Look outside at earth’s life. Trees, birds, flowers, buses. Truly, it is a bounty of the universe. But could other planets host life? And if so, what would it look like? I don’t know, I’m just a podcast man. But one person who might know is Laura Rodriguez, astrobiologist at NASA. This episode we talk to her about the possibility of organic matter on other worlds, and how far it’ll probably be from the alien spacefriends of the Mass Effect trilogy. Also joining us to talk about said spacefriends is Imogen Beckhelling, noted Krogan liker and lore knower of the Mass Effect galaxy. So much knowledge this month! Come on in.
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Music and SFX:
Interview music is Tranquility by Kevin MacLeod
Quiz music is Thinking Out Loud by Kevin MacLeod
Laura Rodriguez, astrobiologist: There’s no smoking gun, unfortunately, when it comes to extraterrestrial life, unless it is some kind of fish that comes and bites you.
Rex (soundbite): Is this what passes for food out here?
Laura Rodriguez: If there is life elsewhere, it’s definitely going to be microbial at the very least. And whether that evolved to form something a little more complex, like plants and animals, remains to be seen.
Rex (soundbite): Looks like… worms.
Brendan Caldwell, host: Hello there, and welcome to Hey Lesson, the podcast where we ask smart people silly questions about video games, and in the process we underhandedly teach you things about history, science and all other sorts of stuff. I am your host, Brendan Caldwell, and today we’re going to be talking about Mass Effect. The space-faring RPG full of interesting alien species that you can talk to, or very often you’ll shoot them, which is probably not the best way to go about exploring the galaxy. If we really want to find life on another world, we won’t send the space cops of Mass Effect. We would send a NASA astrobiologist, which is exactly the person I’m going to be speaking to shortly. It’s someone who can tell us where we might actually find extraterrestrial life. So look forward to that. However, first we also have a guest co-host every episode, and this time we have a professional of space guns and conversation. It’s games journalist Imogen Beckhelling! Hello, Imogen.
Imogen Beckhelling, journalist: Hello. I’m very good, thank you very much. How are you?
Brendan: Grand. Regular listeners probably already guessed this, but you’re a writer at Rock Paper Shotgun, which is where I steal all of my co-hosts, but you’re fairly clued up on Mass Effect.
Imogen: I am, yes. I have played a lot of Mass Effect. It was actually the first proper – I say “proper shooter”, proper third person shooter – I played, you know, evolving from platformers and things.
Brendan: Well for those who have somehow never played this game, despite it being around for the past 14 years, can you tell anyone at home, what is Mass Effect? What does the player do in it?
Imogen: So in Mass Effect you play as Commander Shepard, who is, yeah, [like] you said, a big space cop. And they are exploring various plots for the galaxy to be destroyed and for all of its inhabitants to be harvested by some evil baddies called the Reapers. And there are three games and throughout all of them, you collect squad mates and you go on missions and stuff to find out information about these things and try to convince people that, “Hey, everyone’s going to die.” And throughout the whole series, everyone’s like, “No, we’re not”. Until the last game where the reapers come to kill everyone. So, it’s not really a spoiler because like, you know that the whole way through the game, so that’s fine. But yeah… it’s set in about 150 years, I think, from the present. The galaxy has a galactic council where there’s lots of alien races that control it and, and the humans ended up on that council. They have an embassy. And so yeah, lots of cool alien things. And you can have, those… alien pals and mostly it’s just an alien dating sim, let’s be honest.
Brendan: We’re talking about it today because it recently got remastered, I think it was last month or the month before. I’m not sure. A remaster of the whole trilogy.
Imogen: It did indeed. Yeah. And it’s very good. It’s the same game, but it looks nicer.
Brendan: We’ll talk about that in a bit, but first you were talking about how there are a lot of alien races in the game. There’s a lot of alien life in general in the trilogy, not just the tall English speaking space friends that you have, but also there’s wildlife and plants and all sorts of stuff. And I’m going to ask you about some of those different aliens. But first we wanted to know if alien life was really possible in our solar system, what that life might look like, and where it could appear. So I got in touch with Laura Rodriguez, a NASA astrobiologist who does research on precisely this sort of thing. I mean, spoiler alert, it’s not Turians, but I’ll let Laura explain the rest of that. So let’s hear what she had to tell us.
Brendan: Okay, Laura, first of all, could you please introduce yourself?
