In each chapter of On The Level, Andy Kelly celebrated a great map, level, or location from a classic PC game. Warning: spoilers ahead for the entire Mass Effect series.
The Normandy is the most advanced military starship in the galaxy, but it's also home. The hum of the engines, the beeps and chirps of the computers, and the murmur of the crew are the sounds of solace in the Mass Effect series. It's where you regroup after a mission, battered and bruised, and plan your next move. It's where you confide in your crew, reminisce with old friends, and consummate your romances. And even though millions of people have played Mass Effect, it's your ship.
Games like Star Trek: Bridge Commander and Artemis are better at simulating the experience of being in command of a starship, but Mass Effect captures the romantic feel of it; of exploring alien worlds, getting involved in space politics, and saving the galaxy. It also helps that the Normandy looks so cool. Not just the exterior, but the interior too, which has a hard '70s sci-fi edge to it. This is not J.J. Abrams' shiny Enterprise; it's cold and functional, fitted for its military purpose.
Until Cerberus get their hands on it, that is. What I love about Mass Effect is that even though you're always in command of some version of the Normandy, in each game it has a very different ambience. The original model, the SSV, was built by the turians and the Systems Alliance, which explains its utilitarian military design. But when Cerberus rebuild it in the second game, naming it the Normandy SR2, they make it a little more hospitable. They add a bar, luxury quarters for Shepard, a spacious office for Miranda, and brighten the lights with a warm, orange glow.
But in Mass Effect 3, where Cerberus become the enemy, the SR2 falls into the hands of the Alliance, who don't hesitate in getting it back up to military muster. The warm lighting is gone, replaced with colder tones, reminiscent of the SSV. Wires hang from loose panels on the walls and ceiling, showing that this was a hasty retrofit. The reapers are coming, after all: hardly time to worry about tidying up. Some comforts remain, namely the bar, which now has a card table, but this is a far cry from the cosy SR2. The Alliance obviously don't want soldiers getting too comfortable in times of war.
BioWare have a long track record of manipulating players' emotions, and they use your love of the Normandy against you on a number of occasions. The second game opens with it being unceremoniously destroyed by the collectors. Later you visit the crash site, picking through the shattered remains to find your sadly departed crew's dog tags. Then, near the end, the collectors board the ship, snatching the crew as you sneak Joker to safety. It feels like a home invasion, and suddenly your safe haven doesn't feel so safe anymore. If you didn't drop everything and immediately go through the Omega Relay to rescue the crew, you must have a heart of stone.
Does the Normandy sit alongside the likes of the Millennium Falcon and the Enterprise in the pantheon of great fictional spaceships? Maybe not, but it means more to me than either of them, and this is coming from a pretty huge Star Wars and Star Trek fan. We all played the same game—bar a few branching paths and moral choices—and commanded the same ship with the same layout and crew, but Mass Effect feels like a curiously personal game to me. When I think about the series, I don't think about Shepard or the reapers or the grand space opera. I think about the soothing purr of the drive core, the spinning galaxy map, and the stars streaking past the windows.