Mass Effect and UI’s Impact on a Game’s Identity

For these next two blog posts I’m going to take a look at the visuals of two series, Mass Effect and the Halo games, and explore how their user interfaces and art direction respectively help to sell the feel of the individual games. I’ll start with Mass Effect, where the UI tells a lot about the philosophy behind each game.

The first Mass Effect game’s tone was an even mix between B-movie science fiction and Star Trek-style space opera. The game included options for motion blur and film grain to reflect the former influence, and the latter was incorporated into the user interface. A mixture of cool blues causes the viewer to relate the menu screens with the color palette of the alliance military, as well as with outer space. The blue also matches the “paragon” morality, emphasizing optimism and peaceful conflict resolution. In this game Shepard essentially becomes a secret agent for the intergalactic council, and the blue is very appropriate here given their role.

Mass Effect 2 completely inverts this color scheme, primary utilizing blue’s complement, orange. The orange is present throughout this game; every ship and location held by the enemy forces of Collectors is this orange, as well as the hub-world of Omega. In this game, Shepard must team up with the clearly villainous Illusive Man, leader of the morally reprehensible pro-human bioterrorist organization Cerberus. Cerberus is also keyed to orange, with it appearing on their logo and on their version of the ship used in the first game. Orange here is used to contrast the lawless societies of the Terminus systems from the blue-coded Council spaces in the first game. Furthermore, orange is used to represent the game’s renegade philosophy, which is built around impulsiveness and a willingness to accomplish tasks at any cost. This shift to orange thus establishes everything a player of ME1 needs to know going into the sequel. This experience will be darker, and Shepard may be forced to do things they would not have done in the first game.

Here we see a return to the blue from the first game, as Shepard again becomes affiliated with the Alliance. The image is noticeably darker than in the first game, mirroring the plot’s forays into nihilism as massive synthetic creatures destroy entire civilizations. The black is similar to the coloration of said creatures, serving as a constant reminder of them just as Shepard slowly falls apart over the course of much of the game. The emphasis on black also suggests outer space, as Shepard has evolved to become a representation of the entire galaxy instead of either the Council space or Terminus systems.

So that’s my bit. Tomorrow I’m going to dramatically overthink the meaning behind the visual identities of every Halo game. So that should be fun.

0 thoughts on “Mass Effect and UI’s Impact on a Game’s Identity

  1. Interesting post! My friends and I were actually talking a lot about this recently. Instead of looking at Shepard’s alignments, we’ve noticed and questioned how the color scheme changes and how that affects Shepard. It’s to the point where our group playthrough has now become influenced by the colors and changed our Shepard in a lot of ways. She was hardcore Paragon in the first game, channeled her rage in the second and became almost completely Renegade, and has now become Paragade in the third. The colors really do help a lot to establish the tone of each of the games and I honestly didn’t really think about it until recently. I think it can prompt lots of discussion, especially if it involves a Shepard that does the reverse of the color scheme and what that means for their character development throughout the series.

  2. I also found this super interesting! UI is something that I don’t usually think about while playing a game, but now that you point it out, there are very strong connections between the UI and the larger narrative. I wonder if other aspects of the UI (changes to the main menu, inventory/power progression menus, post-mission statistics or lack thereof) connect to the narrative shifts between the three games.

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