Laura Rodriguez: Hi everyone. My name’s Laura Rodriguez and I am a postdoctoral fellow at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. I am an astrobiologist and geochemist, and I study the origins of life. So, specifically how genetic material or genetic precursors could form on the earth or ocean worlds.
Brendan: You mentioned there that you’re an astrobiologist. Could you give us a kind of a simple definition of what exactly astrobiology is?
Laura Rodriguez: Yeah. You know, when I was an undergrad, I didn’t even realize it was a field. So astrobiology is the science of studying the origin, evolution and distribution of life on earth and elsewhere in the universe.
Mordin (soundbite): I am the very model of a scientist Salarian, I’ve studied species Turian, Asari, and Batarian.
Brendan: It’s almost speculative research because humanity, as far as I know, still hasn’t found life anywhere outside earth. Right?
Laura Rodriguez: Right. There is no confirmed evidence of life besides that on earth. So we’re working with one data point, which makes it a little difficult. But you know, we try to route all of our science in what we’ve observed about life on earth and, you know, just how extreme it can get, what kind of environments we found it to be able to survive in, despite how extreme we might think of it as. And we can compare that to environments we know on other planetary bodies, such as Europa, which is Jupiter’s moon, or Enceladus. And so in that way, we can get an idea of potential locations that we deem habitable for life.
Brendan: What are the things that life needs to exist? For a basic life form to appear on any planet?
Laura Rodriguez: Oh man, that is the million dollar question. It’s an active area of research. But we think in general life needs some kind of materials to build itself with, right? To build its molecules with. On earth, these are organics or carbon rich materials. Carbon’s a really good element for that. Because it can form four bonds, and bonds with an array of other elements that give it unique chemical properties. The second thing would be some kind of liquid solvent. So on earth, this is water. All life forms are water-based, but it doesn’t necessarily mean other life forms have to be water-based. There are other solvents out there such as liquid methane and ethane, which we found on Titan – really exciting. There’s also the potential for liquid ammonia as well. And then the third thing is some source of energy. That’s because even if you have a liquid solvent and you have organic materials, you need some kind of energy to really get them to form more complex structures and to fight against what we call equilibrium, which is… life is always in disequilibrium, which means that it’s kind of always repairing itself and fighting against decay. That’s one way to think of it.
Brendan: Yeah. I feel that a lot
Mordin (soundbite): See children? Key to science is testing hypotheses, making observations…
Brendan: Outside of earth, where are those conditions most likely to occur? You’ve mentioned a few places like Enceladus and Europa. Is that as far as we would have to go to find conditions like that? Or is there somewhere else?
Laura Rodriguez: Once again – active area of research. I guess in my opinion, there’s thoughts that maybe even early Venus, before it became the hot planet that it is today, could have been conducive for the origins of life. And there’s evidence to suggest that it had a liquid ocean like the earth does and that, through a runaway greenhouse effect, actually it became very hot, so hot that all of its water boiled off. But life could still exist today, potentially, in the clouds of Venus. So that’s one location. The other location is of course, Mars. Right now, its surface isn’t really hospitable to life because it’s just constantly being bombarded with radiation that would destroy the surface life. But we think in the deep subsurface there could still be life that exists. And indeed, you know, even on the earth, we haven’t found the actual extent… the limit to which life exists in the deep subsurface of the earth. And then there’s the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. So there’s Europa, Enceladus, Titan. These are called ocean worlds because they have a substantial amount of liquid water… So we think those in particular are very exciting because we know they have liquid water and we know that’s really important for life on earth.
Dr Chakwas (soundbite): Earth always seemed boring to me. Too safe , too secure. I figured the colonies were teeming with exotic adventure.
Brendan: In the game that I’m talking about with my friend this week, Mass Effect, it’s set in a very advanced galaxy with lots of alien species and they’re mostly human-like. But what is life most likely to resemble if we ever discovered it on another world, what would it look like? Would it be microbial or would it be something more developed?
Laura Rodriguez: Yeah, it’s really hard to say. I would be very surprised if it looks anything like humans. Simply because we are the product of billions of years of evolution on our planet, you know… And so we don’t look like a lot of species even that exist on our planet, right? So you can imagine, on a completely different world, a completely different environment with completely different billions of years of geologic and biologic history, the resulting organisms probably are not going to look exactly like anything that’s on earth. There might be similarities, right? Because you can imagine that life adapts to fit its environment. So perhaps on an ocean world, if you’ve have, you know, a giant body of liquid water, there’s organisms that have some physical traits, similar to organisms that survive in our own oceans, but it’s difficult to say.
