Mass Effect is a series that has a special place in my heart. It’s perhaps the first potent example of successful episodic storytelling in gaming and I was utterly riveted by its grand existentialist future. Even after its controversial ending, the sheer revelation of playing in the sandbox of such a thoroughly detailed universe has left me with a collection of digital memories that I will always cherish.
That’s why I was so excited when I learned that my sister wanted to experience Commander Shepard’s journey for herself. It was the perfect way for me to relive my own first playthrough. Her reactions and surprise as the story unfolds have been a joy to witness; but watching her meet some of Mass Effect’s most lively characters has been my favorite part of this experiment. It’s easy to forget what a gloriously diverse crew is aboard the Normandy, each member bringing a unique and colorful personality that is just as valuable as their skill in battle.
My reintroduction to these characters has been like a reunion with old friends. Some of them even inspire genuine affection and empathy. It might seem strange to someone who hasn’t played the game, but I’ve found myself reminiscing about specific character moments and adventures. I feel something for these people and that is a testament to Bioware’s masterful writing.
Normally, I’m adverse to trivial top ten lists and opinion pieces. They feel like clickbait and comment starters. But frankly, I haven’t been able to get Jack’s menacing sneer, Miranda’s cold self-control, or Kasumi’s sarcastic quips out of my head. This is simply an exercise in fun, a means of exorcising the thoughts from my head.
These are my favorite characters from the Mass Effect Universe.
(Mild Spoilers follow, but I’ll do my best to keep them minimal. Play this game if you have not yet.)
10. Captain (or Admiral or Counselor) David Anderson
A grizzled war veteran, a weary politician, a loyal advisor and mentor; Captain Anderson is a voice of reason in a government that is prone to gridlock and self-preservation. While he is never an official member of the Normandy’s crew (at least after he cedes control to Shepard), Anderson is one of the few characters who I would race across the galaxy to speak with. His informed advice and willingness to break the restrictive rules of the Council is essential to Shepard’s success; and despite his relatively small role in the franchise his presence is pervasive. Anderson’s final moments in Mass Effect 3 are particularly poignant and enough to bring a tear to your eye, proving just how much of a father figure he is. He’s my favorite member of the Alliance and one of the few politicians I’d put Shepard’s trust in.
EDI is a lifesaver. She’s gotten the Normandy out of serious trouble on several occasions and helped to prove that there is as much diversity in Artifical Intelligence as there is in biological life. Mass Effect could’ve easily delivered the same trope that so many other science fiction properties have accepted as fact: that when machines are given consciousness, they will turn against their masters. At first, the Reapers and the Geth seem to reinforce this assumption, but EDI stands in stark contrast. She cares about the crew, about Shepard, about Joker. She is empathetic and curious and striving to be something more than a voice inside a server. EDI’s arc is brilliant and satisfying. She’s so likeable that she can have a major impact on Shepard’s final choice in the series.
8. Thane Krios
The picture of a classic warrior monk, Thane Krios is an assassin with a conscious. He kills because that’s what he’s been trained to do, but he is aware that what he is doing is wrong and sinful. Thane carries a hint of mystery with him at all times and the fact that he is dying of a fatal disease allows the player to value every minute they have with him. His swiftness and bravery in battle is awe-inspiring. His love for his family is moving. Thane is a relatively short-term ally of Commander Shepard (he doesn’t appear until the second disc of Mass Effect 2), but his loyalty is invaluable. He is a key component to the invasion of the Collector Homeworld and saves the crew from an assault by Kai Leng. He can also be a powerful love interest. Regardless, the stoic and stealthy Thane will be long remembered for one particular line: “That was for Thane, you son of a bitch.”
Like EDI, Legion is a testament to reason and morality amongst Artificial Intelligence. The Geth had long been the stock enemies of the series by the time we met the 1,183 programs that make up the “mobile platform” that is Legion. They had been corrupted by the Reapers and never once did we contemplate the fact that we had been mowing through thousands of “living” creatures in the name of galactic justice. Legion is a brilliant counterargument, a consciousness that could not come to consensus with his Geth brethren. He recognized the Reapers as a controlling menace and chose to rebel, working with Shepard to discover a new path for his people. I love characters that subvert our expectation and Legion’s sacrifices are proof that artificial life in the Mass Effect universe is just as capable of good as it is of evil.
6. Urgnot Wrex
There is a moment in the first Mass Effect that many people remember vividly: scrambling to load a previous save after Urgnot Wrex is killed by Lt. Williams. Wrex is awesome and it’s unfathomable that you could continue your fight with Saren without the tough Krogan bastard by your side. Despite his instinctual stubbornness and quick draw, Wrex is a rarity amongst his species. He understands that they can’t continue their tribal infighting if they want to survive. The genophage has weakened them, but they have to unite and open up to the galaxy if they expect a solution. Wrex is an unlikely leader, the finest Krogan alive, and a terrifically loyal friend. From ME1 to ME3, he has had Shepard’s back in even the darkest of circumstances. Wrex rocks.
