"Stand by for clearance Normandy," bellows Captain David Anderson as the iconic ship approaches Citadel Dock 422. Shortly thereafter the wonder of the galaxy's epicentre hits you like a sledgehammer, its empyrean skyline a majestic marvel among the cosmos. However, there exists a monumental issue that has plagued this cutscene for over a decade: it has aged like a fine wine, if only said wine had its cork removed long before it was shelved.
Fortunately, there is a fix. After the divisive denouement of Mass Effect 3 ripped a fissure in the community, a group of fans banded together to rewrite the series' disgruntling culmination. Thus the Mass Effect modding community was born, brewed from a chaotically potent cocktail of discontent and desire for more. "We only have Mass Effect 3 mods because of the terrible endings," Spectre Expansion Mod author Tydeous tells me in a recent interview. "People hated them with such passion that it spawned an entire community that wanted to fix them."
Although the ensuing ending mods were relatively renowned within Mass Effect circles, the movement didn't stop there: accepting the unlikeliness of an official remaster, these dedicated tinkerers decided to work on a complete 4K overhaul of the entire trilogy, as well as orchestrating their own original mods to boot. The aim of this enterprise is to complete Mass Effect Modding Workshop creator Ryan "Audemus" Ainsworth's own labour of love, ALOV (A Lot Of Videos), which is the result of a community-wide effort to remaster Mass Effect's inaugural iteration.
"We have 2TB of dedicated Nextcloud storage on a Gigabit connection thanks to our team member bosp," Ainsworth says. "Another team member designed a script that can automatically check through hundreds of videos in the mod for errors such as missing frames or an incorrect framerate." Meanwhile, a dozen team members volunteered to upscale frames to 4K using Gigapixel in an ambitious attempt to meet the mod's scheduled release date last year.
However, modding Mass Effect is no easy endeavour, nor is it a phenomenon BioWare encouraged or even facilitated. "I can't overstate how difficult it is to mod a PC game that was designed primarily for consoles on an engine that offers no mod support whatsoever," Ainsworth explains. "Because of this, there are only a handful of people in the community that can use the toolset to its fullest capability."
A prime example exists in the low-res story sequences in the original Mass Effect. "The pre-rendered cutscenes in Mass Effect are 720p videos that were heavily compressed to allow the game to fit on the disc," Ainsworth tells me. "When playing the game at 1080p to 4K with texture mods, those cutscenes were the biggest thing holding it back from looking like a true remaster."
There are other hardships, too. Modding Mass Effect is nothing like creating expansions for games like Skyrim or Fallout, Ainsworth adds. "Their Creation Kit was created and supported by Bethesda, while ME3Explorer had to be created from scratch by talented and dedicated fans."
Perhaps paradoxically, difficulty is part of what inspires Mass Effect modders to persevere against the odds while maintaining the harmony inherent to Ainsworth's community. "The [Mass Effect] modding scene is small, but tight-knit," ALOT (A Lot Of Textures) author CreeperLava tells me. "Any modder who lingers there ends up getting to know every other modder."
"Perhaps because it is so small, or because the games are so difficult to mod, only die-hard fans end up dedicating time to learning how to mod them," CreeperLava adds. Regular contributors also ensure each subsequent mod released via Nexus is cross-compatible with every other project in the community's existing oeuvre. "This is impossible in larger mod bases like Skyrim, where the amount of work involved would be insane."
CreeperLava also asserts this is likely the reason the Mass Effect modding process is so collaborative within the community. "They seek to make sure their mods work together from the get-go," they explain. "It's kind of like having a team with many heads, all trying to get the best out of the games they love."
Ainsworth says roughly 30 people were involved with the Project Earth Overhaul Mod specifically, marking it as the biggest Mass Effect modding endeavour of all time. To this day, however, the team continues to rework the games they love. "We have over a dozen active modding projects going on, and everyone is encouraged to collaborate," Ainsworth adds. "I would liken the modding community today to a loose development team, made up of programmers, writers, artists, voice actors and more. I'm extremely proud of what we've built together."
"It's not even about the game anymore," CreeperLava adds, ushering the sentiment in a new direction. "The modding I did started as a personal quest for a more beautiful game, but ended up as a coming of age experience for me. Its development mirrors my own - ALOT matured and became much more than just a compilation of textures."
