With Mass Effect Legendary Edition only a few days away, we couldn’t help but think about how much Star Trek inspired the series. Both are deeply entrenched with sci-fi visuals and storytelling, and both are about Humanity’s pursuit of space exploration and knowledge.
The more you compare the two, the easier it is to see the influences. While Mass Effect doesn’t quite have the same cultural reach as Star Trek, it influenced the surrounding industry in much the same way. Showing that a conscious push for diversity amongst stellar writing can have a wide-reaching positive effect. Not just with that specific industry but on culture as well.
Everything from specific moments to wider beliefs and alien races can be tracked across Star Trek and Mass Effect. None of the developers behind Mass Effect have ever officially mentioned the influences behind the game, but when you look at both side-by-side it’s really hard to miss it.
One of the biggest crossovers between Mass Effect and Star Trek comes as the Reapers. One of the primary antagonists in the Mass Effect series, the Reapers are an ancient alien race of synthetic-organic warships. Driven by the urge to harvest sentient life, the Reapers are giant killing machines composed of billions of organic minds conjoined within immortal machines.
Star Trek has its own synthetic-organic hivemind race in the form of the Borg. Introduced in Star Wars: The Next Generation, the Borg are driven by creating a state of perfection by assimilating organic creatures. While the motivations might be slightly different, both races have no care for organic life and only see them as a means to achieve their own goals. It’s also interesting that neither antagonists were established right from the start, instead being discovered while exploring.
There are also numerous similarities between the races in Mass Effect and Star Trek outside of the antagonists. The Krogans and Klingons share one major internal similarity. Both races have several additional organs, although Krogans actually have two sets of genitalia. The two also look visually similar, sharing a horn-forehead. Similarities between the two races go deeper than visual looks or physical anatomy. Both races are fiercely aggressive, proud and militaristic. Placing importance of hierarchy and respect as pivotal elements of their respective societies.
A true cornerstone of any sci-fi property, politics shape the structure of space and how various planets and factions interact with one another. In Star Trek, The United Federation of Planets acts under a single central government. Its creators founded the federation on the principles of liberty, equality, peace and justice. Unfortunately, The Federation is not some perfect vision of interplanetary cooperation and instead exhibits hostile acts and morally questionable decisions throughout the show’s history.
We could say the same for Mass Effect’s Citadel Council. While nowhere near as large in scope, the Citadel Council is still the top authority within Citadel space. Passing judgment for violations of Council law, and maintaining peace between the various races who inhabit its space. It isn’t as susceptible to corruption as The Federation, but it becomes antagonistic towards Commander Shepard as the game progresses. Intentionally limiting his ability to prepare the universe for the oncoming Reaper attack.
There is one major difference between the two shows. Commander Shepard’s Spectral rank grants him immunity other military personnel do not have. Used as a plot device to grant player agency over decisions in the game, Spectre status allows players to commit morally ambiguous acts for the greater good. In Star Trek, the various captains religiously stick to the rules set out by The Federation. However, there were a few occasions where captains would bend the rules and break their Prime Directive for the greater good.
Never afraid to take on tough subjects, Star Trek always presented each starfleet crew morally question decisions. It wasn't always a good and evil moment, instead Star Trek told smaller stories that would fit into a grey area. Making a decision to save or help one party or race came at the expense of another. Arguably one of The Next Generation's episodes, The Measure of a Man places Data's status as a sentient being on trial. Command Riker and Captain Picard end up on opposite sides of the debate, and the episode asks interesting questions about AI sentience.
Mass Effect uses ethical dilemmas to great effect, placing the player at the centre of them and asking them to make the decision. The best example of this across all three games is the Commander Shepards involvement in finding a cure for the Korgan Genephoade, a purpose built disease that limits Krogan's ability to reproduce. Known as a potentially destructive and aggressive race, it's up to the player to decide if they want to cure the genophade or not. Much like Star Trek, Mass Effect's ethical dilemmas are not black and white.
Star Trek and Star Wars both feature precursor races that predate the established civilisations by thousands and millions of years. Star Trek’s Ancient Humanoid race predated known civilisations by 4.5 billion years. The ancient race planted the seeds for life across the universe, including Earth. Those seeds created the foundations of life for Humans, Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans and the Cardassians. In the end, this showed that each race was actually far more similar than many realised.
Mass Effect’s Prothean race did not have such a profound impact on the universe. However, they did build the citadel and mass relays, two core aspects of space travel and cooperation in the universe. Much like the Ancient Humanoid race, the Protheans left remnants of their expeditions, experiments and technology across the universe.
The first season of Star Trek may seem a little hokey by today’s standards, but it was actually a bit of a trailblazer for representation. It featured one of the earliest on screen interracial kisses and a culturally diverse cast of characters. Star Trek wasn’t always perfect, but it showed that TV shows could feature different people based on the concept of universal acceptance.
Mass Effect was also ahead of its time, alongside other BioWare titles, for its representation. For many people Mass Effect represented the first time they could not only see same-sex relationships on screen but also actively engage in them. In an industry that was - and mostly continues to be - incredibly heteronormative, Mass Effect shows us that games can portray same-sex relationships in a positive light.
Star Trek is often cited as the most influential science-fiction TV show, and its approach to inclusivity has had a wide-reaching profound effect on what the genre can be.
Greater than the sum of its parts
Sci-fi is one of those genres that inspires and changes not only the genre itself but wider culture itself. Much like Star Trek, Mass Effect would inspire countless games in its wake. Leading to a new wave of games which experimented with branching narratives. Mass Effect’s numerous inspirations don’t just sit with Star Trek though. Its writers and developers took elements from several TV shows. Everything from Stargate through to Star Wars, Blade Runner and even Firefly helped create the show.
Interestingly, Star Trek and Mass Effect appear to have gone full circle, with the reboot of Picard feeling awfully reminiscent of Mass Effect’s reaper plotline. Not only that, but Picard himself feels a lot more like Commander Shepard of the Mass Effect games. Having his own crew, but acting mostly on his own will while loosely working with Starfleet. There's a great feature on this by Kara Babcock, so we'd definitely recommend checking that out. While no one knows if the writers took inspiration from Mass Effect, it sure is interesting that the two properties have now come full circle.