ever created, including Mass Effect; and nowhere is this more obvious than in the Jedi and Sith orders. The X factor of the Star Wars films, what makes them so special for me is how they seamlessly blend science fiction and religion in a way that’s both interesting and believable. Fond as I am of Mass Effect, I’ve never felt the personal religious beliefs of Suvi Anwar or the Asari people, in general, makes much sense in a setting that’s so deeply entrenched in scientific realism; and the same is true of plenty of other IPs within the sci-fi genre that tries to depict religion in a technologically advanced society.
Not that Mass Effect is deficient in the lore department. Indeed, though Star Wars’ greater age and popularity mean it’s naturally the more comprehensive of the two, BioWare never fails to describe every aspect of the Mass Effect universe in impressive detail, be it humanity’s technological evolution, the birth of the Quarian migrant fleet, the existence of biotics (which, though almost certainly included for reasons of gameplay diversity, is framed in a pretty convincing manner), the development of the Citadel, or the history of the mysterious Prothean civilization. And, crucially, it’s largely free from the continuity errors and inconsistencies that mar certain elements of the Star Wars universe.
Indeed, continuity is the only thing that lets Star Wars down as far as its lore is concerned.
For, though the constant expansion of the last 40 years has given Star Wars lore a richness that’s almost unparalleled anywhere else in literature, television, or cinema, this self-same process has also thrown up numerous inconsistencies that are sometimes difficult to reconcile. Obi Wan’s inability to remember R2D2 in A New Hope, for instance, or his assertion in the same film that he was trained by Yoda, not Qui-Gon Jinn (though perhaps that says more about the slapdash treatment of Star Wars canon in the prequel trilogy than anything else).
I guess what I’m trying to say, in a rather roundabout way, is that my preference of Mass Effect over Star Wars is twofold: realism and narrative complexity.
Though both try to adhere to a semi-realistic scientific framework, I feel Mass Effect is the more successful of the two. This, combined with an enthralling multi-faceted plot and a cast of intriguing, morally ambiguous characters, enables BioWare to tell a richer tale that’s better equipped to match the modern sci-fi fan’s sensibilities and expectations.
I’m not saying there aren’t holes Mass Effect’s lore or storytelling, of course; I’ve mentioned some of them already. Nor do I wish to denigrate Star Wars’ many, many qualities. But for me – and this is something I can’t emphasize enough; everything written here is my personal opinion and should in no way be construed as empirical fact – Mass Effect offers a far more coherent and engaging universe that is, as a result, much easier to lose yourself in.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on December 3, 2017.