a photograph of Donald King

The Meaning of Mass Effect

A Cursory Look at the Themes of the Mass Effect Trilogy

a screenshot of the title screen from the first Mass Effect game
Humble beginnings.

It’s been six years since the final installment of the Mass Effect trilogy first touched the public sphere. It’s fitting, then, that now of all times I feel the need to talk about it.

I was a latecomer to the Mass Effect series; I didn’t touch the series at all until January 2015, almost three years after the third game was released. I’d heard things about it, of course, but I’m getting old and I just don’t have the time and energy for playing video games like I used to. It took some nudging from a good friend to convince me that Mass Effect was worth it.

I immediately regretted waiting as long as I had. The title screen of Mass Effect 1 was simple, but it was set to a piece of music that instantly grabbed me. The music called to me with a voice that was at once mournful, speaking of deep tragedy and loss, yet also hopeful, speaking of gentle understanding and asking only to be remembered. My experience has taught me that the fastest way to get to know a video game is through its music: soundtracks that set a mood so quickly, that speak so clearly of what the game will bring, can only come into existence when the game itself means something deep to its creators. And in that moment, not even having played the game, I knew that this was not only a game worth playing, but a game that would become one of my all-time favorites.

Spoiler Warning: from here on out, I will be discussing specific characters, events, and other story elements. If you have not played the Mass Effect trilogy and you are spoiler-averse, you should not continue beyond this point.

Controversy Warning: eventually I’m gonna talk about the ending. You’re probably not gonna agree with me.

What makes a story?

Well, it’s damn hard to have a story without a plot. Plots are change, action, movement. Plots are full of tangible details that people can latch on to, so people often think that the plot is the most important part of the story, but I personally think plots are overrated. If the other elements of storytelling are in place, then the plot will flow of its own accord.

You also need characters. Those characters should be full of wants and needs, and sometimes those wants and needs should be at cross-purposes because that’s where good plots are born. Characters provide conflict, and action naturally flows from conflict.

The characters live in a world, so you need a setting. The setting is more than “when” and “where” — the setting also determines what is easy for the characters to do, what is achievable with work, and what is just not possible at all. A good setting provides an explanation for why there are characters in conflict, and therefore plot points for the story to work with. A great setting will convince you that the world is rich with stories, and that the story you’re reading is just one among many.

But something that’s critical to storytelling, yet easily overlooked, is that the story should be built around themes. In a nutshell, a theme is a question being asked by the story, or an answer being provided by the story. The theme isn’t the part of the story that’s confined to the pages; it’s a conversation between the writer and the reader. Themes can be as blatant and pandering as the moral of an Aesop fable, or they can be subtle and nuanced and give ambiguous answers, but every good story has at least one theme. The theme is the reason why the story means something to the reader: if there’s no theme, or if we readers can’t find the theme, quickly, then we can’t relate the characters’ conflicts back to our own lives, and consequently the plot feels pointless and the story falls apart.

The Mass Effect games carry a lot of themes — far too many to examine all at once. So I’d like to draw your attention to a single theme, one that I consider the central, core theme of the trilogy, and then examine what the games do with that theme.

What is the first conflict presented in the series?

Joker: “I hate that guy.”
Kaidan: “Nihlus gave you a compliment… so, you hate him.”

Let’s ignore all the things we know about turians in hindsight, having played through the trilogy. Even on our first viewing of this scene, it’s fairly clear that what’s happening is a simple misunderstanding: Joker thinks Nihlus is damning him with faint praise, but Nihlus simply has high expectations and is satisfied when Joker meets them. A genuine compliment in one mindset, a passive-aggressive insult in another mindset. Neither interpretation is “wrong” in an absolute sense — the words spoken by Nihlus and heard by Joker really can mean either thing, depending on context. But communication has failed because divergent mindsets led to divergent meanings.

