Building Worlds: Element Zero of the Mass Effect series
[Building Worlds is a series where Dan Cox examines one facet in a videogame and shows you how, from that one angle, an entire society is reflected.]
It’s the title. That’s how important a reaction is to the fiction of a universe. It’s called the Mass Effect series for a reason. Behind everything from commerce to communication, it sits at the core of the games. It allows the very space travel that delivers the hero, and villains, from place to place. The cause of this effect though is both far simpler and more complex than most players realize.
Element Zero. That’s what drives everything. Also known as ‘eezo’, it is at the core of all major technologies of nearly all alien species. By applying an electrical current, both positive and negative, dark energy is released from Element Zero and all mass within its vicinity are either, with positive electrical charge, increased in measurable mass or, with a negative charge, decreased in measurable mass. The dark energy does not change the objects in question, add or subtract the actual mass, but instead affects the gravity around them. They either become, relative to other objects outside the field, heavier or lighter in proportionality to how close they are to the source of the field.
A very rare substance, Element Zero it is found when massive radiation sources like supernovas affect planets or asteroids. Through these intense events, solid matter is shifted slightly into deposits of Element Zero. When mined and placed into engines that supply an electrical charge, small amounts can allow a heavy species to live with other species in low-gravity environments or even allow a normally light species to seem to float in the air. Very large amounts can even allow space travel through a network of devices called Mass Relays.
To travel in the universe and not take relativistic speeds, some type of advanced technology is needed. It’s these devices, these Mass Relays, that allow that. By engaging one, a ship’s mass is reduced to near zero and the it can be moved through space without it taking the real time of 50,000 or even 500,000 years, moving at the speed of light, to travel that same distance between one device and another.
Even while inactive, the fields around these devices allow instantaneous communication between various satellites that are placed in proximity of the Mass Relays. Sending signals into the field, information can be sent and received to and from one Mass Relay and another. Not unlike the relays in the backbone of any other communication system, the Mass Effect universe revolves around the hub of these devices.
Yet, they are more than just physical and digital transportation systems. They are also spiritual ones. Biotics, the equivalent of magic defined in science fiction terms, is based in Element Zero too. Those that use their biotic powers have Element Zero within them. By changing the electrical energies within their bodies, biotic users can influence trace amounts of material within themselves to create or change pockets of localized gravity.
For as much as Element Zero is the fuel for the technology, biotic powers and even politics in the Mass Effect universe, it has a terrible dark side. While just the smallest traces of it can, given your body chemistry and the field strength at the time, either give you a power like telekinesis, it can also outright kill you. A sudden increase in power, even in trained biotic users, could mean physical damage to the person or even mental trauma as the electrical field of a body is changed by the feedback between itself and Element Zero.
The player sees it during cut-scenes and even some loading scenes too. The Mass Relays and even the use of biotic powers creates a blue glow or aura around the objects. This is a blueshift, a warping of light due to some stronger force relative to someone outside the field. Light, the fastest entity in the universe, is being slowed down, bent and then reflected back. To see the mass effect field means that radiation, in the form of visible wavelengths and possibly other particles, are being sent back to the observer. Get near a stronger field and the radiation increases even more — those normally stronger particles are now being reflected.
That’s the cost of these powers and this technology. To look at the field, to see the shiny blue sparkle in the dark, is to be contaminated on some small level. Stay around the fields and over time, little by little, you die. Machines break down and accidents happen too. That’s how, in fact, the game fiction explains that humans discovered that they too could have biotic powers.
Many died. As Element Zero fell into the atmosphere, due to a series of ship accidents around Earth, trace amounts were ingested by people. In in a even smaller number of cases, it crossed from mother to child in-utero and some children, as they grew up, manifested powers. Many, however, did not. Other children, if they survived at all, developed terminal cancers from the radiation. While some were born with terrific powers, others suffered terrible fates.
The Mass Effect games paint a bright and bright future, an alternative to our own. Yet, everything is tied to Element Zero. It’s the invisible linchpin to the entire fictional universe. The ability to have commerce or even travel in space is locked into using the Mass Relay devices which, of course, use Element Zero. Even biotics, warriors who fight with both traditional weapons and gravitational fields, use Element Zero within their bodies. It’s everywhere and yet nowhere.
The game series is not called the Element Zero series for a reason though. While it is never seen, its effect is shown. The pictures of it, both in the game and part of promotional images, show the glowing field that is produced when it is combined with electricity. It is never alone because it is unremarkable.
What is Element Zero? It’s nothing, really. Not unlike our own zero, it only counts when combined with other things. With it, we reach the largest or smallest extremes of our universe. Element Zero, for the Mass Effect universe, is the same. Behind all the great technology is an unbroken circle. It holds everything together yet, by itself, is meaningless.