The Shape That Unified Mass Effect’s Look

What makes any Mass Effect-screenshot so instantly recognizable? Let me help you, use the slider on these images:


(If you don’t see them, first click here, then here)

It’s the arc. It’s everywhere, and for a good reason. Derek Watts, the series Art Director, unveils the story behind Mass Effect’s ‘secret visual weapon’:

“When we were coming up with the idea for Mass Effect, we had just finished a Star Wars game [Knights of the Old Republic]. Star Wars has a very established look, very recognizable. We spend four years looking at it, involved in that IP. Mass Effect was a challenge. We were doing another science fiction franchise, we knew it was going to be three games. And we wanted it to have the depth that was needed to compete with Star Wars.

We actually chose a bunch of artists that we used for reference, one of those was Syd Mead. You know, stuff like this takes a long time to sort of bubble up. The art bible you write when you’re a year, year and a half into the game. You don’t know what is going to resonate with people.

What we noticed when we were designing a lot of these things, whether it was the humans, the ships, the costumes, and looking at Syd Mead and some of the other artists… we were getting this large arc coming into these areas.

And it was kind of showing the fidelity that we were trying to get with the new engine, the new hardware. Trying to get those nice, smooth curves. During the previous generation, you couldn’t get those smooth curves, you couldn’t afford the polys. So it was one way of convincing people this was a real next gen game, with next gen graphics.

But again, we didn’t really notice this until we had done a few of these characters and vehicles and levels. And we decided to start adding the arc to more of the concepts. We started to force ourselves to put this arc in there. It wasn’t natural at the beginning, we had to fight it a little bit.

We started using the arc everywhere. It was something we hadn’t seen in a lot of other games. And the great thing about the arc is that you can add it to anything. The logo, clothing, armour, guns.

You just need to have that large arc incorporated. It could be on the design, a panel light cut into it, a paint mark on a ship. We even brought it into the aliens. Look at Garrus. At the Krogan. Salarians.

Garrus, Salarians, Krogan
Garrus, Salarians, Krogan

It unified everything in this world under that one shape which was the arc.

We had no mathematical formula for the arc. I wish there was. I wish I could talk into great detail how we researched the best curve. But the truth is there was no strict rule, no strict diagram or slope. It was just a long smooth circular arc.”

Derek Watts (BioWare)
Derek Watts (BioWare)
Art Director of the Mass Effect-trilogy and was Core Game Designer of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Watts is responsible for the iconic art style of the Mass Effect universe.

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