Progressive Videogame Sunday: Mass Effect
by David Atkins
NOTE: This is the second in a weekend series dedicated to reviewing progressive videogames. Last week's review focused on the brilliant Assassin's Creed series. It's my hope that progressives with an aversion to videogames as mindless, sexist, violent entertainments lacking in art will read these reviews with an open mind, and maybe even try out a game or two. WARNING: Major spoilers below....
The entire civilized world is locked in bureaucratic paralysis. The most industrialized nations squabble with one another, each hampered by nativists insisting they protect their own interests against the common good. Newly rising nations are advancing onto the scene and gaining power, causing resentment, economic insecurity and military conflict. Technology is advancing beyond the power of society to keep pace.
And in the middle of it all, a universally destructive threat is rising that will bring everyone to their knees unless it is stopped. But no one will act on the threat or even admit its existence because to do so would mean joining with other nations and abandoning their own petty self interest.
Does this sound like an account of the United Nations summit at Doha failing to deal with climate change? Yes, it does. But it's also the plot of Mass Effect, an incredibly popular action role-playing videogame series and one of the greatest pieces of popular science fiction ever made.
One of the greatest gifts of science fiction is the ability to postulate a utopian universe of galactic cooperation, making subversive points about the shortsighted stupidity of petty nationalism and war in ways that are acceptable where contemporary stories would not be. Mass Effect is a great example of the genre.
Mass Effect made headlines by creating conservative outrage for its LGBT romance options and tasteful sex scenes. It's also famous among gamers for allowing the option of a truly compelling and credible female lead. While those social innovations in videogaming are praiseworthy progressive elements of the Mass Effect franchise, they're only the beginning of its compelling progressive value.
The basic story is as follows: in the near future humanity discovers the secret to interstellar space travel via relics of a long extinct race, the Protheans, who suddenly and mysteriously vanished 50,000 years ago leaving few traces of their existence. But humanity quickly realizes we're not the only advanced civilization in the galaxy. Far from it. Humanity first runs afoul of the hyper-disciplined Turian race, one of the three advanced races that run the Galactic Council from The Citadel, a giant space station first discovered by the wise Asari, an all-female race that is the most technologically advanced in the galaxy. Its original creators are unknown--as of yet.
After the end of the human-Turian war, humanity obtains an embassy on the Citadel and its own piece of Galactic space, but chafes at the lack of respect from more established races. Each of the three big races has its own problems from nativists looking out for the interest of their particular species, hampering efforts at galactic cooperation. Meanwhile, the three major races oppress a myriad of more minor advanced species with soft racism born of economic and military superiority. One storyline involves some ancient history: in order to quell an invasion from a social-insect-like species (the Rachni), the Council advanced a strong and warlike race (the Krogan) who had not socially evolved beyond a belligerent state of civilization; that race beat back the insect invaders, only to become a galactic threat themselves. The Council's "solution" to that problem was genetic sterilization of 999 out of every thousand Krogan, leaving them futureless and desperate with predictably negative consequences.
It is into this complex political mess that human Commander Shepherd walks. Shepherd is being groomed as potentially the first human "Spectre", agents of the Council who have the power to act extralegally to counter threats when the Council's bureaucracy fails. As you might imagine, the very essence and morality of this position are a major theme of the game.
But Commander Shepherd quickly discovers a disturbing truth: the ancient Prothean race didn't disappear, but were slaughtered en masse by a race of machines called the Reapers. Their motives are uncertain, but it seems that for reasons that only become clear later in the series they return every 50,000 years to cull every advanced species in the galaxy, and in fact control and shape the very development of advanced civilization itself.
Shepherd desperately attempts to inform the Council and his/her human superiors of the truth, but few will listen: they are far too busy fighting one another and worrying about their own selfish, petty territorial concerns to even believe Shepherd, much less act. But Shepherd does become a Spectre, with authority from the Council to investigate (partly as a way to get out of their hair.) In the process of Shepherd's investigation h/she must deal with a series of evil corporations exploiting their workers and native species; determine the fate of the last living Rachni queen with significant repercussions for the galaxy, make a series of moral decisions concerning the Genophage and the warlike Krogan, manage solutions to a major war between illegal advanced intelligences and the migrant species that created them while dealing with the inconvenient and provocative reality that the machines have taken on religion by worshiping the Reapers as deities, navigate a hyperlibertarian world of corporate intrigue, all while managing both the Council's wishes and his/her own racist human command and media becoming increasingly upset at the "alien" influences and allies Shepherd is taking on. And that's all just a taste of only the first game of the series. Things only get more morally ambiguous and complex from there, but all of them interlaced with the same anti-corporate, anti-racist, anti-nativist message.
When the worst does inevitably come to pass and the Reaper threat attacks the Citadel at the climax of the first game, Shepherd's actions do save the day but only at great cost--and one of the decisions Shepherd must make it whether to sacrifice many human lives and ships in order to save the Council, or allow the Council to die so that humanity can take sole leadership of the galaxy. The choice, with its enormous consequences for the events of the later games, is yours to make.
Yes, this is a videogame. And yes, it's even an even better story and experience than it sounds. It's well worth the time to enjoy, and a beautiful allegory for the same problems the world faces today.