I finished Mass Effect 3 last weekend. It was a real rollercoaster ride, especially the back half — stuff sure does get intense in there, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, I won’t post any spoilers here, nor will I talk about the much–discussed ending.
The music of Mass Effect packed more of an emotional wallop than I was expecting. It wasn’t so much the new, emotional piano music, though I did appreciate that. It was another, older theme that really got to me. This theme plays during many key moments in the story and, in a very cool touch, is also woven into the background sounds of the game itself.
For me, and I suspect for a lot of other longtime Mass Effect fans, the most emotional musical theme of Mass Effect 3 is this one:
Jack Wall’s menu music of the first Mass Effect wound up being the most emotionally resonant music of the entire series. Every time it would kick in in the third game, I’d feel a stirring inside me.
It's such a simple melody… I remember hearing it when I first booted up Mass Effect in 2007, the day after it had come out. The music came as a surprise -- it was pensive and wide, a C and a G ringing out, a wide-open perfect fifth. It wasn't the music of outerspace gunfights and starship shootouts -- it was the music of space, of vast oceans of possibility.
As the low drone continues, that plaintive synth enters on the E, forming a major tonality. Then it moves to the F, then down to the D, slowly… It's a beautiful introductory melody, remarkable for its consonance as much as its lack of rhythmic urgency.
I believe it only plays once during Mass Effect 2 -- when Shepard is reunited with either Kaiden or Ashley on Horizon. But it turns up at a few crucial times in Mass Effect 3, and it becomes clear that someone in charge of making this game realised just how resonant that simple melody was, and what lovely symmetry it provided by bringing it back in the final game.
Here's where it goes from resonant musical theme to secret emotional weapon. The music itself plays whenever Shepard is having an emotional moment with one of her old crew members. But it's also hidden in the fabric of one of the most-trafficked rooms in the game itself. Check out this video:
Here's my Shepard, standing in the War Room. It's where she ends up at the end of most missions, a various dignitaries standing around, waiting to check the status of the fleet and move on to the next mission. Listen closely. Hear those drones in the background? They're more than just machinery.
In fact, the machinery in the Normandy's war room drones at a low "C" with a "G" above it -- the same perfect fifth that lies under the menu music from the first game. Now, if you pause it (as I do about 10 seconds in), the background chatter dims, and you'll start to hear… do you hear it…. do you? It's a ghostly hint of that same melody, hidden away behind the din and drone of the war room.
Keep listening, and you'll hear each of those three tones -- the E, the F, and the D, ringing out over that low C. It's an ingenious bit of sound design.
In everyday life, our ears learn to filter out the many droning tones around us, but we never truly stop hearing them. Indeed, there are professionals who will come "tune" your workplace or apartment, seeking out dissonant intervals that may be subconsciously causing stress. For example, if your fridge hums at a barely audible low D and your lightbulb at a higher Eb, you've got a super-grindy flat ninth ringing in your ear all day long, which can take a surprising toll.
The chords playing on the Normandy are the opposite of that -- they are soothing, and subtly make you think back to your journey, to that first time you booted up Mass Effect and prepared to embark on a new adventure. Of all of the ways that Mass Effect 3 ties back to the first game in the series, this may be my favourite.
Think about your state of mind every time you're in the war room. Another mission is over, another compromise has been made, another heavy loss possibly sustained. As you stand there, contemplating what just happened, the room bustles as usual. But beneath the chatter rings a hidden rendition of the musical theme that played five years ago when you first set this whole damned thing in motion. It's always there, anchoring you to the past while nudging you to keep on going, even when all seems lost.