Brendan: So they might have flippers is what you’re saying.
Laura Rodriguez: Yeah, they might have flippers, they might have scales. It’s one of those things that would be… once we find that first data point… any other data point besides that of earth will be really informative to what we might be able to expect elsewhere. From what we understand of life, microbial life came first. And so if anything, we expect, if there is life elsewhere, it’s definitely going to be microbial at the very least. And whether that evolved to form something a little more complex, like plants and animals, remains to be seen.
Human (soundbite): Why can’t it act in an orderly and lawful manner!?
Shepard: Because it’s a big, stupid jellyfish.
Brendan: Is there anywhere on earth? That’s a good example of the kinds of conditions where life could form on another planet. Something that might mirror the conditions of another world, which we might consider harsh?
Laura Rodriguez: Yes, certainly. Yeah, there are a lot of people that study extremophiles. These are organisms that survive and actually thrive – they need the extreme conditions to reproduce and eat and whatnot. And so, there’s a variety of conditions in which they live. So there are some that live in really acidic lakes, which might have resembled the acidic lakes on early Mars. There are some organisms that have been found surviving in ice for millions of years. And that might represent some organisms that could survive in the icy surfaces of Europa, for instance, or Enceladus. There’s lots of organisms that survive at hydrothermal vents, which are thousands of meters beneath the surface. And that’s pretty… as extreme as you get, right? You got high pressure, really cold temperatures that are adjacent to really high temperatures and organisms thrive down there. In fact, hydrothermal vents are kind of like oases of the ocean… You won’t see a lot of life. You stumble upon a vent and suddenly there’s a lot of life. And the cool thing about vents is that you would get them wherever you really have any kind of water-rock interaction, which we think might be happening on some of those icy moons that I mentioned earlier.
Garrus (soundbite): You obviously haven’t seen Turians swim. It’s a lot of flailing and splashing interrupted by occasional bouts of drowning.
Brendan: When you said like it’s an oasis of life around these hydrothermal vents, these are kind of chimneys under the water that spew hot… I don’t even know if it is water that they’re spewing… but hot liquid. What kind of life exists there?
Laura Rodriguez: The types of organisms that live there are, because it’s so deep under the water, they’re not phototrophic, which means they don’t use sunlight for their source of energy. Rather they take the metals and minerals there and use that as their source of energy. So they’re what you could call “rock-powered life”. We call that chemosynthetic life, which means they use the metals and the minerals. That’s the source of energy to facilitate sustaining themselves essentially.
Brendan: And is the heat from the vent a critical part of that?
Laura Rodriguez: They don’t actually use the heat from the vent as a source of energy. In fact, there is no life on earth that uses heat as a source of energy, that we know of. It’s definitely a possibility for other life.
Brendan: Has it been a surprise to scientists to find these extremeophiles in these places? Or did researchers often suspect that there would be some sort of life almost wherever it can manage to be?
Laura Rodriguez: Right now, it’s no longer a surprise, but I think a couple of decades ago, yeah. The idea of extremophiles was a really novel concept and it really kind of opened our imaginations, you know, as to what do we consider habitable, you know, seeing that there are these organisms that can survive such extreme environments. Maybe they think we’re the extreme ones.
Rex (soundbite): Sometimes I’m not sure if the Normandy is a warship or a traveling freak show.
Brendan: Does it take a long time for those organisms to develop there in terms of, I dunno, in terms of evolutionary time or is it likely that they were always there to begin with?
Laura Rodriguez: Yeah, it’s kind of hard to say, because we don’t know whether the early earth was actually extreme. So maybe the first organisms were extremophiles, in the sense that we define them today. And there’s some evidence, if you go far enough back into the tree of life, the earliest organisms around the… what we call the “last universal common ancestor” or LUCA… there’s evidence to suggest that that organism was what we call a thermophile. So, an organism that loves extreme heat. And so there’s some evidence to suggest that those were maybe the first organisms to come out.
Brendan: In terms of the chemical processes that are experienced by living things. Is there something that all life does that you can look for? Like, is there some kind of universal calling card for life? If that’s there, then life must be there?
