What Complimentary Colors Can Tell Us About Mass Effect

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I’m about to ruin something for you. Ready? Orange and blue are the most overused colors in movie posters today. Walk down a hallway in your local theater and odds are you’ll find at least one that’s got both of them. Even worse? In recent years, the trend has found its way to video games. It’s happening so much somebody even made a Tumblr about it. If it’s got a Tumblr, it must be true, right?

It seems impossible, I know. Orange and blue have nothing to do with each other outside of being two of the tastiest colors of candy and sports drink. That’s the point actually. They’re complementary colors, colors which exist on the opposite side of the traditional color wheel from each other. When placed next to each other in an image, they cause the other to brighten and become more vivid, which draws the eye to them.

orangebluewheelComplementary color pairings are everywhere in the world and you won’t be able to stop seeing them now that you know (you’re welcome.) Ever found yourself drawn to the Christmas aisle at Target in early October? Red and green go together like apple pie and shotguns. Both the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Lakers bank on the fact that purple and yellow, despite being two of the oddest colors, catch the eye (especially when painted on a shirtless fan in Minnesota weather.)

This came to my mind right before the release of Mass Effect 3. There was a thread on the Gamespot forums asking the question: What color will the menu be? Mass Effect 1 had a deep blue menu while Mass Effect 2 eschewed it for a vibrant orange. People theorized a bunch of different colors, ranging from green to purple to the always festive mauve. Having  been trained to always be on the watch for complimentary colors this immediately caught my attention. Blue…orange? CONSPIRACY!

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I had been struggling with the sequel around that time as well. I liked Mass Effect 2, but not for the same reasons I had loved Mass Effect 1. The struggle of a fledgling human race to establish themselves had drawn me to the game, the questions of identity and purpose really clicking with my still developing adult self. I loved the scrappiness of Shepard the Spectre, always trying to find her place in a vast and cold universe that had existed long before her and would continue on long after her (that’s right, Femshep brofist.)

Mass Effect 2 though, it spoke to the guy in me who felt it was his duty to always watch Predator when it was on TV, even if I had somewhere to be. It was the Aliens to Mass Effect 1’s Alien. It was bombastic, explosive, and over-the-top. Finally trusted, it was no longer about exploration or definition. It was about enforcement. There was no question about what Shepard had to do, she had to kill the Reapers, that was it. Your Shepard, whether Paragon or Renegade, had already been established. It was about carrying through, not about asking why.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like Mass Effect 2, it was just a different game. I couldn’t place why until the day I read that thread and it dawned upon me: Mass Effect 2 was orange. It was a warm and pulsing experience, focused on character and action. The galaxy was simply a playground for you and your team, a series of explosive barrels and love interests. Hell, the entire game was built on the idea of scraping together that rag-tag personal army and earning their loyalty regardless of how badly the guns needed calibrating. The color kept cropping up as I went back through the game. The opening screen, the mining station Omega, the sun which the Illusive Man watched over: all colors on the warmer side of the spectrum.

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Going back to Mass Effect 1, I noticed the predominance of blue and white, especially with the inclusion of planets like Noveria, Illos, and Feros. Despite the strong focus on character, the game is far more focused on the past, with Shepard being a veritable Indiana Jones in Space for half of the game, crawling around lifeless ruin after lifeless ruin on the hunt for the Protheans. Nobody believes in her or trusts her, especially the Council. It’s almost comic how often they refer to the Reaper menace in imagined air quotes. Everything, including her own bosses, is against Shepard. The galaxy of Mass Effect 1 is a cold, harsh, and unloving place.

Even the covers support this. Mass Effect’s cover is almost entirely blue, the menacing face of Saren overwhelming the little bit of warmth emerging from Shepard in the middle. Compare this to the almost entirely orange cover of Mass Effect 2, the emphasis being entirely on the military force Shepard’s A-Team is bringing to the proceedings. There isn’t even any blue, throwing the entire idea of complimentary colors out the window. By the time we get to Mass Effect 3, both blue and orange get equal representation on the cover, a solid representation of the more balanced nature of the final entry in the trilogy.

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Where this really comes into play with the final (and color obsessed) game of the Shepard trilogy is the two released DLC packs: Leviathan and Omega. According to Metacritic, neither of them has been received as well as the high water mark for Mass Effect DLC: Lair of Shadow Broker. I discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the Omega pack in my review but it boils down to one basic idea: both of the scenarios feel incomplete, almost as if they’re two sides of a coin.

Almost as if they complement each other.

Wait, I’ve got something here. HOLD ON.

Leviathan, the stronger of the two, is a tense mystery exploring a mysterious creature that can implant thoughts in the heads of sentient beings. It starts in the lab of a dead researcher on the Citadel before sending Shepard and EDI around the galaxy on the hunt for the creature known only as Leviathan. One of the first places you visit is a mining colony run by people under the dominion of the mysterious beast. It’s a long and slow paced scene that emphasizes feelings of isolation and exclusion. From there you travel to the aquatic planet Despoina, where you find yourself traveling underwater to finally locate your target.

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While there is combat, it’s sparse at best. Leviathan is all about that feeling you get when you’re the only person who doesn’t get the joke. If anything, it’s a return to the loneliness that Mass Effect 1 evoked, as everywhere you turns the invisible influence of Leviathan can be felt. Combined with the final sequence, which is an atmospheric crawl across the ocean floor, and it’s easy to see what side of the spectrum Leviathan falls on: blue.

Then there’s the recently released Omega, which focuses entirely on Aria T’loak’s desperate attempt to retake her beloved mining colony cum criminal haven. The entire story focuses on her relationship both to the station and the mysterious female Turian Nyreen. As stated by Fabrice Condominas on the Bioware blog: “During production, we first focused on character relationships. We decided early on to treat Omega, the station itself, as a character from a narrative standpoint. To do this, we needed to define the nature of the relationship between Aria and Omega—it is one of deep love, where passion and jealousy are involved.” There’s little to no exploration, with almost every decision being made either while shooting someone or shortly after their head has exploded.

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The overwhelming feeling of orange is evident the moment you land on the station, Omega’s perpetual sunset filling your screen. This is a story as blazing hot as the sun in the sky, focused on revenge and love, explosions and violence. It’s the complete opposite of Leviathan.

Neither DLC pack has received strong reviews, with Leviathan being referred to as kind of boring and Omega as somewhat inconsequential. Where Leviathan fails, Omega succeeds, and vice versa. They’re like french fries and ketchup, Mountain Dew and Doritos, or ice cream and creepy guys with beards. They’re best together, useless apart.

The combination of these two sides is best expressed in the well-received Lair of the Shadow Broker expansion for Mass Effect 2. Liara’s quest to escape the crushing dominance of the mysterious Shadow Broker has all the elements of both orange and blue. A chase across the rooftops of Illium is bookended by investigatory sequences. A frantic firefight on the hull of the Shadow Broker’s ship is cast against the bleakness of space. Once the Broker himself has been deposed in an epic boss battle, you’re given access to a veritable treasure trove of optional information. At no time is the game focused entirely on one aspect of the series, be it either story or combat.

It’s the complimentary colors in full effect. The reviews supported this, ranking it highest of all the DLC packs for the series (86.60% on Metacritic at the time of writing.)

So next time you look at Mass Effect, don’t think about red and blue, the colors chosen to represent Renegade and Paragon. Don’t think about black and white, the way choices can sometimes feel in the game. Don’t even think about red, green, and blue, no matter how badly the developers want you to. Just think about the true colors driving the entire experience: blue and orange.

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