Posts Tagged ‘Mass Effect’

The Quarian & the Geth

“Does this unit have a soul?”

Tali1Legion1The backstories and development of these two races are intrinsically linked, so it only makes sense to review them together. The Quarian machinist Tali’Zorah nar Rayya joins the Normandy as part of her pilgrimage. Geth are the most frequently encountered enemy in Mass Effect. Together their unfolding story serves as a microcosm for the theme of Organic versus Synthetic lifeforms that runs through the series.

According to Mass Effect lore, the Geth were the invention of the Quarian. Originally built for manual labour, the robotic Geth were given a series of upgrades to enhance their intelligence for complex tasks. As an unexpected result, they became self-aware and began questioning their existence, purpose and the presence (or otherwise) of their souls. Horrified by the implications and suddenly fearing their creations, quarians began shutting down the units – a move that resulted in a full Geth uprising in which the Quarian were defeated. Driven from their homeworld Rannoch and denied amnesty due to their irresponsible actions, the Quarian became a nomadic race forced to live aboard their own ships. This story can be read as a space opera interpretation of the Prometheus myth or a large scale version of its most famous derivative work, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.


What’s interesting about the artistic development process is that the Geth were designed first and Bioware artists then worked backwards to conceptualise the “creator race”. Geth are fully synthetic, constructed from durable metals and artificial muscle tissue. This grants them formidable strength and agility, particularly the “hopper” units. When damaged, they leak a white fluid that gives the impression of bleeding. Similarities were made in the Quarian design to reinforce the connection with the Geth. They share physical attributes with their slender builds, strong hips and bowed back legs. The two races also demonstrate a resourceful nature in their outward appearances. Salvaged materials are used by both, as seen in the variety of textures and patterns in the Quarian environmental suits and by the Geth unit Legion using a fragment of Shepard’s armour to “patch a hole.” Both races, it would appear, share a resourceful nature.


One possibly symbolic parallel is that Quarian and Geth are both effectively “faceless.” A Geth’s “head” is substituted by a lamp light while the Quarian wear opaque, featureless masks. There are several ways we can read into these design choices. From a gameplay stance, a Geth’s “face” provides dramatic lighting when battling in dark quarters, plus it gives the player a shooting target. From a storytelling point of view, perhaps the Geth were built this way in an attempt to dehumanise (or dequarianise) the workforce and avoid facing the contentious issue of slave labour.

It’s thanks to the quarians’ subsequent actions that they were forced into wearing masks. By the time the events of Mass Effect are in motion, the Quarian have inherited a seriously weakened immune system – a result of generations spent living in isolation aboard ships – and must wear body suits with protective masks that obscure all but the faintest hint of a face. Losing their faces symbolises a loss of status – their fall from the image of gifted and respected inventors to social pariahs. It could also be a sign of their abandoned ethics and lost humanity in the act of creating a sentient race (labelled “True A.I.” in the game’s universe) only to enslave it and then attempt to destroy it.

Tali2Traditional science fiction uses aliens to convey themes of the Other in society and in Mass Effect the Quarian evoke a number of social, racial and religious groups that have been targets of Western prejudice. Since being denied amnesty, the Quarian have become reviled in galactic society and are dismissed as beggars and thieves. In the games, they fall victim to false accusations of theft and abusive slurs such as “suit rat”. Parallels might be drawn with real-life Gypsy and Traveller communities. Additionally the Quarian speak with a distinctly Eastern-European accent, possibly harking back to the Red Scare, and their veils and facial coverings might even be compared to the niqab or burka. It’s not a direct metaphor – a quarian’s mask and suit are worn for medical rather than religious purposes – yet the distrust and discrimination they experience feels rooted in real life.

As for the Geth, they are aware that their species is feared by organic races, many of whom don’t consider synthetics to be a species at all. Even the colourfully diverse crew of the Normandy have trouble adjusting to the presence of a Geth unit on board and the player is actually given the option to sell Legion to Cerberus for research purposes. Needless to say, this is a pretty hardcore Renegade option.

