Surprise! We Haven't Changed.

Posted by Daeity On Thursday, March 1, 2012

If you're a Mass Effect fan, you've probably noticed that Bioware has been under fire for the past little while because of the apparent lack of creativity in their stories, how they use the same derivative works and recycled material from other sources, and that they're slapping their fans in the face (especially with the new ME3 ending leak, which was actually leaked back in November too).

I never really liked Mass Effect myself. I played through ME1 a couple times to see the different endings, but I had only played through ME2 about 50% of the way before I got completely bored of it. I still remember every inch of the Chrono Trigger story and all of the endings, but all I could remember about ME1 (even though I put a good 100 hours into it) were the long elevator rides.. that's pretty much it. It's kind of sad to think that yesterday the elevator rides were the only thing I could clearly remember about the game.

I can understand why so many other people really like the Mass Effect series and story though (it's obviously a very successful franchise). But, it's just not for me personally.

I think that Mass Effect didn't leave much of an impression with me because I already knew what was going to happen, and I was just going through the same predictable motions. Unfortunately, stealing ideas or stories from old comics or scifi novels have been inevitable these past few decades, but some theft is more blatant than others. I can accept video games taking ideas from 19th or 20th century novels.. but, it's hard to play a video game when you've already played the exact same thing with the same story and characters only a few years earlier. That's one thing I remembered while playing the game at the time.

I'm referring to Anachronox, and it has some remarkable similarities to the Mass Effect series.

  • Anachronox was developed by Ion Storm in 2001. Ion Storm might sound familiar to you as this was the same team that created Deus Ex. Coincidentally, Bioware has also been accused of stealing ideas and plots from Deus Ex for Mass Effect.
  • Mac Walters (Lead Writer of the Mass Effect franchise, and principal writer of Mass Effect 1 and 2) discussed in 2008 the importance of stories in video games and how the video game industry might imitate these older games. He referenced that games now take shape from older titles like "Anachronox" and that they "paved the way for today's Golden Age." An interesting connection from Bioware. :)
  • Both are a scifi 3D RPG consisting of a 3 party squad, and as you progress through the story you gain new and interesting companions. Both games have very similar main characters; a ruggedly handsome male human hero (in a universe of aliens), an archeologist who just happens to be an expert on the ancient alien artifacts, a robot, a scientist, an assassin, a love interest, etc. This can be said of many RPGs though, just like how they are both a tale of Order vs Chaos. This gets far more interesting though, so read on.
  • This 3 party squad would have many funny interactions or conversations with each other during downtime or cut-scenes.
  • As part of your mission, you visit multiple unique and stereotypical planets (secret/scientific, idyllic agrarian, religious, etc.) each with their own unique quests and populations. You are visiting these planets as part of your investigation into strange and mysterious activities taking place within the galaxy.
  • In Anachronox, they had the "Sender Station" (or "Sender One"). In Mass Effect, they had the "Citadel Station". These massive "space stations" were a hub for all commerce and diplomacy for the multiple species in the galaxy.
  • Both were ancient but advanced alien space stations, with the center of the stations being the main traffic control system. They are inhabited by many alien species who discovered the "abandoned" alien construction, and the station is divided into several districts. The same kind of districts are found in both games which range from upper-class zones to red light districts, slums, casinos, and bars. There were also homeless occupants (eg Duct Rats) on both Stations.
  • The governing bodies of the galaxy or "Citadel space" in both games were made up of other alien species, with humans not included in the organization and treated more like a second class citizen. Both games involve a certain level of diplomacy and reporting to a High Council.
  • The "new" alien species (including humans) who took over ownership of Sender/Citadel believe that it was built by an ancient, but now extinct, civilization and they believe they know the purpose of the Station although it still harbors many inaccessible areas. In fact, there is a secret sinister purpose of the Station which is revealed later in the story (identical in both Anachronox and Mass Effect universes.)
  • It was believed that this long-dead alien race also left behind other strange mysterious devices and artifacts all over the galaxy. In Anachronox, this believed-dead alien race created "Spike Relays" which allowed ships to be sent across the galaxy to other relays (or "Senders"). In Mass Effect, the believed-dead alien race (Protheans) created "Mass Relays" which did the exact same thing.
  • In fact, the Sender/Citadel Station and Spike/Mass Relays were actually created by another unknown evil alien race. They were created with the purpose of harvesting the galaxy every hundreds of thousands of years. It's the same race that destroyed the last advanced alien race (who everyone believed left behind these artifacts). These constructions were created to facilitate the destruction of the galaxy which continuously happens in a cycle. In Anachronox they were called "The Chatagra" and in Mass Effect they were called "The Reapers".
  • The galaxy was basically a food source and the advanced evil aliens would repeatedly cull it based on a cycle. The relay system and hub station were used as an elaborate trap, and when the relay is activated the Chatagra/Reapers come through. The heroes were trying to break the cycle that has been going on for millions of years, just like what the previous aliens in the galaxy were trying to do.
  • The advanced believed-to-be-dead alien races who previously occupied Sender Station and Citadel Station were altruistic and unsuspecting until it was too late. They were mostly wiped out by the Chatagra/Reapers during the last culling of the galaxy. (That's why the Sender/Citadel Station were both abandoned when the new/younger alien races found it.)
  • In Mass Effect, ships have Faster-Than-Light drives however even at FTL speeds, it would take centuries to traverse distances without the Relays. The Mass relays create a "corridor" of space-time between each other to vastly boost their speed. In Anachronox, ships also have FTL drives and the Spike Relays create the same hyperspace corridors to boost their speed. Both are alien transporation systems that vastly boost FTL travel.
  • Mass Relays (Mass Effect) and Spike Relays (Anachronox) are mass transit devices scattered throughout the galaxy, usually located within star systems. They form an enormous network allowing interstellar travel. Hailed as one of the greatest achievements of an extinct (previous) race, a mass relay can transport starships instantaneously to another relay within the network, allowing for journeys that would otherwise take years or even decades with only FTL drives. (Description largely borrowed from the ME Wiki.)
  • Mass Effect: In the year 2148 AD, humans made the startling discovery of alien artifacts on Mars. These new discoveries advanced their technology and enabled them to travel to distant star systems.

