Here’s Why Mass Effect’s Villains Were So Excellent

Here’s Why Mass Effect’s Villains Were So Excellent

Sometimes it got difficult to remember what evil look like in the Mass Effect games. With all the soap opera of loyalty missions, interplanetary politics and romance plotlines in the three Mass Effect games, it sure was easy to forget what you had to save the universe from. Sure, the threat loomed large but doing stuff like chasing down an assassin’s wayward son pushed the overarching menace into the background.

But when the trilogy sent you reminders of the wickedness that your Commander Shepard was up against, they were doozies. Watching Saren lose control over his own mind in the battle against him, coming across the colony that had been decimated by the Collectors or seeing the homeworld of a close friend fall to the Reapers… these were all moments that made me feel like I might not actually be able to save the universe.

To my mind, evil operates on a continuum in the Mass Effect trilogy, with two poles that represent different kinds of malevolence.

The Reapers represent erasure. They want to wipe organic life off the cosmological map. And one of the scariest things about the eons-old machine race is the fact that they’ve done it before, over and over again. And then they retreat back to the edges of the universe and lurk in wait for a chance to do it anew.

The Sovereign sequence from Mass Effect 1 is one of the most chilling encounters I ever had in a video game. Here I was, a lowly human who felt lucky enough to become a Spectre, head already awhirl at all the different species and rivalries I’d had to navigate. But here was an entity that felt like un-life. The moment was chilling. (It helped that the the modulated voicework reminded me a bit of arcade classic Sinistar.)

You can see where the Reapers harbour echoes of Stark Trek’s cybernetic Borg race. And there’s also a bit of Galactus — Marvel Comics’ planet-eating force of nature — in their DNA too.

But the Reapers are more fearsome than the Borg because of the universe they operate in. In Star Trek, Starfleet is the big, mostly conflict-free space family that humanity, Vulcans and loads of other races belong to. And since the Borg have mostly come into conflict with Starfleet forces, it’s never felt like the entirety of the Trek universe was at risk. Maybe the Klingons would beat them, right? But in Mass Effect 3, as homeworld after homeworld fell, it really felt like the Reapers were unstoppable.

When I spoke to him last week, I asked Drew Karpyshyn about what went into the recipe for the Reapers. Yes, there’s some Trek in there but the Mass Effect 1 head writer also said that other influences came up when he and the other BioWare creators who birthed Mass Effect were brainstorming. “We had other influences in our game besides classic science fiction. We wanted to distinguish the Reapers from things like the Borg or other similar stuff. What we did was, we went to the elder gods of the Lovecraft mythology. That’s what we wanted to capture. These are the science fiction version of the elder gods.”

“Instead of the elder gods being demons sleeping beneath the earth in another realm, they are sentient enormous spaceships lurking out beyond the borders of space, of our known universe,” Karpyshyn elaborated. “When you talk to Sovereign, he drops hints that not only are these Reapers an unstoppable force, but they’re also the ones who have essentially created life in our galaxy. They know that this pattern of organic life is going to keep happening and they found the only way to control it is to direct its outcome. They aren’t just destroyers, they’re creators and destroyers at the same time. That’s some of the stuff that we wanted to play with and really push them into the science fiction realm of what a god might be in a hard-science kind of universe.”

If the Reapers are ancient deities, then Cerberus — the radical humans-first faction that terrorised the rest of the galaxy with acts of aggression — are devils whispering on Shepard’s shoulder. The Illusive Man’s organisation tried to sway Shepard into their way of thinking in Mass Effect 2 but to no avail. Against the backdrop of a series where co-operation and alliance-building were highly held ideals, a bunch of humans who didn’t want to play along with the universe’s other civilisations is a big no-no. Cerberus represents megalomania, a level of self-interest that’s toxic when placed in a system where other parties need each other to survive.

The Mass Effect titles are games in which the strength of diversity matters. The alien races acted differently and had tense histories with each other. What the player has to do as Shepard is marshal them all together to unify them against a great threat, something that had never been done before. Different as they are, what the forces you fight in the trilogy have in common is a rejection of co-existence. Cerberus wants you to either fall in line with an Earth-centric protocol. The Reapers simply want organic life to cease to exist altogether. Either way, they would paint over or wipe away the mosaic of cultures After journeying to far-off planets and changing the lives of various NPCs, you realise how meaningful each individual sentient can be to others. Life matters in this cosmos. Differences are strengths when aligned correctly. In Mass Effect, it’s disturbing to meet entities for whom these truths don’t matter, just as it is in real life. However, the existential dread you feel when listening to the Illusive Man’s seductive rationalisations or Sovereign’s unfeeling dismissal makes it feel just a little bit mythic when you finally get to strike them down.