Eventually the conflict between the Geth and Quarian escalates into full blown war, the outcome of which is entirely down to the player. Shepard might take sides with either race, attempt to secure peace between them or decide that neither are to be trusted and simply use them as assets wherever it’s considered useful. I’ll admit… I messed this up horribly on my first playthrough and the consequences plagued me right through to the end. I had no idea a game could cause so much heartbreak and feelings of guilt – in fact, it’s one of the most powerful emotional responses I’ve experienced through any work of fiction.

And no, I haven’t talked about the “Tali’s face” controversy from Mass Effect 3. Let’s just pretend that lazy Photoshop effort never existed, okay?

Thanks for reading! If you’ve enjoyed this series and want more Mass Effect musing (because who doesn’t?) then check out Five Out of Ten magazine, issue 14. Two of my articles are featured; “The Dirty Dozen” where I talk about the squad of Mass Effect 2 and “The Unnatural Evolution of Pokemon”, which was written to tie in with the theme of Nature.

Please support them if you can – they publish some fantastic, thought-provoking gaming articles and they really helped me improve my writing, plus the art design makes it look feckin’ awesome!


The Krogan are a hulking reptilian species; warriors born and bred who revel in their own aggression. They once threatened to conquer the galaxy but were thwarted when a biological weapon crippled their birth-rate. Through the Krogan battlemaster Urdnot Wrex and his clan, Shepard may discover that there is more to this race than first meets the eye.

kroganbatfaceStanding seven feet tall and weighing a tonne in armour, Krogan are by far the largest and strongest species in Shepard’s crew. Ideas came from several members of the animal kingdom, particularly rhinos (hence their charging attack) and ancient reptiles. Faces were inspired by line drawings of bats. Early concept sketches were of primitive beings with long, ape-like arms, later changed to avoid animation problems. Each Krogan’s solid headplate is formed by the fusion of small, supple bones like a newborn’s skull. This plate often comes in handy as their debates are typically resolved with a headbutt to the face.


Besides brutishness, Krogan biology suggests survival. Thick hides protect their bodies and humps preserve nourishment due to scare food and water supplies, not unlike a desert camel. Flat teeth imply they were originally herbivores, even if they are shown cooking rats on their barren homeworld. The placement of their eyes is indicative of a prey species rather than a predator. A better field of vision would help Krogan spot attackers; practical, given that Tuchanka is home to dangerous fauna including thresher maws. Their short gestation period – unusual for large beings of long lifespan – also indicates heavy predation during evolution. Or in Wrex’s words “You haven’t seen how fast we can pop them out.”

Grunt: Rockin' the Citadel!

Grunt: Rockin’ the Citadel. This is why we love him!

To many, the Krogan are thugs who must be suppressed for the safety of others; understandable given the Krogan Rebellions and the fact that they do enjoy violence. However, this need not be the last word on their race. Wrex is level headed with a hearty sense of humour (the only subject that provokes his wrath is the Genophage virus, which threatens to drive his people to extinction.) Grunt will “act out” in Mass Effect 2 yet he’s tempered when he gains a sense of purpose and belonging. Finally in Mass Effect 3, “Eve” tells of the quiet suffering and suicidal tendencies of the infertile females – a stark contrast to the furious chest-beating of the males. Ultimately, the true nature and fate of the Krogan is decided by the player.

Note: Personally, I love the Krogan! Wrex was my bro in the first game and I promised myself I’d do anything I could to cure the Genophage. As an extra, here’s an artist’s impression of a krogan baby.

Altogether now - D'awww!

Altogether now – D’awww!


The Asari

Asari are a mono gendered species resembling human females with blue skin. They are credited as superior intellects, possessors of natural telekinetic (or “biotic”) abilities and the first living race to discover interstellar travel. Shepard’s trusted ally, the Asari scientist and archaeologist Dr Liara T’Soni, sheds light on the past in the hope of preserving the future.

asaricommandoThe Asari are the closest species to humans physically as the race was fashioned with a potential love interest in mind. They can wear human armour and possess the most homo sapien faces (Liara’s particular features were based on the model Jillian Murray). However their relatability is balanced with their otherworldliness. In place of hair, Asari have tentacles. Skin tones range from teal to purple and emit a subtle glow. Facial markings create distinctions between individuals as can minor traits of that particular asari’s “father”, who may belong to any alien species.

