Alien Races in Mass Effect

Alien Races in Mass Effect

Alien Races in Mass Effect

The Mass Effect series appears to have a number of fans among the staff of GFN, including yours truly. I mean, there’s a lot to like about the series: the large cast of characters, the easy-to-learn shooter mechanics (vastly improved after the clunky gameplay in the first installment), the rich array of exotic alien landscapes, the sense of RPG-fueled character progression, and what have you. Although I personally think the dialogue is “great for a video game” rather than just “great,” people often hail the series for its engaging and cinematic writing style.

Although I enjoyed the storytelling and the universe-building for what they were, I gotta touch on something that felt out of place throughout the series. I’m probably not the first one to make this point, and it’s actually something I’ve noticed throughout the majority of science fiction, but it seemed particularly distracting in a series whose message was, arguably, diversity. I’m talking about the fact that the alien races in the Mass Effect universe often seem like they’re widely generalized, with individual members of each species often acting like little more than perfectly interchangeable mouthpieces for the entire race. Turian A behaves exactly like turian B, etc.

I know a lot of fuss has already been made about how similar every alien species is to humans in terms of aesthetics, hanar and elcor excepted (but even they have analogues to animals found on Earth, one of them even being a not-so-distant human relative). I understand the technical reasons behind the similar body shapes (easier to cut and paste animations if everyone has the same number of limbs), but even without that excuse, I still don’t mind how humanoid everyone looks. The familiarity is comforting, in a way, and there are enough visual distinctions between species that each race looks sufficiently unique. No, my argument is not “all asari look like humans, or even “all asari look alike”; it’s the behavioural similarities between individual members of a given species that put me off.

You know the tropes. All krogan are aggressive, stubborn, brawn-over-brains types. All asari are either stripper-prostitutes or well-spoken mystics (or both). All batarians are rough-hewn thugs. All turians are serious, uptight, and procedural. The only times these tropes are ever broken are when they’re played for humour; meeting an elcor Groundling in the Citadel DLC is funny because they’re typically emotionless and sombre, and you wouldn’t expect one to have thespian aspirations. There’s no spectrum, only two extremes with little in between.

I don’t buy the argument whereby the individual’s behaviour is dictated by their profession, either. Every mercenary in Mass Effect is surly and gruff, every military commander is grizzled and disapproving until you really get to know him and then you find out he’s got a heart of gold, and so on. It’s one thing to say that most krogan generally go into mercenary work because they’re tough to kill and physically intimidating, but it’s another thing entirely to say that because they’re guns-for-hire, they all have to have a uniformly bad attitude. Couldn’t there be krogan mercs that are nervous, chipper, passive, or eager? I mean, sure, it’s possible that the mercenary life nurtures certain behaviours in those that choose it, or even that aliens with certain personalities and habits will be more adept mercenaries, but come on. Predispositions or not, an entire galaxy’s worth of grumpy batarian mercs doesn’t make a lot of sense. A little variation among NPC backgrounds and behaviours would be nice.

The asari are particularly puzzling. Their genetic pool is more of an ocean due to their custom of taking aliens as their mates (intermarriage between two asari, such as the union between Benezia and Aethyta that produced Liara T’Soni, being frowned upon), yet the vast majority of them are particularly eloquent, sultry, and even-tempered. Even though Liara went through the improbable transition from doe-eyed archaeologist to the galaxy’s biggest crime lord, she still speaks like she’s reading from a book most of the time, just like the rest of her race. The only exceptions I can think of are Aethyta (who blames her crass speech and her tendency toward aggression on her father’s krogan genes) and Aria T’Loak, although the latter is really just Carrie-Anne Moss with blue skin. Aria always felt more like a token “bad bitch” character than the strong female character Bioware was probably hoping for; the sooner writers realize that women don’t need a potty mouth and a bad attitude to be “strong,” the better. One Michelle Rodriguez is more than enough.

