I’ve been looking back on the greatest science fiction epic of our age lately, and appreciating once more its skillful writing, artful lore and themes, and rich and engaging characters. Ah, Mass Effect...it truly is a magnificent specimen of the space opera, one of gaming’s finest works of storytelling.
Well, until Bioware violently murdered it during its last 5 minutes.
But we won’t get into that again. For now, though, let’s rewind the series a bit, back to a moment of Mass Effect 2 that I think deserves a little extra appreciation: the Krogan Rite of Passage.
This is a point in the game during which Shepard must, to earn his teammate’s loyalty, take Grunt to the homeworld of the krogan to engage in a cultural tradition of battle which will cement Grunt’s place as a krogan. Shepard, Grunt, and the party member of your choice go to a ceremonial battleground, call forth a few waves of enemies to fight, and then have to deal with a hostile krogan asshole who wants to use Grunt for political power while openly treating him as a freak. It’s straightforward, but it’s also a notable moment in the game, because each part of this trial is thoughtful and symbolic of the Krogan people.
The first part of the rite involves fighting a pack of varren, the vicious, fish-lizard-canine things frequently used as attack dogs by mercenaries in the series, while a voice talks of how the krogan mastered their lethal planet. The symbolism here is fairly obvious: varren are native to the krogan homeworld of Tuchanka, so the rite-taker is proving himself a true krogan by mastering the deadly beasts of his homeworld, as his ancestors did. The next part of the trial replaces the varren with man-sized hostile insects, while the voice goes on to talk of the way the krogan were uplifted to defeat the rachni and save the galaxy. The symbolism here is, again, pretty simple and straightforward: the rachni were huge, insect-like creatures, so in this part of the rite, Grunt is symbolically proving that he can overcome the enemies of the krogans’ past by defeating giant insect monsters as his people once did.
The third and supposedly final part of the rite has some pretty cool symbolism. The voice speaks again, this time of the current difficulty that the krogan people face: the genophage, a genetic monstrosity inflicted upon the species by the other council races which causes only 1 in 1000 births to succeed. The genophage is an unconquerable enemy, against which the only victory the krogan race can hope for is basic survival. Once this speech is finished, Shepard and Grunt are attacked by a thresher maw, a titanic, acid-spitting worm that players of Mass Effect 1 know is better engaged with heavily armored, heavily armed vehicles rather than on foot. A timer is started for this battle--the goal is not to kill the monster, simply to abide its wrath. Once again, you get the symbolism of actually fighting against the great nemesis of the krogan race, but this time, it’s not seen as a fight that can be overcome, rather just a simple battle for survival. The genophage is something beyond the krogans’ ability to confront and defeat, and so they must find a way to live with it, bear its harm and fury as a species without going extinct. How neat to have this part of the rite symbolized by a trial of survival against the seemingly unbeatable thresher maw.
Now, what I’ve been saying so far is probably not news to you. The Mass Effect fan community was always ferociously devoted, so chances are good that you heard someone talk about the symbolism of the Krogan Rite of Passage on a forum or chatboard or something at one point or another. That, or you noticed it yourself when you played the game; it’s pretty simple, though effective, as symbolism goes. But, what I haven’t seen many people notice about this mission in the game is that the symbolism of this rite actually goes deeper, in 2 distinct ways:
Way the First: The supposedly final part of the trial, the battle against the thresher maw? It CAN be won. Powerful and deadly though the beast is, it’s possible for Grunt and Shepard to kill the gargantuan worm, a feat which is noted by some krogan bystanders as having not occurred since Wrex, Shepard’s original krogan buddy from the first Mass Effect and current leader of krogan Clan Urdnot, underwent the rite.
Now, you might think, at first, that this actually weakens the strength of the rite’s symbolism. After all, if the thresher maw is supposed to symbolize the genophage, it really should be an adversary that cannot be beaten, only endured, right? That makes sense. But...think about this key fact: the only individuals who have defeated the thresher maw in recent times have been Shepard and Grunt, and Wrex.
Shepard, Grunt, and Wrex.
Wrex: the krogan whose uncommon wisdom and drive are, during ME2 and 3, bringing the krogan race back together and forcing it to think in the long term about survival. Wrex is the leader that can bring respect and honor back to the krogan, give his race a real chance at uniting and working toward a future, rather than continuing to splinter and fight themselves to death.
