Space. It’s been called the final frontier, the great beyond, and the ineffable void. It calls to humanity as the last true voyage left to, to discover the mysteries of the cosmos.
So why does Mass Effect get so much about space absolutely wrong?
Don’t get me wrong, I think Mass Effect is perhaps the greatest space opera of our generation, easily beating out the Star Wars prequels and the Star Trek reboot. But for something that has an amazing story filled with futuristic technologies and bizarre alien species, it’s surprising to find out how many things about space travel Mass Effect goofs on.
How many things, you ask? Well, pretty close to anything. About the only things Mass Effect gets right is the fact that space exists, there are planets and stars out there, and it’s not easy to get between them. On virtually everything else, Mass Effect drops the proverbial ball.
No entry in the series is safe. Every game, from the original to Andromeda, screws up something. Actually, screws up most things and no amount of element zero can make it better. At times I almost wish the Reapers had done away with us all so we could maybe make a space game that accurately portrays what it means to travel the stars.
Here’s 15 space facts Mass Effect gets horribly, horribly wrong.
15 In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream. Or Explode.
There’s no sound in space. Full stop.
Alright, a little explanation. First, we must define sound: sound is the wavelike movements of air caused by stuff moving in it. A plane traveling overhead makes an enormous racket because of the amount of air that’s being pushed from in front to behind it. Our voices create sound by vibrating air in our larynx via the vocal chords and then passing that air out with our breath. Speakers are essentially giant moving plates that vibrate the air in the frequency of whatever jams you’re listening to.
No air, no sound. In space, there’s no air, therefore there’s no sound. Every single time the camera pans outside a spaceship to show a lovely little laser blast and you hear a “pew pew” sound, that’s wrong. Full stop.
14 Spaceships Don’t Need To Look Like Planes, And They Probably Shouldn’t
Let’s look at the Normandy here. Ain’t she a beaut? Look at those curves, and those wings, and that tail fin reminiscent of a modern jet fighter.
Too bad all of it is completely useless.
Remember, there’s no air in space, so there’s no need to make your spaceship look like a plane. In fact, most of the spaceships we’ve ever sent to space are basically cylinders with rockets strapped all over them so they can orient themselves.
Once again, since there’s no air in space, there’s no need to have things like wings. Moving around in space is not like flying an airplane at all, and is more like maneuvering in the old-school game Asteroids. You move in whatever direction an engine is pointing, so it actually makes more sense to have a spaceship that’s shaped like a giant sphere but has a bunch of rockets strategically placed to orient yourself in whatever direction you need to be.
13 Ain’t No Aliens (So Far)
Bad news everyone: so far, we’re alone in the galaxy. We haven’t heard a peep from anywhere or anyone possibly out there.
I know Mass Effect wouldn’t be a space opera without tons of alien cultures and civilizations, but the fact is we’re the only known space-faring (sort of) species out there.
And we’re actually not really sure why that is. We know there are hundreds of thousands of planets in our galaxy alone, and statistically, there should be at least one intelligent species out there. It could be that there have been intelligent species, but they die out before our species becomes intelligent enough to find them. Or it could be that every species that starts broadcasting gets gobbled up by some giant space armada, Borg style. Or it could be we’re just as special as some of us seem to think we are. Regardless, there aren’t any aliens that we know of.
12 You Can’t Go Faster Than Light
Space travel in Mass Effect does a lot of hand-waving when it comes to space travel. One of the things it waves away is how their space ships manage to travel faster than the speed of light.
In Mass Effect, faster than light speed travel is possible via the titular mass effect engine, which uses “element zero” (or eezo) to magically reduce the mass of the spaceship to allow its engines to propel it faster than the speed of light.
Except you can’t. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and if you managed to do so Einstein’s theory of relativity states you’d have a negative mass which is impossible. It also does some awful things to time, like potentially allowing you to go backward in it, but regardless it can’t be done without physics being very, VERY angry at you.
11 Time Dilation Also Makes Space Travel A Real Bummer
Not only can you not travel faster than light, if you were to even get close things start to get weird. Relativistic velocities mean that as you get faster, time starts to slow down relative to the rest of the universe.
As an example, let’s say you managed to achieve 1 gravity of acceleration (that’s around 9.8 m/s2), you’d be able to go around the universe and back within a human lifetime, but billions of years would have passed by the time you got home.
You can even see this in action on the International Space Station. After spending 6 months aboard the station, each astronaut is about 0.005 seconds younger than they would be had they stayed firmly planted on Earth.
Mass Effect again waves this very real phenomenon away with element zero, but no magic space rocks will stop time. Unless they are magic, in which case all bets are off.
10 Space Weapons Are Super Fast And You Can’t See Them
Mass Effect, like many space games, has lots of big space ships with lots of big guns. Particle cannons, rail guns, lasers and masers, and all of them making big, flashy arcs as they barrel towards their target.
Only problem is, real space weapons are usually invisible.
Let’s take the standard laser. The standard green or red streak you may remember from countless games and movies really only shows up when there’s gas to reflect off of. In space there’s no gas, so there’s nothing for the light to reflect off of and you don’t see a thing.
Also, those big balls of energy that slam into ships really shouldn’t be visible either. Most particle guns or rail guns accelerate their projectile to relativistic speeds, so they impact their target before your brain has time to register the light hitting your eyes.
9 There’s Radiation Everywhere
Space is a death trap. This may sound obvious, considering there’s no air, water, food, and it’s colder than a polar bear’s tit, but there’s also another problem: radiation.