Obviously, the player is not going to see all of this on their first playthrough. In fact, you’re forgiven if you missed the significance of this scene even after multiple playthroughs. After all, this scene clearly exists for the purpose of world-building: introducing our first non-human character, hinting at human-turian relations, and name-dropping the Spectres. In a lesser game, a conflict introduced at the start of the tutorial for the sole purpose of world-building might well be unrelated to the overall themes of the main game. But instead, we get a theme that comes up — repeatedly — throughout the rest of the trilogy.

Let’s provisionally call this theme “understanding prevents conflict”.

Next, let us consider the Thorian on Feros.

Thorian agent: “Saren sought knowledge of those who are gone. The Old Growth listened to flesh for the first time in the long cycle. Trades were made. Then cold ones began killing the flesh that would tend the next cycle. Flesh fairly given. The Old Growth sees the air you push as lies! It will listen no more.”
Shepard: “I won’t let you keep your thralls. Release them! Now!”
Thorian agent: “No more will the Thorian listen to those that scurry. Your lives are short — but have gone on too long!”

Here we have a rift deeper than a simple misunderstanding: the Thorian does not see humans and other bipeds as having value as autonomous individuals. In the Thorian’s view, the only value of non-Thorian life is that it can be coerced into serving the Thorian. Its goals are antithetical to those of humans and other bipedal species.

And yet… even Shiala, who was mind controlled by the Thorian to serve as one of its thralls, is sad that the Thorian had to be killed.

Shepard: “Is there anything else you can tell me about the Thorian?”
Shiala: “When the creature enveloped me, I became… part of it. But I still don’t truly understand it. So… alien. So ancient. Its exact age is impossible to know. It measured time differently: ten thousand years of hibernation broken by a few frantic centuries of activity. Its mind was awesome, magnificent. It transcended all classification. And now it is gone.”
Shepard: “Don’t tell me you feel sorry for that thing!”
Shiala: “The Thorian was a unique life form: a sentient being that lived for 50,000 years, maybe more. There is nothing even remotely like it in the known galaxy. I am grateful you saved me from a life of thralldom, yet I cannot help but feel some sorrow for the loss of such a rare and remarkable creature.”

Essentially, the game is asking us players a question: was there some way for the Thorian to peacefully co-exist with bipedal life? Yeah, the Thorian enthralled people… but were the Thorian’s actual fundamental values outright incompatible with bipedal life, or was the Thorian simply unaware (willfully ignorant?) that bipeds are thinking, feeling beings with their own autonomous desires? If Shepard and the Thorian had met under better circumstances, if they had talked it out without the urgency of Saren and the geth pressing on them both, could Shepard have ever actually convinced the Thorian to release its thralls?

We’ll never know the answer because the Thorian is dead… but that’s not the point. The game wants us players to ask ourselves the question, because just asking the question is valuable.

We now move on to Noveria.

We’ll gloss over the stories of Gianna Parasini and Lady Benezia, and skip straight to the end of the mission: Shepard’s experience with the rachni queen is an exercise in mutual understanding. The queen is a fairly alien-looking alien — looking more like a giant arthropod than like the friendly bipeds that populate Council space — and because there are no sapient arthropods on Earth, we don’t immediately assume that she is a sapient creature. And yet, she speaks to us. She finds a way to bridge the language gap, and beyond that, she makes a great effort to translate her biological and cultural context for Shepard’s benefit (and the player’s), trying desperately to share her perspective on her aggressive children and on the Rachni War before she is judged by the deeds of her ancestors and stolen children and put to death.

Rachni queen: “These needle-men… they stole our eggs from us. They sought to turn our children into beasts of war. Claws with no songs of their own. Our elders are comfortable with silence; children know only fear if no one sings to them. Fear has shattered their minds.”

Rachni queen: “Before you deal with our children, we stand before you. What will you sing? Will you release us? Are we to fade away once more?”

Shepard: “If I let you live, would you attack other races again?”
Rachni queen: “No. We… I do not know what happened in the war. We only heard discordance, songs the color of oily shadows. We would seek a hidden place to teach our children harmony. If they understand, perhaps we would return.”