5. Mordin Solus
A mad scientist, a crack shot, and a beautiful singer; Mordin Solus adds some much needed humor to the dire circumstances of Mass Effect 2. He’s so brilliant that he can barely contain his brimming mind. Mordin speaks scientific jargon at speeds so lightning quick that they’re barely understandable, but his quips and humorous insights manage to keep us laughing despite the Collector threat. Perhaps more importantly, Professor Solus is willing to own up to his past mistakes. His redemption is stunningly beautiful and his final sacrifice is moving and courageous. We’ll remember Mordin for his terrific rendition of Gilbert & Sullivan tunes, but his true legacy is the good he brings to the universe. Like Wrex, Legion, and EDI, Mordin is more than he seems at first glance, a character of a deep complexity that we rarely see in any medium.
4. Tali’zorah vas Normandy
If I’m being honest, Tali was not one of my favorite characters in the original Mass Effect. She seemed too juvenile, too inexperienced to have any real impact on the mission. For that reason, I rarely took her planet side. In my mind, she was simply the primary engineer of the Normandy – keeping the engines running and clean. But somewhere in the next two games, Tali began to grow on me. She was always thinking of others, but utterly loyal to the Quarian fleet. She even showed an aptitude for combat as she joined a special forces unit. The political dynamics of Tali’s personal life were brought to the forefront in the subsequent games of the series and she was developed into one of the most narratively dynamic crew members. Her sweetness and curiosity were always welcomed and because she had been around since the beginning, I could always relate more to Tali than some of the newer recruits. She was rough around the edges, but I came to adore her.
3. Liara T’soni
Initially a soft-spoken and bookish archaeologist, Liara T’soni becomes a formidable slinger of biotics, a high-class information broker, and a vitally important member of the Normandy’s crew. Her vast knowledge of Prothean history and the ability to tap into Shepard’s mind help to unravel the location of Saren and thus the mystery of the Reapers. Liara is a truly intrinsic element of Mass Effect’s over-arcing story, but she also manages to win the player over with her kind actions and inquisitive nature. She is deeply engrained with Shepard, whether as a close friend or as a lover, and cares for him like few others can. With her empathetic perspective and loving attention, no one could replace Liara’s impact on the lives of those around her. Even as she pretends to be a hardened criminal, her bright personality continues to shine.
2. Jeff “Joker” Moreau
Broken but not beaten, Joker is the kind of pilot that makes flying look easy. Diagnosed with a rare condition that makes his bones brittle and easy to shatter, Jeff Moreau is practically confined to his chair at the helm of the Normandy. Luckily, that’s exactly where he belongs. Joker is always prepared with a fresh joke or an opinionated comment about the rest of the crew; but he’s also loyal to the end and is one of the few characters to stick with Shepard throughout all of his adventures. Even though he’s never in a landing party, Joker is an essential member of the team. His quick wits and daring attitude have saved Shepard and the rest of the galaxy countless times. But even more admirable is his love for EDI. What could’ve been a creepy or ill-conceived romance is actually a heart-wrenching and wonderful example of two different kinds of people connecting despite their differences. Joker’s a great pilot and a good man; one of the most important people in my Shepard’s life.
Before we get to Number One, here’s some Honorable Mentions:
-Jack: At first glance, she’s a psychopathic killer with insane biotic powers and a chip on her shoulder; but after some examination, Subject Zero is just a broken kid who has yet to deal with her tragic past. It broke my heart to leave Jack off this list, because her changes are some of the most impressive over the course of the franchise.
-Grunt: He’s big, he’s bad, and he’s bred for perfection. Grunt is the epitome of what a Krogan should be, but he’s also the perfect weapon to point directly at the Collectors. His violent nature can be a bit disturbing, but Shepard reigns him in and becomes Grunt’s valued clan leader.
-Kasumi: One of my biggest regrets is that Kasumi was not in the original code for Mass Effect 2. Only available through DLC, Kasumi is nimble and quick, but her real appeal is her sharp sarcastic wit. Another loyalty mission with her would’ve been absolutely amazing. Hell, she can disappear! How cool is that?
-Samara: A no-nonsense Asari justicar, Samara is basically the equivalent of a Jedi Knight. She takes the fight to evil and justice, no matter what the cost may be. Samara’s non-combat loyalty mission involving her murderess daughter is one of the highlights of Mass Effect 2 and left me hoping to learn more about the mysterious Ardat-Yakshi.
-Admiral Hackett: Something about those sweet, dulcet tones of Admiral Hackett’s voice make us feel like the Alliance might actually know what they’re doing in the battle against the Reapers. Although he’s mainly just a voice on an intercom in the first two games, Mass Effect 3 fleshes out Hackett’s role in the galactic conflict and has us wishing we could learn more about the man in the hologram.
1. Garrus Vakarian
I don’t know what it is about Garrus Vakarian that makes him so universally likeable. Ask anyone on the street who their favorite Mass Effect character is and “Garrus” will probably be their answer. It might have something to do with his deep, intrinsically friendly voice. Or perhaps it’s because he’s the equivalent of Batman on the corrupt space station Omega. Or maybe it’s because every conversation between Shepard and Garrus seems like the epitome of two best friends who know everything about each other. Regardless, Garrus is a charismatic, hilarious, trustworthy, yet troubled friend who manages to feel like he could walk out of your television screen and come alive. He’s the kind of guy you want to have a beer with – or at least shoot beer cans on top of the Citadel Presidium with.
If there’s one member of the Normandy’s crew that Shepard can’t live without, it’s Garrus. He’s great in a fight and even better afterwards, when everyone needs to wind down and have a laugh. He might do a lot of calibrating, but Garrus Vakarian is my favorite Mass Effect character.