Laura Rodriguez: Yeah. For life on earth, we can definitely say there are universal traits. So for instance, all life that we know of on earth uses DNA to store its information, and it needs some kind of molecule to store information because that molecule is the blueprint for instructions, for proteins to keep the organism alive, right? And to reproduce. So we know that any life form probably needs some kind of information molecule, but whether that would actually be DNA is highly unlikely because it’s so unique to the evolution of life on earth. It’s extremely unlikely that we would find the exact same molecule on another world. And that’s kind of the hard part about looking for other life. All we know of is life on earth, but it’s very unique to the evolution that happened here.
Brendan: So that wouldn’t necessarily be DNA then? It would be something else, some other three letter acronym.
Laura Rodriguez: Yeah. It’s definitely not going to be DNA. Who knows that could be, it could be something similar. It could be completely different. A lot of people have done research into, you know, what kinds of molecules could have served as precursors to DNA, even on the early earth.
Mordin (soundbite): In prophase you see chromatins condense to chromosomes, in metaphase their centromeres align to make new homes!
Brendan: In the game Mass Effect or in some other science fiction, we often read or hear about extraterrestrial beings being not carbon-based like we are, but you know, silicon-based, or I don’t know, based on some other element. How much of that is fanciful thinking? Are there any other models in which life could form, by chemical standards?
Laura Rodriguez: People have definitely thought about, and published in the literature, potential extraterrestrial life with different, with a different backbone besides carbon. So I think boron has been proposed. Sulphur has been proposed. Silicon, as you mentioned. And those are certainly possible, but I guess the thing that carbon really has going for it though, is that no other atom can form as many bonds and as many different kinds of bonds with as many various elements as carbon does. So carbon is, out of those, the most robust. It’s very abundant in the solar system as well.
Mordin (soundbite): In anaphase they seperate, then telophase arrives, and when cytokinesis comes, two cells lead separate lives!
Brendan: If life might exist on another planet, like the ice-covered ocean worlds that you’ve mentioned, we would still need to get there and confirm that. So what would a mission to another world like that – specifically one designed to search for life – what would that mission look like?
Laura Rodriguez: I think, well, if we ever go to another… let’s say we have another mission to Europa or Enceladus. To really, really confirm whether there’s life they’re going to have to subsample, in my opinion, the liquid ocean underneath. Because if you have any life that is probably where it’s going to be. For Europa, there’s the trouble of piercing through the icy crust. We don’t know how thick that crust is. We’ve got to get through the entire crust to get to the subsurface ocean, which makes it a little trickier. Enceladus, which is Saturn’s moon, has active plumage going on. So it’s actually spewing out its ocean materials for us to swing by and catch. So that’s one way that we can do that. In fact, NASA’s previous mission, Cassini, did that. But to look for life, we would need an instrument that’s a little more sensitive to the organic molecules that are there. It’s really tricky to get at that because everyone has their own opinion on what instruments we should bring to look for life. And it’s one of those things… There’s no smoking gun, unfortunately, for extraterrestrial life, unless it is a green… you know, some kind of fish that comes and bites you.
Shepard (soundbite): You big stupid jellyfish!
Laura Rodriguez: It’s probably going to be microbial. And the problem is that you can’t send your most sensitive instruments to space. And it’s really going to probably be many pieces of evidence that have to come together to convince the community there’s been a positive life detection.
Brendan: We have all these ideas from video games, like Mass Effect, that are called speculative fiction very often. But your job is also to think about possibilities and maybe to speculate a little. But do other scientists ever squint at your field of study in a skeptical way?
Laura Rodriguez: You mean how do other scientists view astrobiology?
Laura Rodriguez: That’s always a concern, especially when individuals make claims of finding evidence for extraterrestrial life. If we want to be taken seriously as a community and also seriously by the public, we have to be very careful about the claims that are made. But I think for the most part, I mean the science we do, it’s rooted in science. So as long as it’s rooted in science, there’s a… I feel that other scientific communities, you know… everyone can appreciate when you carry out the scientific method.
Brendan: Laura, thank you very much for speaking with us.
Laura: Thank you.
Mordin (soundbite): My Xenoscience studies range from urban to agrarian, I am the very model of a scientist Salarian!
