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.