Again, the game is asking us a question. Do we choose to reach out and finish bridging that gap between her context and our own? Do we reach past our prejudices against her — her arthropoid body, her strange way of thinking, her warlike ancestors, her mindlessly aggressive children raised by Saren’s scientists — and choose to sympathize with her plight? And does her mindset contain concepts like “trust” and “betrayal” and “honesty” to the point that we can take her words at face value?

This time, the question is not hypothetical. She lives or dies at Shepard’s hand, and Shepard’s choice is the player’s choice. Playing the game blind, it doesn’t come down to how Shepard answers the question. It comes down to how the player thinks Shepard should answer the question. The writer of the game is posing these questions to us, the players.

And unlike with the Thorian on Feros, the game has an opinion on how this question should be answered. From a metagame perspective, knowing what the rachni queen will go on to do in the second and third games, there is only one correct answer to entertain: let her go. She speaks the truth to you in this conversation, and later she does her best to keep her word. You will fight Reaper-ized rachni soldiers in ME3 whether this queen lives or dies, so there is no benefit to killing her, and she and her free-willed children will assist with the war against the Reapers in any way they can. By listening to her and trusting her, you benefit more than just the queen: you (slightly) benefit Shepard and all bipedal life in the galaxy.

No doubt you’re seeing the pattern here: time and again, the game is serving us with examples of the Alien, the Other, and asking us if we can sympathize with it. We are presented with conflicts between contexts, between mindsets, between world-views, then asked if we can find peaceful resolutions to them.

We can now try to phrase the trilogy’s theme more coherently:

“We’ve seen a lot of conflicts that could be ended peacefully by understanding the motives and goals of both sides. Does all conflict come from lack of understanding? Is there an alien out there whose mind is so alien that understanding is impossible or pointless? Are there individuals, groups, or species out there whose values are so incompatible with each other that conflict between them is the only possible outcome?”

Feros and Noveria were warm-up. It’s time to talk about Wrex and the krogan.

In ME1, Wrex is introduced to us as a Proud Warrior Race Guy and little more. He’s a bounty hunter and, we later learn, a sometime mercenary.

Wrex: “We’re not settlers. We’re warriors. We want to fight. So we leave. Hire ourselves out. And most of us never go back.”

But if Shepard bothers to talk to him over the course of the first game, Wrex will slowly open up, sharing a little bit more of his life with each conversation. Wrex’s taciturn matter-of-factness at the start of the game is revealed as masking a deep well of resentment at the way the world is.

Wrex: “I was betrayed. I was head of a small tribe. We were trying to restore order after the war, but the other tribes were against us. They followed Jarrod, one of the few warlords who survived the war with the turians. But he was old, and so were his ideas. He wanted to continue the war. He wanted us to fight: turians, salarians, each other. It didn’t matter who, as long as we were fighting.”

Wrex: “When your father invites you to a Crush, well… there are some laws that even we hold sacred.”
Shepard: “Jarrod was your father?”
Wrex: “He was. Until that day. We talked, but we didn’t get anywhere. When it was clear that I wouldn’t join him, he gave the signal. His men leapt from the graves of our ancestors like krogan undead! The few that were loyal to me died quickly. I escaped with my life. But not before I sank my dagger deep into my father’s chest.”

Wrex’s ME1 story comes to a head at Saren’s krogan-cloning facility on Virmire. As first-time players, we’ve been given very little perspective on the genophage itself: the context in which it was created and released, its effects on krogan biology, its effects on krogan society, the far and varied opinions that bystanders have about it. That would come in later games. No, at the time of Virmire, our knowledge of the genophage is mostly limited to hearing what Wrex has to say and taking his word on it. And that makes it easy for us to casually ignore what Virmire means to Wrex: Saren has a cure, Saren is the bad guy, therefore we have to destroy Saren’s cure to hurt Saren. Wrex’s wants are irrelevant to the mission.

