There are a lot of famous changes from the first installment of Mass Effect to the second: streamlined inventory, more cover-focused combat and darker subject matter. But the first thing you’ll notice are the colors. They’re notable before you even leave the main menu.
Mass Effect 2 had style in a way that its predecessor simply didn't. It knew what it wanted to be. It was cool. And more importantly, it used that coolness to support its themes.
That made it massively more important and acclaimed, going from "interesting RPG" to "default Game of the Year winner" in much of the games press.
Were colors that important?
Mass Effect was built on blue and white, the color scheme that conventionally says "science" and "space." Star Trek's Enterprise is white and blue, as is Babylon 5. So is Mass Effect’s Citadel. The doctor's office or science lab you see in your head when I ask you to imagine one is probably white and blue. Those colors suggest cleanliness and crispness. Mass Effect delivered on that promise with a story and tone that was largely about sentient organic life defending itself from invading robots.
Mass Effect 2 is built on a palette of gold, red and black. This isn't a common, suggestive palette. The only famous science fiction I can think of (that's not set in a desert) that builds its aesthetics on yellow is The Fifth Element, which shares a dirty, diverse universe with Mass Effect 2 but not much else.
But the scheme does show up sporadically in science fiction, like in the Tyrell Corporation scenes in Blade Runner: a film with both a reclusive, ambiguous CEO like Mass Effect 2's Illusive Man and themes about the intersection of artificial and organic life. Still, it’s rare.
The net effect is that while Mass Effect’s color scheme deliberately called to mind the most obvious science fiction (i.e. it was generic), Mass Effect 2's colors indicated that it was building a unique tone which was headed in a different direction: one that muddied the waters of the moral simplicity of the first game, as well as muddying the core conflict of organic versus artificial life.
The other games in the series don't necessarily follow Mass Effect 2's lead. Mass Effect 3 does maintain the focus on the organic and artificial, particularly in the Reapers' corruption of the races they mean to destroy. The color scheme has reverted to blue and white — but there's a much stronger red, giving the whole thing a very patriotic vibe. This is appropriate given the third game's World War II parallels, but it does lose aesthetic distinctiveness.
As for Andromeda? There's a reason the Initiative's colors are blue and white (although an appropriately mysterious purple tends to infuse its color scheme). And as for themes of the fusing of the organic and the artificial, well, the whole premise is that an AI becomes harmless if it's directly connected to the experiences of a human Pathfinder. The tension seems to be mostly gone from that aspect of the story.
Oddly enough, the other game that relies on gold this much also concerns the combination of artificial and biological.
The second entry in every trilogy is usually the darkest
Mass Effect 2 is absolutely the darkest game morally, and that is shown early on. Mass Effect’s initial hub was the blue and white Citadel. In Mass Effect 2, while you can go to the Citadel early, the core hub of the first quarter of the game is Omega. Omega is filled with red lights, and gold and black combining into a grimy, gritty brown starting zone that screams "this isn't nice, clean sci-fi!"
Having Omega’s leader, Aria T'loak, introduce herself by saying "Don't fuck with Aria" rams the idea home.
But it's also more subtle. In menus, loading screens, and especially in key cutscenes, Mass Effect 2’s aesthetics are in harmony with the game's themes: the synthesizing of the organic and the artificial, of meat and technology. In the movie that plays during Shepard's "death" and recreation in Project Lazarus, Shepard's body, both in bones and brain, is depicted in gold, with animations depicting life returning to Shepard’s remains.
I'm deliberately not using "synthetic" in the way Mass Effect does — to refer to artificial life — because it's really confusing. Shepard is the synthesis of artificial tech with an organic body, but Shepard isn't synthetic, according to Mass Effect.
This isn't a one-off. Every loading screen in the game maintains this gold-structure/ animated-vitality premise. A mass relay, the core unit of transportation in the Mass Effect universe, is shown as a gold "skeleton," with animated vitality infusing as part of the loading process during a common loading screen.
In other words, both in its introductory video and in constantly repeating screens throughout the game, Mass Effect 2 reinforces the idea that the artificial and the organic are, if not the same, then directly connected.
The resurrection of Commander Shepard turns the series' hero into a hybrid of organic material and cybernetics, which makes many people who knew Shepard distrust Shepard’s identity. So Shepard goes from having a team full of heroes to having a team full of misfits and mercenaries. It’s embodies the thematic darkening of the Mass Effect series, and is a crucial element of Mass Effect 2.
The fusion of the organic and the artificial goes beyond Shepard, though. The villains of Mass Effect 2, the Collectors, are far different from the robotic Geth of the first game. They're a race of aliens who are capturing Humans using organic technology, including wasps that sting to paralyze, weapons and armor made of bone, stasis pods that look like that orifices and enemies literally made of nightmare fusions of multiple human bodies.
Even the Collectors are based on the synthesis of the artificial and the organic: you discover that they were once Protheans, the mythological defenders of organic life against the synthetic Reapers, later in the game. The Protheans were enslaved by the Reapers, and had their bodies turned into fusions of technology and life, with no free will.
But the grandest and most controversial fusion of the organic and the artificial in Mass Effect 2 comes at the end of the game, when Shepard discovers the Collectors' goal: creating a Reaper by harvesting the masses of humans they've kidnapped. The infant human/Reaper that serves as Mass Effect 2’s final boss is a nightmare of organic/artificial life, a robotic frame infused with the life essences of hundreds of thousands of humans. It certainly looks the part, with a black machine-like exoskeleton and red laser eyes.
It also proved controversial amongst some fans since, well, it makes no real sense in the game's lore. There's never any indication that Reapers look like anything except giant space bugs, nor is there any explanations as to why Humans, and not Asari or Turians or any of the other half-dozen spacefaring races are singled out to have their own artisanally crafted Reaper.
But the human-Reaper hybrid fits in with the aesthetic narrative Mass Effect 2 presents. This is a game about the fusion of the organic and the artificial, in both its good forms, like Commander Shepard, and its darkest forms, like the Collectors.
Whether or not Mass Effect 2 actually succeeds in explicitly telling that story has been up for debate for the better part of a decade now. But what's less discussed — and arguably more important — is that despite being a sprawling RPG, Mass Effect 2's aesthetics give it a strong thematic core.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance video game and science fiction critic currently residing in the Bay Area. He tweets about games, politics, and cats, alot, has a much quieter Facebook page for links, and is very slowly writing a book about Mass Effect.