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.