This time we’re looking at the Mass Effect trilogy* of space opera video games, and it’s not because I happen to have just finished playing through Legendary Edition. Well, not only because of that. It’s also because Mass Effect has well over a hundred hours of gameplay, so it has at least as much time to build a world as novelists do, possibly more.
I’m not shy about my Mass Effect fandom, but I’m also extra critical of stories I love, so I wasn’t sure how much I’d have to be positive about. What would I find when looking past the Normandy’s dating scene? Fortunately, it turns out that the Mass Effect universe has plenty going for it.
Like Star Trek and Star Wars before it, Mass Effect takes place in a galaxy that’s awash with aliens. Not only are humans not alone, but there’s also a whole galactic community just a relay’s jump away. Don’t ask how humans never noticed the signs of that community before discovering a cache of alien tech on Mars; it’s not important.
While Mass Effect’s aliens don’t have quite the same limitations as live-action films or shows, they still have to be mostly humanoid. Otherwise they’d be much harder to animate, especially in the game’s combat system. And while I certainly wouldn’t say no to romancing an Elcor, it’s probably not what Bioware thought would boost sales, so Mass Effect’s aliens still have to be largely attractive along conventional lines.
That said, the game does a great job operating within its many constraints. Every species is visually distinctive, from the birdlike Turians and amphibian Salarians all the way to the Krogan, who remind me of nothing so much as an armored dinosaur on two legs. This rich design makes for a visual delight, whether it’s crowd scenes on the Citadel or assembling your team for a difficult mission.
Beyond the looks, a lot of time is spent exploring the history and culture of different species. We learn about the Salarians’ feudal clan system, the power struggles between Quarian military and civilian leaders, and the Drell‘s client species relationship to the aquatic Hanar. Beyond politics, most species have at least one cultural trope that helps identify them, like how Hanar only use personal pronouns when talking to close friends. It really gives you the feeling of a living, breathing universe that’s bigger than the small part of it you can currently see.
Epic Space Buildings
Speaking of things that are big, Mass Effect has reliably excellent space stations. Most of the spaceships are nothing to write home about, and a planet is a planet, but the artificial habitats are outstanding. One standout example is Omega, the vertically stacked city anchored on an asteroid. Cronos Station, headquarters of the Illusive Man, is another excellent candidate. It resembles a skyscraper in space, and like Omega, it’s built up and down rather than side to side. Of course, there is no “up” in space, but the appearance is still unusual.
As cool as those stations are, the real stars are the ancient structures left over from previous galactic cycles, namely the mass relays and the Citadel. The relays allow for travel across the galaxy in a few hours, something that would normally take centuries even with a faster-than-light drive. They’re shaped like giant cannons, and the rings rotating around their cores give the impression of immense power as well as advanced tech.
Then there’s the Citadel itself, a space station so big that each of its five arms holds a city’s worth of people. The design is visually striking, and it’s also practical. The arms can actually close up, sealing the station in a cocoon of its heavily armored outer walls. No wonder the Citadel serves as the official capital for most of the galaxy.
These stations and relays all look cool, of course, but there’s more to it. Their size and scale create a sense of awe, helping you feel like this is truly the future and not just a group of modern-day humans on a soundstage.
Mass Effect’s present is full of cool aliens and impressive space stations, but that’s not all: its past is also full of those things. It’s challenging enough to give a setting history that can pass muster; it’s another thing entirely to make the audience interested in that history. Mass Effect manages to do both. How, you ask? By making that history relevant in the present.
Bioware’s galaxy is one of cyclical civilization. A crop of sapient species will rise, build a bunch of cool stuff, and then get harvested by the Reapers. As you can guess, the previous cycle’s history is really important if our heroes don’t want to get harvested themselves, hence the game’s focus on Prothean beacons and data caches. When the story starts, most people think the relays and the Citadel were all built by the vanished Protheans, and it takes a game’s worth of investigating to find out that those structures are far older.
But Mass Effect also concerns itself with more recent history, or at least less ancient history. You learn about the Geth uprising that forced the Quarians to live on a wandering fleet of cobbled-together starships, and about the still-cooling hostilities between humans and Turians in the First Contact War. That’s nothing, though, compared to the Krogan and their history of conflict.
In the present, the Krogan are galactic pariahs. Their homeworld is devastated, and their economic prospects are slim. That’s the result of two wars. First, the Krogan were called on to protect the galaxy from invading Rachni, which made the Krogan heroes. Then the Krogan went to war with everyone else over post-Rachni colony rights. This all happened a long time ago by human standards, but there are still Krogan and Asari alive who remember it, and even if there weren’t, the galaxy is still reckoning with the aftermath.