Brendan: That Was Laura Rodriguez from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA. If you would like to hear Laura talk a little bit more about this stuff, about how we can use telescopes, for example, to search for life on planets and solar systems that are far away from our own, or if you want to hear her talk about exactly how those underwater vents she was talking about, how they work, you can get a longer version of that chat by supporting the show. Just visit patreon.com/heylesson, or follow the links in the show notes below. For $2 a month you’ll get unabridged interviews with all of our experts, not just Laura. But you also get to simply support the show because this speil I do mid-episode every time, it’s the closest thing that we get to doing an advert. So that’s worth a buck or two surely. If not, don’t sweat it. The episode is not over yet. Because Imogen, you still have to tell us… you still have to tell us which of Mass Effect’s aliens probably evolved next to a roaring hot underwater chimney.
Imogen: Ooh. Okay. I… that’s a loaded question. Well, I know that the sea-based ones where the Asari, so they are the blue alien babes. They are a race of all females, but that they’re not technically women. Other races see them as that because they look like human women. And they have squid tentacles on their heads. I dunno, just tentacles… Uh, so they, they definitely evolved from something in the water, but I don’t know if they would have evolved from heat. Like… I don’t think that planet, that home planet, is particularly warm… I’m trying to think of other, oh, there’s the Hanar, the Hanar are cool. They’re the jellyfish species. They absolutely came from the sea because they’re jellyfish and they talk through bioluminescence. They don’t actually speak, they talk through lights, which is cool. I reckon they would have come from a hot place under the sea.
Brendan: I read about them, they need anti-gravity technology in order to make their way around the speed of stations and stuff that you find them on. They’re adorable.
Imogen: They are. They’re great.
Brendan: There are a few other aliens in the series, but which of all these different kinds of alien peoples is your favorite?
Imogen: I was thinking about this a lot before this, and I think it’s the Quarians, because they wear cool environmental suits because they have horrific immune systems and… It’s really cool… their culture is also really cool. They live on – this is a long story – so they basically exiled themselves from their own planet because they built AI called the Geth, which you find a lot of in Mass Effect. So the Quarians all live on something called the Flotilla, which is like a group of ships. And they’re all really, really tech savvy… It’s like a massive family on this group of ships. So they have a kind of cool culture. And also… the horrific immune systems come from the fact that there was no insect life on their planet. So they became the pollinators of their home planet.
Imogen: Right? Right!? There’s no insect life. So, you know, weird stuff would embed in their skin and stuff to pollinate the world. But when they ended up having to live in space in sterile environments, they were so prone to infection because on their home planet, they were so used to being part of everything. Like it was all like, there’s a synergy on that planet, but they were kind of used to everything. But then as soon as they’re exposed to anything, even remotely not from there, it can kill them because they have really rubbish immune systems. So they live in environmental suits.
Brendan: It’s like they have a really specific form of hayfever.
Imogen: Yeah, yeah. Pretty much. Well, the hayfever is weird hayfever because it comes from… they were the bees. Kind of.
Brendan: Are there any others, who’s your second favorite then?
Imogen: Let’s say the Krogan because they’re just, like, big, mean beefy boys. And also they have the best characters. Because there’s also Rex from the first game, he’s a Krogan, and Grunt as well from Mass Effect 2, who is everybody’s … everybody loves grunt. Because you save him from a tank. So he’s basically your baby.
Brendan: The Krogans are interesting because in the lore they evolved in a really unusual way.
Imogen: I don’t remember. If you remember, this is… you’re going to have to lead on this one.
Brendan: Yeah, basically their planet was a horrible place and it was a super competitive environment. Basically everything that evolved was carnivorous or something like that. It was just terrible. You had to fight everything to survive. So this is… it’s kind of an evolutionary explanation for why they’re so warlike as a people. And I just thought it was interesting. Because Laura, as we were talking to her, was saying how biological time would make things evolve in a different way. So I like that Mass Effect has actually thought of that kind of stuff.
Imogen: Yeah. It’s interesting. I think a lot of the species kind of have backstories like that, that they’ve thought of. So the Krogan naturally evolved to be like that. But then other species, like the Salarians, then uplifted them to use them as the frontline in war. Uh, and then promptly “de-uplifted” them when they were overpopulating everything, and committed, uh, you know, just a little bit of genocide…
Brendan: Astrobiology fact: Krogan can lay up one thousand eggs whenever they breed. One Krogan woman can just lay a thousand eggs, no problem.
Imogen: Which is a lot. Like, I don’t remember if they ever specify if that’s in one go or… is that over the course of…?
