A Sound Design: Mass Effect and the Sound of Progress

“There’s been a natural progression going on from the very start of the original Mass Effect,” says composer Sam Hulick in an interview with Square Enix Music Online, “and even within that single game you can hear the music become more cinematic and weighted towards an orchestral sound during the end-game cinematics.” This is in response to a question regarding the mild, yet noticable musical shift between the first two games in the Mass Effect series. In the original game, the musical direction, according to Hulick, “called for a vintage analog synth sound, with references to Vangelis and Tangerine Dream.” With Mass Effect 2, the music took on a more orchestral, cinematic air, in an effort to reflect the growing scope and scale of the game.

For the upcoming Mass Effect 3, BioWare brought noted Hollywood soundtrack composer Clint Mansell on board, and the original team of Mass Effect composers was no longer needed. Hulick doesn’t bear a grudge, though. As he puts in in the Square Enix interview, “I think BioWare has set out to wrap up the series with a cinematic bang. [… W]ay back on Mass Effect, there were a couple of musical references to Clint Mansell’s work when we were working on the cinematics and some of the end-game sequences.” Most of Mansell’s film work is orchestral in nature—his most famous piece written for film is the now-ubiquitous “Lux Aeterna,” originally used in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream and now employed whenever movie trailers want a shorthand to convey that their film knows drama. For his work on Duncan Jones’ Moon, however, Mansell wasn’t above reaching for a Korg or two, as “Welcome to Lunar Industries” shows.

By itself, the piece might seem excessive for a low-key, nostalgic sci-fi flick like Moon; at its most grandiose, it resembles something a synth-leaning Godspeed! You Black Emperor might cook up—which seems at odds with an outer-space character study. Jones ably employs bits and pieces where needed, though; the haunting piano figure in “Welcome” is a recurring theme within the movie, and the crescendo fits right in place during the film’s climactic moments. Of course, you strobe a synth in a sci-fi film, and someone’s going to mention Vangelis’ work on the Blade Runner soundtrack. For me, though, Mansell’s synth moves here remind me of the theme from another ’80s sci-fi flick, John Carpenter’s The Thing.

At any rate, Mansell’s past work makes him a perfect fit for what BioWare wants to do with the final Mass Effect game. This choice to “go big,” however, comes at the expense of one of the series’ original charms. Aside from stars and spacesuits, there’s not much similarity between a maximalist shoot-’em-up like Mass Effect and a minimal film like Moon. Both these productions, however, share a sense of science-fiction nostalgia, of looking back at previous looks forward. The design of the lunar station that Sam Rockwell’s character calls home—from the mod-like look of the furniture and fixtures to the typeface used on the equipment—is a shameless homage to the look and feel of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The nostagia in Mass Effect is slightly subtler, but much of it reflects the look of what folks thought of the future in the 1980s. Some vistas look like they were stolen straight from the covers of science and sci-fi magazines like Omni or Analog. And while there isn’t much visible squalor in the world of Commander Shepherd, the visual influence of Blade Runner‘s grounded, neon-drenched futurism can’t be understated.

This choice to “go big,” however, comes at the expense of one of the series’ original charms. 

As an extension of that aesthetic, the game composers’ choice of Vangelis’ Blade Runner work and Tangerine Dream as guideposts only makes sense. While Tangerine Dream never actually did soundtrack work on a space-born science-fiction picture—the closest it ever came was via horror movies like Firestarter and Near Dark—its music definitely had the feel of something not of this world. Michael Mann’s Thief is as far-flung from laser guns and aliens as one can get, but Tangerine Dream’s work on the soundtrack provided an interesting contrast to the film’s more earthly criminal concerns.

Whether the music was made by performers coming straight out of the German Kosmische scene (like Tangerine Dream), or from people that indirectly mimicked some of those Teutonic ways (like Vangelis, or the John Carpenter/Ennio Morricone work on The Thing), all these sounds shared a sensibility. The rise of the synthesizer as a popular instrument in the ’70s and ’80s allowed musicians to compose music that reflected society’s awe and fear regarding the advancement of technology. The sound of the synthesizer was the sound of progress, and while the music for these films was composed back when most phones had cords and dials and people still used 8-track players, that sense of possibility is still present in those pieces.

The same goes for those bits of the first Mass Effect soundtrack that take their cues from those star-gazing writers and composers, which imbued the game with a futuristic nostalgia that other sci-fi games didn’t have. But just as the designers chose to remove or drastically change some elements of gameplay when creating Mass Effect 2—most notably, the sprawling monotonous plantetary side-quests and the hard-to-manage inventory system—they also chose a different musical direction to better reflect what they wanted the game to be. That sort of artistic choice doesn’t make for a less enjoyable game. It just makes for a slightly less interesting one.


A Sound Design is a monthly column dedicated to exploring the world of music and other blips and bloops. Raposa is a staff writer at Pitchfork and can be found at False Binary.

Photograph by Brian McNamara