Radiation is everywhere in space. We take for granted that we don’t have to deal with it outside of slathering our fragile human skin with UV protective sun block, but Earth has a giant magnetic field that redirects the harmful radiation that’s all over space. In a spaceship you need something to block that radiation or you’ll fry.
Also, fun fact: a nearby supernova would produce enough radiation, and travel far enough, to kill most living things on Earth. And we’d never have any warning either.
8 There Aren’t Any Cool Explosions. Ever.
Mass Effect has plenty of awesome space explosions, from the original Normandy blowing up to Reapers exploding in space, but the reality is all those giant fireballs would never happen.
For there to be fire, you need oxygen. For there to be oxygen, there needs to be… not space. Because there’s nothing in space. So when something explodes in space, it really just looks like a sudden disintegration of whatever just exploded, with no sound or fireworks to denote its untimely demise.
Another thing about explosions is the shrapnel they produce travel literally forever. Well, not literally; until they hit something. And when they do hit that something they can be traveling super fast since explosions impart a lot of energy to whatever bit of metal they’re propelling.
7 Space Doesn’t Look Super Pretty
I know the star maps and cut scenes in Mass Effect make space out to be this gorgeous place filled with color and light, but I’ve got more bad news for you: space isn’t pretty.
Space is big and dark, and that’s mostly it. There are a few pinpricks of light from all the various stars, and if you’re close (and lucky) maybe there’s a bit of a swirl to denote accreting gases in a nebula, but other than that there’s a whole lot of nothing.
Where do we get all those colorful images from various space telescopes? Well, they’re seeing in different electromagnetic spectrums, and often they’re given to artists to make into something a little more interesting. It’s good PR for space, but not accurate.
6 Not Every Planet Has Earthlike Gravity
Ever notice how every planet you go to in any Mass Effect game has basically the same gravity? You run the same speed, you jump the same distance, everything is the same as though you were back home on Earth.
While it’s true there are certainly Earth-like planets out there, none of them have the exact same gravity as Earth. Most of them are 1.3 or 1.14 or 0.87 Earth gravity. That might not seem like a lot, but a third more gravity means you're 30% heavier. Imagine how far you’d be able to jump with 50 more pounds to lug around?
It would be a lot more accurate for Mass Effect to have some planets where you bound like a gazelle and other planets where you lumber like an obese gorilla.
5 Glass On A Spaceship Is A Terrible Idea
Remember when I said that debris from explosions never stop unless they hit something? And that they can be traveling really, really fast? That’s why you really shouldn’t have anything on your spaceship made of glass.
“But Sean,” you complain, “how will the crew be able to see where they’re going?” Spaceships aren’t cars. Just because glass is the best way to see what’s in front of you on Earth doesn’t mean it's the best (or safest) way in space. We have cameras, so we can have them placed on the outside of our hull to see where we’re going. It’s what they do on spacecraft today, and it avoids the whole “if we hit a space pebble we all die” problem.
4 Not All Planets Are In The Same Plane
And no, I don’t mean a space plan. I mean the orbital plane around the sun. If you look at a map of our solar system, you’ll notice that all the (official) planets orbit the Sun in a two-dimensional plane, and while there are many theories as to why this is for our particular solar system, there’s no reason that other solar systems might have something different.
In fact, it’s not even true of our solar system. Pluto, the erstwhile planet turned dwarf planet-like celestial body, actually rotates around the sun at an angle in comparison to all the “true” planets. There’s nothing stopping an alien solar system from having a similar orientation, with all the planets orbiting at whatever angle they choose.
3 Not All Orbits Are Perfect Circles
This is another misconception that Mass Effect perpetuates. Not every planet orbits the sun in a perfect circle. In fact, all planets orbit the sun in ellipses with varying distances between the furthest and nearest they approach.
Once again, little Pluto demonstrates this concept quite well. At its closest, Pluto is 11 Astronomical Units away from the sun, but at it’s furthest its 17 units away. In fact, on its inward trajectory it passes inside the orbit of Neptune, coming even closer to the sun than the gas giant.
Just like the orbital plane, there’s nothing stopping a planet from tracing a giant oval as its path around its star.
2 Stopping Requires Just As Much Fuel As Starting
Of all the magical things that Mass Effect provides, an unlimited fuel source isn’t one of them. You have to burn gas in order to get around. Strangely, you only have to burn gas as you head towards your destination.
That’s wrong. Remember, in space there’s nothing to stop you once you get going. You can’t just take your foot off the gas and coast to a safe stop somewhere amongst the stars. In order to stop, you have to turn your engines in the opposite direction and put the pedal to the exact same metal you did on your way there.
This makes space travel super annoying as you burn just as much gas getting somewhere as you do preventing yourself from slamming into that somewhere at a fraction of the speed of light.
1 Ships Would Never Get That Close In A Fight
The final battle in Mass Effect 3 was a truly epic fight. Battleships from all the species of the solar system square off against the Reapers in a final showdown. Fighters whiz by at insane speeds, desperately trying to stop the onslaught of giant species-ending space squids.
Well, it looks better than it sounds.
But remember when I said there’s nothing to stop you in space? For that very reason, there’s no need to get within a few scant kilometers of whatever it is you’re trying to blow up. Something shot out of a cannon at near light speed will get to its target in a few seconds even when you’re hundreds of thousands of miles away. Under a few thousand kilometers and it’s nearly instantaneous.
There’s also the problem of light taking time to reach the ship that’s doing the shooting, meaning they’d have to guess where the other ship is going to be and then fire that way. Space battles would have a lot more in common with ancient naval battles of the 16th and 17 centuries than they do as portrayed in science fiction games.