Disabled Heroes and Heroines in Mass Effect

     One of the most popular and thought-provoking franchises in the Sci-Fi genre continues to be the Mass Effect trilogy (which will be receiving a completely original sequel sometime next year). There are numerous articles and videos on the internet about the ambiguous ending of the original trilogy's story, and any fan of the series you come across is likely to have a lot to say about the ending. I, personally, am usually a fan of bleak endings (unless it involves the death of beloved Harry Potter characters) and found the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy acceptable, if confusing. The developers re-made the game's three endings after receiving a huge amount of backlash from the fan community, and these re-made endings are acceptable to me, if unacceptable to most fans. Why do I find the ending acceptable? Because ultimately, no matter how much "control" the player has over the direction that the story takes, this is still a piece of literature that has been written by an author (in this case, the writers who created this story), and it is the brainchild of said author to be consumed and constructively criticized by players just as a book has a definite ending that one can like or dislike.

    But believe it or not, I'm not here today to talk about the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy. Many, many other people have already hashed out the good and the bad (and the very bad) of Mass Effect 3's final moments. Instead, I'd like to take a look at some of the characters in the series: specifically, Joker, Tali, and Wrex. What do these particular characters have in common? They each have complicated illnesses or disabilities that are intricately dissected and discussed throughout the trilogy. It is extremely rare for a video game to feature major characters with disabilities, and as a person who is disabled, I was surprisingly happy to find characters I could strongly relate to in a AAA video game franchise. Now, the argument has been made to me that Tali and Wrex do not qualify as disabled characters because their entire races suffer from specific diseases. I would argue, however, that in the universal world of Mass Effect, where many races from many planets intermingle in one society, the diseases that affect these particular heroes are setbacks that they must overcome, that other characters are unable to relate to.

     Tali's race, the Quarians, suffer from a fatally low immune system, and even a small scratch in her armor could cause a deadly infection to occur. Even though all members of the Quarian race have this immune deficiency, Tali is uniquely inconvenienced among the heroes of the Normandy crew in that she could suffer from a deadly infection at any time. The only thing that protects Tali from instant death is a specially sealed, technologically advanced suit of armor that her race invented to protect themselves from disease. This suit is as much a hindrance as a help, however. It is very difficult for Quarians to engage in sexual intercourse, and any form of physical contact is almost entirely out of the question. Their faces are concealed, as well, so they have more difficulty communicating with others than members of other species would. Check out the below video for some of Tali's own words on the subject:

   Wrex, another of the primary companions in the series, is a member of the strongest race in the known universe: the Krogans. Krogans are often recruited as mercenaries and used as soldiers in war because of their strength and battle-oriented disposition. Why, then, would Wrex, or any Krogan, be considered disabled? Because in the history of the Mass Effect universe, the Krogans were infected with a disease known as the "genophage" which prevents the Krogan from reproducing. All Krogan are infected with this disease. According to the Mass Effect wiki,
The genophage's modus operandi is not to reduce the fertility of krogan females, but rather the probability of viable pregnancies: many krogan die in stillbirth, with most fetuses never even reaching this stage of development. Moreover, every cell in each krogan is infected, to prevent the use of gene therapy to counteract it. (Source)
 While the genophage does not inhibit Wrex's ability to aide Shepard or perform his duties to his fellow Krogans, it is a disease that he is constantly battling with and aware of at every step of the story. Every decision that Wrex makes is affected by his disease, and ultimately the aide of the Krogans in the final battle of the story hinges on whether or not Shepard is able to arrange for a cure to be created and given to the Krogans. If the game did not constantly remind us at every turn that the Krogans are sick I might not have included Wrex in this article. But the genophage is a huge part of Wrex's personal identity, and it cannot be ignored.

     Finally, the most obviously disabled character in the Mass Effect series is Joker, the well-liked pilot of the Normandy voiced by Seth Green. Also known by his given name, Jeff Moreau, Joker is usually seen sitting in the cockpit of the Normandy. The Mass Effect wiki describes Joker's condition:
Joker's upbringing and career have been colored by his health. Joker has a moderate to severe case of Vrolik syndrome, which causes extreme brittleness in the bones; he was born with severe fractures to his legs and even with modern medicine he finds walking nearly impossible, relying on crutches and leg braces. (Source)
Joker's condition is usually only discussed in passing, and is often easy to forget as we normally never see him leave his seat. Joker tells us that he was able to become a pilot because, despite his condition, he was the top student in flight school and even surpassed many of his instructors in skill. In Mass Effect 2, Joker's illness is brought to the forefront of our minds, however, when Commander Shepard and the rest of the heroes of the Normandy conveniently leave the ship on a shuttle to perform a mission of some sort, and Joker is alone when the Normandy is attacked. The player suddenly finds herself playing as Joker, and must limp slowly through the ship to activate the ship's defense systems. The following video shows this scene (warning: there are a LOT of spoilers for Mass Effect 2 in the following video, so don't watch it if you're not ready!):

Though you may not be able to tell from watching the video, limping along as Joker at an agonizingly slow pace while aliens are attacking the ship is a terrifying experience. I think the scene does a great job of giving players a bit of understanding of how scary it can be to be disabled, especially in the midst of a crisis. I also applaud Bioware for creating one of the very first player-characters that is disabled, even if you only play as this character for about five minutes. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, disabled characters are very rare in video games, and playable characters with disabilities are almost non-existent. Occasionally you'll play a game where your protagonist has an eye patch (and is presumably missing an eye), but rarely does that actually hinder the character's abilities as it should (the main exception can be found in Metal Gear Solid 3, which I won't spoil here). 

     I find it remarkable that Bioware was able to delve so deeply into the topic of disability with their characters in the Mass Effect series, but then, Bioware is known for being very progressive for a game company. Tali is my favorite character in the Mass Effect universe primarily because I have never before been able to relate to a game character in terms of my disability. I am eager to see how disability, gender roles, and all sorts of other important topics are brought to light in the newest addition to the franchise, set to release next year. 


  1. I've never played Mass Effect but I've heard it's awesome. I have played some Bioware titles so I'm somewhat familiar with their RPG elements, which I usually love. Nice that they were able to represent disability in an authentic way. Especially incorporating it into the story in ways that work. I wasn't aware of the controversy over the game ending though... I'll have to look at that. Hoping to play this someday...

  2. I'm so glad you talked about this topic. I always found it so interesting that Joker was able to overcome such an obstacle that he became an awesome pilot. I didn't really think about Tali or Wrex's disabilities, but you have a really good point. Mass Effect is my favorite video game. This was a great discussion.