Modern media isn’t great at creating monsters. In many ways, it doesn’t need to be when the classics still work so well. The Walking Dead has zombies, Game of Thrones has dragons and ice zombies. In fact, most of the mythical creatures we know in popular fiction have been used and reused time and time again, sometimes reinvented, sometimes played straight. Vampires, orcs, goblins, ghosts, wizards, witches, demons, elves, and so many more have featured in stories across various mediums for generations. Mass Effect’s Ardat-Yakshi though is a bona fide original, and possibly the best myth gaming has ever created.
It’s not gaming’s only original monster. While The Witcher began as a series of books, it ascended to a new plane of pop culture relevance through the games, and it’s crammed with monsters. Aside from witchers themselves though, can you name a single one without looking it up? Springlebokwoms? Aye, course. Legendary stuff, them.
Related: It Doesn't Matter What Any Of Us Think About The Mass Effect TV ShowSouls games trade on inventing beasts too, and several other games bring new creatures to the party, but none have quite the level of nuance and narrative behind them as the Ardat-Yakshi. A few months ago, TheGamer spoke to Brian Kindregan, the Mass Effect 2 writer who designed Samara’s loyalty mission which included meeting, and ultimately taking down or siding with, an Ardat-Yakshi. For a breakdown of how he had to lobby for a non-violent loyalty mission, how the Ardat-Yakshi myth was folded into asari lore, and how the mission as a whole came together, you can read our interview with Kindregan here. Right now though, it’s not so much the technical aspect of the creatures I want to talk about so much as it is their place in the gaming mythos.
Ardat-Yakshi are the best application of the black widow trope I've ever seen. It’s the result of a rare genetic condition in the asari race, leaving certain asari isolated, powerful, and deadly. The Ardat-Yakshi we spend the most time with is Morinth, Samara's daughter, so we can't exactly be sure how much of her behaviour is that of an Ardat-Yakshi and how much is just Morinth. Edward Cullen, Lestat De Lioncourt, Blade, and The Countess are all very different, after all. What we know of the Ardat-Yakshi on a biological level is that they have the power to compel anyone who falls in love with them, brainwashing them, eventually draining their spirit entirely. While asari can have physical sex, procreation is done in a more cerebral way, where the minds meld in a psychedelic ritual. Attempting to do this with Morinth results in death. Not just death – a state of unlife where your entire being is drained from you.
In Samara's loyalty mission, it is possible to side with Morinth, choosing to kill Samara and letting her daughter take her place on your crew in disguise. If you do this and later attempt to seduce Morinth on the Normandy, she will kill you just like this. In Morinth's case, this means she frequents seedy nightclubs and bars, looking for outsiders, for interesting loners and nihilists – people who will not bore her, but also will not be missed when she slips away from their cold, drained corpse. We do learn of a monastery where other Ardat-Yakshis can go, a place where they are safe from hurting anyone – but are we supposed to blame Morinth for not wanting to lock herself away from the world?
Asaris have staggeringly long lifespans. When we meet Liara, she is 106 but that’s essentially a teenager for her species. Yes, thinking about it, it is a little weird that the main love interest of the series is a teenage archaeologist who is tied up, spread-eagled and helpless, when we first encounter her. Best not think too much about it. Anyway, that means Morinth, one of the most powerful beings in the universe, can only be a good guy if she agrees to spend her centuries long life trapped inside a single building. She can never fall in love. She can never experience true intimacy. Her mother wants to kill her. I know that murder is wrong, and for the record I always side with Samara in the loyalty mission, but the tragedy of the Ardat-Yakshi means that in just three short scenes, one of which she attempts to devour your soul in, you begin to feel sympathy for this serial killer.
Nothing in fiction is truly original, so yes, she is a femme fatale Black Widow mixed with Rogue from X-Men, but it's inverted. Rogue gets to live alongside her powers in a way Morith, unstoppably powerful compared to essentially every other person she meets and incapable of ever reciprocating feelings on pain of death, does not. For all the heartbreak and loss and death in Mass Effect, Morinth might just be the series' most tragic figure.
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