Sometimes it got difficult to remember what evil looks like in the Mass Effect games.
With all the soap opera of loyalty missions, interplanetary politics and romance plotlines in the three Mass Effect games, it sure was easy to forget what you had to save the universe from. Sure, the threat loomed large but doing stuff like chasing down an assassin's wayward son pushed the overarching menace into the background.
(Some mild spoilers from here on out...)
But when the trilogy sent you reminders of the wickedness that your Commander Shepard was up against, they were doozies. Watching Saren lose control over his own mind in the battle against him, coming across the colony that had been decimated by the Collectors or seeing the homeworld of a close friend fall to the Reapers… these were all moments that made me feel like I might not actually be able to save the universe.
To my mind, evil operates on a continuum in the Mass Effect trilogy, with two poles that represent different kinds of malevolence.
The Reapers represent erasure. They want to wipe organic life off the cosmological map. And one of the scariest things about the eons-old machine race is the fact that they've done it before, over and over again. And then they retreat back to the edges of the universe and lurk in wait for a chance to do it anew.
The Sovereign sequence from Mass Effect 1 is one of the most chilling encounters I ever had in a video game. Here I was, a lowly human who felt lucky enough to become a Spectre, head already awhirl at all the different species and rivalries I'd had to navigate. But here was an entity that felt like un-life. The moment was chilling. (It helped that the the modulated voicework reminded me a bit of arcade classic Sinistar.)
You can see where the Reapers harbor echoes of Stark Trek's cybernetic Borg race. And there's also a bit of Galactus—Marvel Comics' planet-eating force of nature—in their DNA, too.
But the Reapers are more fearsome than the Borg because of the universe they operate in. In Star Trek, Starfleet is the big, mostly-conflict-free space family that humanity, Vulcans and loads of other races belong to. And since the Borg have mostly come into conflict with Starfleet forces, it's never felt like the entirety of the Trek universe was at risk. Maybe the Klingons would beat them, right? But in Mass Effect 3, as homeworld after homeworld fell, it really felt like the Reapers were unstoppable.
When I spoke to him last week, I asked Drew Karpyshyn about what went into the recipe for the Reapers. Yes, there's some Trek in there but the Mass Effect 1 head writer also said that other influences came up when he and the other BioWare creators who birthed Mass Effect were brainstorming. "We had other influences in our game besides classic science fiction. We wanted to distinguish the Reapers from things like the Borg or other similar stuff. What we did was, we went to the elder gods of the Lovecraft mythology. That’s what we wanted to capture. These are the science fiction version of the elder gods."