On Wednesday 22 February, there was a curious, disbelieving buzz in the studios of the video game developer BioWare in downtown Montreal. That morning, NASA had announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized, potentially life-harboring planets orbiting a dwarf star called Trappist-1, around 40 light years from Earth. Many at BioWare – home to the beloved Mass Effect series of sci-fi role playing games – felt that the timing was a little too good to be true. Some employees suspected NASA was punking them. Others wondered if there was a BioWare-NASA cross-promotional campaign they didn’t know about.
Ten years ago, the first Mass Effect was hailed as the game that “Does For Games What Star Wars Did For Films”. It was that rare blockbuster event in gaming whose impact transcended the medium, a pop culture phenomenon in its own right: James Gunn, the director of the exotic planet-hopping Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy, has cited the series as among his “biggest inspirations.”
Also a fan: NASA visualization scientist Robert Hurt, one of the Spitzer Space Telescope project artists behind the official illustrations of the Trappist-1 system. “When I first played Mass Effect and I first walked up to the galaxy map, I was actually kind of surprised,” Hurt says. “It actually looked like the Milky Way, based on what we know in astrophysics. And I was really struck by all the thought that went behind the exploration element – they were taking things into account like the age or the temperatures or the sizes of the stars, the distances between planets and stars, planets with liquid, or volatiles, or rich in heavy elements or that were very dry and didn’t have an atmosphere. I actually became one of those players of Mass Effect who reads every single description of every planet in the game, just having fun finding out all the little astronomical tidbits in the background of the universe.”
Mass Effect takes its science seriously. It’s a rare game that inspires elevated discourse on general relativity versus quantum mechanics while treating gamers to authentic imagery from the Space Shuttle and Hubble Space Telescope. The name Mass Effect itself alludes to one of the foundational ideas of the series – a distortion of spacetime that allows for efficient interstellar travel.
Andromeda well and truly carries on the series’ commitment to scientific credibility: as part of the research process, BioWare initiated meetings with the European Space Agency and crew members of the Mars-500 mission (“Those guys lived the story we’re trying to tell, so they’re a primary source of knowledge,” says producer Fabrice Condominas) and special care was taken to calculate a realistic length of time for the journey to Andromeda. “We can show you the math,” studio director Yanick Roy assures me.
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