Mass Effect’s muddy message.

I love Mass Effect 2. I love it enough to think about it even after finished the final fight two times over. In the modern world of media saturation, that says a lot about the lasting impact of the game on attention sparse minds such as mine.

But for every bit of Mass Effect I adored, there’s still one gigantic lingering issue to tie me down. Mass Effect 2’s villains are kinda… Not evil. Kinda. Look, it’s complicated. Follow along with my logic and feel free to tell me if I’m full of it.

The top of the villain chain in Mass Effect is a race known as the Reapers, a sickening marriage of HP Lovecraft and HR Geiger. They’re incredibly old, and so advanced that they may as well be gods. Each reaper is worth a fleet of ships from any other race.

But there’s the head scratching catch, the reapers are ships. Living star-ships several kilometers long. These unimaginably old creatures float in the deep black between galaxies. Every 50,000 years, they return to the galaxy and wipe out all space-faring races. In Mass Effect 1, you fought a Reaper named Sovereign.  As a villain, Sovereign scary and epic… but also a little nonsensical.

Why a starship? Surely Reapers didn’t evolve that way? With all of Sovereign’s talk of us being insects, why does it have halls and rooms and such? Why float in deep space, and why wipe out all life? Is it a survival tactic? Wouldn’t they survive just fine without the resources culled from killing trillions of sapients? Oddly, Mass Effect 1 didn’t answer any of these questions, not even in some hurried 11th hour revelation. We’d have to wait until Mass Effect 2 to learn some of the answers.

Where ME1 left me curious, ME2 left me a bit queasy. At least I finally got my answers. Reapers look intentionally designed because they are intentionally designed. Reapers are trans-sapient civilizations. Each ship is an entire alien species, distilled into a single technological god. When the Reapers return every 50,000 years, they don’t kill every space-faring race. A few of them get turned into new Reapers.
This explains a lot. Why return every 50,00 years? You need new species to evolve, and develop new civilizations. Why float in deep space? You need the bees to build their little hives before you can come in and harvest. Why kill everyone? Because you want a blank slate. Reapers pick the civilizations they consider strongest/best from each 50,000 year batch, the rest are chaff.

But this raises a fresh batch of questions.

With Sovereign dead ME2 gets a new villain, another Reaper, this time known as Harbinger. Harbinger isn’t following Sovereign’s plans. It has plans of its own. Its kidnapping entire human colonies. Now, given what we already know about Reapers, care to guess why? That’s right; Killing Sovereign put humanity at the top of the Reaper respect list, we’re next in line for Reaper conversion. Even Harbinger’s name is a clue to its intentions. “I am the Harbinger of their ascension.”

So as the hero, what do we do? We assemble a fire team, track Harbinger’s servants back to their base, and blow some shit up in an extremely well-coordinated attack. But we’re too late. We save a handful of colonists, but most of them have already been killed, liquefied, and fed to… you guessed it, a not-yet-finished reaper. Like any good video game hero, you solve that particular problem with heavy weapons.

Victory cutscene! Dramatic conversations! Roll credits! Ominous scene to remind us that the rest of the reapers are still out there… aaaand another question.

So, hang on… Harbinger kidnapped hundreds of thousands of humans, killed them, and used them as part of the construction for a new reaper. A new reaper which you blow up. At the last minute, this creature actually fights back, defending itself from your attacks. It might not be finished, but there’s enough going on upstairs for it to know when someone’s trying to kill it.

Now given what we know about Reapers… who exactly are we fighting here?

Transhumanists have a theory known as “hard takeoff”. Hard takeoff argues that we’ll never shed our mortality on our own. We’re too attached to our instincts and the familiarity of the flesh. So, if we’re ever to leave the human condition behind, we’ll do it kicking and screaming. We’ll be dragged into a better state of existence practically against our will. The likely scenario for hard takeoff is usually some variant on a rampant AI that takes matters into it’s own hands.

Another overriding theme of Transhuman fiction argues that humanity won’t see transhumanity as a good thing. They’ll react to transhumanity with revulsion and dread, seeing their future selves as too alien to be considered human (To get a good sense for this, I’d suggest Aaron Diaz’s fantastic Dresden Codak: HOB).

So what exactly did we just do? We killed the larval reaper, a creature containing the remains of hundreds of thousands of humans. Where did it get it’s awareness? The other reapers speak with the concert of a thousand thousand voices, entire civilizations converted to digital avatars.

Was attacking the human reaper the right thing to do? I’m not so sure. The human-reaper was incomplete, but it knew enough to fight back. Would it have argued with us if it’d had a few thousand more people in its brain? Would it have begged for mercy? Or negotiated a peace? When the final shot landed, I found myself wondering, who’s the villain here, and who’s the victim?


  • The villain from a human perspective? Reapers, hands down. If nothing else, they’re really inefficient. It takes how many people to make one reaper? That’s the rub. People don’t want to be one voice in a concert. They want to be their own special voice. Trans-humanism is a false villain when what’s actually being fought for by the reapers is forcible assimilation into a super culture in a similar way to the Borg. Humanity is fiercely individualist, they reject on its face being told what to do. About anything. Even when it’s the right thing. Drag us kicking and screaming? Maybe, but the point we stop minding being dragged we stop being human in many respects, particularly the situation presented in ME2. They say it’s better? That’s nice. Unless we discover it for ourselves it’ll always just be them forcing us.

  • Some very valid points, and mind you, I’m not arguing that the Reapers are all sunshine and sprinkles. What they did was incredibly monstrous.

    My point isn’t that the kidnappings and forced assimilations are good, or even justified. My point is to take a look at what you’re fighting.

    The reapers don’t act with one mind or one motivation, they’re not all cross networked. Each individual reaper is the sum of a single civilization. A nation unto itself, as Sovereign put it. Each reaper is controlled by the assimilated civilization inside it.

    So what are we fighting? The larval reaper contains the consciousnesses of thousands of humans. They were uploaded against their will, but from a certain perspective, you’re looking at digital prisoners.

    Were their minds warped by the transfer? Were they no different from any other reaper? We’ll never know, because we blew it up the moment we found it. That’s why it’s a muddy message, what we killed was a monster… and what we killed was also a victim. Maybe it would be no different from Sovereign or Harbinger, but we’ll never know.

  • Reapers seem to be similar to star trek tng’s conception of the borg… a singular entity ..yes it is human in essence but they are assimilated, taken over by this idea of singular consciousness. Viewed rationally it may be superior, but like you said, its something we feel inclined to resist. I think the whole battle is a metaphor for our resistance to this “borgian” way, or as you call it, (and correct me if im using the term wrong) trans-humanism… Throughout the game the dialogue constantly alludes to the uniqueness of the human condition. Our apparent drive, passion, “individuality”. Yes, qualities that may exist in some humans and not others, However these are the characteristics that continue to drive us forward, towards excellence. In Mass effect, they worked to get humanity into space, why would we betray them? I loved the post and am encouraged to see others who appreciate the meta levels of mass effect because I do believe a lot of these topics wee intentionally included by its producers.


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