It’s Mass Effect Week at Kotaku. All week, we’ll be taking a look back at the last five and a half years of galaxy-saving heroism, cross-species romance and awkward dancing.


  • I thought the reapers were terrible villains. One dimensional, and only a vague threat for most of the trilogy. Cerberus were actually worse – the whole working for Cerberus thing in the second game was supposed to suggest they were murky and manipulative. The problem was, they were involved in so many dodgy activities it never came close to being plausible that Shepherd would work with them.

    Ultimately though, for me the greatest narrative failings of parts 2 and 3 of the series was the absence of an identifiable Seren time villain. Its hard to hate when there is no one to direct it towards.

    • The problem was, they were involved in so many dodgy activities it never came close to being plausible that Shepherd would work with them.

      Mass Effect 2 could have used stronger scenes to cement that working with Cerberus and keeping them in the loop was literally the only way it was going to get done. I looked at it that way for the entire game and it helped. I recognised them from the first so I knew there was no way I was being told the whole story and I knew sooner or later it was going to end badly. It made the game more tense and a lot more interesting but I can see why someone would be puzzled and struggle to accept why Shep didn’t just steal the ship and cut all ties.
      I think ideally they would have made a bigger deal out Cerberus being the only ones to believe him and thus his only option, even having a chapter where Shep leaves and has to come back, only to reveal later on that Cerberus were behind the manipulation that led everyone else to dismiss the idea of Reapers (thus securing that Shepard has no other options, which ultimately keeps them in control of it all).

      Although it could have been interesting if Cerberus had of been legitimately just in it to save humanity. This evil empire sinking everything they’ve got into their belief that one man was their only hope for survival. During Mass Effect 2 they know what’s on the line so they have no choice but to give you everything you want, no matter what it costs them. By the time you get to Mass Effect 3 you’ve either crippled them with Paragon choices, at which point they’re still throwing everything they’ve got at the Reapers*, or you’ve ignored their evil deeds and they’re now a powerful ally.
      It’d actually make a decent set of outcomes to mix into the ending. You’ve got Cerberus being crippled, where midway through the game they think you’ve cost them the war and are out to get you. You’ve got Cerberus being in ok shape, where they help you defeat the Reapers but aren’t powerful enough to seize control. Then you’ve got Cerberus being in great shape, where they really help win the war, offer you a position, and attempt to take control.

      *I would imagine at that point they’d be pretty annoyed with you shutting them down, so they’d probably be an enemy.

      • Although it could have been interesting if Cerberus had of been legitimately just in it to save humanity.

        I agree. That goal was just so incompatible with the Cerberus we met in the first game that I couldn’t get past it. Partly my own hang-ups and willingness to ‘read too much into it’ I guess.

  • A lot of people seem to have high praise for Drew Karpyshyn, and he does indeed seem to be responsible for a lot of the good bits of Mass Effect, but reading this it’s clear he know bugger all about Lovecraft.

    Edit: I should probably correct that slightly: where he says “Instead of the elder gods being demons sleeping beneath the earth in another realm, they are sentient enormous spaceships lurking out beyond the borders of space, of our known universe,” The Old Ones are a loose grouping of god-like alien beings that hail from places in the universe where our idea of reality simply doesn’t apply. They ‘re not demons in the traditional sense, but they do act a lot like the Reapers, only without any rhyme or reason to their actions.

  • I think the Reapers became more real for me when I played the Leviathan DLC in ME3. Learning how the Leviathan species were basically the original version of the Quarians and Geth (with a twist) really put the Reapers into perspective.

  • Man, the Illusive Man was fucking amazing. He was pretty much the future G-man; mysterious, ominous, grounded yet fantastically unexplainable. I mean, they pretty much screwed him over with ME3, but you can’t deny the man’s got style with his glowing eyes, future tuxedo, and fucking awesome star base.

