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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.

  1. Hey now don’t forget the Geth, the Reapers, the Rachni, and the Protheans. I think it is safe to say all four are major races at the very least for the games story and they are all very much alien.

    Also remember almost all the races you complain about are also races you can have a fling with in one game or another. The news media got mad enough about Human on Asari god knows how they would treat Human on Hanar. Besides like you said, it is hard to relate to something that is extremely alien and the game requires the player to relate for the purposes of it’s story.

  2. avatar chris matulich

    Cool article, but did you stop to think that they look human because evolution via survival of the fittest? Or perhaps an explantation will be revealed in the series conclusion revolving around the reapers and their consistent involvement with the advanced cultures of the universe?

    • Humanity evolved because of the specific environmental and sociological factors present on Earth. I doubt that these factors would be so similar on other planets that other races evolved to look almost exactly like us. The odds are just too improbable.

      But you bring up a good point about the Reapers. They’re involvement might have something to do with it.

  3. avatar A.W.

    Well, i think wildly alien type creatures can be unbelievable, too. the fact is the basic humanoid shape–two arms, two legs, a head at top with two eyes–does alot of things well evolutionarily speaking. For instance, why do we have two eyes in the front of our head? to enable stereoscopic vision. Which in turn required a more sophisticated brain. which very likely had a spill over effect in terms of general intelligence. but why did we need stereoscopic vision? because we lived in trees, so we needed to see in 3D. And if we are living in trees, then it is very natural to have an arm/leg set up like that. that is why you see that pattern repeated among tree dwellers.

    The fact is that it is not enough to have that initial spark of intelligence, but a body that is capable of using it. That creates a the possibility of an arms race in intelligence. For instance, Dolphins are very intelligence, but that intelligence won’t do very much for them because they lack things like opposable thumbs. So even if they were smart enough to invent a bow and arrow, they can’t do anything with it.

    So i think that an aliens we meet are likely to have a basic similarity to us, as in two arms, two legs, a head with eyes in the front. but at the same time, they are not likely to look like the old “human with make up on” type of alien that we typically witness in these things and you seem to be complaining about in this post. So in my book neither the jellyfish like aliens nor the blue human with tentacle hair aliens strike me as realistic. i would tend to think they would be more likely to look like something more in between. and chance are, you wouldn’t want to have sex with any of them. Well, then again human do go for some really weird crap at times.

    • Earth has a very rare planetary ecosystem. All of your assumptions are based off the fact that the environment on alien planets would be similar to that of earth’s. We are fortunate enough to be on a planet with varied ecosystems, temperate climate, moderate gravity, and plentiful resources.

      If things were even the slightest bit different on our own planet, or we were removed from the equation, dominance would fall to one or several of the countless other intelligent species that dwell here.

      Now think of all the different types of planets that exist within our solar system: bare scorched rocks like Mercury, planets like Venus with atmospheric issues and crazy storms, gaseous planets like Saturn…then multiply that by the number of stars within the universe each with their own set of planets. The possibilities are endless.

      Maybe there are creatures out there that look like us. However, the statistical likelihood of a majority of sentient life in the universe looking like primates given the vastness of the universe and planetary ecosystems is incredibly unlikely.

    • avatar A.W.


      > We are fortunate enough to be on a planet with varied ecosystems, temperate climate, moderate gravity, and plentiful resources.

      Well, temperate climate is almost necessary, because it is very difficult for life to exit without water. So too cold and everything is frozen. Too hot and its all vapor.

      Of course gravity could be different, but seems more likely to affect scale.

      > several of the countless other intelligent species that dwell here.

      But its not enough for, say, dolphins to be dominant, but they must benefit from intelligence. If all you have are flippers and no thumbs, intelligence isn’t going to help much and contra Douglas Adams, are not likely to become spaceborne anytime soon.

      > Now think of all the different types of planets that exist within our solar system:

      Indeed, I do, and notice that all of them are most likely dead, except for ours. Consider also that if there is any life on any of them, its basically pond scum.

      There is surely a great deal of diversity in the universe. But I don’t think there is nearly as much diversity in the kinds of planets that produce life of higher organization, and I think there is even less diversity in the body shapes that will support and exploit intelligence.

      Remember our brains consume a massive amount of fuel. That kind of expenditure has to be justified from an evolutionary stand point. It was justified in the case of early humans because soon we picked up stick and brained our enemies with them. But what does a dolphin do with intelligence. Some social organization, I suppose, some group action when confronted by sharks, but it just isn’t nearly as useful as our brains are to us.