For those who share my less-than-stellar opinion of Mass Effect’s ending, it’s easy to see the Reapers as little more than the servants of an unbearably petulant AI. But they were originally so much more than that, or at least, they had the potential to be.
At first, the Reapers are just an unknown enemy. You learn that they wiped out the Protheans, but everything else is a mystery. But then, in Shepard’s first conversation with Sovereign, the game drops just enough information to get the brain working. You’re told that the Reapers don’t wipe out civilizations randomly; they wait until a civilization has reached a certain point in development and then harvest it.
Harvest it for what? This suggests a specific purpose, which is really interesting. What’s more, you learn that the mass relays were built by the Reapers and then left specifically for new civilizations to find, so that each cycle’s development would proceed along specific lines. That’s a lot of effort, so the Reapers must have a reason for doing things that way.
Not only are the Reapers powerful, but they also maintain a sense of mystique even after you find out that they want to wipe out galactic civilization, since you still don’t know why. That’s a really strong start for any villain, so long as the storyteller can follow through on the mystery. That part will have to wait for the next section.
At first, the Geth seem like a fairly standard species of evil robots. Back in the day, they rebelled against their Quarian creators, which is why the Quarians are now without a home planet. In the present, Geth are generally hostile to organic sapience, and they even worship the Reapers as synthetic gods.
But in Mass Effect 2, you learn more about the Geth’s political stance and the mechanics of how they work. The Geth are isolated in a galaxy that thinks of them as nothing but evil robots, and in that context, a minority of Geth thought it better to throw their lot in with the Reapers. This makes the Geth far more sympathetic, but it’s the nature of their intelligence that’s truly unusual.
Unlike most AI in spec fic, Geth are not singular beings. Individually, Geth programs aren’t sapient, as they were originally designed for specialized purposes. It’s by networking that Geth become self-aware and capable of complex reasoning. Each physical Geth body is home to hundreds or thousands of programs, all working together and communicating at the speed of light.
That means Geth programs can form temporary individuals, then disperse until they reform as someone different. It all depends on which programs are used as a substrate. While the game doesn’t spend nearly as much time exploring the Geth as I’d like, this unusual AI concept really helps your synthetic friends stand out.
With three entire games making up the series, there’s plenty of time for things to go wrong, and go wrong they do! As much as I love being a space hero with maximum Paragon points, there’s a whole lot that doesn’t hold up.
After you’re done marveling at how cool the various Mass Effect aliens look, the first thing you’ll notice is how weirdly gendered they are. Sometimes this is explicit, like how the Asari are an entire species of hot blue women. In other cases, it’s just a weird coincidence, like how you almost never see women among the Turians, Krogan, Batarians, and Volus. It’s not until the third game that we see a female Krogan, and you have to buy special DLC for a female Turian. The Batarians and Volus remain all dudes all the time as far as I know.
Sometimes, the game offers justifications for this. Krogan women live in different clans than men, you see, and they don’t leave the homeworld. That’s very convenient. The Asari get a whole host of explanations, including some NPC dialogue implying they only look like attractive human women because of telepathic trickery. Sure. I guess they’re also hacking all the galaxy’s cameras. And why would they look like hot ladies if I’m playing a straight FemShep or a gay BroShep?
Most of these explanations can’t withstand the lightest scrutiny, but even if they could, the idea behind them is flawed. While there’s no reason aliens have to possess binary gender, any who do should have both female and male characters in the setting. Anything else only contributes to toxic ideas of what a person’s gender means. The Turians and the Krogan, for example, are both very militaristic. Making them all men reinforces the idea that martial pursuits are inherently masculine.
Likewise, if a story does something outside the gender binary, it shouldn’t be entirely in service of adding more blue bombshells to the game. I promise, spec fic already has plenty of options for pandering to the male gaze. While there are some interesting aspects to the Asari, their gender portrayal just feels immature and reinforces the toxic idea that even in space, the first priority for women is to be hot and sexually available.
Most of Mass Effect’s sapient species are fairly well rounded, containing both good and bad, just like real people. Then there are the Batarians, the species made up almost entirely of slaver gangs. They hate humans for having the nerve, the utter temerity, to fight back in a war Batarians started. Not only is this very silly, but it also encourages players to think of Batarians as inherently evil, with any nice Batarians being weird exceptions. Oh, and they also do a lot of terrorism, with one attack having strong 9/11 parallels – drawing some extremely unfortunate comparisons to real human beings.