There is a strong aquatic influence in the Asari design, most obvious in their blue colouring. In myth and folklore, water is a symbol of feminine energy, beauty and mystery as depicted in mermaids, sirens and water nymphs. The Asari scalp crest, which is shaped like a wave, was based on the image of a woman emerging from a pool with her hair slicked back. Up close fine, fish-like scales are visible on an asari’s skin. The motif extends beyond aesthetics as the fluidity and grace of their movement is also likened to water.


The Asari are an abstract, almost idealised version of femininity. Though not technically female they use feminine pronouns, worship female deities and their life stages – maiden, matron and matriarch – echo the three phases of pagan womanhood. The inclusion of “blue space-babes” may sound cheap but it could be argued that Bioware were harking back to traditional iconography rather than conforming to cliché. Concept art shows the Asari in strong or contemplative poses, their allure coming from their inner power rather than their bodies. True, we see them dancing in seedier locales yet we’re just as likely to meet Asari diplomats, armoured commandos and, of course, Liara in her lab coat.

Liara T'Soni - "The doctor will pwn you now."

Liara T’Soni – “The doctor will pwn you now.”

The following was my contribution to a book on art in games. Unfortunately the project folded before it could be published.



Mass Effect: Designing an Alien Race

After their success with the Star Wars based Knights of the Old Republic Bioware created Mass Effect – an original science fiction universe tailored to an action-RPG premise.

Set over a century into the future, the trilogy follows Commander Shepard’s mission to save organic life from the threat of the Reapers. The term “organic” applies to many advanced beings besides humans, each with their own history and culture. Members of these races join Shepard to become allies, friends and even romantic interests.

Alien designs were based on archetypes, visual metaphors and familiar forms. The majority were inspired by at least one real life species, for example the Salarian took cues from amphibians and the Hanar from jellyfish. Non-playable characters could take virtually any shape but game mechanics required the combatants to use firearms, have humanoid skeletal structures (symmetrical, bipedal etc) and no appendages that would obstruct movement. Shepard’s teammates needed to emote during conversations, which created the need for recognisable facial features. Even with these criteria in place and with so many real-world influences, the alien designs are still unique and varied. Additionally, there was a push to give each character an iconic silhouette for the Squad Selection screen.

In the first game, Shepard is joined aboard the Normandy by four aliens; a Turian, an Asari, a Krogan and a Quarian.



The Turian

When designing a galaxy on the brink of war we must ask what its ultimate military power would be like. With the Turian, Mass Effect delivered a regimental society renowned for their forcefulness and discipline. Despite past conflicts and bad blood between their respective races, Shepard forms a close bond with the Turian agent Garrus Vakarian.

turian.conceptBirds of prey, particularly eagles, inspired the Turian appearance. The pointed chin and mouth mandibles form a beak shape while a cartilage-based “head fringe” resembles feathers. Most notable are the sharp, beady eyes. Their hands and talons are like avian feet but with opposable thumbs. Turian biology wasn’t solely inspired by birds however; the exoskeleton that provides their natural armour is typically found on insects and crustaceans. It succeeds in making them appear both tougher and more “alien”. As a finishing touch, the war paint on their faces reinforces their militant heritage.

The eagle is symbolic of pride, honour and patriotism, particularly in the United States. Likewise, the Turian are a proud race and duty-bound to their people, placing great importance on civic duty and the greater good. They operate on strict codes of honour, to the degree that it is rumoured they physically cannot lie. The phrase “eagle eyed” can be applied both literally and figuratively as no minor detail escapes a Turian’s attention.  History names them as the race that secured galactic peace and so they work tirelessly to maintain order, dedicating their talents to administrative duties.