    • avatar A.W.

      and let me reiterate. i do think it is unrealistic for an alien to look just like a human with some make-up on. i just don’t find it realistic for an alien to be a jellyfish shape, either.

  4. avatar A.W.

    “…that an aliens we…”

    meant to write

    “…that any aliens we…”

  5. avatar datdude

    While I agree with the author to some extent, I think as always resources and feasibility have to factor into game design decisions. I’m sure with more processing power, Bioware would choose to implement alot of things not currently included in the mass effect galaxy, for example, how about actually feeling like the krogan are huge towering scary beasts instead of them looking the same size as shepard and crew. Almost all characters in the game are approximately the same height, even though from their descriptions in the codex we know this is not the case. It is these little things I can overlook realizing that a developer cannot do everything it may intend to do because of budget, time, etc. Gamers are more comfortable looking at a pleasing or beautiful (Liara) face than some hideous monster. Can you imagine wanting to romance liara if she had boils, warts, farted constantly, was 600 lbs. and smelled like raw shrimp 24/7? Of course not, so developers give people what they want and what they are comfortable with, even if we don’t realize we expect some of these things.

  6. avatar Minnie

    Sorry it took me so long to make it to your article! I don’t even remember my excuse but I’m sure I had one. Thank you very much for commenting on my article though.

    This is a great article and actually, Mass Effect inspired my love of science fiction which I’ve never really been interested in before. The science geek in me as well was just astounded by the breadth of information; don’t worry, I trawled through the codex too. Everything was just perfect, like the way the citadel was an example of a stanford torus, a fairly accepted design for space colonization :D

    It was just mind blowing in scale and I thank it for that. But yes, as you know from my article, I loved the aliens but they were a bit too human-like. Like you say, I think it’s an uncanny valley thing and that the more human like they are, the more we can relate to them and the less issues we have banging them when the sex scene comes along…excuse the crudeness!

    Evolution fascinates me, so beautifully simple and entirely dependant on external conditions and factors, so I do find it a little odd that they’ve all managed to come out looking fairly humanoid, not many planets have an ecosystem like ours so the assumption would be that they’d all evolve differently. But that’s probably thinking too much into it, Bioware just wanted characters you could relate to visually, which is fair enough I suppose! But great article, thanks for directing me :)

  7. avatar WarpZone

    A couple of things I’ve heard which may apply here:

    - All life on earth shares common ancestors.

    - The morphological traits we use to express emotion (two eyes facing forward, one mouth centered beneath the eyes, etc.) came about fairly early in the evolution of animals, probably shortly after bilateral symmetry. Everything from ants to seahorses resembles our faces in one way or another.

    - In nature, convergent evolution can occur. It’s very rare, though. Similar morphological traits can result from the expression of completely different genes in two different animals.

    - All matter in the universe is comprised of the same elements, and responds to the same laws of physics.

    - DNA only works one way, requiring water and comprised of four specific chemicals repeated over and over again. (Though there have been thought experiments to try imagine life comprised of analogues made from other materials.)

    - If the above two statements are true, it implies that if we systematically tried every possible sequence of DNA in labs, we could create one instance of every organism that ever lived or could possibly live, past or present, anywhere in the universe. (We would probably also create VASTLY MORE non-viable organisms whose bodies would fail due to congenital defects after so many cell divisions.)

    - Some DNA currently on our planet may be descended from viruses or bacteria that arrived here carried inside comets or meteors. At least that’s one theory.

    - Given an infinite amount of time and an environment where random mutations can arise, any organism’s descendents would eventually evolve into any possible sequence of genes.

    - We tend to think of alien life in terms of plant or animal. But if plants, animals, protists, viruses and bacteria are all just descendents of evolution down one particular branching path, there could be thousands of other types of life in the universe.

    - The dinosaurs suggest that even a small change in environment or genetic history could have a profound impact on evolution.

    - But the physics, surprisingly, say there are a finite number of possible life forms you can build out of adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine.

    Given all of the above, it’s not especially LIKELY for convergent evolution to happen, but it’s a vague possibility. The real question isn’t “couldn’t an alien have one big eyeball in the center of its head and nostrils instead of ears,” it’s “how many different combinations of DNA could provide that result,” and “Would such an organism die before it reached reproduction age,” and “Did aliens seed all life in the universe in this narrative?”

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