Mass Effect theory: unlucky humans

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the Mass Effect trilogy – including Mass Effect: Legendary Edition.

I’ve recently been playing through Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, having picked it up on release day. It had been five or six years since I last played through this outstanding sci-fi trilogy, and it’s been great fun getting stuck into the Mass Effect galaxy all over again. The writers of the Mass Effect series put in a lot of effort to build a world that’s easy to get lost in, and having spent so much time over the last week playing through the games, I’ve come up with a theory based on some of the things that Commander Shepard and their crew have learned. This time I thought it could be fun to run through that theory!

Here’s the short version: humans in the Mass Effect trilogy were incredibly unlucky. Humanity discovered mass relay technology only about forty years prior to the events of Mass Effect, joining the galactic community a few years later. By the time of the Reapers’ arrival in the Milky Way galaxy, humanity had only been a major spacefaring race for a few years, whereas the salarians, asari, turians, and others had been established across the galaxy for millennia. If the Reapers had arrived a few decades sooner, or if humanity’s progress toward spaceflight and exploration had been slower, perhaps humans could have avoided the Reaper War altogether, and arrived to find the galaxy devoid of spacefaring races ripe for colonisation. If the Council had left behind detailed records of the Reaper War, perhaps humanity could have had literally millennia to prepare a defence for the next Reaper attack.

Though the Citadel Council were not exactly helpful when Shepard warned about the Reapers, perhaps the Council races would have left clues and information behind that could have helped humanity if they had been wiped out.

That’s a basic overview of the theory. So let’s start by looking at some of the evidence we have that could be argued to support it. We should start at the beginning: Sovereign’s attempt to open the Citadel mass relay and bring the Reapers back. We don’t know exactly when Sovereign awakened, or even whether the ancient machine ever slept; it may have been observing the galaxy for millennia. But we do know that its original plan to open the Citadel mass relay to the Reapers was thwarted by the Prothean survivors from Ilos. These Prothean scientists travelled to the Citadel and ensured that Sovereign’s signal would fail, and it’s for this reason alone that the Reapers did not invade earlier.

Across Mass Effect 1, several characters speculate that Sovereign may have been working to build alliances slowly over the course of several centuries – perhaps even as far back as the Rachni Wars 2,000 years before the events of the games. If we take a timeframe of “centuries” plural, we can make the case that Sovereign originally planned for this cycle’s harvest to begin in the 1700s or 1800s – but its attempts to start the cycle failed due to the actions of the Ilos Protheans millennia earlier.

It may have taken centuries for Sovereign to figure out what went wrong and find allies in Saren and the geth.

Given that the Reapers’ motivations appear to be to “save” organic life from what they consider to be the inevitable betrayal by synthetic life, one event that may have prompted Sovereign’s initial plan to open the Citadel mass relay is the creation of the geth. If Sovereign was alert and scanning the galaxy, it may have concluded that the geth were on a path to becoming sentient and enacted its plan to open the relay. This once again places Sovereign’s first attempt to bring back the Reapers in the 18th or 19th Centuries.

Next we’re going to jump ahead to Mass Effect 3 and latch onto something Liara told Shepard. Based on her calculations, the Reaper harvest would take somewhere in the region of 100 years. Assuming that would still be the case if the Reapers had arrived in the 1700s or 1800s as mentioned above, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Reapers could have arrived in the galaxy, harvested all advanced organic life, and departed back into dark space before humanity was even in a position to realise what had happened, or that there had ever been a galactic community and Citadel Council.

Would the Reapers have chosen to harvest humanity if they had arrived in the 19th Century? I doubt it!

But surely the Reapers would have gone for humanity as well? That would be the counter-argument to this theory in general. And while we can’t be sure, one point I would make against this counter-argument is that the Reapers, at least according to Admiral Hackett in Mass Effect 3, were ignoring the yahg. The only yahg we met in the Mass Effect series was the original Shadow Broker, but his species were a pre-spaceflight civilisation. Crucially, however, they were described as being an industrial civilisation with technology akin to 20th Century Earth.

If the Reapers were ignoring the yahg because their level of technology was not sufficiently advanced to “qualify” them for harvesting – and not because of some other reason, like their aggressive nature – then we can absolutely make the case that a Reaper invasion in the 1700s, 1800s, or even 1900s would have overlooked Earth entirely.

The Reapers did not target the pre-spaceflight yahg during their invasion – which could mean humanity would have been safe if the Reapers had arrived earlier.

In some ways we can argue that the number of humans in the galaxy – and how widespread humanity is – doesn’t seem to gel completely with the idea that Earth only joined the galactic community within the last few decades. But that’s just down to production-side reasons – human characters are easier for us as players to relate to, as well as probably being easier to create and animate! Dr Bryson in Mass Effect 3 tells us that first contact with aliens happened in his lifetime, so even if we disregard everything above regarding Sovereign and Ilos, I still can’t help but feel that if the Reapers had arrived only a few years earlier, humanity might still have been overlooked!