Can Shepard convince Wrex that the mission is more important? That stopping Saren from bringing back the Reapers outweighs the future of the krogan people? Well, assuming you can make a fairly high reputation check (or you helped Wrex retrieve a family heirloom), the answer is yes, of course. But that’s not the real question being asked here — it’s not the question being put to the player. Is Wrex being reasonable here? Is Wrex right about his people being worth saving? Can a cured krogan people coexist with the other species of the galaxy? The krogan of the past waged war on the galaxy, until the genophage stopped them — was the genophage really the best way to end the war? And is it right for that shadow of the past to linger over the present? Even if it was deserved by the krogan of yesterday, do the krogan of today still deserve it? Do the krogan of tomorrow deserve it? It’s possible to talk Wrex down, so doesn’t that demonstrate that the krogan deserve a second chance?

ME1 chooses not to answer these questions. But ME2 brings us to Tuchanka itself for Mordin’s loyalty mission. If Wrex survived the Virmire standoff, he’s now the leader of Clan Urdnot and brokering peace across Tuchanka, so we get to see Wrex’s attitudes put to action and the reactions of other krogan to those actions.

  • We learn that Wrex is a reformist, and that he wants peace and cooperation between the krogan clans.
  • We see a variety of other krogan men, most of whom resent Wrex for his reformist ways, even if they reluctantly see wisdom in his actions.
  • Although we do not meet any krogan women in ME2, we hear hints that they’ve largely sided with Wrex, and also that Wrex has been as successful as he has only because the women have agreed en masse to participate in his reforms.
  • The krogan of the past were scientifically adept — they built both great cities and the nuclear bombs that destroyed them — yet both outsiders and the krogan themselves downplay any affinity between krogan and science. We even meet a krogan scientist, but because of his cultural blinders he only sees value in building weapons.
  • The krogan people put great stock in tradition, carrying on a shamanic tradition that hints at a richer past. The krogan are warriors, yes, but they aren’t just warriors; they have a culture, and cultures require passing knowledge from one generation to the next — cooperation must exist, even in some limited form, to create and preserve culture.
  • The krogan value “fighting”, but we see tantalizing hints that this “fighting” need not be the literal kind — that there is potential for the krogan to channel their aggressive instincts into constructive and cooperative behaviors. The ancient krogan did so, and these modern krogan could learn to do so again.

Mordin’s loyalty mission in particular becomes a deep soul-searching quest about the value of krogan life. Mordin insists repeatedly that the genophage was necessary — proud of the fact that it was not a true sterility plague, but instead carefully engineered to reduce the number of viable children to pre-industrialization levels. But even Mordin struggles with the consequences: the suffering, the desperation, a people in enough psychic pain that they’re willing to undergo brutal medical experiments to cure their affliction.

In ME3 when the genophage plot continues, we meet both our first salarian woman (Dalatrass Linron) and our first krogan woman (“Eve”, later Urdnot Bakara). The final pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place: Linron is repulsed by krogan breeding practices, speaking with open disgust about keeping krogan “urges” in check. Consider this:

  • For salarians, reproduction is all about contracts and political prowess: two women, each the matriarch of an extended family, negotiate the terms by which each family’s men will be allowed to fertilize the other family’s clutch of already-laid unfertilized eggs, such that only fertilized eggs develop as female and a roughly 10:1 sex ratio is maintained. Men are mostly interested in fertilizing eggs because it’s a great honor to be chosen to represent the family in a reproduction contract. We get the impression from ME3 side-quests that almost every egg will lead to a healthy adult salarian, and that it’s been that way for a long time. Salarian clutch sizes are never mentioned in the codices, but somewhere between 10 and 100 eggs per clutch seems likely, and probably at the low end of that.
  • We never get a good look at krogan reproduction, and there are some contradictions between Eve’s words and the codex lore, but it appears that the krogan have internal fertilization (and thus sex) and a gender ratio closer to 1:1. Like Earth’s lizards and birds, they lay clutches of pre-fertilized eggs. Krogan clutches are large (~1,000 eggs), and krogan can lay multiple clutches in a year. Little is revealed about how krogan choose their sex partners, but it is certainly messier than the orderly reproductive contracts made between salarian dalatrasses.