Brendan: Over some time? Yeah. I don’t know. I imagine it’s all in one really crunch weekend,
Imogen: Like, “Babe, go away. I’m laying the eggs.”
Brendan: “Can’t you see, I’m busy!?” So with those established at the top of the Xeno hierarchy. At the very bottom, then, who’s the least favourite? The worst alien race? Or species, if it’s like an animal. What life form can you just not stand?
Imogen: That’s another really tough one. I feel like the game wants you to hate the Pyjacks, which are like the monkeys. They’re like cute little purple monkeys. There’s lots of minigames, throughout Mass Effect, to just shoot them. Which, you know, that’s not cool. They are native, I think, to Tuchanka, which is the Krogan home planet. And there’s a mini game in the second or third game where they’re stealing food and it just lets you get in like a turret and shoot them like an arcade game. And I’m like, “maybe I don’t want to shoot the monkeys?” That’s the race that they want you to dislike. I feel like I actually dislike… maybe the Volus? Because they’re just kind of mean. All the Volus you meet, I feel like they’re just mean. They’re the bankers.
Brendan: They wear big suits. They’re like balls with a Darth Vader mask.
Imogen: Exactly that. Yeah. And nobody knows what they look like underneath because they have to wear those suits when they are off of the planet. So you just don’t know what they look like, but all the ones you meet are like, yeah, they’re the bankers of the galaxy. They created the galactic credit system. And I don’t know… maybe that’s why they mean, I’m not sure.
Brendan: The worlds of Mass Effect, the planets themselves… because Laura was telling us about the different planets and moons, even in our own solar system how the environment in each one is crazily distinct from every other one. Are there any worlds in Mass Effect that you think of fondly or that you can remember that you like for any reason, even if it’s how harsh they are?
Imogen: So off the top of my head, there’s one you visit, which used to be a Quarian colony world. And it’s sun is dying. So when you go to this planet and you are fighting through it, you can’t fight in areas where the sun is shining really hard on you because it destroys your shields. Which is kind of interesting. And the whole… the reason that you go there is to actually find Tali – best girl Quarian – who is investigating why that sun is dying and how their ancestors used to live on that planet under such harsh conditions. Which is… it’s kind of a cool one to play through. In the lore, or codex wise, I think the Turian home planet Palaven is quite interesting because Turians have developed to have, I think it’s metallic exoskeletons. Although they don’t look like metal. I don’t know… it’s never explicitly said if it’s skin, like leathery or if they are actually carapaces or something like that…
Brendan: Like, throw a thing at them and they “dink”.
Imogen: Yeah, exactly. I’ve never tried it. Garrus doesn’t let you throw things at him in the game. So I don’t know. But yeah, the reason they have that is because there’s so much radiation on that planet and they’ve just adapted to deal with that with an exoskeleton. And they say that the sun is really hot and I think it’s to do with the makeup of the planet. Like, it’s not got a metallic core or something like that? I don’t know enough of the science. I am not an astrobiologist. I just like to read in-depth lore about fake aliens.
Brendan: Um, I’ve read the lore and I believe it’s because on the Turian homeworld, that iron core, like you’re saying, is not as hot or something. It doesn’t rotate in the same way as earth’s. So the magnetosphere isn’t as strong. So the sun is nastier.
Imogen: Which is interesting. I think it does kind of speak to… the devs probably did some research when they were making the game and they were like, “what interesting features can we give to these different species to make sense for them to have these weird and wonderful home planets?” Which is cool. So I think I like Palaven for that reason.
Brendan: On a more consumeristic note, this remastered version of the game came out recently, and you played through it again? I don’t know. Did you play through the whole thing again? Or are you currently…?
Imogen: I am about halfway through Mass Effect 3. I’ve been taking my time with it.
Brendan: Are they as good as you remember? Because it has been over a decade.
Imogen: It has. I mean, they are. I think the first one is better than I remember because the first game was kind of painful to play. I don’t know. I personally didn’t like the gunplay in that one and it was more… it is more exploratory. I think you can go to more different planets and see some strange things, which is fun. But I think actually physically playing the game is not as fun. So they’ve changed that in the remaster and they’ve made it more in line with the second or third game. Like the ease of getting in and out of cover and how quickly your weapons overheat and stuff like that. And it’s little changes that actually feel quite big overall when you’re playing, which is nice.
