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Mass Effect: Gaming's Star Trek?

Just about every medium that tells a story seems to eventually develop universes - collections of lore and history originally attached to particular stories, but that stay relevant long after those initial tales are completed. The allure of the universe is stronger than any individual story told within it, so people come back time and time again, demanding new stories told within its confines.

Television gives us some of the most numerous and obvious examples. Star Trek, for instance, is a terrific analogue for what Mass Effect could be. Its universe has sustained multiple television series, books, movies, games, and more. While the original show that started it all still remains popular, clearly there is more draw here than just Kirk and his crew.

Another obvious example, this time from the world of film, is Star Wars. There should be no need to explain the importance of this one. It is one of the most influential story universes of all time. It strongly centers around the original movies which made it famous, but has produced countless examples of other forms of entertainment only related by the universe they share.

The medium of the good old fashioned book is a popular destination for offshoot stories of universes created in other mediums, but it has some universes of its own as well, though perhaps none quite as obvious or well-known as those from TV or movies, though this could simply be due to the decreased relevance of books in today’s popular culture. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is a great, long-running, lighthearted example. Lord of the Rings could perhaps be included, though truthfully its offshoots, or at least the official ones, are far less numerous and influential than are really necessary to place it in the same category as other examples.

But this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list of existing examples. I think I’ve made my point that plenty of these fascinating universes exist across all different mediums, even if my examples do draw heavily from my own biases of experience and taste.

The key question is, why does no such universe exist in the medium of gaming?

Such widespread story universes are almost unprecedented in gaming. Save for a few rare examples, depending on how lenient your definitions are, almost no gaming story world survives beyond the initial tale and cast of characters it was launched with.

One’s first instinct might be to point to something like Sonic, Mario, or The Legend of Zelda series. These are indeed the closest analogues gaming really seems to have, but they are popular more as a collection of formulas and mechanics than story or lore. Their offshoots are popular because of the characters people came to love, not the world the games are set in. Ultimately these are close, but not quite.

A couple of fledgling examples have emerged only recently and could prove to be the emergence of the story universe in gaming. Microsoft seems to be doing its best to transform Halo into something fitting this phenomenon, but I have my doubts. It’s going to take more than Halo Wars to sell me on the idea that this can work for Microsoft’s beloved shooter, and even then I’ll have to be convinced people aren’t simply coming back for the multiplayer, another collection of mechanics just like Sonic and Mario. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, but I have yet to see indication that people care for Halo’s universe, rather than just its mechanics, making it a dubious example, albeit one still worth noting.

One could also perhaps point to Warcraft. This series has sustained multiple games of different genres within the same universe and spawned books and other products to tell separate stories at varying times in the universe’s history. I have read some myself, in fact. Truth be told, this is the only major existing example I can think of that might actually fit the definition. Even here things are not quite so clear-cut, however. Despite World of Warcraft’s immense popularity, the vast majority of players are not in it for the story or the lore, as extensive and well-planned as it may be. The Warcraft universe provided World of Warcraft with a fantastic setting and history, but I’m not so sure the universe itself was the reason for the game’s success. What I am searching for is an example where the universe itself draws gamers in time and time again. I’m not ready to say Warcraft doesn’t do this, but I’m not yet ready to say it does either.

So it would seem that the medium of gaming has plenty of examples that straddle the line, but we lack our Star Trek. We lack our example of a universe so undeniably compelling it can draw gamers back time and time again, long after the original stories have concluded.

It’s no coincidence that, after years of draught in this area, numerous potential universes have sprung up only recently. Storytelling in gaming has a long way to go before it is widely considered legitimate, but it has come far in a short period of time. Perhaps something already sitting on store shelves will produce what I am looking for someday and I just don’t know it yet. The fledgling status of truly important story within the confines of interactive entertainment is surely one of the key reasons behind the lack of compelling universes.

I think that, should Bioware decide to pursue it, their Mass Effect universe is one of the first examples of a property clearly in a position to become the Star Trek of video games. It has the massive popularity required to give it the longevity it needs to sustain itself. It has the deep fiction, rich history, and incredible variety necessary to sustain many varied tales within its confines. Most importantly, however, the Mass Effect games are some of the precious few modern titles that many people seem to play as much for their story as for the gameplay.

This is vital.

My definition of a story universe for gaming is strict, I admit. Many potential examples are disqualified because it’s the mechanics that interest most players, not the lore. This distinction is harsh, but necessary, for once this criteria has finally been filled for our interactive medium, it will truly be a landmark step.

Mass Effect is one of the first gaming worlds I can think of where I wish I could go to the bookstore and buy a Mass Effect atlas. I love the characters I am currently exploring the galaxy with, but once their tale is told, I would love nothing more than to dive back into the universe and explore completely different aspects of it. I just want to know as much about it as possible; to spend as much time in it as possible, because to me it is just that compelling.

I have never been a trekkie, but I imagine the feeling must be fairly similar.

And I can’t wait for the day I can proudly call myself whatever the gaming equivalent of “trekkie” will come to be known as. I think the books and comics that already exist around Mass Effect are a decent sign that this could finally be the one, but they are by no means definitive. What will truly be the deciding factor is what, if anything, comes after Mass Effect 3 and how well it performs.

I can only hope that, if it even ends up existing, it will be a spectacular success. I know I’ll be first in line.

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