So I want to start this diary from the very start. And from the very start, Mass Effect is very clear about one thing.
Shepard is special.
She’s special mainly due to the origin story the player chooses during character creation. In my Shepard’s case, I’m special because I’m “ruthless.” Because I “get the job done.” I’m special for the same reasons I have a reputation as “The Butcher of Torfan” (more on that later).
I’m the type of commander they send out when they need an impossible job done. But my callous devotion to the mission isn’t the only thing that makes me special. As I played through the first act, another message became clear.
I’m special because I’m human.
Twenty-six years before the events of Mass Effect 1, the Human Systems Alliance made first contact with the wider galactic community, and it didn’t go well. We’d just discovered space magic (the titular Mass Effect) and immediately used it to colonize other planets. In the process, we broke one of the interspecies Citadel Council’s laws, which resulted in a three-month war with the very angular Turians.
Eight years later, the Alliance established an embassy on The Citadel.
Those I talked to while I acclimated to space really hammered home that this was an amazing feat for the humans. After all, it took the Batarians, Volus, and Elcor each more than a century to get the same honor. What could our proud species have possibly done to achieve this?
The soldiers and politicians on the Citadel just gave me a bunch of patriotic rhetoric about the strength of the human spirit, but the codex was a bit clearer. The Alliance got an embassy on the Citadel because we colonized so many planets that it became a capital-I Issue.
Let’s talk about Shep for a bit. Before the game, Commander Shepard enlisted in the alliance military and soon joined the N7 special forces training program. Upon graduation, she volunteered for a campaign to “rid the Skyllian Verge of batarian [sic] slavers and other criminal elements.” She made a name for herself in the Alliance Military for her command of the Battle of Torfan. The assault ended in the death of three-quarters of her squad, which, according to the codex, was “a cost [Shepard was] willing to pay to make sure not a single slaver made it out of Torfan alive.”
On the surface, this maybe sounds like a brutal means to a justifiable end. Like, yeah, Shepard’s a little murderous, but nobody wants slavers on their moons, right? But I really started to understand humanity’s place in the universe when I learned why those slavers were on Torfan in the first place.
The codex states that, in short, Torfan was a staging base for Batarian criminal syndicates. The battle of Torfan was a raid on this base in retaliation for the Skyllian Blitz. The Skyllian Blitz was a failed raid of the human colonial capital Elysium by an organized collection of Batarian pirate groups.
The leader of these pirate groups was seeking prestige from organizing such an impressive blow to the human colonial effort. He used the pirates’ long-seething resentment of the Alliance’s presence in the Skyllian Verge to pull together disparate factions.
This resentment is the crux of it all. Sometime in the eight years between humanity’s flight into space and the establishment of our embassy, we began colonizing the Skyllian Verge. The Verge was already part of a large colonial project by the Batarians (we’re talking generations of people). The Batarian government petitioned the Alliance, and then the Council, to limit unauthorized colonization of the Verge. The Council said no.
The Batarian government responded by becoming a rogue nation. They shut down their embassy and closed their borders to all interstellar travel.
This is where the game starts. Humanity is still colonizing the Verge. Tensions between nations have escalated into a full-on proxy war fought between the likes of Shepard and various criminal groups.
It’s also where my playthrough started. The first thing I did after leaving the Citadel was stumble into the DLC, ”Bring Down the Sky.” The mission was to stop a Batarian pirate group from crashing an asteroid into Terra Nova, humanity’s second and largest colony. Along the way, I noticed a difference between how Mass Effect frames the Batarians and how it frames other galactic species.
The fact of the matter is Mass Effect is a shooter. Renegade or paragon, I need to point my gun at something for the game to work as intended. The developers aren’t totally against the player questioning their relationship to violence, but it has to happen at specific points in the story, not in room three of space station 247.
So they made an evil race. Over the course of the game, I shoot evil humans, evil Krogan, evil robots, even evil bugs. But those things aren’t inherently evil. Even the most hated among them (it’s the evil bugs) were allowed the acknowledgement that they are capable of beauty and empathy. But not Batarians.
The only Batarians I interacted with in Mass Effect 1 were heartless criminals. They were slavers, they were raiders, they were drug smugglers. They existed in my bloody backstory and in combat encounters. As far as I know, the only Batarian with a speaking role did so by holding a room full of people hostage.
To be honest, that conversation really affected me. The leader of the DLC’s pirate villains—Balak—was a slaver turned terrorist who was determined to crash a meteor into Earth. He’s also the only person in the game to explain why all of the Batarians I encountered were so aggressive.
Humanity came into Batarian space and started claiming land, centuries of diplomacy did nothing to protect them, their military had been forcibly kept small by galactic treaties, and now they were being crushed by the sheer force of an upstart young species. The only recourse their government had was to fund the likes of Balak, in hopes that the criminal enterprises would keep the Alliance’s attention off their nation.
But I don’t think the game was really interested in all of this, outside of the single-mission DLC. After all, by that point in the game, humanity had a mission—a special mission no other species could see the importance of. Where other species fought for hundreds of years to get a single vote on the laws that govern their planets, a very special Shepard was elected a one-woman judge, jury, and executioner.
In the words of party member Kaidan Alenko, “We finally get out here and the final frontier’s already been settled. And the residents don’t seem impressed by the view, or the dangers.”
A previous version of this article erroneously identified Earth as the target of the asteroid in “Bring Down the Sky.
A genderless eldritch beast bound to mortal flesh. Interests include games, gardening, magical realism, and the complete restructuring of America’s political and economic systems. Frequently orders too much food at restaurants. Tweets @unnnez.