Brendan: You wrote a story, a news story really recently about how BioWare published, or they made public, the statistics of players. You know, different things that the players did in the game, the choices they made, the kind of character that they play it as, stuff like that. Was there… My question down here is: “was there anything in there that surprised you?” But I do know there is because I read the article.
Imogen: Yeah. There are a few things that surprised me. So the first one is that like 40% of people played the soldier class in Mass Effect. Mass Effect has so many classes. You can do fun things that aren’t just “have lots of guns” and I don’t understand why you would just want to play the… Like, there’s Biotics. Right? And they’re like kinetic abilities. I don’t even know what it actually, it’s just energy. Like, blue balls of energy. You throw it. People like that. That’s cool. And that’s weird. You can’t do that in any other game – probably can do it in some games other than Mass Effect – but you know, you can have four different guns in lots of different games. That’s my main gripe, at least.
Brendan: How did you play this remaster then? Have you been a nasty renegade? Because the thing with Mass Effect that everyone knows is that you can be really good or you can be really nasty.
Imogen: You can. I think playing Renegade is not actually that fun. I always pay Paragon because I just like being nice to everybody. But also you get more options when you play Paragon, like fewer people die when you do a Paragon playthrough. So there’s more content in the game because there’s characters that recur, that you actually get to meet again, rather than just have them not exist anymore in the game. But I mean, there are always Renegade interrupts and things that you can do. They’re always fun and ones that I will keep in. There’s one in the third game where you can get revenge for a character’s death. I felt like… I dunno how much I want to [spoil]. I mean it’s a ten-year-old game.
Brendan: The thing is that Laura, whenever I spoke to our astrobiologist, she said that she is actually planning to play the game. So she doesn’t want any spoilers. So for her sake, we’ll not spoil.
Imogen: I won’t spoil, but there’s a point, at least, where you can get revenge for a character death and it gives you a Renegade interrupt for it. But, oh, it is the most satisfying Renegade interrupt. And trust me, Laura, when you get to that part, you will want to press it regardless of how nice you’ve been throughout the game.
Brendan: I just want to know if you punch the reporter. There’s a reporter in Mass Effect 2. And a little button comes up and says, “Do you want to be nasty to this reporter?” And you think, “Oh, I’ll probably just say something mean to this reporter” and you press the button, then you just… you punch them in the hand.
Imogen: You just absolutely whomp her, yeah. Uh, no I don’t. I used to. That is one of the things I think that I have not done since, funnily enough, I did a degree in journalism and became a reporter. But if you don’t punch her, you actually end up having a really nice dialogue with her about what she’s doing and how she can actually help the war effort, without, you know, being a bit of a d***. So yeah. No, I don’t, I don’t punch her. I’m not sure anymore…
Brendan: So we heard from Laura from NASA earlier, the astrobiologist. And I thought: how hard could that be? Biology? That’s just body stuff. Astro? That’s just star stuff. Star-body stuff. It’s going to be easy, right?
Brendan: So I think, given your knowledge of Mass Effect, you could probably also do Laura’s job, Imogen.
Imogen: I totally agree.
Brendan: Which is why I have devised, using the very useful Mass Effect Wiki, an alien pop quiz that I am going to call your galactic exobiology exam.
Imogen: Oh, okay. Yeah, let’s go.
Brendan: You must pass this to get your astrobiology degree. Are you ready?
Imogen: I am. Yep. Shoot.
Brendan: Which alien race is immune to almost all disease and can regenerate a lost limb in a few months?
Imogen: Ooh, it’s not… I was going to say Krogan and it’s not the Krogan. Vorcha? Might be the Vorcha.
Brendan: It is the Vorcha, yes. I have them written down as “toothy pest boys who live 20 years and then die”.
Imogen: Oh, lovely. Love that. Yeah. Fun fact about the Vorcha, actually: most of them are voiced by Mark Meer, who also is the voice of the male commander Shepard.
Imogen: It’s just him putting on a horrific voice. Yeah.
Brendan: That must be super refreshing as a voice actor to go and play or this brash, chiselled jaw hero, and then get to go: “arggh, I’m a nasty teeth boy!”
Imogen: Yeah. It’s great.
Brendan: Which alien race has three stomachs and communicates subtle shades of meaning through scent?
Imogen: Ooh, three stomachs. Um, God, I don’t know. I feel like it’s one of the animal-like ones. Is it? Maybe the Varren?