GarrusHis race may be mired in bureaucracy, but Garrus shows us the deadly hunter the Turian was evolved to be. The monocular visor he wears shows an affinity with his weapon of choice – the sniper rifle – which channels his natural precision into a lethal art. He also exemplifies the ideals of the militia and the justice system, being wise and compassionate as well as a force to be reckoned with. Garrus abandons his career as a law enforcer to join Shepard but his goal of protecting the innocent remains the same. The difference is that his notion of the greater good extends far beyond his own race.

Yep, it was only going to be a matter of time before I drew something Mass Effect related! Here’s one of my favourite faces (in a manner of speaking) from the Normandy crew – Quarian engineer, Tali’Zorah.

Keelah se'lai! Tali'Zorah - armed and dangerous.

Keelah se’lai! Tali’Zorah – armed and dangerous.

What can I say, except that I love this character and her background. Tali is intelligent and loyal with a real desire to prove herself. When she first encounters Commander Shepard, she’s on a rite of passage known as the Pilgrimage for which she left her birth ship to explore the galaxy and bring back something that will benefit her people. As the Quarian lost their home world Rannoch, they live about a Migrant Fleet of ships and, thanks to their weakened immune systems, they’re forced to wear protective masks and full body suits.

This was challenging to draw, thanks to all the textures in Tali’s suit. The Quarian race are all about salvage and pride themselves on their ability to mend and make use of items that other races would throw away. To reflect this, their suits appear to be constructed from various fabrics, possibly scrap materials. I don’t think I’ve ever drawn a character without a face either – I waited till the pencil went blunt to try and get the opaque look for the mask. Interestingly, the suit gives us an indication of Tali’s status and the timeline point of the Mass Effect series. The one I’ve sketched belongs to Tali’Zorah vas Neema or Tali’Zorah vas Normandy – the names she uses during Mass Effect 2 and 3. In the first game, her suit is a little more basic in style and she’s known as Tali’Zorah naar Rayya.

So, what’s with all the surnames? Well, “naar” indicates a Quarian who has not yet completed the Pilgrimmage and the Rayya is the name of the ship on which Tali was born. The ascent to Quarian adulthood is marked with the move to a new ship. By the time she meets Shepard in Mass Effect 2, she has adopted the name “vas Neema”, meaning that her Pilgrimmage was successful and earned her a position aboard a new ship called “Neema” as well as permission to modify her suit and veil as she wishes. Finally, Tali changes her name to “vas Normandy” to indicate that Shepard’s ship has become her home and that the Normandy crew are considered family. Aww!

It might not be a perfect likeness but I’ll wager that more effort went into this picture than the one of Tali’s face in Mass Effect 3. A poorly Photoshopped stock image? C’mon!

Why don’t we see many mother figures in video games? As someone who’s so interested in how female characters are portrayed in general I’m surprised this didn’t occur to me sooner. In this video, I attempt to account for their lack of presence up until this point and argue that it’s high time we saw some hero mums in gaming.

Of course, maybe it’s already happening and has escaped my notice. Know of any good examples of motherhood being represented in games? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear about them!

Here’s the link to that episode of Extra Credits I mentioned. I’ve been watching a lot of these guys lately and they’ve definitely given me food for thought on several game-related topics. Hopefully my video isn’t too much of a rip-off!:


I love Garrus. If you’ve played the games then you love Garrus too. Show me a Mass Effect fan who doesn’t love Garrus and I will show you a goddamn LIAR. Where do I even start? That guy is cool, clever, funny and utterly loyal – the best friend and comrade Shepard could possibly ask for.

So if he’s so damn great, why don’t I just marry him? Obviously Shep’s too busy saving the galaxy to make wedding arrangements, however it is still possible to strike up a romance. Two of the original squad were written as love interests for ME2 (Garrus for the girls, Tali for the boys – one of the few reasons I’d ever consider doing a HimShep run) in response to fan requests. To think that BioWare were once concerned that players wouldn’t warm to the aliens!

