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Gamereactor UK

What Mass Effect taught us about physics

Will the technology that powers Bioware's RPG series one day be science instead of fiction?

  • Text: Eva Mosquera Rodríguez

When we think of Mass Effect we don't just think of a video game, nor that we're sitting on a couch playing a fictional adventure. The truth is that this series is one of only a handful that have made us feel as if we were on another world, that has made us live its story as our own, and the reasons for this aren't to do with the quality of its graphics, nor with its spectacular art direction or the extra-terrestrial architecture.

It doesn't matter that the game plays out in the third-person, because for us, it feels as if we were reviving a dream, and the reasons for this are simple. The first and most obvious is that the story itself and the way you make decisions within that story have a very significant level of emotional involvement; you aren't a person with a controller in your hand, you are Shepard. You're a human, a second-rate being who tries to prove that he or she deserves the respect of all the Council races, and you are saving the galaxy. You get so involved that you even imprint your own personality. We really wanted to convince the Council and the galaxy that humanity is a race full of goodness, strength, and intelligence, and we did just that. We celebrated the victories as if they were our own, we could feel the tension in battles as if we could really die, and we cried more than once along the way.

Emotions aside, what made us believe that Mass Effect was true, and that's what matters here, is the possibility that the technologies that are imagined in this series could very well become a reality in the near future. We're talking about interstellar travel through mass relays, biotic powers, force fields, dark energy... all things that are based on completely plausible scientific theory.

In fact, even NASA announced that they had been inspired by Mass Effect when they recently discovered the Trappist-1 solar system, which is 40 light-years away and has Earth-sized planets that meet the necessary conditions for life. "Good art not only inspires us as individuals, it can inspire and improve our society as a whole," said Jeff Norris of NASA's propulsion laboratory at the DICE Summit, referring to the Bioware trilogy. Fabrice Condominas, the game's producer, also told Gamereactor that Andromeda's choice for the continuation of the saga had been "really scientific," days after demonstrating the game at the European Space Agency. In fact, he points out that they collaborate with all kinds of researchers: "We're working with those guys; space agencies, engineers, xeno-biologists who verify how we animate the aliens. Are they actually credible, could it be real? And at the same time we already have aliens, we have spaceships. So again it's not about reality, it's about credibility."

Will we be able to travel through the galaxy in a mass relay?

From a scientific point of view, interstellar travel is a controversial topic, but it's this technology that is the star - pun intended - of most works of science fiction. Although we must bear in mind that, when it comes to mass relays, there's a lot of science and physics involved.

First of all, just in case there are any newcomers, we will explain the concept. Mass relays are huge structures that are spread throughout the galaxy, and their job is to create portals between two points that are many light-years away, places that would take us centuries to get to if we traveled in a conventional manner. In order to be able to travel those distances in a short time, then, we need what in Mass Effect is known as "element zero". This element reacts to electric currents in a way that emits a field of dark energy that increases or decreases the mass of all the objects that are placed nearby. In this way, dark energy "denies" the mass of a ship, and this allows it to travel faster than light (FTL). This is what is known as "mass effect" in the game, and it naturally is what gives the name to the title.

Reality or fiction? The fact is that dark energy is not something that the franchise has invented; it's a scientific reality. This is the term used for naming the force that should exist in order to justify that galaxies move away from each other, even if gravity is supposed to do just the opposite. In fact, astrophysicist Tamara Davis has already explained to Scientific American in an interview regarding Mass Effect in 2010, that it's "not completely implausible" to use dark energy in video games, since it's "everywhere" and "it would change slightly in the presence of matter, but we don't know how."