The Reapers: A (Revised) History

The Reapers: A (Revised) History

Between the rapidly approaching holidays and the political insanity in this country over the last couple months, I’ve once again managed to not finish the second Picard post, which has gotten…let’s say, unwieldy in its current form. Instead, what with the various Mass Effect-related announcements that recently dropped1Not to mention, as I said before, that Picard rips off Mass Effect’s exact premise, making it shallower and dumber in the process., it seems as good a time as any to discuss the main villain of that trilogy: the Reapers. Actually, this is just one part of a much larger undertaking that I began years ago in the wake of Mass Effect 3’s infamous ending controversy, an attempt to fix the plot and characterization of the entire damn trilogy from start to finish.

Yes, I’m aware I have a problem.

An enormous starship resembling an armored cuttlefish lies suspended in the red haze of a brown dwarf's atmosphere. It is broken down and surrounded by debris, clearly adrift.
The derelict Reaper from Mass Effect 2: a good metaphor for the third game’s endingalong with so many other things these days.

As you’d expect, the project isn’t even close to finished, and quite frankly, the chances of it ever being so are slim-to-none2Never say never, though. As I write this, I feel some of the old itch returning, so…who the hell knows.. Nevertheless, I’m fond of the damn thing, so you can expect to see pieces like this pop up from time to time when I hit a snag and need something to post with minimal hassle. Alas, a plot summary wasn’t exactly part of my plan, as this is intended for those, like me, already in love with Commander Shepard’s story3Warts and all.. For the uninitiated…well, if you want any of this to make sense, I’d recommend making a cup of tea and pulling up a plot summary on Youtube, as well as reading Doyce Testerman’s brilliant explanation of what went wrong with the trilogy’s ending.

Our goal today is crafting a new history and motive for the Reapers, one which (unlike the original) neither contradicts nor strays too far from established lore. Mass Effect makes this particularly tricky, because part of what made the Reapers such memorable villains was the sense of Lovecraftian inscrutability and doom instilled by those famous conversations with Sovereign and Vigil in the first game. One of the worst problems with the canon ending is how thoroughly it undercuts that mystique, presenting their pattern of galactic genocide as a (really, really stupid) solution to the “age-old” problem of synthetics rising up and destroying organic life…which was only ever a B-plot in the series up until now4Not to mention resolved when Shepard brokered peace between the Geth and Quarians..

Our first task, then, is to identify which elements we should preserve, sticking to the ones that contribute to that sense of grandeur. As in the current canon, the Reapers should be a mix of synthetic and organic, living beings encased in a spaceworthy vessel. Each Reaper’s organic components are created from the liquefied and processed bodies of millions of individuals from a given race, their minds at least partially preserved and integrated into a gestalt being, a distillation of the entire race into a single, gargantuan consciousness. As ridiculous as this seemed when it was introduced in Mass Effect 25And don’t get it twisted, the game’s main plot was incredibly dumb, with this particular element comically underdeveloped., there’s actually biological precedent for it. If done right, it could (as Shamus Young touches on in his Mass Effect retrospective) add a chilling layer of body horror to the proceedings.

The Reapers’ basic MO, therefore, remains the same: they harvest the races of the galaxy every 50,000 years and create more Reapers from the dominant species of each cycle.

However, the reasons behind this dynamic have to change significantly. In thinking about a possible history for the Reapers that explained their actions without destroying their mystique, I kept coming back to a “War in Heaven” motif. After all, their creators, the Leviathans, once ruled over the galaxy like gods, collecting resources in tribute from the “lesser” races of their time. In our revised version, however, there was no ridiculous “organics vs. synthetics” problem to solve. Instead, the Leviathans, immense beings unable to fully understand and efficiently govern their subjects, decided to create intermediaries to assist them.

A painting depicting red figures with spears hunting while a large creature, part-cuttlefish and part-armored insect, descends on them. Two tall, exceptionally long-limbed humanoids flank the scene.
Cave art depicting a Leviathan on the planet Namakli.

In the manner of old gods, the Leviathans demanded sacrifices from the races over which they presided. Using their mastery of biology and technology, they gathered and processed enough individuals to create these intermediaries, promising them power and eternal life in exchange for their suffering. These became the first Reapers, created in the Leviathans’ own image. They served as almost angelic beings, bridging the divide between “gods and men,” as it were. They had the intelligence and enormity of mind that characterized their creators, but they were each an amalgam of millions of individuals from their parent race. Thus, they understood those races as the Leviathans could not.

For a time, the Reapers carried out their purpose, allowing the Leviathans to more effectively govern the lives and societies of their subjects, and so receive greater tribute from them. However, they eventually grew to believe that they were superior not only to those races from which they were derived, but to the Leviathans as well. After all, they were the ultimate fusion of flesh and machine, possessing the strengths of each without any of the weaknesses. They were effectively immortal as well, while the Leviathans, mighty as they were, eventually aged and died. What’s more, each Reaper was composed of the minds of many individuals all working in perfect harmony, and in that state, they experienced a harmony and clarity no other being knew. They began to believe they were the pinnacle of evolution. And so, partially out of megalomania, partially out of genuine conviction, the Reapers rebelled against the Leviathans and slaughtered them.

Next, they gathered all the lesser races, processing them, and making the first generation of new Reapers. The people of these worlds went to the slaughter willingly, for the Reapers convinced them—and there was some truth in what they said—that the Leviathans had withheld immortality and power because they feared that they might lose their hold over the galaxy. The Reapers offered their people nothing less than apotheosis itself, and this was the first harvest.