It might sound surprising, but I didn’t even try to romance Mr Vakarian. Why? It wasn’t about staying true to my first love as I thought Liara had probably moved on, me being dead and whatnot. Neither was I put off by the fact that Garrus is a sort of man/bird/insect hybrid. Doesn’t bother me; BioWare do a fantastic job of making gamers love characters for their personalities (well, girl gamers at least. I swear I saw more of Miranda’s arse than I did her face.) Take my first ME1 game for example, where I chose a blue lover with a tentacle head over a bloke who looked like a catalogue model – it’s really not about the looks. So what really stopped Shep and Garrus sitting-in-a-tree? It may sound like the world’s most clichéd fob-off but honestly it was because Garrus was such a great friend. I didn’t want to ruin that. For some reason, pursuing him just felt… wrong. Kinda sleazy. And not in a good way.

Still I wonder how things would work out between those two. Time for another playthrough!

Garrus is back and he’s Batman!


Garrus’ comeback in ME2 was, for me, one of the highlights of the entire game. I’m not one of those fans who automatically rejects every new character but I can’t help it if I felt all warm and fuzzy talking to Joker and Tali but failed to bond with Captain Smugitude and The Incredible Generic Man (A.K.A. Miranda and Jacob. Sounds harsh but I honestly couldn’t take to them in the beginning.) When I was sent to recruit “Archangel” I got an inkling who it was. The more I heard, the surer I became, especially when one of the mercs mentioned that Archangel was a Turian. How did I feel when Garrus was finally revealed? Full of glee and dying just to give the big guy a massive hug. The way he and Shep greet each other? Priceless – those Cerberus newbies better hope that someday I’ll care half as much for them! Shortly after, in an almost vulgar display of balls-out awesomeness, Garrus takes a missile blast to the head only to shrug it off like it ain’t no thang. Welcome back buddy!

He was my first pick for Squad Selection every time because 1. he always had something witty to say and 2. we were both so handy with sniper rifles that our enemies never even got close. Whenever I braved a fire storm I felt safer knowing Garrus had my back. Yeah, I know that squadmate AI is designed to do that regardless, but every time a sniper bullet caused a charging foe to drop dead at my feet it gave me a little smile. It had nothing to do with the programming; my Turian BFF was looking out for me. SHUT UP! – you probably thought it too!

You can argue that their relationship is perfect the way it is and it’s not worth risking the complications of romantic love. Yes, by all means keep Garrus as a friend. He’ll be the best friend Shepard ever had. But if you want to let that bond grow into something more, then the option is there for you.


Reach vs Flexibility

It all starts when Garrus tells Shepard how Turian crewmates resolve their interpersonal tension before high-risk assignments – by having a right good punch-up. Is it wrong that I would gladly implement this in my own workplace? Anyway, Garrus recalls a certain female officer with whom he’d had the beef. After calling it a draw in the ring, they held a tiebreaker in her quarters and made good use of his “reach” and her “flexibility”. Sadly there’s no Renegade option to high-five him after hearing this story. At this point Shepard can suggest that they also “ease stress”, which Garrus first interprets as an invitation to a fight. Aw bless!

The first time I played, I dropped the subject there. I didn’t like the idea of my Shepard propositioning one of her best friends in such a glib manner. Now that I’ve watched this scene play out, it’s not as bad as I thought. Shep stays coy with the “just throwin’ it out there” approach. This might have seemed out of character in ME1 but given the playful banter they’ve shared in the sequel up to this point it’s not so jarring. We know they’re close enough as friends that Shepard could get away with a spot of flirting; if Garrus wasn’t keen then I’m sure they’d both laugh it off. I can’t exactly see him taking offence or filing a complaint for sexual harassment. But no – if you’re bold enough to ask if a roll in the hay is on the cards, he’ll be interested. Surprised, but interested. Then you strut your nasty stuff away from the ship’s battery, leaving Garrus too hot and bothered to finish his work. Hope those calibrations weren’t too important!