CreeperLava goes on to explain they were joined by developers who conceived an installer for the mod while they learned how to implement their own textures. "I saw articles being published about my work," they continue. "What amazes me the most to this day is that beyond just saying thanks, some people stepped forward and offered their help, knowledge, and time to improve the mod."
CreeperLava also fondly recalls working at a LAN party on one occasion, where a random person came over and asked, "are you that CreeperLava? From Mass Effect?" As it turned out, this was a fan who had played through Mass Effect with ALOT installed. "Really took me by surprise," CreeperLava adds. "I felt really good for the rest of that day."
Ainsworth echoes this passion, and proceeds to proclaim Mass Effect as an entity that has had a profound influence on him. "I don't think many people can say they've been a Mass Effect fan for most of their life," he explains. "But for me, Mass Effect formed the backbone of my love of sci-fi storytelling in the way Star Wars or Star Trek did for older fans."
Tydeous shares this emotional connection. "I grew up watching shows like Stargate SG-1 and Star Trek: Next Generation, where teams of people work together to explore the galaxy, discovering new worlds, facing dire threats, and meeting alien cultures," they say. "For me, Mass Effect gives me that chance to explore the unknown in a way I'll never get in the real world."
Tydeous explains that although the community almost fizzled out, it has bounced back stronger than ever, and many fans of the mod have voiced their gratitude. "The best compliment I've had is when one user said the new emails [added as part of the mod] and my 'Ghost of Antilin' storyline were BioWare quality," they add. "They hadn't realised those texts were fan-written."
Alongside the praise, working on something of this caliber comes with a variety of unseen, humorous mishaps. Although Tydeous maintains most of their modding experience has involved bashing their head against the desk in a futile attempt to understand why something isn't working, one such mistake resulted in a barrel of laughs for them. "During some experimental combat modding, I accidentally changed the number of Banshee spawns from one to eight, as I thought I was changing the amount of Husks that spawn," Tydeous remembers. Despite their best efforts, they never managed to defeat them.
Meanwhile, a modder who goes by the handle "Mgamerz," who is also part of the Mass Effect Modding Workshop community and is the founder of ME3Tweaks, managed to unravel an exceptionally well-hidden secret when tinkering with some scenes featuring The Illusive Man. "In my cutscene randomiser, I expanded it to support more branching characters, such as your squadmates," Mgamerz explains. "I did not realise that in many cutscenes there are extra versions of pawns that are used for different angles, so we have The Illusive Woman."
The same randomiser yielded other comedy nuggets. "I was trying to randomise cutscenes and the animations a bit - it's meant to be something you'd play if you were somewhat tipsy," Mgamerz continues. "I did not realise the data format for these animations was different from other animations and Miranda gained a lot of flexibility."
Evidently, the Mass Effect modding community has achieved an astronomical amount since the polarising polemic that emerged in the wake of Mass Effect 3, especially considering the obstacles blocking their path. From a full-fledged PC remaster to some original voice acting sent to Eurogamer, this is the work of a group of people who have persevered without ever having access to modding toolsets or developer-established communities. Heartwarmingly, newcomers are welcomed with open arms to this day: "Seeing the 2019 N7 Day Modding trailer we put out last year, that was especially cool," Tydeous explains. "Seeing the live stream comments about each mod was great - especially for newer modders showing off their work for the first time."
However, despite the community's investment in the original trilogy, modding Andromeda, BioWare's ill-fated 2017 Mass Effect game, remains a complex affair. Because it runs on the Frostbite engine, none of the modding tools the community have used for the first three games are compatible with Andromeda. "As of now, it's not possible to import new content into the game," Ainsworth explains. "That means no new items, quests, weapons, [or] abilities. Because of this, there's never been a community that's formed around modding Andromeda like it did for the trilogy."
Ainsworth adds there are people in his community who are already interested in modding Andromeda, but after enduring three long years without updates to compatibility, and after the departure of a key Frostbite modder named GalaxyMan - who, Ainsworth explains, works with EA/DICE on Frostbite proper now - "it's looking more likely those features might never happen".
It's not all bad though. Recently, and for years past to boot, rumours have circulated about whether or not an official remaster for the Mass Effect trilogy will ever be released. However, according to Ainsworth, "the remaster everyone has been clamouring for is effectively already here." Give a community this dedicated long enough and they'll do it themselves.
"Had to be me," I imagine the Mass Effect modding community saying. "Someone else might have gotten it wrong."