The next Mass Effect should include new species, clothing styles and more hair

Mass Effect
(Image credit: EA)

We don’t know much at all about the new Mass Effect game that’s currently in the works, but according to series art director Derek Watts, one thing we might expect is hairier aliens. 

Watts, who was one of the chief architects behind the look of the original trilogy, and is involved again in the fifth installment, spoke to us as part of our Mass Effect Oral History about the technological limitations around the original character designs and hinted at some ways in which those designs may change on current generation machines freed from low-polygon shackles. Naturally, there will be plenty of continuity, but we should see evolution in how familiar races are presented, along with some fresh – and hairy – faces.

One thing that will likely stay the same is that party characters will be humanoid. “Everybody asks, ‘Why do you make them humanoid? Why don’t you try and make them more alien?’,” Watts says. “Well, because people usually gravitate towards more human-looking aliens, they're the most popular. You understand them a bit better.” It’s hard to deny that Asari, Krogans, and even the permanently masked Quarians are more immediately relatable than, say, the jellyfish-like Hanar, with cultural concerns that at some level reflect our own.

It’s also easier to build and animate these characters, which is crucial if they’re going to feature heavily in the action, and that explains why the Hanar or the slow, bulky Elcor in the original trilogy are more “ambient aliens” that barely move. “We can do really bizarre-looking things,” Watts says, “and they can be lovable.” But there’s a difference between giving them interesting backstories and folding them into the core of your journey, and Watts believes they would never be as popular as the likes of Garrus and Tali.

Fashion forward

Shepard fistbumps some guy

(Image credit: BioWare)

It may, however, be time for some fresh fashion ideas around the Mass Effect galaxy. The clothing styles of the original trilogy were in part informed by the graphical capabilities of the Xbox 360 generation, which resulted in a level of uniformity across the species. “We avoided cloth,” Watts says. “Because we were tackling enough technology at the time, [without] having capes and stuff.” But flowing fabrics may be back on the menu, as even the brief announcement teaser trailer suggests, featuring a brief glimpse of an Asari character (apparently Liara T’Soni) clad in a long hooded coat.

Then again, would it truly feel like Mass Effect if Liara and the rest started to dress in loose garments? This is a series, after all, known for its clean lines, from the chiselled features of Commander Shephard to the pristine décor of the Citadel. “Mass Effect is still a sexy game,” Watts says. “Everything is tight to the bodies, aliens and humans; that was a theme we had.” While new trends may emerge, then, that sleek ‘sexy’ design is too iconic to abandon completely.

And talking of sleek styles, that brings us to the subject of hair. To go with the tight-fitting clothes, Mass Effect’s human characters generally had short, tidy haircuts and little (or no) face furniture. But that, again, was partly down to the limits of the engine and the console generation as a whole. “I wouldn't say it's part of the IP where nobody has hair,” Watts says, “it's just what we needed to do with the technology.” Mass Effect was already pushing visual fidelity forwards in a number of areas, such as facial animation, and while more hair would have been nice to have, Watts explains, it wasn’t a priority. Now, of course, there’s no reason why the humans in Mass Effect can’t grow out their mops and get a little more experimental with beards and moustache combos

Luxurious locks 

Mass Effect

(Image credit: EA)

As for the aliens, it’s only when Watts mentions it that we realise how bald the various species really are. You won’t catch a Turian or a Krogan leaving the house without being thoroughly shaved and plucked. When designing the first game, the artists avoided putting any fur on their creatures, Watts says, but that doesn’t necessarily mean aliens shouldn’t have hair or fur at all if the graphical power of the Xbox Series X and PS5 allow for it. 

Returning to the Mass Effect universe today, he explains, it’s been possible to reconsider what the races look like. “There would be hair,” he says. “The Krogans would have eyelashes, they’d probably have small hairs on their faces, in the nose and ears. Salarians would maybe have very subtle eyelashes, too. Even the Turians – eyelashes, and maybe small hairs on their backs.” Such features will be added with restraint, no doubt – you won’t see any bearded Salarians – but they are another way in which our perceptions of old favourites might develop with the advancing tech.

New races, meanwhile, can now be more hirsute from the get go. “That's something we probably want to look at.” Watts says, “Can we get more hair and fur on there?” This time around, species needn’t have the reptilian skin of a Drell or the rubbery complexion of a Batarian. And especially if any of them are supposed to originate from cold climes, a thick pelt may well be essential. Watts is clearly thinking along similar lines, and even feels that a furry companion may be what Mass Effect fans have been missing all these years. “Everybody loves the dog, right?” he says. “That's why Chewbacca was so successful. He's Han Solo's giant dog.”