And if you think the Batarians are bad, the Vorcha are basically space goblins, hostile and seemingly less intelligent than humans by default. At first, I assumed these two species were included to give you a group of morally uncomplicated enemies to fight, but the games never use them that way. Instead, your most common enemies are Geth, random mercenaries, evil humans, and the Reapers’ custom-made foot soldiers. So we just have two cartoonishly evil species for no reason.
Then there are the Krogan, who are a little more complicated. Unlike the Batarians and the Vorcha, the Krogan are meant to be sympathetic, and their culture is explored in real depth. Unfortunately, we’re still left with the impression that Krogan are inherently violent and don’t have the brains to do much besides fighting. We do meet a few Krogan scientists, but they seem to be exceptions to the rule.
Of course, it’s possible this is all supposed to be social prejudice. Perhaps Krogan can be artists, engineers, and marketers like any other species. There might be an over-prevalence of Krogan soldiers only because other species pressure them to become mercenaries. The game is incredibly vague about all of this, which isn’t a good thing to be vague about. If nothing else, it’s difficult to make critical story choices about whether to help the Krogan retake their place as a galactic power without knowing if they’re inherently violent or not.
Evolution Does Not Work That Way
Another of Mass Effect’s notable alien species are the Quarians. Their most prominent feature is that they have to wear fully sealed enviro-suits at all times because even relatively benign microbes can easily kill them. Ouch. And we thought we had it bad wearing masks to the grocery store.
So how did Quarians end up needing to wear space suits their entire lives? The official explanation is that after they were driven off their homeworld, 300 years of living in the sterile environment of their ships has destroyed their immune systems. Unfortunately for the Quarians, that’s not how anything works, least of all evolution.
First, I’m highly skeptical that 300 years in a sterile environment would be enough for all Quarians to lose their immune systems. There would have to be a really strong selective pressure against immune systems for that to happen, and I see no evidence of one. But even if we accept that premise, Quarians leave their ships all the time. Not only do they have all the normal reasons to leave a ship, like gathering supplies or visiting friends, but also every Quarian leaves the fleet for years as part of a coming-of-age ritual called the Pilgrimage.
Plus, we’re told that Quarians still need to wear their suits on board their ships, so I guess the environment isn’t sterile after all. Later games deploy a minor retcon, claiming that the Quarians had naturally weak immune systems to start with because their planet only had nice microbes. Then the 300 years of supposedly sterile ships made everything worse. That doesn’t help though, as we’re told that the Quarians used to have colonies on other planets before the Geth captured them. Were those colonies also only home to super weak microbes?
Speculating a little further, shipboard Quarians would probably encounter hostile microbes more often than if they lived on their homeworld. Those ships have to dock with alien stations, offering plenty of exposure to the galaxy’s diseases. Honestly, they should have just said that Quarians breathe a nonstandard atmosphere like Volus. That would have accomplished the same thing without mangling evolution.
Most species in Mass Effect have at least one special trait or quirk that makes them unique. Some of these are downright overpowered, like the Krogan’s super strength or the Asari’s powerful psychic abilities.* In other cases, they’re more lateral differences. Salarians don’t live more than 40 or 50 years, so they tend to learn much faster than other species. Quarians and Volus have their suits. Even the Turians boast the major cultural claim of having the galaxy’s most powerful military.
Humans are the major exception. Other than protagonist Commander Shepard being a human, there’s nothing special about us Homo sapiens. All our physical traits are average, with no special powers or weaknesses to speak of. Politically, humans are fairly militaristic, but not as militaristic as Turians or Krogan. Humans are average in just about every way.
This is a common problem in spec fic, where nonhumans are imagined as starting with a human default, then making changes. This is especially prevalent in TV, where aliens must be played by humans in makeup and prosthetics. But the phenomenon is common in books, too, where high fantasy has a long history of making humans the average ancestry, somewhere in the middle between elves, dwarves, and hobbits.
In Mass Effect, you’re left feeling like humans are missing something. The game even tries to fill that void by occasionally claiming that humans are more diverse than other species or better at finding creative solutions, but nothing ever happens to demonstrate that supposed difference. Maybe that’s why all the most interesting squadmates are aliens.
What Is Cerberus?
