Mass Effect’s Eyebrow Conspiracy
These eyebrows may look elegant, but don’t be deceived. Their very existence raises questions.
Spoilers for the Mass Effect trilogy will appear in this article.
I love Mass Effect. All the games. Yes, even that one.
Initially I could only play at my friend’s place (for which I will always be grateful, Chris) once a week, travelling an hour each way by bus. I’ve since beaten that first game almost a dozen times, with multiple playthroughs of the sequels. I’ve made friends discussing the game, and plan to have the ship as my first tattoo. I even walked away from a successful management career to write for games, in part because of my love for the writing in these games.
But there’s just one small thing that bothers me to this day.
Well, two. Two tiny things. Two thin lines.
What the heck am I talking about?
For those not familiar with Mass Effect, it’s a series of military sci-fi RPG video games. The first is set in the near(ish) future of 2183. Humanity discovered interstellar travel, met more established species, went to war with one of them, and when the dust settled, was invited to join galactic civilization.
You play as Commander Shepard, the first Human to become a Spectre. These are special black-ops agents who serve the Council that governs the galaxy. Your first mission? To hunt down a veteran Spectre who has gone rogue.
Along the way you recruit useful allies, one of which is Liara T’soni, a researcher obsessed with an extinct civilization.
Liara is also an Asari. They are a blue-skinned psychic mono-gendered species, and one of the three that lead galactic civilization. They have long lifespans with awesome psychic powers (and the special headgear cosplayers wear to dress as one are freaking cool).
But take a look at a few of the other Asari in the game. Notice anything different?
The Asari don’t have eyebrows. They don’t have any hair actually. Many have facial markings, some over the brow ridge, but not eyebrows.
And the other species out in the wider galaxy?
That’s right, no eyebrows. NO. EYEBROWS.
It’s only Humans that have them.
Well, technically there is another Asari character, Liara’s mother (voiced by the inimitable Marina Sirtis), who has them as well.
But that’s it.
This raised a question that has squirmed and scratched at the back of my mind for over a decade: why?
The (Boring) Likely Answer
The more I learn about the process of making games, the more it becomes apparent it’s a miracle any game is ever released. There are endless compromises and that anything narratively cohesive comes out at the end is the result of extremely hard work and luck.
The process is also opaque. Non-disclosure agreements prevent the designers from sharing why a given feature was added or cut, or why, let’s say, only two of the non-human characters ended up with eyebrows. The real reason isn’t one I am nor should be privy to.
I could note that of the six squad members in Mass Effect, only the two humans and Liara have something to say after every major story mission. And that they are the three romanceable characters in your party. I might even conclude that it would be very reasonable to guess that Liara’s eyebrows were a design decision made because someone in a decision-making role believed players would need Liara to look more human to find her attractive.
But even if that is the case, and the 7768 fanfics on Archive of Our Own with Garrus tagged on them (at the time of this writing) suggest that people really want to bang some aliens, it doesn’t really matter.
Everyone I’ve met who works, worked, or wants to work in games genuinely want to make the best games they can. Whatever the reason for Liara’s eyebrows’ existence, I trust that it was a decision made with the genuine intent of making the best game possible.
Is that it?
Speculating on the real reason can be fun, but I know I’ve had a lot of fun over the years coming up with alternatives. And with the recent announcement of the upcoming remaster of the trilogy it occurred to me that I should share my strange theories with more than a few friends and fellow fans.
Bear with me. I’m going to some weird places.
Also, major Mass Effect spoilers to follow. Like, major major.
Theory #1 Liara the Spider
When you first meet Liara, she is trapped in a giant bubble.
You track her down because a powerful Asari Matriarch has allied herself with the rogue Spectre you’re hunting, and you need to find out what her daughter knows. You find her deep in the ruins of an extinct civilization, trapped in a forcefield bubble.
Liara is portrayed as a naive, excitable, socially awkward, academic. She claims to not be very familiar with humans.