    Anachronox: In the year 2229 AD, humans made the startling discovery of alien artifacts on Pluto. These new discoveries advanced their technology and enabled them to travel to distant star systems.
  • Other alien races were encountered as new Spike Relays were discovered. Early exploration using the Spike Relay was dangerous and the human species was largely ignorant of travel, leading to wars and conflicts with other dangerous alien species. The same as in Mass Effect.
  • The Sender/Citadel station is actually a disguised Relay system, and it acts as the central portal to the Repear/Chatagra's "dark space" or "Chaos universe". It's basically an elaborate trap so that they can invade and destroy the new alien civilizations quickly and keep doing it over and over.
  • Both "The Reapers" and "The Chatagra" also left behind servants on the Sender/Citadel station to ensure that occupying races didn't discover the true nature of the Citadel among other reasons. In Anachronox, they were called "The Dark Servants" and in Mass Effect they were "Keepers". Both hid in plain sight, pretended to be helpful, but were actually evil maintenance personnel.
  • The Reapers/Chatagra also had other alien species working for them to help usher in the destruction of the galaxy. In Anachronox, they were "Agents of Chaos" and in Mass Effect there were "The Geth". Alternatively, you could also look at the "The Dark Servants" as "The Geth" too.
  • The Chatagra are spaceborn creatures (billions of years old) with glowing eyes and several tentacles as arms. They look like Reaper Cuttlefish (just like The Reapers), except they're smaller in size. Like the Reapers, they are also worshipped as "gods" by some in the Anachronox universe. The last ancient alien race were getting close to finding a way to stop them but they were too late and were harvested like the others. However, they were able to leave behind artifacts, an outpost, and messages to warn and prepare the next young alien races.

  • The new alien species (including humans) also discovered technology left behind by the previous extinct alien race (Protheans) which they dubbed "Element Zero" in Mass Effect and "Mysterium" in Anachronox. This rare material allowed people and ships to basically twist physics and cast magic. MysTech/Biotics could also be used in combat, healing, or for other supporting roles.
  • In the Anachronox universe, a new cult has popped up based on MysTech who have a large following of MysTech Cultists. In Mass Effect, a new cult has popped up based on Biotics who have a large following of Biotic Cultists. Not a major part of either game, though.
  • The term "Mass Effect" was also explained by Project Director Casey Hudson as related to "dark energy" (which physicists are calling) which is also "an explanation for the accelerating expansion of the universe - which has only recently been discovered and flies in the face of the previous notion that the universe's expansion should be slowing down because of gravity." Interestingly, this was also described as a major plot point in Anachronox. In Anachronox, the universe's expansion was being accelerated due to the injection of "dark energy" and matter/mass from a previous universe. This additional mass was having a "mass effect" on the universe and hastening it's big crunch. A "Mass Effect" in many senses of the word in fact; it was a mass effect on the universe, the Effect was due to injection of Mass, and Mass had an Effect on the universe. :)
  • Both Mass Effect and Anachronox had the exact same ending. The final battle takes place back on Sender Station/Citadel Station, where the heroes are trying to stop the prime "Dark Servant" from signalling the invasion to begin (using the true purpose of the Station). Grumpos/Saren (who were both believed to be good at one point, but were in fact evil servants) both change forms in the final battle too.. revealing themselves to be Reaper/Chatagra-like and shedding their outside husks. The hero and his party fight a big boss, realize the true nature of the artifacts and station, stopped the threat to the galaxy, and united they were going to drive them back into "dark space" and take the fight to them.
  • Anachronox had unavoidable and lengthy elevator-riding scenes which annoyed players. Sound familiar?
  • Both Anachronox and Mass Effect had level scaling and both games had lockpicking/hacking minigames (remember this was 2001). Anachronox had Mystech powered ammo (or "Ammo Powers" as in Mass Effect) and Mystech/Biotic powered personal shielding.
I can see a couple story elements from different sources borrowed, but there were just too many similarities between Mass Effect and this one single source to just be a coincidence in my opinion. I think that Anachronox had a mass effect on Mass Effect.

So, if you don't like the story (or ending) to Mass Effect 3, you shouldn't be surprised if you find it uncreative or derivative. It's always the same and they'll never change. Besides, ME3 is just a prelude to ME4 where they'll suddenly find a mysterious and coincidental way out of their new predicament.

And, don't blame them if the story seems bland or boring. Ion Storm never released Anachronox 2, so Bioware didn't really have a lot of new material to work from. :)

* UPDATE: A reader alerted me to this link which also discusses similarities between the two games.

* UPDATE: Some other amazing coincidences regarding Mass Effect and other media. (This contains some ME3 Spoilers.)