Mass Effect as a franchise has one of the most recognizable art styles in the industry right now. Any two images from a game look like they came from not only the same game, but the same world; there is a sort of visual coherence that most games lack, or even worse, that most games simply share with each other instead of coming up with their own.
So how did the artists at BioWare pull that off? As it turns out, the secret lies in large, graceful arcs. Curved lines. It's something Bioware used to get away from the known designs of the Star Wars series after the company's last game, and it worked in spectacular fashion.
"...It was kind of showing the fidelity that we were trying to get with the new engine, the new hardware," Derek Watts, the series Art Director, told ctrl500. "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."
They only noticed it creeping into their work after a few designs had already been done, and then they actively put it in more and more places.
"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," Watts continued. "The logo, clothing, armour, guns."
Once you see it, it's impossible to stop seeing it. Mass Effect is visually distinct, and like the Buzzfeed stories say all it took was "one weird trick" to make it happen, on top of probably one of the best collections of artists working today.
One of the reasons so many games can feel indistinct is that they don't have "one weird trick" or a guiding principle behind why the game looks the way it does, or worse yet it's a familiar one. Yes, some aliens look like bugs, and don't get us started on settings and creatures that simply mimic the look of genitalia.
Mass Effect found a simple, easy-to-define shape that's elegant and unique, and the team put it everywhere they could. The result is a game that looks unique, and stands out, even among other science fiction games with grand themes.
A quick note: This story came from Control500, which is filled with similar short, interesting looks at significant aspects of great games. Read about the giraffe scene in Last of Us, for instance. Or jumping in Awesomenauts. If you're interested in the art of game design, this is a great place to get educated.