Brendan: No, I think that the “meaning through scent” thing is probably your biggest clue.
Imogen: I feel like I’m forgetting a really obvious one… meaning through scent? Oh, I don’t know. I’m gonna have to take another… I’m just gonna have a shot in the dark because I’m definitely forgetting someone. Is it the Salarians? I don’t know.
Brendan: It is not. It is the Elcor, the big monotone aliens that… they look like, almost like if an elephant decided it wanted to be a man. They speak in a monotone.
Imogen: They do. And they all say the feeling that they want to convey their sentences to. So like, “Sadly: I failed that question.”
Brendan: Which race – actually, you know the answer to this one – which race evolved a carapce rich in the metal thulium to survive in the natural radiation of their home planet?
Imogen: Ha-ha, that’s the Turians.
Brendan: You got it. Which alien race has secondary organs capable of serving as backups should the first set of organs fail, including two hearts, four lungs and four testicles?
Imogen: Oh, Krogan. Yeah, I got it that from the last one. Absolutely.
Brendan: You got it.
Imogen: There’s so many jokes about Krogan testicles. Yeah.
Brendan: Which race has a natural venom on their skin, which is mild enough to be served in drinks?
Imogen: Ooh, the Drell.
Brendan: That’s right. It is the Drell. They’re kind of a lizard-looking bunch of peeps. Which race is biologically genderless, but might individually assign an arbitrary gender for the sake of convenience?
Brendan: That… might actually be true. I’m not sure because I’ve got Hanar here. Because that’s what it said on the Wiki, but I never looked at the Asari wiki page. So you might actually be true as well. I think you might actually be right with the Asaris.
Imogen: I mean, they’re similar because they are technically an all-female race, but only to other races because they look female. So technically they don’t, they are like one-gendered. So it’s kind of, maybe it’s a double answer there. Can I have a half point?
Brendan: You can have a full point because I feel like I don’t trust myself to get this right. This is the final question. Which race catch a contagious disease called Yoctan at a young age and consider this disease a rite of passage?
Imogen: Oh, I know this one… I thought it might’ve been… it’s either the Elcor or the Volus. I think it’s the Volus. I’m going to go with Volus.
Brendan: It is the Volus, the suity breathing people who are horrible bankers. And, yeah, they basically have a form of chicken pox… they’ll say, “oh, you simply must get chickenpox”.
Imogen: They are the anti-vaxxers of the Mass Effect world.
Brendan: Okay, Imogen, you’ve passed your astrobiology tasks with flying colors. Well Done.
Imogen: Thank you very much. Do I get a certificate?
Brendan: Yes. You can go and apply for a job at NASA now.
Brendan: That’s it. That’s all for this episode, fact gang, you’ve been listening to Hey Lesson with me, Brendan Caldwell and Imogen Beckhelling. Thanks a million for coming on and lending us your Mass Effect expertise.
Imogen: Thank you very much for having me, and letting me spout loads of Mass Effect nonsense at you.
Brendan: Your Salarian-esque knowledge. If our listeners have gelled with your opinions and would like to read more of your thoughts on Mass Effect or other games, where would they find you on the internet?
Imogen: So I write news for RockPaperShotgun.com. You can find me there. And if you’d like to follow me on Twitter, I’m @immybeck. So yeah, come find me.
Brendan: If any of you out there have enjoyed this episode, once again, please consider supporting the show. If you prefer not to subscribe monthly, you can also throw some idle coins into our Ko-fi, which is a kind of internet tip jar. There’s a link for that in the show notes as well. But if you do become a regular donor on Patreon, you get free goodies or not free, sorry, extra goodies (You don’t get “free” things) like the full interviews I mentioned, but there are also other tiers where you can get a monthly bonus video of a more casual chat and even a little video update every month where I play a game and just talk about some upcoming episodes, some plans, or plans that went wrong. A big shout out to all Hey Lesson supporters so far, and a special thank you to Bok Choy, Horrendomonas, and also Milk Is Gross And Bad For You. Without all of you, Hey Lesson would not exist. You are the necessary soup of chemicals and molecules needed to support our life. That’s the joke. That’s the end-of-episode joke I’ve written this time for all the supporters. But also thank you finally, once again, to you Imogen.
Imogen: Thank you very much.
Brendan: We’ll see you all next time. Thanks for lessoning!
Narrator (soundbite): You were born to do this…