I’m going to share something with you. Up until very recently, let’s say January 2011, I hadn’t played either of the games in the Mass Effect series despite being both a RPG and science fiction fan. I knew of the supposed quality of the series and Mass Effect 2 in particular, especially considering how many Game of the Year nominations it picked up.
I just finished playing both games. I put well over twenty hours into Mass Effect, and continuing with my female Renegade Shepard, I put over thirty-five hours into Mass Effect 2. Both games were incredible, and the series does so many things right. However there is one area where I feel BioWare missed the mark. Hit the jump to find out.
If I had played Mass Effect 2 when it came out in 2010, it probably would have been my Game of the Year pick. Either way the series is phenomenal. For those who don’t know, the Mass Effect games are third person shooters with RPG elements set in a science fiction universe. (Or are they RPGs with third person shooter elements? Tomato, tomato.)
As a science fiction writer by trade, I look really hard at the world building that goes on behind the scenes. BioWare blew me away with the amount of detail they put into Mass Effect’s universe. I might be in the minority here, but I enjoyed reading all, and I mean all, of the Codex entries in both games. BioWare didn’t pull any punches when it came time to create a believable, functional universe. Except for the aliens.
“Wait, what? The alien characters in Mass Effect were amazing! Who didn’t enjoy talking to Liara, Wrex, or Tali? How can you say BioWare messed up when it came to designing the aliens?”
The characters were compelling, but the alien races not so much. I found it a little strange that almost every single alien was bipedal, two-eyed, and had almost entirely human features.
Take Liara for example. She’s a member of the asari race, and for all intents and purposes she is a blue skinned young woman with a weird tentacle/dreadlock hairdo. BioWare did a good job in making sure asari culture was sufficiently “alien,” but why couldn’t they extend those same principles to the asari’s appearance? Come on, they even had perfectly human noses with two nostrils, and teeth! Of course Liara possessed perfect, white, and human looking teeth.
Not convinced yet? Let’s examine the salarians and turians. While their faces don’t look “human,” both races have two eyes and visible mouths and noses. If the galaxy is as big and widely populated as the in-game universe tells me it is, then why does it seem like every (major) race evolved along similar lines? Was it too hard for BioWare to think up other organs or senses for these races? Even if Bioware deemed it was necessary for these races to possess mouths, putting them in a different spot on their bodies or faces would have helped me not feel like I was just looking at re-skinned humans.
Really the only races that don’t resemble humanity are the minor races. During the course of the games, the player encounters the hanar and the elcor. Unfortunately the player’s interactions with these races are extremely limited. Neither race has a representative on the player’s team.
The hanar look like a cross between a brain and a jellyfish. They have no visible eyes, mouths, or noses. In fact it is implied that they don’t have an organ for vocalizing sound. Instead they communicate through bioluminescence that is translated to speech through Shepard’s “translator.” I liked the hanar because of their culture and the fact that their physical appearance was so different from anything else I had seen so far in the games.
The elcor are one of the few sentient races seen in the game that stand on four legs. The in-game encyclopedia explains that this is because they are from a high gravity world. The game also says they are a cautious and conservative species. Because their emotions are extremely subtle, they preface their interactions with non-elcor by stating their current emotion out loud. Confused: why is it assumed that an alien race would have emotions that are analogous to human emotions? That quibble aside, the elcor are unique in their appearance and actions.
I realize that most of BioWare’s decisions regarding alien character design come from the fact that these are games designed for a human audience. Of course we want to see things that we can easily identify with. If they made things too “alien” it would be a lot harder for the player to emphasize with all the different characters. Plus BioWare can’t pass up the opportunity to have “hot” human-on-alien action.
But still there is something to be said for varied design. For example, in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, humanity encounters the Oankali, an alien race known for its genetic trades with other races. According to the characters in those novels, the Oankali are bipedal, but are covered entirely by tiny tentacles that act as sensory organs. They also possess larger tentacles that can double as appendages. Their bipedal nature keeps them somewhat familiar, but the lack of easily identifiable sensory organs like eyes makes them alien. There’s no reason BioWare can’t create something similar for Mass Effect 3.
The Mass Effect series is one of incredible depth and skill. I just want BioWare to push the envelope a little farther when it comes to the design of alien races. I mean they’ve already created a space opera series that in just one short month has become one of my all-time favorites. This shouldn’t be that hard for them.
NB: The quarians are my favorite species. The nod toward the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series were just icing on the sci-fi cake.