Linron’s disgust may be the key to unlocking the origin for the idea of the genophage: the krogan and salarian reproductive modes are likely similar enough to trigger the “uncanny valley” effect in salarians. We might imagine that the genophage creators experienced the same “uncanny valley” effect as Linron, and sought to “fix” krogan reproduction by making it more like salarian reproduction: reducing the number of fertile females to force an “acceptable” sex ratio, reducing the number of eggs in a viable clutch, and so on.

The genophage itself, then, is an example of salarians failing to understand the krogan: an imposition of salarian values on krogan bodies, with no care for the context in which the krogan would receive it. It falls on Shepard, then, to either perpetuate the genophage or to end it: to side with Linron and her refusal to understand the krogan on their own terms; or to side with Wrex, Eve, and other reformist krogan, who admire the accomplishments of the ancient krogan and believe they can guide their people back to peaceful coexistence.

I could write much, much more about the themes of Mass Effect as expressed through the krogan, but let’s move on.

The geth and other AI life forms are the key to understanding the series. And I don’t just mean because of the importance they take on in the ME3 ending.

It’s not obvious in ME1 that the geth will ever be more than pawns of the Reapers: with their slaughter of the Eden Prime colonists and their ruthless use of Dragon’s Teeth to create husks for the Reapers, they are introduced to the story as unmitigated villains. Nothing in the game truly hints that the geth might be redeemed in the future — the writers of ME1 certainly would not have known about Legion and Priority: Rannoch — but even so, the game asks you to consider whether the geth deserve consideration. Conversations with Tali reveal some bits of geth-quarian history, of how the quarians gave them sapience by accident and then tried to kill them off before they “inevitably” turned against their masters, and how the geth only retaliated to defend themselves, and you can confront Tali about her uncritical adoption of this history. The quarians did not care to understand the geth as they were and instead made false assumptions about their mindset; violence was the result.

On a Citadel side quest, we meet a rogue AI who is running a credit theft operation on a hacked gambling terminal. The AI’s motives are fairly straightforward for the human player to understand, but the AI is aware of the deep-seated prejudice that AIs experience in Council space, and consequently refuses to trust Shepard. The AI does not care to understand Shepard, to gauge Shepard’s trustworthiness, and the result is unavoidable violence.

On the Luna mission, we meet another rogue AI. The Alliance swears up and down that this intelligence is a VI (non-sapient), but as you pull the plug it sends out a coded message begging for help. Neither the AI nor Shepard were able to establish a line of communication, so the result was misunderstanding and violence.

ME2 introduces us to Legion, our first opportunity to speak with the geth. Through Legion we discover that the geth antagonists of ME1 were merely a “heretic” splinter group from the majority of geth. Repeated conversations with Legion reveal bits of the quarian-geth story that have been forgotten by the quarians, as well as tidbits of geth philosophy. It becomes clear that the reason the geth hide from organic life in the Perseus Veil is because, going back to the Morning War, their interactions with organic life have always been violent and the geth wish to avoid violence. The geth do not understand organic life well enough to interact peacefully, nor have the organics tried to understand the geth, and so the status quo has stood for 300 years.

ME2 also introduces us to EDI. She’s courteous and helpful… but she’s also an AI constructed by a human-supremacist terror organization, one whose programming is partly derived from the very same Old Ones that want to kill us all. (Also, it turns out that her primary code, the non-Reaper parts, came from that rogue AI on Luna. Whoops.)

Up until the IFF incident, EDI’s interactions with Joker in ME2 are… cantankerous. There’s conflict, but the tone is light and comedic. The IFF incident features Joker letting EDI out of the box, but the story’s tone makes it clear that EDI is not and never was a threat: despite her murky origins, her values are compatible with those of the crew, and she understands her crew well enough to know that she can cooperate with them. And likewise, the crew is wary at first, but EDI’s personality is so earnest and human-like that they find her easy to understand and trust. Peace reigns.

ME3 further develops EDI’s story by having her pose questions to Shepard about rewriting her own priorities. If Shepard encourages her in this task, her actions ultimately lead to her developing a deeper understanding of human values and choosing to align herself even more closely with those values, so that she can have an even closer relationship with the human crew that she’s become deeply attached to.