Another annoying trope: all aliens of a particular race seem to hail from that race’s homeworld. All salarians are from Sur’Kesh; all krogan are from Tuchanka. Is it inconceivable that even a few krogan were born on Earth? Couldn’t a few salarians have been born to an away team or a group of colonists on some backwater moon? We see human colonies like Eden Prime and Horizon, but no alien colonies outside of the asari world Ilium. Given their belief in increasing genetic diversity, you would think that the asari would’ve allowed Thessia to become a haven for outsiders, but no; the planet seems to be entirely made up of asari, just like Sur’Kesh is entirely made up of salarians, and so on.

And on these alien homeworlds, where are the wars? Do we really expect that on a planet of ten billion crafty salarians, all ten billion of them are in perfect agreement? For all the effort Bioware put into making these aliens look and act like humans, they left out our defining feature: our tendency to kill members of our own species. Sure, the krogan are constantly fighting each other in ritual clan warfare, but they’re all vicious barbarians, right? It’s to be expected. I’d rather see the civilized council races quelling internal disputes than watch the krogan mindlessly banging their heads together. This is, after all, the species that nuked their entire planet to dust. But yeah, for the most part, the series seems to indicate that each species generally speaks as one unified voice, which, as humans, we know is complete and utter bullcrap.

Ironically, the geth are embroiled in a civil war during the events of Mass Effect 2, and they’re the only race where it would make perfect sense for all of them to look alike, act alike, and reach the same conclusions on all matters. Instead, we get this half-hearted “heretic schism” explanation for the geth divide that ends up being little more than a front for eventually getting a badass geth on your team. You know, that whole “my enemy is now my friend” plot twist. I like Legion as a character, and I liked playing through his segments in Mass Effect 2 and 3, but the whole geth civil war thing is such crap.

I know I said these things bugged me as I played through the games, but they really did very little to impede my enjoyment of the series. It’s more like, in my perfect sci-fi game, I would want the aliens to display vastly different behaviours from individual to individual, just like humans. The Mass Effect games are so human-centric, so focused on making the Alliance the saviours of the world (the galaxy-scale equivalent of “Go ‘Murica!”), that we often see the other races (who, in the cases of the turians, salarians, and asari, are developmentally and technologically superior) reduced to mere caricatures. Meanwhile, there is rich variation among the humans, both in appearance and personality. In any game, in any genre, I’d like to see that degree of diversity extended as far as possible.


3 thoughts on “Alien Races in Mass Effect”

  1. I think you’ve got a fair point, and it’s certainly one that exists in many sci-fi universes. To play devil’s advocate though, one might argue that the POINT of them being so homogeneous is to stress just how unique humankind really is. The game even flat out states that humans have the most diverse genetic codes of the main races. Sure the Asari borrow traits from other races, but they aren’t actually swapping genetic material with anyone, it all comes from them.

    I’m also going to point out that a number of the races in question, especially the Asari and Salarians, have very secretive and enclosed societies that don’t encourage letting other races see what goes on within their borders. Justicars are just one example of this, as the Asari do just about everything they can to not expose them to other races. And, as we saw in ME3, they sometimes keep HUGE secrets simply to maintain the facade that they are in control. Thessia was all but lost to the Reapers by the time Shepard found out about it! It’s entirely possible (and likely) that any feuds or wars that exist on major home-worlds are simply kept quiet by the more “powerful” races. Where as the races who embrace or accept that sort of “weakness”, Humans, Drell, Krogan, Batarian… are more than happy to wear such violence on their sleeves where anyone can see it.

    We also don’t actually know where a lot of the NPCs were born, so I’m not actually sure how much I agree or disagree with you on that one. I will agree that they focus a lot on the main home-worlds though. Although I’m pretty sure that’s just a byproduct of the story than an real indicator of anything.

  2. The comment by Jason brought up the points I was going to bring to the table, but you raise a really interesting point that had never crossed my mind before. Just wanted to say thanks for sharing and making me think deeper about a franchise I love! I wonder if in the official book series by Drew Karpyshyn if it got into any of that more than we were able to see in the video game. From a dialogue/story perspective alone (with a nod to your animation concession), adding that many potential holes and plot points behind what was already a rich universe might’ve just been overwhelming. Perhaps we’d be reaching Skyrim levels of exploration depth, with really, ain’t nobody got time fo dat.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s