Mass Effect 2 is celebrating its 14-year anniversary today, January 26, 2024. Below, we look back at one of its strangest aspects, and how it set up a broader subplot that went almost entirely unexplored.
The Suicide Mission of Mass Effect 2 is one of the all-time great climaxes of a video game. After tens of hours building relationships with a crew of characters you’ve recruited from all over the galaxy, you take them into a final battle where you have to make use of their specific skills and any missteps can result in the deaths of any one of them (or potentially even all of them, and you). But less remarked upon is the climax of the climax–a boss battle with a giant robot called a Reaper.
Mass Effect introduced a Reaper at the end of the first game, cementing what a massive threat these things were. What the characters first thought was a colossal, incredibly powerful spaceship turned out to be a colossal, artificially intelligent creature, bent on the destruction of all sentient life in the galaxy–and it was only one of a whole species. It was so big that it took an entire fleet of spacecraft to defeat it. And now we were facing one head-on, just Commander Shepard and the two crewmembers you brought with you and whatever guns you had on hand.
That might have been a pretty intense moment, but the Mass Effect 2 Reaper didn’t look like the one from the first Mass Effect, which resembled a massive space squid and had a real Lovecraftian cosmic horror vibe about it. This Reaper looked like a T-800 from the movie Terminator–if that human-shaped robot was also a giant, unfinished baby. Instead of being scary and weird, it was bad and dumb. Nobody talks about the battle with the Human Reaper because it’s something Mass Effect fans might be more inclined to want to forget.
The Human Reaper was the culmination of the entire main plot of Mass Effect 2, and was basically never mentioned again. And that’s a shame. As deeply anticlimactic and downright goofy as the Human Reaper was, I wish it had gotten more time to shine and had been a bigger part of Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. BioWare had ideas about the Human Reaper, ideas so big they made the final boss of their game a giant screaming robot baby. I need to know what those ideas were.
To understand just what BioWare took from us with the Human Reaper, it’s important to have a little more context from the story of Mass Effect 2. While there’s a lot going on with protagonist Commander Shepard and Cerberus, the ostensibly human supremacist paramilitary organization controlled by a billionaire, the reason all that ensues is the Collectors, a group of aliens marauding around the galaxy, attacking human colonies and absconding with all their citizens.
The Collectors are the remnants of a race of aliens called the Protheans, a civilization that existed and was wiped out the last time the Reapers cleansed the galaxy some 50,000 years before the events of the Mass Effect games. The Reapers turned the Protheans into a sort of cyborg people they could control, and used them as tools to get things done in the eons between their returns to the galaxy to murder everyone.
You don’t really understand the reasoning for the Collectors’ actions until the very end of the game when you hit the Suicide Mission, which takes place in the Collectors’ base. There, you discover their goal (and by extension, that of the Reapers) was gathering up a bunch of people to turn them into goo, and then use that goo to create a Human Reaper.
There were even some emotional stakes for the player–just before the end, the Collectors attack your ship and abduct a bunch of minor characters you’ve been hanging out with all game, including your personal assistant with whom it’s possible to have an inappropriate workplace relationship. You could have had a sexual encounter with Kelly Chambers, and then she got kidnapped by aliens, and if you didn’t save her, she got smashed into a jelly and pumped into a huge robot! And Mass Effect never really talked about that ever again!
The whole idea raises a lot of questions about the world of Mass Effect and the Reapers’ whole deal. Is this how an infinitely old and incredibly powerful group of artificial intelligence creatures reproduces, or is humanity special in some way that makes us particularly good as Reaper guts? What was the Human Reaper supposed to do–would it have been special in some way, or was it just going to be a whole giant guy flying through space, zapping stuff with lasers, the way all the other Reapers do, like some kind of Attack on Titan monster? Would the Collectors have made more Human Reapers, given enough time? If so, to what end?
Since the plot thread was pretty much abandoned after Mass Effect 2, we have no idea what the answers to those questions are. But we do have some hints at what they could have been, thanks to writer Drew Karpyshyn, who worked on the Mass Effect games and wrote several of the tie-in novels between installments.
Back in 2013 when Mass Effect 3 was released and fans were complaining about how the game ended, Karpyshyn fielded a few questions about what the story was planned to be like before he left. Karpyshyn made it very clear that while there were some ideas about the conclusion floating around during Mass Effect 1 and 2, similar to all those humans you failed to save, the ideas were pretty, uh, loose. Nothing had been fully rounded out or decided upon at the time.
The ideas Karpyshyn shared gave the Reapers a motivation that took a different angle on the one Mass Effect 3 finally adopted, in which they work to prevent a catastrophic struggle between organic life and artificial life by murdering anyone with self-awareness. One idea was that, each time the Reapers annihilated sentient life in the galaxy, they used a race to create a new Reaper. Their overall goal was to stop dark energy (the energy counterpart to dark matter) from spreading through and destroying the galaxy and all life within it–a spread that was intensified by the use of the “mass effect,” the science that provides the people of the galaxy with the ability to travel at faster-than-light speeds and gives some people “biotic” superpowers. This could have been a pretty cool idea, because, in the fiction of Mass Effect, the use of this tech was everywhere, from spaceships to toothbrushes. Kind of like how living in a civilization dependent on oil ruins a planet, living life in Mass Effect was helping bring about the galaxy’s destruction.
For some reason, in this conception of the story, to stop the dark energy the Reapers really needed to make that Human Reaper. One possible ending would be for players to make a choice of whether to sacrifice all of humanity to make a Human Reaper and save everyone else, or to take their chances against the laws of physics, I guess.
Is all that weird and possibly nonsensical? Absolutely. But at least it gives the Collectors a reason for liquefying everyone, and kind of provides one for the Reapers to want to make a 100-story-tall metal version of an accountant or whatever.
While BioWare might not have been down with that particular idea for the Reapers’ motivations, I wish we got something that was more directly related to the Human Reaper. As it stands, Mass Effect 2’s conclusion feels like a bad dream. It’s like the Collectors had a group project due in class but the smart kid who usually does all the work was out with pink eye that week.
I still find myself wondering about the Human Reaper. What was its deal? Why would unknowable cosmic AI creatures make this abomination? Was its existence a never-ending source of suffering? When we killed it, was it a baby, and what are the moral implications of killing a baby giant robot human? These are things that Mass Effect never answered, and the world is a little worse because of it.
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