'Mass Effect' -- A Traveler's Notes

me1.jpgI was on a barren world with a blurry deposit of gold. The few people there were chatty.

This was a planet -- I don't remember which -- somewhere in "Mass Effect"'s universe. I traveled through that universe for more then 29 hours and 24 minutes over the past month, according to the time stamp on my final save-file when I completed the game last week. I had taken a thorough vacation in that universe. I had kept a yellow Post-It note on which I wrote the names of 17 star clusters available for me to explore via spaceship and intergalactic map. I explored these places not with the free whimsy of a backpacker crossing South America post-college, but with the thoroughness of an American in Rome, nose in guidebook, determined to check off every site there is to see.

I don't remember the name of the planet with the blurry gold. I didn't put it on the Post-It. In fact, I don't remember the names of any of the nearly-barren planets, the optional ones I spent probably about a dozen hours exploring in my quest to fully know the terrain of "Mass Effect." I had landed on all of them in the same way, my six-wheeled, shock-absorbent Mako tank dropping from my spaceship through the sky, planting itself on the ground. Every one of them was beautiful, mostly cloudless, some white with snow, others red, orange, green and one gray as if (no spoilers) it was the same moon I could see through my apartment in Brooklyn.

How often do we consider the worlds like those of "Mass Effect" as a place, rather than a game or a story? How often do we tell the people who made these places what we thought of spending time in them? Not what we thought of how we controlled our fate, not of how we thought of things in game terms, but how we thought of things in terms of an exotic vacation?

I traveled and I have a report.

me2.jpg There are some planets in the "Mass Effect" universe where crucial events unfold. They are dense and busy. These planets are called New Eden, Feros, Noveria, Virmire, Therum and Ilios. Plus there is a massive space station called The Citadel. Everywhere else, the main event is the wind.

Each of the 17 star clusters I explored had at least one star system, some of them four. Most star systems have a single planet on which one can land a Mako. One planet has monkeys. One planet has a small pack of quadrupeds. A few others have giant sand-worms. There is no other wildlife. The skies everywhere are free of birds.

Instead these worlds have abundant quiet and common stillness. In the universe of "Mass Effect," it is not just outer space that is so very empty; dozens of planets are desolate deserts. There is land, but no bodies of water.

Are you someone who appreciates the Grand Canyon or dreams of rocks and desert and your chance to drive like a rover upon different-colors of Mars? Then the universe of "Mass Effect" is for you. It's beauty is in the barren, not in the baroque.

The worlds of "Mass Effect" are spotted with blurry gold and other precious metal. The blurriness is temporary. You see it at first, even second, glance. By the fourth or fifth the metal is crisply defined. Here's what happens: You will drive on these rocky, sandy or snowy planets and see on your map a blotch of orange representing some rare mineral or earth to discover. You will drive to it, seeing it as some sort of boulder. Then, with two allies, you will exit your vehicle and approach it. At first it is a blurry smudge, just yards from your character's feet. A sky-blue reticule that focuses on your points of interest centers on it, defining it as Something Of Note. It will still be blurry. Everything around it though, will be sharply defined. It's an oddity, a visual blot amid pristine landscape. You will be able to start scanning this deposit to determine what it is. You will click a sequence of buttons in a process that takes maybe five seconds. In the first of those seconds the boulder may get a little less blurry. By the third it will sharpen. This scan, this experience will give you points and make you stronger.

memako.jpg On these mostly desolate planets your driving may be arduous. Your Mako will slow on inclines but always push for a good try. You will be able to launch your truck vertically on a brief boost of blue-burning jets, but never in 29 hours may you determine an advantage from that move. You won't have to drive as much as I did -- you can skip most of the planets, after all. Extensive travel is no prerequisite for saving the universe.

But if you take the full-package tour, you may feel that your trip resembles the well-known wandering from another video game set in a spare landscape: Your "Mass Effect" drives may bring memories of your sailing as Link on the high sees of "The Wind Waker," before "The Phantom Hourglass" made his sea more crowded, his ability to sail more automated, and his -- your -- sense of smallness in a great mysterious vastness less pronounced. The seas of that windy "Zelda" game and the sands of "Mass Effect" may try your patience, depending on your ability to appreciate the splendor of simple, stark, lovely surroundings, as you accelerate from point to point, hoping your destination will appear. You may too have wandered in loneliness in "Shadow of the Colossus," but that world feels quaint compared to these other two video game's vast landscapes.

On the seas of "Wind Waker" Link found volcanoes and pirate ships and a strange island on which he could use a massive leaf to play a wind-aided version of golf. On the mostly barren worlds of "Mass Effect" you will find less visual surprise. You will find repeatedly just four types of buildings. These worlds are not filled with the ever-unique halls and crags like those in a "Metroid Prime." Instead, there is a mining facility, identical in all worlds it appears on both on its outside and within. Second there is the underground station. Third, there are the above-ground two-story installation. Finally there are mobile home-like trailers. These are all copied from sphere to sphere. They are proofs, perhaps, that in "Mass Effect" there is but one grand Architect.

The meaningful differences in these places are revealed in words, text that explains a mission or a discovery, or speech from an unseen commander or any of the many chatty beings in this universe. One installation will be the home of pirates who you must shoot to kill. Another is the place for an intergalactic peace talk where you must negotiate. Still another will be where a hostage was taken or where the computers have taken over. But they will all look the same.

Where should you go? Which places should you avoid? That's hard to say. Like those deposits of gold, they blur together. Unlike the gold, time does not make them distinct. They are generally and agreeably gorgeous, but empty. Go to any. The experience is, mostly, all the same.

It differs on the planets whose names I could remember, Feros, Virmire and the like. There, there is life. There is architectural variety. One is an underground of caverns and sneaky aliens. One has a frozen highway leading to a tower and a parasitic spaceship. One has a beach where a hard decision must be made.

mechatty.jpg And the people? Are they friendly, as is so often said about the locals of a place you've never been? They will all talk, that's for certain. And they will talk a lot if you ask them anything. No one in this universe is taciturn. No one is inarticulate. There is even a species of alien that has found a way of doing some kind of super-talking. Their speech is more expressive than anyone else's you have ever spoken to. They are called the Elcor, and they won't just say something. Before they tell you something, they'll tell you how they feel about what they're about to tell you. "Mildly irritated," they might begin, before grumbling about what displeases them.

Be nice or be mean, and any one character you talk to will still talk a lot. The only way to keep someone quiet in these places is for you yourself to be brusque, to clip a conversation and walk away. Otherwise, so many of these people are so calm and so ready to divulge. They are of many different alien species, and they appear more diverse than my fellow New Yorkers. But their common openness, their need to discuss everything at length and the thorough way by which they all do it makes them seem so similar, far less exotic in terms of demeanor than Gotham's citizens. Quirks, they have few. Deep, involved and often interesting back-stories, they have much.

I did meet one short alien who hated me for what seemed like no decent reason. He was the only character I met who didn't explain himself clearly. Him I really liked; him I will remember. Because he was one of the few who just didn't make sense. He was simply himself. I wish there were more like him.

meposed.jpgThe "Mass Effect" universe is colorful and expansive. And it presents high adventure, spread sparingly across a lot of terrain. Uniformly it is beautiful. And the people, they are welcoming.

I would go back, I think. But I would need something new to do. I would hope for some construction on these gorgeous planets. I would hope for lakes and some birds. I would hope for more people or aliens who don't bother to explain themselves. I'd take the blurry gold, which is a small price to pay. I'd take another tour of this outer-space desert with its beautiful vistas.

I can take all the emptiness, so long as it comes with a few more surprises around corner that look less the same.