You first encounter Cerberus in a series of Mass Effect 1 side quests, where it’s a shadowy organization conducting unethical experiments for… some reason. The motivation is extremely vague, but you witness Cerberus do things like turn human colonists into tech zombies and lure human soldiers into thresher maw nests to die. Then, in Mass Effect 2, Cerberus is portrayed as a pro-human extremist group that’ll do anything to give humanity an edge in the galaxy.
That’s not exactly how they were portrayed in the first game, where they killed a lot of humans for a human supremacist group. Were there no alien colonies for them to raid? Characters also talk about how Cerberus is the only organization that’s got its act together to protect human colonies, as the human government is bound up in red tape. The idea is for Cerberus to be ethically questionable but still an organization good people might join if they’re frustrated with the powers that be. Again, that doesn’t sound like the organization that was zombifying human colonists just a game ago.
Then Mass Effect 3 hits, and Cerberus is back to being completely evil, even joining forces with the Reapers on occasion. But now they also have an army that can rival the official human military. In addition to seemingly endless troops, Cerberus also has better gear than anyone else in the galaxy. What is going on?
From an authorial perspective, the reason is that ME3 needed a new enemy to provide mooks for you to shoot, and Cerberus was what they had. But in the story, it looks like Cerberus is a different organization in each game. They start out as evil scientists, morph into pro-human terrorists, and then become a standing army.
Reapers With No Goal
Remember the big mystery of what the Reapers were after? It’s intriguing because it suggests that there’s something more going on here than mere destruction. Whatever the Reapers are working toward, it must be big! At least, that’s what we all thought before the end of Mass Effect 3. That’s when we find out the official reason for why the Reapers wipe out galactic civilization every 50,000 years: to prevent conflict between organic and synthetic life.
Some of you might have noticed that Reapers are also a form of synthetic life, so their plan to prevent conflict with organic life is to… start conflict with organic life? Best I can tell, their argument is that if they don’t do it, some other AI might come along and completely purge organic life from the galaxy, while the Reapers only destroy spacefaring civilizations. That’s just a guess though; the game is remarkably vague about it.
This is very silly for a number of reasons. Most immediately, the idea of inevitable conflict between organics and synthetics just isn’t present in Mass Effect before the big reveal. The Geth and the Quarians fought, of course, but only because the Quarians reacted violently when the Geth first demonstrated signs of sapience. Other than that, Geth are remarkably peaceful. It’s like getting to the end of the game and discovering that the Reapers were trying to prevent war between extroverts and introverts.
More importantly, learning this doesn’t change anything. Since being wiped out by Geth isn’t a serious concern, there’s no impact to learning the Reapers’ motivation. They might as well have no plan at all and just be harvesting organic life for the heck of it.
What We Can Learn
We’ve made a number of Paragon and Renegade choices to reach this point, so it’s time to ask ourselves what it was all for. Are there any lessons we can take from the Mass Effect trilogy, particularly since most of us are writing prose stories rather than video games? Fortunately, the answer is yes!
Build Plot and Setting Together
There’s a very simple reason Cerberus is all over the place and the Reapers have no real plan to reveal: Mass Effect was not planned as a trilogy. The writers set up the Reapers as a mysterious threat without any idea what that mystery would turn out to be. We know that from interviews with the head writer. Cerberus certainly fits a similar pattern. It seems to have been conceived as a shadowy but morally uncomplicated enemy, then awkwardly transitioned into a morally gray extremist group, then once again shifted into a standing army. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that probably wasn’t planned either.
Normally, I don’t advocate for planning over discovery writing, as a discovery writer can always go back and revise until the story has what it needs. But that strategy doesn’t work for stories released in installments. Once Mass Effect 1 was out, the writers couldn’t go back and revise it. The most they could do was add DLC, which depends on players wanting to spend more money on a game they already finished.
What Mass Effect needed was a Reaper reveal that could be built into the world from day one. Personally, I like the idea that extended use of mass relay technology causes some kind of galaxy-wide environmental problem, and the Reapers wipe everyone out every 50,000 years so there’s time for the damage to subside. Then the Reapers’ big project could be trying to solve the problem permanently, with each harvest bringing them closer. But that’s just one possibility! Who knows what could have been if the Reapers were integrated into the world from the start.
This same lesson holds true for a series of prose stories. Unless you can write the whole series before publishing book one,* not having any plan in place is a serious roll of the dice. Sure, you might be able to find a solution that brings everything together at the end. Supposedly, the original Star Wars trilogy was written without much planning, and it turned out okay. But the sequel trilogy was also unplanned, so let me ask you something: Are you feeling lucky?
