Setting the mood: Mass Effect 3 Take Earth Back trailer

Bioware recently put out a new trailer for Mass Effect 3, entitled “Take Earth Back.” I quite liked it, and it’s a nice example of how a trailer like this can be effective that’s worth taking a closer look at.

It’s quite chilling, showing a rather idyllic-looking future coming under sudden attack by the Reapers, the ancient artificial intelligences that periodically lay waste to the galaxy and are finally returning in force in Mass Effect 3. A lot of what makes it so effective for me is the sound, or rather the relative lack thereof, once the attack begins.

The music stops dead the moment the first shot is fired and stays that way for the rest of depiction of the attack. The sounds of battle and destruction as the Reapers descend and Earth’s cities burn are muffled and distant-sounding, no matter how close we are to the destruction. The audio is dominated by the sound of radio chatter, and then even that fades and finally goes silent, and there’s just the sound of a heartbeat and the barely audible sounds of destruction.

It does a good job of conveying shock and horror and combining them with a sense of oppressive emotional numbness. We’re watching Earth die, and scenes of destruction that ought to be deafeningly loud are just barely audible instead, disconnecting the viewer from them. The carnage is something off in the distance, no matter how physically close it actually is and how intently we’re watching it.

What made this so effective for me is that this is much more effective at evoking the likely mental state that a person who was actually living through the events shown than overtly calling attention to the fact that what we’re seeing is horrific- through emotional music or more forceful sound effects- would have been. In the face of overwhelming fear or distress, people frequently don’t feel the way an outside observer might expect them to, because the psychological machinery that make it possible for a person to continue functioning in situations like that is typically working as hard as it can to not feel. Emotions become muted, the world seems unreal, distant, or dreamlike, and the person’s conscious awareness feels detached from the situation and from itself, as if his own life were something he was watching instead of actually experiencing. This is what allows a human mind to continue perceiving and engaging with the world in situations where fully, consciously feeling the emotions the situations evokes would overwhelm it. The more awful a situation is, the more actually thinking about just how awful it is tends to become an unaffordable luxury if you need to maintain enough sanity to continue responding to it.

That’s the tone the trailer created for me. The horror of the Reaper attack is unflinchingly depicted, and yet it’s as if its being seen through the eyes of someone who has only a hazy, abstract awareness of the fact that it is horrible, his emotional response pushed into some isolated corner of his brain because it’s the only way he could continue to function at all. When the scene pulls back and up, until we’re viewing the Earth from high above as fires and explosions large enough to be seen from space tear across the surface, this sense of detachment is further emphasized- every little flash of light we see on the surface represents millions of lives suddenly snuffed out, but our perspective is now so detached that a scene of death and destruction and suffering unprecedented in human history is now just a series of blinking lights on a globe.

(Needless to say, this is but a prelude to protagonist Commander Sheppard arriving to start getting some payback in the second half of the trailer, since numb psychological dissociation, existential despair, and an overwhelming sense of the futility of struggling to survive in the face of the universe’s icy indifference aren’t the emotions you want to leave your potential customers with a month from your game’s release.)

What succeeds at inspiring an emotional response varies enormously from person to person, of course, but for me the trailer was very effective. It certainly makes the horror of the Reapers more visceral than it was before.

Now, what the games have revealed about them already is pretty horrifying. They’re an unfathomably ancient and advanced race of artificial intelligences who periodically return to our galaxy to destroy all technologically advanced species that have arisen in their absence, and have been doing so for millions of years. They have sinister mind-controlling technology that eventually turns anyone who spends too much time in proximity to them into their thrall. They transform the corpses of the dead into zombie-like cyborg monsters and send armies of them to fight their still-living comrades. They’ve utterly exterminated hundreds or thousands of intelligent species and slaughtered trillions if not quadrillions of innocent sapient beings. If what the second game strongly implies is in fact the case, this cycle of genocide is actually their means of reproduction, with each new Reaper built from the harvested genetic material and forcibly uploaded minds of billions of victims. When not bringing down civilizations, they live in the void between galaxies, and if there’s one thing that decades of reading genre fiction has taught me it’s that anything that can be described as living- or “waiting,” or “”lurking,” or, God help you, “slumbering”- in “the void between Xs” is bad news.

They’re a monstrous amalgamation of Fred Saberhagen’s Beserkers, the Inhibitors from Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, Cthulhu, and the Borg back in the pre-Star Trek: Voyager days when they were still actually scary. That’s all extremely unpleasant. I already knew that. But seeing the Earth burn while their huge black ships hung suspended in the sky above our cities, while the trailer itself seems too shocked by events to do anything more than impassively take in the sight like any other data, really made the Reapers feel like something unspeakably horrible and in dire need of an ass-kicking in a way nothing else has.

John Markley is a writer from Illinois. He writes the video game commentary/humor site Pointless Side Quest and also blogs about science fiction and fantasy at Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic. His other interests include history, science, heavy metal, anime, movies, speaking of himself in the third person, and awkward, uncomfortable conversation.