Given she is 106 when you meet her, and humans only appeared on the galactic scene 26 years before the game starts, that seems fair.
But the eyebrows.
Given that no other Asari has facial markings that are just eyebrows, it follows that she has drawn these on herself. However, since humans are the only species in this setting who have eyebrows, then the only way she could know to draw them on herself is exposure to humans. In fact, given how clean and symmetrical they are, it suggests she’s practiced it. A lot.
Those eyebrows imply that she lies when she meets you. That she does know humans. Very well. That perhaps even, she’s a super-fan, obsessed with humans and enthralled to finally meet one. So much so that she wants to appear more human herself.
Which would mean her naive, shy, sweet bumbling demeanor is an act. That she is in fact, a manipulative, dangerous woman driven to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. A spider.
For those who have played the Shadow Broker DLC for Mass Effect 2, you already know this is who Liara becomes in the story. After you help her take down this master manipulator, who has been secretly playing the various galactic factions off against each other for profit, she takes over his operations. She claims to have good intentions.
But the eyebrows.
I don’t believe her. I think she has been manipulating the player character since the first moment they met. She doesn’t really change across the trilogy, it’s just that her mask slips eventually.
Although… there is one other dark possibility I have considered.
Theory #2 The Asari Conspiracy
In Mass Effect 2, at a bar on the planet Illium, you can listen in on a bachelor party.
A Human, Turian, and Salarian watch an Asari stripper dance on their table. They each argue that Asari look more like a female of their own species than of the others. They then go on to speculate whether the Asari are manipulating them telepathically to look more attractive to each of them.
As the implications of that sank in, the horror that washed over me was worse than watching the liquefaction of a human earlier on in the game.
Yet there’s more to support this theory than some drunk dudes rambling. In Mass Effect 3, you visit the Asari home world. There you discover that the extinct species that Liara studied had an active hand in the Asari’s development while posing as Gods. They survived their species’ extinction at the hands of the Reapers (the big bad you fight through the main trilogy) but were too few to rebuild their population and died off long ago. This species lost their war against the Reapers early because they were too dominant and centralized, and when that center was taken out at the start of the war, the rest never stood a chance.
Given the Asari have the ability to reproduce with the help of any species or gender, will outlive that partner by centuries, can telepathically ensure those species find them attractive, and evolved on a world without other sapient species native to it, some genetic engineering in their history makes sense. Given why their architects lost to the Reapers, this also seems like a strategy to ensure a more diverse and de-centralized galactic civilization is in place to fight the Reapers the next time they appear.
But the eyebrows.
If this is all true, then those eyebrows are an illusion. The eyebrows don’t exist.
Mass Effect is told almost entirely from a human’s point of view. So, the eyebrows that appear to the player on both Liara and her mother, could be a result of their subtle telepathic manipulation of your character. Other Asari you encounter also make themselves appear more human-like generally, but apparently lack either the power or desire to add eyebrows.
But given no Asari, including Liara, admits this ability exists, it would mean she is just as manipulative as in the first theory. Only now she is doing it subconsciously and won’t admit it even when you and she are facing the end of all life in the galaxy. It is a secret so horrific she, and every other Asari you meet, is willing to die rather than reveal it.
It keeps me up at night.
Eyebrows and Adoration
I love Mass Effect.
I love all the hard work that went into crafting it. Even if it was the decision of someone in leadership who didn’t trust players would want to bang all the aliens that led to Liara’s unusual eyebrows, I genuinely believe even that person was doing their best to make the game great.
I love that the world these teams built was so rich, and the characters so complex, that I could come up with two absolutely tinfoil hat level conspiracy theories about a fictional world and its characters that might at some level be true.
I love that I could share that with friends, and now you.
But right now, I love that anyone will read an article about alien eyebrows. I hope that if you haven’t played these games, you’ll consider it when the remake releases, and if you have, that you’ll share your own stories too.