Push the Alien Envelope
Mass Effect owes a lot of its success to cool alien design. Within the limits of a third-person shooter, species like Salarians and Krogan are very novel. But there are two species that have an outsized presence for their small amount of screen time: Elcor and Hanar. Elcor are massive quadrupeds who must announce their emotional state because their tone and body language are too subtle for other species to detect, while Hanar are hovering space jellyfish.
Neither of these species ever make it onto your crew, probably because it would be difficult to animate them moving, let alone fighting alongside you. Despite that, fans love Hanar and Elcor so much that Mass Effect 3 actually features in-universe fictional characters called Blasto and Bubin, a Hanar and an Elcor who team up to fight crime. While their antics are often played for laughs, it also expresses a genuine desire for more unusual aliens.
We prose authors don’t have the same restrictions as filmmakers or game developers. If we want weird aliens, we can just write weird aliens. Of course, we need to put in the effort to make the aliens meaningfully different; otherwise, they’ll just seem like humans in tentacle suits. But the effort is well spent, and our alien stories will be better for it.
The Line Between Quirks and Prejudice
Speaking of weird aliens, writers often struggle with how to make their aliens seem strange and different without falling into stereotypes, a problem that Mass Effect runs headlong into. Since Krogan and Vorcha are aliens, making them inherently violent doesn’t technically run afoul of realism the way it would if they were human groups.
And with the Krogan at least, I believe this was done with the best of intentions.* The Krogan’s plight is a major plot thread that runs through all three games, and the writers want you to come away thinking that the Krogan don’t deserve the way they’ve been treated. However, that lesson is tarnished because it’s always qualified based on the Krogan’s supposed nature. They don’t deserve to be stereotyped as violent brutes, despite being more violent than other species. You shouldn’t mock a Krogan’s intelligence, even though most Krogan aren’t smart enough to be scientists. You can see the issue.
It’s deceptively easy for writers to end up here. We want our nonhumans to be distinct because of all the novelty it brings, whether they’re fantasy ancestries or scifi aliens, and physical description can only go so far. So why not give them distinct personality traits? The reason is that it still encourages thinking of large groups according to superficial stereotypes. And in the case of species like the Krogan, it’s specifically encouraging stereotypes that real-life white supremacists use to describe people of color.
In most cases, a better option is to look at a nonhuman’s material condition and consider how that might affect their culture. Instead of assigning one species the cowardly trait, you might explore how that species’ behavior is affected by having a heightened ability to sense hostility. Yes, this is more work, but it’s important for avoiding both cliché aliens and space racism.
Take Humans Into Account
Finally, scifi would be greatly improved if we stopped thinking of humans as the default from which all nonhumans deviate. One of Mass Effect’s big story problems is that the writers struggled to find a reason for humans to be especially important in the Reaper story, and they never found an answer. For Asari, the reason could have been their psychic abilities. The Reapers might have focused on Salarians because of their short generational cycle. The Turians have the galaxy’s largest military, which could make them the Reapers’ first target.
Humans have nothing. After ME2 hinted that humans might be better at lateral thinking, ME3 seemingly went with the idea that Reapers care about humans specifically because Shepard is a human. Boy, will they be in for a surprise when they find out that Shepard is just one individual and doesn’t reflect the species as a whole.
It doesn’t have to be this way. All you need is to pick some human trait and dial it back in your world’s aliens. Personally, I’m a big fan of humans being the physically tough species, as we’re fairly resilient by the standards of large Terran animals. But you can also use purely spec fic elements. Mass Effect’s psychic powers are caused by exposure to an exotic element, so why not say that humans have the most pronounced reaction? That would even explain why humans don’t have any powers in real life, as we haven’t found any of the exotic element yet.
That would have made it much easier to give humans a unique place in Mass Effect’s story, and it’ll do the same for your story. Even if humans aren’t the focus of your space opera epic, it’s still good to give them something unique. Otherwise, why include such a boring species?
Despite an ending that seems to preclude any further stories in the Mass Effect universe, another game is apparently on the way, assuming EA doesn’t strip Bioware for parts first. If the game does come out, I’ll be very interested to see how the worldbuilding changes. I’d really like a shift in the portrayal of Krogan – something to dispel the idea that they’re less intelligent than any other species. Also, I would dearly love to never see another Vorcha. Goblins are problematic enough in fantasy; there’s no reason to bring them into science fiction.
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