  • Uggh, I’m glad this is “Mass Effect week” is almost over.

    As someone who’s never played the games, these constant ME stories have started to grow quite thin on me.

    • As someone who has played the games, these constant ME stories have been growing quite thin on me for a while.

    • Most weeks there’s a lot of articles I skip cause I’m not interested. This week I’ve been quite enjoying all the ME stuff. It’s not that hard to not read stuff you don’t find interesting.

      • I realise that and I normally do but when every second story is about Mass Effect it gets hard to ignore.

        • I know that feel because it happens for other things. Like when I visit Gizmodo and keep on not reading anything because they’re going on and on about some new iThing.

  • AS someone who though every game got worse since the first one and ended up as the most disappointing trilogy of all time i wish this week never existed. The game ended in disgrace.

  • Reapers were fine. Blowing Cerberus up in the second game was the start to all their problems though imo, and as anyone who played ME3 will know, they got out of hand in that and really hurt the story. Saren Arterius and Sovereign when we think about it, were the only real villains we interacted with out of all 3 games. Yes we talked to Harbinger, but what did we learn from him that we didn’t already learn from Sovereign? That’s where they should have focussed ME2 imo…

  • There was a villain after Saren?
    I mean the reapers were always a vague or general threat, kind of like killing calling a whole army or a natural disaster a villain and the illusive man inevitably had to play second banana to the world destroying machines so he was always more the occasional obstacle.
    I liked Saren though, he was a cool villain.

  • I think Illusive man was cool. But the dumbest villian that still pisses me off is Kai Leng. I hated the way the 3rd game made him this glorified ninja villian, I mean, C’mon, you think there is anybody can go toe to toe with Commander Shepherd? Seriously?

  • I liked the Reapers because never before in a game have a felt like humanity was so insignificant and unimportant.

    I think a lot of people associate the term ‘reaper’ with the grim reaper, with death and decay. The term reaper, or reap, is about agriculture, it’s about reaping a crop. It’s more about bounty and fruitfulness. In Mass Effect, organic life was merely a crop to be maintained and farmed to keep order. The Reapers were merely farmers. They planted seeds each season, once the crop ripe they’d come and harvest it else it’d become overgrown and wilt. After they’d reaped the harvest they sow the seeds and leave until the next season. It was a simple way of keeping the galaxies from chaos. It’s an efficient and beautifully ordered system. Neat crops and timely harvests. The Reapers even resemble hands, like farmers reaching down to reap a crop.

    That’s what made the Reapers terrifying to me. The Reapers weren’t vile characters twirling their moustaches and concocting devious schemes, we’ve seen that before. With the Reapers there was no ill intent, it was nothing personal, they didn’t hate us, they couldn’t be reasoned with or negotiated with, humanity was merely a crop. And the Reapers had every intent of reseeding humanity after its harvesting. What chance does a cob of corn stand against a tractor?

    To me it was something truly scary, a fresh idea for a villain. In our lives every day we eat food and wear clothing that was a result of plants being farmed and harvested and regrown yet we do not feel an ounce of guilt for any plantlife that we reap. So it was genuinely unique for me to experience a story with such reversed roles, to experience the struggle from the perspective of a humble doomed crop about to be efficiently and emotionlessly harvested and replanted, against our will.

  • While I love the Reaper, I think on of the greatest strengths of ME was that they weren’t the only one you were up against. I feel like for most of the trilogy they kind of sat off to the side as a huge looming threat but to combat them you had to go through conflict with the likes of the council (who wanted to ignore the reapers) or cerberus (who want to control them) or any other number of organisations.

    Basically it allowed them to be a bit of an enigma, which made them all the more powerful and also allowed Shephard to go up against a number of other foes all with different motivations, making the whole thing just that much more interesting.

    On top of that all the factions you came up against were believable and you could understand where they were coming from and why they were for or against you. In other words they weren’t there just thrown in for no other reason than because Shephard needed someone to go against.

  • The Reapers were a trippy, scary threat to beat all others. I agree that the distractions were subtly powerful in that you might tend to forget that, just for a moment. But they were always there in the back of my mind. I just had this hope-against-hope that I could save the galaxy, and just maybe my Shepard as well. Maybe it wasn’t realistic, but aren’t we always at war ourselves, thinking we can put off death indefinitely?

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