Building a Universe: Mass Effect – An Origin of Species

By Scott Lipowitz

February 14, 2012

Mass Effect is a rather unique game. It has some of the standard tropes of Science Fiction and the usual mechanics of a BioWare game, but there is a unique undercurrent to the game that makes it stand out, even amongst its peers. BioWare always goes out of their way in order to create their game worlds, whether it is reinventing and rebuilding the Star Wars universe or creating an Asian influenced world in Jade Empire. In all of their games, their writers and artists are careful to craft a unique, deep, and fully fleshed-out universe filled with small specificities and nuances to bring them to life so we can immerse ourselves in their worlds.

BioWare usually keeps their universes airtight, with a few exceptions, so that the games and their associated media remain consistent and flow together. They aren’t entirely without their retcons (see the reshaping of Cerberus from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2), but even these are okay in the grand scheme of things, and remain mostly internally consistent with the overarching narrative of the two games. In spite of these, the overarching universe behind the Mass Effect series is probably the most in-depth seen in quite a while, with a host of very specific background details and events that flow together to create one of the most engaging playgrounds for gamers to enjoy.

The core mythology is incredible in large part because of the variance. The alien species that appear throughout the series all have their own stories, and in spite of their origins and natures, are all relatable and interesting. A large part of this was because BioWare made the smart choice to have Humanity exist as the new kids in the galaxy. Humanity’s rapid ascent works for the game, but the problems it created reflect the well thought-out context of the galactic history. The reason the game works so well is because the various species, which each have their own problems and strengths, are also so familiar to us. Mass Effect is nowhere near hard sci-fi, where everything is realistic, but it does take some very important steps in being an excellently created work of fiction that can fit in with some of the best that space opera has to offer.

The mythos behind the series works so well because of the large events that happened long before our species arrived to assert ourselves in galactic affairs. Each species has their own quirks that both make them different from us, but also familiar. The Asari aren’t just there for frivolous eye candy, but rather they are the matrons of the galaxy, relying on their thousand year life spans and broader perspective on affairs. Their monogendered nature is interesting in part because it lends them an interesting viewpoint on their long lifecycles, as they go from impetuous to a literal matron stage where they can offer up the best advice around due to their years of wisdom. The Asari aren’t the only ones who drive the universe though.


The Turians are an excellent foil to humanity. The Turians exist in a weird state where they are both very different and very similar to humanity. Rigid and caste-based at the macro perspective, the Turians are surprisingly individual when met one-on-one. They are a militaristic society at their core, but they also have an undeniable charisma. It is no accident that Garrus is shaped from almost the very beginning to become Shepard’s best friend. He is a prime example of what makes the Turians unique. He is loyal and honorable, but his bullheaded drive and refusal to stick to the rigid conventions of his lineage are what make him stand out not just as a character, but also as an example of his species. The Turians are great because they appear to love to put on a show of strict adherence to the law, but they always seem willing to bend it almost to the point of breaking to get what they want. It is an amusing quirk and really makes their species that much more interesting to interact with.

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The other races each have similar traits that make them so endearing. The Salarians are a blast to interact with. Their nonstop thinking often gets them into trouble, as they seem to think faster than they can move sometimes. Aside from Mordin and the Special Tasks Group in Mass Effect, you don’t get to see too much of the Salarians, though the Salarian ambassador to the council is almost as level-headed as his Asari cohort. The Quarians are similarly enjoyable. Their unique history as outcasts and their unique political structure make them endearing. Tali is a special character in large part because she, like the rest of her species, only appears vulnerable. Their masks seem like a barrier at first, but then you see Tali in combat, or meet Kal’Reegar as he attempts to kill a Geth Colossus by himself after being wounded. The Quarians are as tough a species as any in Mass Effect, and they’re a breath of fresh air, badass in the face of their limitations.

The Quarians are like the opposite of the Volus. At the same time, though the Volus are physically weak. One of the first ones we meet in the series is awesome; the information broker on the Citadel is showing that while the Volus may be bitter and comparatively weak, they’re still intelligent. They used their skills as merchants and negotiators to gather protection from the Turians. It creates a symbiotic relationship, rather than the master/protector-servant relationship one might expect from sci-fi. The Volus aren’t the only minor species in the game though. The Hanar’s politeness is awesome in the face of their stubbornness. Not only that, but their backstory is great too. Specifically that they went out of their way to save the Drell, an important gesture in setting up that the Hanar’s politeness is not a front, but that they are a rarity in the universe, what appears to be a truly charitable society. The Elcor are very similar to the Hanar, with their unique mannerisms that make them stand out.

Finally though, there are the Krogan, who exist as one of the most interesting species in sci-fi.  The Krogan were a race that were uplifted into the galactic society of Mass Effect before they were really ready, and in spite of them saving the universe from the Rachnai, they paid a hefty price when the Turians and Salarians conspired to essentially neuter them. The Krogan genophage is one of the key turning points in Mass Effect’s history. It makes the species rare enough to still be threatening when you see them charging at you, though you interact with them regularly. The Krogan background also serves to make both Wrex and Grunt excellent characters. Wrex at first appears to only care for himself, bitter at being betrayed and merely lamenting the slow death of his species. The Krogan stand in unique contrast to the Asari as well. The Asari show a toughness granted to them by their inherent biotic powers, but the Krogan are just physically powerful. Yet while both species are long-lived, the Krogan background as warriors sets them apart, and their wisdom sticks mostly to the battlefield or combat, with only rare exceptions.

But BioWare did not stop with the creation of the allied species. Even the species which serve as antagonists are interesting and fleshed out. The Batarians are one of the best examples of a well-designed enemy species. They are conveniently evil at times, with the apparent tenants of their society demanding they be jerks and slavers, but even this behavior is a result of a special quality in the creation of the Mass Effect universe. The Batarians as a society have a deep seated inferiority complex, one that apparently showed its face long before humanity was there. Their government is described as omnipresent and paranoid. While the average Batarian is stuck in the rigid caste system of their government, the majority that we meet are power hungry supremacists who often border on delusional.

The Batarian’s existence as slavers, mercenaries and pirates seems not just a way of rebelling against a galactic civilization that they feel wronged them, but also as a way of defying their own controlling government. Their inherent xenophobia makes them more pitiful than threatening, though several of the individuals you meet take their species self-imposed exile to some serious extremes. This can best be seen either through the Bring Down the Sky DLC, where extremist Batarians take over an asteroid with the intent of crashing it into a planet, or the Skyllian Blitz where a massive pirate force funded by the Batarians attempted to purge one of humanity’s largest colonies. The Skyllian Blitz is one of Shepard’s backgrounds, and a pivotal moment in the recent history of the Mass Effect galaxy, as it not only fortifies humanity’s place among the powerful elite of the species, but also forced the Batarians into their own exile.

The unique background of each species is a testament to the creative minds at BioWare as they set up each race. With the imminent invasion from the Reapers, BioWare has created a universe where I want to save every species. Well, almost every species. Even the Batarians become somewhat sympathetic towards the end of Mass Effect 2, specifically in the Arrival DLC, in which many are killed. Each species is unique in their own way to the point where each one feels different enough not only from each other, but more importantly, different from humanity. BioWare’s universe is deep and thorough, and that is a large part of what makes playing the Mass Effect games such a joy.

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Scott Lipowitz

Scott just graduated from Law School. But he didn't let that stop him from gaming, a hobby that he has stuck with ever since he received his NES at age 5. His favorites are Metal Gear Solid, OutRun, Half-Life, Deus Ex, Ratchet and Clank and most recently, the Mass Effect series.

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