Grunt: a krogan bred to be a super soldier, an unparallelled specimen of his race’s strength, ferocity, and determination. Grunt is the exemplar of what his creator, Okeer, saw as the necessary next step for the krogan race.
And Shepard: the human being who, in Mass Effect 3, assuming that he isn’t a complete fucking asshole, makes possible the curing of the genophage.
So essentially, the ones who defeat the thresher maw in the Rite of Passage, the individuals who symbolically kill the genophage, and thus symbolically kill the concept of the extinction that the krogan race brought on itself, are the individual who represents the intellectual, social, spiritual hope of the krogan people, the individual who physically represents the future of the krogan people, and the individual who will be responsible for the end of the actual genophage. The icons of the krogans’ future are the ones in this rite to take down the symbol of the krogans’ demise--that’s a really cool moment of symbolism and foreshadowing!
Way the Second: I keep saying that the Rite of Passage is “supposedly” finished after the thresher maw part because after the actual rite has ended, there’s a final part of the mission. A krogan clan leader named Uvenk shows up once the rite is over to offer Grunt the opportunity to join his clan. Until now, Uvenk has dismissed Grunt as a freak at best, an abomination at worst, refusing to believe him to be true krogan because he was created, rather than naturally born. Even in his offer, Uvenk is disrespectful to Grunt, being clear that this is just a move for political power, and saying that even as the shiny mascot of Uvenk’s clan, Grunt would still not be allowed certain rights of citizenship, such as mating opportunities. Naturally, Grunt says no to this offer, in the same way that Grunt says no to anything: with his gun. A battle ensues against Uvenk and his henchmen, and it’s only after Shepard and Grunt emerge victorious that the mission ends.
Now, because this isn’t an actual part of the Krogan Rite of Passage, no one really pays too much attention to this spat with Uvenk...but I actually think that this, too, is meant to be a symbolic struggle. See, the rite is all about symbolically overcoming the nemeses of the krogan, the obstacles that they had to and have to overcome in order to survive. The first was the dangers of their planet, the second was the rachni that they were uplifted by the Council races to defeat, the third is the genophage. Yet, there is, truly, 1 more foe to the krogan, the most dangerous threat to their race’s existence by far:
The krogan themselves.
The krogan culture is violent, warlike, and self-destructive. They waged nuclear war and destroyed their planet. They refused to discipline themselves and began a war with the Council races that ended in their being cursed with the genophage. And after that, instead of banding together to ensure that the nigh-complete destruction of their fertility did not ensure the end of their species, the krogan divided into warring clans and sold themselves out as mercenaries, throwing themselves into violence and death even as the genophage made it impossible to replace their numbers. Krogan like Wrex, who see that unification and cooperation are the only way to save their species, are rare indeed.
Now, I’m not saying that the krogan are inherently violent brutes. The existence of Wrex is proof enough that this is not true, and Bakara informs us in Mass Effect 3 that they once had a real, viable culture. This self-destructive society of the krogran is something that has grown far more from their history than their nature, much the same as our own self-destructive and foolish culture of hypermasculinity which we subject the males of our society to.
But if a culture of self-destructive pride and violence is not intrinsically a part of krogan nature, it is, at least, a deeply-entrenched part of their history, and it is the origin of the extinction that the race faces during the events of the Mass Effect trilogy.
So, the battle against Uvenk is actually a final, and probably the most important, piece of symbolism. Uvenk resists Wrex’s attempts to unite the clans. He is set in the traditional mindset of the krogan, one of powerlust, thirst for battle, and self-important pomposity. He spits upon what is new and different, as symbolized by Grunt, yet at the same time wants to use it to his own barbaric ends--he sees the utility of the new only in terms of how it can benefit his self-important old ways, treating it without respect. It is much akin to a major theme of the Mass Effect universe which the krogan as a whole symbolize--the danger of being advanced to a place of technology and society that one is not ready for.
And so, Uvenk is a symbol of the greatest foe that the krogan have: their own selfish, short-sighted, vainglorious, violent culture. Though not an official part of the Krogan Rite of Passage, Uvenk is perhaps the most important component to this ritual of battle against the krogans’ enemies.
The Mass Effect series really is something fantastic for so many reasons, and you really see it in moments like these, where great and layered writing is both easily accessible, and also deep enough to offer rewarding insights for contemplating it at length. No damn wonder I loved this trilogy so much.
Oh also this.