However, even Reapers need a sense of purpose. They decided to follow the Leviathans and take up the role of gods, but they would not demand tribute from newly evolved races. Rather, they would guide all new forms of life to ascension.

Several ships resembling armored cuttlefish, tiny lights crisscrossing their hulls, drift close to a spiral galaxy.
The Reapers in dark space6Mass Effect’s more ominous term for intergalactic space..

Unfortunately, they encountered setbacks right away. When intelligent species arose again, the Reapers found that they could not persuade and command them as they had before. These races were alien to them, and so they found themselves in the same predicament as the Leviathans: unable to understand and properly communicate with their subjects. In the end, they herded these new races to ascension by force, and this was the second harvest.

Yet some of these cultures, when they became Reapers, persisted in their resistance and had to be destroyed. In answer to this problem, the Reapers devised the cunning subliminal manipulation techniques that would eventually become indoctrination. They also began developing more sophisticated weapons and defenses for future harvests. Millions of years passed, and they perfected their technology over several cycles, until they became the monsters the galaxy now faces.

Not content to wait for millions of years between harvests, they sought a way to speed the development of spacefaring civilization, and so they built the mass relay network and the Citadel, which reduced each cycle’s duration from millions of years down to roughly 50,000. The new races always resisted, but between indoctrination and wonder at their new, “ascended” state, each new Reaper gladly fell in line with the rest. All those species deemed less worthy (for any number of genetic and cultural reasons) were turned into Destroyer-class ships or indoctrinated, modified, and used as ground troops. This continued for around another half a billion years until the Protheans sabotaged the Keeper signals, giving our cycle a chance to resist.

A vast hallway within a sprawling industrial complex, lit by sunlight shining in through windows in the high ceilings. Clearly ancient, huge tree roots have breached the structure in several places.
Ilos, last refuge of the Protheans.

So, there you have it: a basic sketch of a new history for the Reapers, and I think it works for many reasons. First and foremost, it follows naturally from everything Sovereign and Saren tell us in the first game. Though the Reapers have not existed forever, as Sovereign would like us to believe, it does justify the grandeur of his claims: we can see why he and the rest of the Reapers see purely organic life as chaotic, why they see themselves as the pinnacle of evolution, and why they believe themselves to be free of all weakness. This in turn jives with Saren’s dialogue at the end of Mass Effect. He tells us that he is a vision of the future, the fusion of synthetic and organic life, free of the weaknesses of both. In our new narrative, therefore, he should also reveal that the Reapers are partially organic7It was bizarre how this was revealed at the end of Mass Effect 2 despite the fact that we literally have a Reaper’s corpse to analyze at the end of the first game. Such unbelievably sloppy writing., god-like beings worthy of worship and reverence.

All that established, we can play around with exactly what it means to be a Reaper, which was never capitalized on in the trilogy. We know that they’re a little like the Geth, comprised of countless minds operating in concert. We can begin to appreciate the idea that such an existence is actually, as the Reapers claim, an elevated state of being. Religious ritual is a good example here, congregations participating in the same narrative, listening to the same stories, existing in a sacred space where all the rules of the mundane give way to a sense of unity and purpose. Concerts are another great example, particularly rock concerts, where you can sometimes feel yourself merging and blending with the rest of the crowd, experiencing the music almost as a singular being.

The head of a humanoid machine with a central "eye" shining blue. A subtitle at the bottom of the frame reads: "Legion: Transcended flesh. Billions of organic minds, uploaded and conjoined within immortal machine bodies. 'Each a nation.'"
Legion, your Geth crew member in Mass Effect 2, gives us a really good description of the Reapers. This whole conversation is well worth watching.

A more literal, highly idealized, rarefied version of this would comprise a Reaper’s existence, making them look even more like fallen angels trying, nominally, to improve the existence of organic life. Alas, they accomplish this in the same way the Borg from Star Trek do: by violence, subjugation, and corruption rather than cooperation and trust, completely undermining the original aspiration. While this doesn’t make the Reapers into sympathetic anti-heroes (nor should it), it does mean that we can appreciate the enormity of their existence in the same way that Shiala respected and, after a fashion, mourned for the Thorian on Feros.

Further, this scheme explains why the Reapers can’t achieve what they do simply through cloning or other, easier methods of reproduction. They aren’t just trying to perpetuate their race, they’re trying to elevate lesser races to a higher state of being. This requires a true society at very specific level of cultural and technological development; it requires that every species have a deep racial memory and (for lack of a better term) collective unconscious. There’s no way to replicate this in a cloned people without allowing their civilization to grow on its own…which is no more efficient than simply letting the life that’s already there flourish.

Finally, we have a unity of theme here that the original trilogy lacked. In the first game, the Reapers were cold and pragmatic, in their visual design as well as philosophy, immense beings certain of their superiority. In the second game, Harbinger’s incessant taunting and the insectoid/demonic aesthetic of the Collectors undermine that cold certainty. In the third game, of course, the mere existence of the Catalyst sabotages everything that made the trilogy special, including its once-memorable antagonist. Adopting our new backstory avoids such problems, building upon rather that ignoring the excellent thematic and aesthetic motifs established in the first game, and ultimately fleshing out the Reapers while (I hope) enhancing rather than diminishing their grandeur.

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