If humanity didn’t have faster-than-light travel, hadn’t discovered the Prothean ruins on Mars, and were unaware of the Charon mass relay, perhaps the Reapers would have focused their efforts on other races even if humans had already achieved limited spaceflight. This is much more speculative, but I would argue that nothing we see of the Reapers’ behaviour in the games rules it out.

The discovery of the Mars archive propelled humanity onto the galactic stage. If it had remained hidden, perhaps the Reapers would have overlooked humans – at least during this cycle.

Assuming that this theory is accurate, and that the Reapers arrived either centuries or decades before humanity would have encountered the galactic community, what happens next? If humans emerged as a spacefaring race within a few years of the Reapers concluding their harvest of the asari, turians, salarians, etc. what would happen? In all three games, the Reapers’ 50,000-year cycle of harvests appears to be a fairly rigid thing, with Liara and others noting that the cycle of extinctions appears to repeat on that basis. But is that set in stone?

I would suggest that the presence of Sovereign could be taken to mean that it isn’t. Sovereign’s purpose, as speculated by several characters in Mass Effect 1, was to scan the galaxy and wait for species to reach the appropriate level of development – perhaps beginning to work on their own AIs – before summoning the Reapers. It may just be coincidence that this happens roughly every 50,000 years – or it may not be!

Liara, an archaeologist, seemed to be sure that Reaper harvests occur roughly every 50,000 years – which might mean they happen on a set timeframe regardless of what’s happening in the galaxy.

But Sovereign wouldn’t summon the Reapers if there was no one to reap, right? If no species had developed to the point where the Reapers would harvest them, they would surely wait instead of just showing up to meet an arbitrary schedule; they seem cleverer and more adaptable than that! So presumably this works in reverse, too – if humanity had emerged in the years after a harvest, discovered the Citadel and began to expand, presumably the Reapers wouldn’t just ignore that for 50,000 years!

The Prothean Empire, though, could be taken as a counterpoint to this argument. The Protheans were more advanced than any of the Citadel Council races, and their Empire appears to have endured for millennia. Not only that, but Liara explained that because the Prothean Empire was so far-reaching – occupying more worlds and systems than the extant races – it took the Reapers several centuries to harvest them fully. The length of time that the Protheans were left alone to develop and build thus suggests that the Reapers don’t necessarily have a set criteria of expansion or size for determining when to strike. I would suggest, based on the possibility that Sovereign became active around the time of the geth rebellion, that the development of AI may be one of the Reapers’ criteria when deciding to begin an invasion.

The Protheans seem to have thrived in the galaxy for millennia before the Reapers came.

So we’re left with two possibilities: either the Reapers would wait out the next 50,000 years as humanity built its own galactic civilisation – perhaps contending with the likes of the yahg – or they’d pounce when they felt humanity was ready to be harvested regardless of how recent the prior harvest was. Both arguments are equally valid, I feel.

Either way, though, it seems clear to me that humanity drew the short straw! The asari, salarians, and turians all enjoyed millennia or centuries as spacefaring races, and in that time were able to expand and explore further than humanity could in a few short decades on the galactic stage. If humanity hadn’t encountered the Mars archive when they did, or if the Ilos scientists hadn’t prevented Sovereign from contacting the Reapers in dark space when it originally intended to, it seems plausible to think that humanity might have been overlooked by the Reapers – at least in this cycle!

Humans may have had very unfortunate timing in joining the galactic community only a few years before a Reaper invasion!

With a 50,000-year head-start to explore the galaxy, investigate the ruins, and so on, there’s no telling what humanity could have accomplished. With the Citadel and mass relays at their disposal, and no other spacefaring races to get in the way, human development could have been unlimited, and given the Mars archives held information about the Reapers and the Crucible, humans would have potentially had millennia to prepare for the next Reaper invasion.

That’s my theory, at any rate! Fans of the Mass Effect games have put together various theories since the first game was released in 2007, including the famous indoctrination theory which proposed that Commander Shepard had become indoctrinated by the Reapers. This is just my small contribution to the discussion! With the recent launch of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition I’ve been playing through the trilogy again, and it reignited this theory which I’d originally considered a few years ago. It was fun to write it up!

As I always say, no fan theory is worth getting upset or worked up over. At the end of the day, this was just an excuse to talk about the Mass Effect series and take a closer look at one aspect of these fun games. I have some further thoughts on Legendary Edition which I hope to write up in the coming days or weeks, but for now I hope you enjoyed this theory. I think it seems plausible!

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. The Mass Effect series – including Legendary Edition and all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of BioWare and Electronic Arts. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.