Spotlight: SSV Normandy SR-1
Spotlight is a semi-regular feature where the RPG Site team highlight and examine locations, characters, systems and features of RPGs that deserve retrospective recognition.
While a lot of RPGs have brilliant hub areas that players return to repeatedly throughout an adventure, I've found few as memorable and special as the SSV Normandy SR-1, Mass Effect's traveling home hub that becomes the personal vehicle of Commander Shepard a few hours into the game. Here, to celebrate N7 day 2015, we celebrate and look back on this iconic RPG vehicle.
The Normandy is integral to the player's view of the Mass Effect universe - not just because it facilitates travel, but because it's where the player really fully assumes the role of Commander Shepard properly - not with big galaxy-altering decisions, but with smaller dialog choices in the meaningful personal conversations that take place there, slowly allowing players to build and understand the voice of 'their' Shepard between missions.
It's the first thing players see properly in the series, streaking through a Mass Relay, and in many ways it represents the state of the Mass Effect universe as players first enter it, the perfect light-touch introduction to the series' sprawling lore. A small first collaboration between Humans and Turians, conversations about the Normandy introduce the player to the concept of the First Contact War between the races, the following truce, and in envisioning the timing around its construction, exactly when and where the first Mass Effect title and its characters stand on a timeline compared to that major in-universe event.
While the Normandy proves a vital bit of context to the lore of the series merely through its design and utility, the vehicle ultimately only truly comes into its own when populated with Mass Effect's memorable cast of party members, each taking up a spot in their own personal favorite area of the ship.
Down in the lower decks, Tali feels most at home next to the engine while Ashley and Wrex stay close to the armory as possible. Garrus, lacking guns to calibrate, situates himself next to the next best thing, the Mako. Up above Kaiden chills in the mess area, while Liara takes up residence in the medical labs.
Each of these locations speaks to the character in question - there's no backdrop more perfect for hearing Tali's backstory than next to a pulsating engine, for instance - and while Mass Effect lacks the dynamism its sequels would later introduce, with characters going about more business and moving about the ship more fully, there's much memorable in how the party appear aboard the Normandy in Mass Effect.
That main crew is backed up with several non-playable but no less important characters who keep the Normandy ticking over including Dr. Chakwas, XO Pressley, and of course Joker, the pilot. Joker's relationship with the ship in particular helps to imbue it with a sense of character long before Bioware saw fit to give it a voice or a body - and again speaks to just how well the ship is presented and written about within the narrative.
Later iterations of the Normandy would get bigger and would with that be populated by even more characters, but there's something about the intimacy of the Normandy and its simple three-tiered design that makes it far more accessible than later versions (even with those lengthy elevator rides) and yet far more impressive than the cramped confines of Knights of the Old Republic's Ebon Hawk, the Normandy's spiritual predecessor.
It'd be easy to perhaps credit all that made those moments aboard the Normandy great to the characters aboard it, but in truth it goes beyond that. The gorgeously sleek and iconic design of the ship's exterior and interior certainly aid that, the game ensuring it's given plenty of deserved visibility when arriving at planets and systems. Better still is the memorable music which somehow manages to loop through the entirety of the significant time you spend there without ever becoming an irritation while channeling the spirit of space exploration Mass Effect so encourages.
Through repetition, the Normandy becomes home - players adopt a procedure when they arrive back based around an order in which they check in on their crewmates and their personal equipment locker. By the time the game reaches its final act and the ship is taken away from you, the player is itching to take it back just as much as Shepard and his crew. It's then, at that late hour, the Normandy truly becomes 'yours', its crew essentially mutinying from the Alliance in order to side with you on one final mission - with that, it further endears itself.
While the Normandy is actually in a sense the one to ultimately save the day in Mass Effect, the game's final action-packed moments filled with it performing aerial acrobatics without you even aboard, its greatest trick is saved for the sequel. Cruelly destroyed during the opening of the game, seeing a ship which you'd populated for some 40 hours or more split in two by an overwhelming force was a gut punch at the opening - and one even more impactful, arguably, than the fake-out of the death of Shepard him or herself.
The Normandy would prove too powerful an image for destruction, and lives on conceptually in a vastly different, much larger successor that survives through both subsequent games. The reveal of that rebuilt iteration remains one of my favorite iterations of the series, and proved a hugely uplifting moment after Mass Effect 2's downbeat opening hour or so. The SR-2 is magical too - but few home hubs in video games and few ships in science fiction will ever be as dear to me as the Normandy SR-1. I put it up there with the Enterprise, with Galactica, with the Millennium Falcon - and that's incredibly good company to keep.
Bioware certainly has their work cut out for them in providing the crew of Mass Effect Andromeda with a worthy successor.