Creating a sense of place is fundamental to what makes video games work. In ways few other mediums really can, video games give us the opportunity to interact with and be part of a fantastical space on a personal level. The Mass Effect series is no different, charting us a galaxy to explore and defend. But its best moments are found not out in its wide sci-fi world, but in its answer to home.
The Systems Alliance Space Vehicle Normandy sits at the very heart of the entire Mass Effect saga. It’s a one-of-its-kind stealth recon ship built as a peacekeeping project between humanity and an alien species called the Turians, who had briefly been at war with Earth colonists just decades prior to the game. In the opening hours of Mass Effect, your player character—Commander Shepard—inherits the ship from their mentor figure and the closest thing to an actual friend at that point in the series—Captain Anderson—after a series of events on a distant human colony catapult Shepard to a presence of galactic importance.
Through dialogue with crewmates on the ship in those early sequences, you get the feeling that the Commander is a respected part of the crew; a capable leader if not the captain of the ship, well-liked if not really known. Inheriting the Normandy from Anderson is just one of the things that suddenly thrusts Shepard onto a larger stage—no longer a cog in the machine, but in the moment a figurehead, the person for the people who call the Normandy home to look to for guidance. Suddenly this ship that you as a player barely know and have only a vague sense of, becomes yours.
If Mass Effect were not a game, we’d see this adoption of Shepard inheriting the Normandy through character and dialogue. They’d talk about how the ship is theirs, and their allies’, and we’d see them navigate its spaces here and there between the impetus of the larger plot. Even if Mass Effect were not the game it is, maybe much of what you’d do aboard the ship would’ve been relegated to menu-based busy-work—tweak your party’s loadout here, upgrade a skill there. Our interactions with the crew could’ve been entirely cutscene-based, rather than conversational, the physical act of having to navigate Normandy’s spaces, walk up to them, and hit a button to engage.
It sounds simple, and it is, but the physical interaction of traversing its space is part of what helps make the Normandy feel so welcoming. If you want to get the most out of Mass Effect, you have to engage with the ship in a personal way, more than just the vehicle to get from mission to mission. You develop a routine, walking from the CIC to its mess hall, from its engine room to its infirmary to (in the second and third games) places like your captain’s quarters or the observation lounge. The fact that conversations aboard the ship “unlock” after completing a major mission encourages that routine, that navigation of the space: go back to the Normandy. Pace its halls. Talk to people. Do it again, and again, until you know what floor everyone’s on like the back of your hand.
Because you do this over the course of not just one game, but three, there is a huge sense of time investment in the physicality of the ship. It’s the beating heart of each game, the place you traverse more than any other location in the series. When your knowledge of its structure and layout is challenged by time away and the Normandy as a space evolving in Mass Effect 2 and 3, in ways big and small, you begin to realize just how intimate your relationship with this intangible object is. It becomes more than just a hub but begins to forge those bonds of being home to you, a safe haven in a vast and often dangerous galaxy.
This is further impacted by not just how Shepard owns and navigates the Normandy’s space, but their fellow party members. A lesser experience, perhaps, would’ve dumped all your friends into a single communal space, so you could line them up and work through their dialogue—or perhaps as an option for them to come to you, summoning them to your quarters (as you occasionally could by Mass Effect 3, but only for certain conversations). But by spreading your party members out across different parts of the ship, not only does the Normandy feel lived-in over the course of the series, parts of the ship become theirs, as much as they are yours as both Shepard and the player.
This is especially the case by the time of Mass Effect 2 when party members have specific roles on Shepard’s team, and therefore inhabit specific sections—cop-turned-bounty-hunter-turned-alien-Batman Garrus Vakarian is your weapons expert, so of course he’s in the Normandy’s gun battery calibrating away to giddy abandon. Mordin Solus is your scientist, carving himself out a research lab to work in and pitter-patter his way through Gilbert and Sullivan.
It’s reflected not just in the role, but characterization too. When you recruit experimental biotic convict Jack to your team in Mass Effect 2, the space she adopts for herself is a small galley underneath the stairs, away from the rest of the crew—dark, harsh, and befitting her tempestuous persona. Thane, an assassin from a reptilian species called the Drell, adopts the ship’s Life Support hub as his own space, not just for the moisture in its atmosphere because it has a sense of serenity that complements the peace he tries to center in himself. These places evolve over the course of the series from aspects of the ship—life support, the CIC, the armory, engineering—and into people’s rooms. As party members move on over the games, either in death or simply doing their own things, the loss of them in those places feels tangible, now defined as much by absence as they were by someone’s presence.
The personification of the Normandy’s self in these moments is hardened into that feeling of home—a safe, personal, intimate space, away from the danger of your missions—in the moments the series chooses to violate that sense of security, making for some of the most powerful moments of the franchise. They can be moments of joy, like the climax of romantic encounters, or they can be moments of tragedy, like the destruction of the Normandy SR1 and its rebirth as the SR2 in the opening hours of Mass Effect 2. Moments of tension, like Shepard being grounded in Mass Effect 3's opening, or even in the Citadel DLC, when the attempted theft of the ship by a sinister doppelgänger (yes, it’s as wonderfully silly as it sounds) is the primary thrust of the storyline. They’re moments that are made memorable because of what the Normandy becomes to you as a player. These moments hit hard because the Normandy reflects more as a place between the actual narrative of the games.
None of this would work if the Normandy was just layers of menu, a place to lull between the beats of Mass Effect’s story. If it was just a place, and not a character of its own—not truly a home for Shepard and the player—there would be a disconnect that, upon realizing how fundamental the ship is to the saga at large, would threaten to undo the entire trilogy in an instant.
The final story addition released for Mass Effect 3, the aforementioned Citadel, is an intentionally nostalgic romp. It was, at one point, meant to be the endcap on what Mass Effect had become, at least in the form of Commander Shepard’s story. In its final moments, after your crew has saved the day (and the Normandy itself) and is ready to get back to the fight, Shepard and their allies all take a brief moment to acknowledge how far they’ve come, the bonds they’ve made, the struggles they’ve overcome together. As they all file past your hero to return to the Normandy, one character among the cast will remark in some form or another that regardless of those struggles, it’s been a hell of a ride, as they too peel away and leave Shepard alone.
The Commander looks up, to gaze out of an observation window at the Normandy. “The best,” they quietly say to themselves, as they too now exit the scene, leaving us—leaving the Mass Effect trilogy—on one last lingering shot of the home we’ve made for ourselves across its story. A fitting reminder of the place in its galaxy that has always mattered most.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.