The Mass Effect trilogy spans thousands of light-years of space and scores of planets, but for all that lung-emptying scope, it's got a sense of place few other role-playing games can rival. You can thank the good ship Normandy for that.
Built, destroyed, rebuilt and upgraded into a Collector's worst nightmare across Mass Effect 1 and 2, it's your all-in-one mobile weapons depot, garage, love shack, character-birthing vat, sci-fi prop warehouse and Happy Spacers club. In our latest insider tour of Mass Effect 3, OXM tapped art director David Watts to explore the ship's past and future.
The Normandy's sweeping, predatory design reveals influences from across the media spectrum. "We had a lot of inspiration from movies, magazines, other games," Watts began. "Some of the movies we've had are Solaris, the Final Fantasy movie, some of the weapons were from Appleseed, we looked at Metal Gear Solid, Star Wars we still reference when we did the ships. Star Wars still does some of the best ships out there.
"We wanted the cockpit to be recognisable, trying to get the shape of the ship right," he explained. "Back in Mass Effect 1 we decided we were going to do a bounty-hunter type ship, like the Millennium Falcon, or a stealthy-looking fighter.
In the hands of Cerberus technicians, the rebuilt Normandy doubled in size, adding new areas to house crew mates and new game functions like research. Where the original model was a zippy wasp, its successor has a heavy, menacing feel - more cruiser than frigate, perhaps. "In Mass Effect 2 we kind of based it on Concorde, you can see that from the way the cockpit is, the way the engines are, these fins we've added on. The Russian version had those.
"Also we did a thing where the shape fits around the afterburners, which is a small thing but when you're making a human ship you need to put that on to tie it all together. We wanted a strong cockpit, with an aggressive shape, that would work in space and in the atmosphere, that's why it has wings. These wings were taken from a fighter."
For all that BioWare has learned from the aviation industry, real-world considerations come a firm second to the fiction, as Watts' next comment reveals. "And no, the inside doesn't actually fit into the outside. It's a video game!"
Memory limitations are harder to laugh off. "The wings were originally supposed to be front thrusters which bent down as a landing gear. But to put a landing gear on something that big would require a whole new level, and we can't put in a new level because it's too big."
And what of Mass Effect 3's Normandy? BioWare has yet to give away much on the subject, revealing only that the ship's been impounded, stripped and rebuilt by the Alliance, who've added yet more gizmos and areas.
Watts does let slip one, tickly detail, however. "Shepard probably has the same amount of texture space as this Normandy. Yeah. Shepard is 1.8 metres long, and the Normandy is 170m long."
The Normandy would be nothing without its crew, of course, and if you want to read more on the latter and how they've been resculpted for Mass Effect 3, check back tomorrow for our chat with lead cinematic animator Parish Ley.
Visit the Mass Effect 3 news hub for all this week's coverage.