Learning To Push ButtonsPrevious Post
Running into Walls
Half a year ago I promised that I’d write more about Mass Effect 2. After scourging the lame-brained main plot, I felt like I needed to explain why I liked a game despite the failings of the story. I mentioned that Dr. Mordin Solus was the best part of the game. It’s true, but it’s more than that. He’s the best character in the game, and his backstory is linked to the best mission in the game, which stems from the most interesting elements of the Mass Effect universe. Mordin stands above the other characters in the game because his dialog is good, and his dialog is good because he’s perched atop a mountain of lore. I feel like I can’t talk about him until I talk about the mountain. Which is why it took me half a year to write this. Every time I sat down to write 1,000 words about Mordin I found I needed to write 3,000 words about other stuff first.
If you haven’t gotten the clue yet, this series is going to be a long ramble about stuff that many of us will already know. Also, I’ve sprinkled the text with TvTropes links because I’m feeling sadistic.
In Mass Effect 2, the story of Dr. Mordin Solus doesn’t begin when you meet up with him. It begins two thousand years before the opening of the first game. So before we meet Mordin, let’s meet the galaxy…
In Mass Effect, the only practical way to voyage across interstellar distances is to use the ancient and mysterious mass relays. Not a particularly original setup, but every sci-fi universe needs to tackle the subject of getting around in our obnoxiously spacious universe before it can tell a story that takes place on more than one planet.
Two thousand years ago, it was perfectly acceptable to fly around looking for new mass relays and popping them open to see where they went. There was nothing to suggest that this wasn’t a reasonable thing to do. Then at some point somebody opened a mass relay leading to Rachni space.
The insectoid Rachni were powerful, aggressive, and not really interested in diplomacy. They poured through the mass relay Zerg-style and proceeded to clean the galaxy’s clock. Note that the good guys didn’t open the Rachni relay because of greed or lust for power. They were just exploring and blundered into a previously unknown danger. It was inevitable, really. What were they going to do, not explore the galaxy? Any species with that temperament wouldn’t make it off their home planet.
The story has always been a little coy about the technological makeup of the Rachni. We aren’t told if they had armor, ships, zap guns, or what. During the first game the player runs into a few feral Rachni – basically lion-sized space bugs – and they prove to be quite a handful. They’re leaderless, unarmed, and naked, but they tear through defense systems and armed humans with little trouble. If the Rachni also had the ability to arm and armor themselves, gather intelligence, and organize their attacks, it’s easy to see how they would be almost unstoppable. Having said that, the story doesn’t really talk about them using technology. There are no “leftover Rachni ships” and indeed at a couple of plot points it seems like the only reasonable explanation for the Rachni being somewhere is that they posses an innate ability to travel through space.
Now, this is where your typical sci-fi writer would stop writing and crown the Rachni as their main villain. They would contrive a way to stow the Rachni and then unleash them again at the opening of the story so that the player could face off against this ancient evil. Maybe throw something about a prophecy in there and call it a day. And that would be good enough. (And in fact, this sort of thing does happen in Mass Effect.) Dragon Age did this and it got the job done, story-wise. But here the authors of the Mass Effect universe set up a very interesting chain of events…
It starts with the Salarians, a race of fragile, brilliant, but short-lived amphibians. Their race is characterized by an affinity for using stealth, technology, and guile to overcome their foes as opposed to using numbers and brute strength. They stood with the other races against the Rachni threat, but the Rachni had everyone outgunned(?) and outnumbered. Which is when the Salarians discovered the Krogan…
Like the Klingons and Wookies before them, the Krogen are the archetypal honorable brute race of Mass Effect. Huge, strong, aggressive, clan-based, fearless. According to the codex, the Krogan are a species of large reptilian bipeds native to the planet Tuchanka, a world known for its harsh environments, scarce resources, and overabundance of vicious predators.
We have places on Earth with low energy and moisture (tundra, deserts) and they don’t really feature a huge array of hulking, aggressive beasts. (Polar bears are big, but they feed from the sea where the rules are a bit different. They would never be able to find enough food inland.) Low energy environments favor the cautious, patient, and efficient over a noisy rampaging behemoth.
With its densely populated surface covered with large fast-moving predators, Tuchanka sees an incredible amount of energy being burned. Which means there must be a lot of energy available.
But I digress…
The Krogan are phenomenal badasses. Large. Thick skinned. Redundant organs. They reproduce at an astounding rate – a single female can lay perhaps 1,000 viable eggs, which means they could conceivably out-Zerg the Rachni. They mature rapidly so that it only takes a few years before a Krogan is large enough to fight. They are intelligent enough to build industrial-age weapons and can use more advanced stuff if available. (And here is another reason the “scarce” resources thing doesn’t work for me. It would actually be a huge disadvantage to waste energy laying 1,000 eggs if you weren’t going to have enough energy (food) to get most of them to the point where they could contribute. Having numerous offspring is only an advantage if your leading cause of death is attrition from predators, not scarcity.)
Yet despite all these advantages, they never really subdued their home planet the way other races in the galaxy did. The predators on their homeworld were fearsome enough that Krogan still wound up getting eaten on a regular basis. As powerful as they were, they still struggled with the most basic fundamentals of survival – food, water, safety.
And then the Salarians got a bright idea: Let’s arm these guys and throw them at the Rachni problem. You could argue that the Salarian solution was foolhardy and short-sighted, but since the alternative (if you can call it that) was extermination, that line of thought is a tough sell.
I love this about the history of Mass Effect. There are no easy answers. Games are always so quick to portray the generations past as a bunch of reckless idiots. But even with the benefit of hindsight it’s hard to be certain we could do better than the peoples of Mass Effect if we found ourselves in their shoes. And when the people of the past did make mistakes, their mistakes are understandable to us and perhaps even seem inevitable. Mass Effect’s history is a series of events and reactions by actors who were simply trying to do the best they could with incomplete information in an imperfect universe. It’s a history of consequences, not contrivances.
Learning To Push ButtonsPrevious Post
Running into Walls
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