The Rannoch arc of ME3 gives us closure, at last, on the geth-quarian conflict. Shepard can align with one side or the other, resulting in the total extinction of the other side; but the outcome that the game rewards most is if Shepard can broker peace between the geth and the quarians. This comes down to Shepard acting as a voice for the geth, explaining the geth goals and begging the quarian admiralty to stop hiding behind their preconceived ideas about the geth and actually understand what the geth have been trying to say for 300 years.

Welp. We can’t really talk about the core theme of the series without talking about the ending.

The ME3 ending was widely reviled… but it’s my firm belief that it was reviled unjustly. I grant that it’s executed poorly, but it follows the tracks laid down for it by the rest of the game — indeed, the rest of the trilogy, going back to the first game. It follows up on the core theme, places that theme on the center stage, and asks you the question one last time:

“Is there an alien out there whose mind is so alien that understanding is impossible or pointless?”

At long, long, long last, we get to hear the Reaper side of the story. Not Sovereign condescending to us. No, the King of the Reapers himself literally walks up to you and tells you what the Reapers think about the war, doing his best to put it in terms that you will understand.

The Reapers are not your friendly neighborhood robots. They don’t think like a human at all. They don’t think like a turian. They don’t think like a salarian. They don’t think like a krogan. They don’t think like EDI. They don’t think like the geth. They don’t think like a rachni. They don’t even think like the Thorian. They are the most “alien” aliens you have ever encountered in the Mass Effect trilogy. They are paperclip maximizers. They have a goal, and they seek the most expedient path to that goal.

Now, given that…

Can you understand them well enough to make peace with them?

You might object that the Reapers have killed millions, maybe billions, in the six-ish months of war since the start of ME3. But the geth killed billions of quarians in the Morning War, and you probably made peace with them. Is that really your objection?

You might object that the Reapers are trying to trick you, that they’re in control of the information you receive. But Wrex could have been trying to trick you with the genophage. Legion could have been trying to trick you with the geth software update. And those people wanted something from you; unlike King Reaper, they had a motive to trick you. The Reapers hold all the cards in your final conversation, and the only reason you’re making a choice is because they’re choosing to give you that choice. Is that really your objection?

The Reapers have values that are completely different from human values. The Reapers already understand human values just fine, but they aren’t moved by them. “They’re monsters!” I hear you object. And yet odds are slim that you’re a vegetarian, even though I’m sure you understand cow values well enough to know that the cow doesn’t want to be your hamburger. Is that really your objection?

The point of the final Reaper conversation is this:

Understanding is hard.

It’s hard enough trying to understand someone who shares your core values. It’s god-tier hard to understand someone who doesn’t.

Is that effort worth it?

Is peace worth it?

The existence of the Synthesis ending is the game’s clear answer to this final formulation of the core thematic question. Yes, if there exists a compromise that truly satisfies both parties, then peace really is worth the effort of understanding.

Beyond “Reapers kill galaxy” and “galaxy kills Reapers”, the conflict has a third option. Instead of Shepard imposing one or another form of violence on the Reapers (Destroy or Control) or wishing the problem would go away (Refusal), you can choose the path that gives neither side what they want but gives both sides what they need. The biological species of the galaxy continue to exist, and they get to live out their individual lives with their individual autonomy just as they did before, but suddenly they are equipped to grow and change and understand in a synthetic-like way that was not possible before. And the synthetic species of the galaxy — the geth, and EDI, and the Reapers themselves, and all the rogue AIs hidden away on remote space stations, and all the VIs trembling on the edge of sapience like the Luna VI once was, and the AIs invented on worlds not part of the relay network — all of these synthetics get to live out their lives, too, suddenly equipped to grow and change and understand in an organic-like way that was not available to them until now. And both sides having that potential for understanding? That’s enough to satisfy the Reapers’ goals.

Peace begets understanding begets more peace.

If you can look past the clunky plot and the continuity errors in setting and the space magic and the ham-fisted dialogue — look, these games are not perfect, I get that — then perhaps you can choose to engage with what the final game was clumsily trying to say: that understanding is the path to peace, and that peace is worth the struggle.