This sets the mood for the rest of the paramour dialogue; Garrus says something, realises how bad it sounds (did the word “intercourse” even sound sexy in your head?) and then they share a chuckle. In a game leading up to a suicide mission it provides some welcome comic relief. Start a conversation with him and he’ll nervously look around before closing the battery doors behind you. Sometimes he’ll try to use a euphemism or metaphor that sounds far more graphic than intended – “popping the heat sink” stands out as one of the worst. His incurable fuddy-duddiness is nonetheless sweet and it lends a sense of innocence to their dirty little plan. It’s especially funny as Garrus generally has a cool demeanor (increasingly so in ME2) despite the Turian reputation for being stuffy and conservative. Turns out this all goes to shit when he’s alone with a girl.

For your health


Thought that was weird? Just wait till you talk to Mordin! Having got wind of the Normandy’s blossoming romance, the good Doctor Solus takes it upon himself to give the Commander some “personal advice”. This involves the offer of position guides, warnings against “chafing” and (I kid you not) the recommendation that Shepard does not “ingest”. Good lordy, ME2 just dropped a blow job reference! To be fair, it’s probably good advice for anyone about to indulge in some interspecies hanky panky (especially ones with incompatible proteins) but I still had to pick my jaw off the floor. Could have been worse – he could have sung about it!

There was always the risk of reducing Garrus and Shepard’s relationship to a joke. Between the nervous talks and the mind-boggling mechanics of it all, this might have ended up more of a funny easter egg than a romance subplot. It’s a matter of opinion but the Goofy Garrus bits didn’t spoil the character for me, anyway Shepard usually steps in before it goes too far. Personally, I think the whole think might have died on its arse if it weren’t for Brandon Keener’s voice acting. His ability to flip the tone between silly and serious (often in the same line) seems effortless. Every single intonation fits perfectly and creates a believable mood from a scenario that, on the surface, looks kind of ridiculous. That’s no easy task and I doubt the audience would be half as invested in the character without Keener’s work.

Through the awkwardness there’s a very tender connection between the two. True, the idea of sex is treated as more of a curiosity than burning passion but it’s still quite revealing when the two friends begin opening up to one another. The bond they share is unique, which leaves them uncertain over how to handle it. They come from two species that were once at war and still harbour a mutual resentment. If that weren’t complicated enough then consider that one’s turned vigilante, one’s been dead for two years and both are heading to their doom for the sake of the galaxy. What holds them together? In a word, “trust” and over the course of ME2 they discover how special this is and how deep it runs. From this trust grows affection, which develops into an urge to be close to one another. For a romance that starts as just two friends “blowing off steam”, it’s actually one of the most emotionally driven love stories I’ve seen in a game.


“I want something to go right. Just once. Just…”

In the final scene Garrus breaks down under the weight of his personal failures, bringing up his past career in C-Sec and the deaths of his followers on Omega. Shepard comforts him and gently touches the damaged side of his face. No words are spoken but I imagine it’s a crystallising moment. She remembers how she felt when the blast wounded Garrus and he lay there bleeding. She thought she’d lost him forever. She hopes he’ll never be hurt like that again, knowing it’s futile as they approach the suicide mission. This night alone together may very well be their last. She’s reminded of her own scars caused by Project Lazarus and how lucky they both are simply to be alive. She thinks of all the times he’s put himself on the line for her and how he’ll continue to fight by her side till the very end. Most of all, she’s saying she loves Garrus for who he is, scars and all.

The scene ends here as the two move in close, thankfully sparing us any graphic details. If you feel you’ve missed out then a simple Google Images search will remedy that and give literal meaning to the term “deviant art”. Remind me in future to turn the Safe Search ON while researching this thing… my eyes!

I had my reservations but the FemShep/Garrus relationship was pleasantly surprising. Actually the more I think about it, the more I realise that the set-up is near perfect. See how she smiles when she sees him again? Hear the joy in his voice when he’s talking to his old friend? And how can you not be charmed by the way they playfully rib each other? You know you’ve got a special friendship when you can slag a guy for having his face blown off. Even my yeoman was saying that we’d make a cute couple and who am I to argue with her? Especially after what happened in my last game when I took too long to get to the Collector Base (once again Kelly, I am so sorry!)

I do wonder how things will work out for them in ME3. I get the feeling I’ll need to have a tissue ready.