Mass Effect is often heralded as one of the best series in video game history, and for good reason. Its world and lore are dense and fascinating in a way that contends with traditionally revered science fiction, while its character-driven narrative offers a lesson most modern game studios could do with learning. That all three games hold up in 2021 – 15, 11, and nine years after their original debuts – is an unequivocal testament to those facts.
But Mass Effect is a series that is stuck in the past like a bug in sealed amber. In some ways – hell, in most ways – it’s easy to marvel at a moment that has been trapped in time, and all of the colour and spectacle that come with it. Beneath the gloss and sheen of the polished Legendary Edition, however, there is a history that remains unchanged. Even with necessary historiographical amendments like the removal of gratuitous buttshots in scenes about trauma, that history is clearly legible and disappointingly typical when examined with even the most lazily critical eye.
It’s worth pointing out that Mass Effect, at the time it originally launched, was brave. Despite being largely conformist to heteronormativity, it allowed you to experiment with sexual orientation in ways that were unheard of before, even if its LGBT+ options feel dated by today’s standards. Together with Dragon Age – which was arguably more diverse than the first two Mass Effect games – it played a huge role in shaping the industry as we know it today, where games focus on attraction and love as opposed to predetermined straightness tied to people who look like they belong on a fitness magazine cover.
But Mass Effect’s courage stopped there. Sure, you can go Renegade, but it never quite reaches Fuck The Police. You can punch an annoying reporter, dismiss a companion’s death as necessary and unimportant – hell, you can even consign the Citadel Council to death. But even if you do these things, even if you intentionally act as Renegade as the game allows you to, you’re still bound to the predetermined and prescribed onus of being a hero. Sure, you can withhold knowledge from the Council, but this is more conducive to becoming a heroic demagogue than anything else. In Foucauldian thought, “there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” The entire dynamic between Shepard and the Council is one born of perceived power held, and so it is at odds with any idea of unity – whether you act in tandem with the Council or alone, there is never any bona fide challenging of a broken status quo, let alone a means of actually implementing a new system. I mean, even if you go full rogue and support Cerberus every step of the way, at the heart of Mass Effect, after all is said and done, you’re Alliance brass through and through.
A lot of this lies in the context of what it actually means to be Renegade, which is to be an asshole far more so than it is to be a rebel. Aside from a few interrupts that require intense commitment to the Renegade path, most of the “bad” actions in Mass Effect are laughable. It’s Hugo Stiglitz from Inglorious Bastards, where you hold a gun to your acquaintance’s gut while maintaining a death stare, except you also might say something like “no way in Hell, shitbag!”
And that’s as far as it goes, for the most part. No matter how Renegade you are, there is no way to play this game that does not support the military-industrial complex. There is no way to play this game that does not acknowledge that law enforcement is stunted not just by bureaucracy, but by systemic corruption, racism, and self-preservation that enable and perpetuate it. True enough, the impending doom of life as we know it may not be the ideal time for unbridled anarchy, at least in a fictional video game burdened with telling a coherent story. And yet anarchy would free Shepard far more so than killing the Council ever would. The most anarchic Mass Effect ever gets is in the opening of Mass Effect 3, and that’s only because it occurs as a part of a set piece that is, for the most part, completely personless.
Mass Effect as a whole is a game that teems with space fascists. You can disagree with them, sure, and occasionally kill, convict, or disempower them, but you cannot suggest or implement a counteractive ideological structure that is conducive to the construction of a world beyond the existing status quo. Kill the Council, they get replaced. Stop the crooked cop, C-Sec posts a job opening. Maybe that’s a message in and of itself – that the powers that be always will be. In a game about saving the world, though, it becomes defeatist even in the wake of galactic victory. What is the point in saving a universe that is inherently awful? Why do the things we do just for the Council’s mantle to be inherited by another self-interested, right-wing bigot hellbent on steering politics and space capitalism in their species’ favour? The end of the world is about more than heroes and villains, and there’s no point saving something for it to be empty of critical thought and devoid of the lasting influence necessary for enduring change. There were problems in Mass Effect before the Reapers came – just take a walk around the Citadel in the first game or visit Tuchanka in the second. You can earn a husband the right to bury his wife or convince two krogan warchiefs to get along, at least temporarily – but you do nothing about the societal structures enabling these issues or the universe-spanning conflicts they perpetuate. Despite the game’s ostensible claims and the species diversity in your own particular squad, there is no harmony. The core ideology of Mass Effect is to play nice on the universal stage but plot secretly on the world one, for each and every world in existence. It is politically volatile and ideologically juvenile.
It’s not ideologically incomplete, though. On the contrary, Mass Effect is packed with opposing ideological state apparatuses, defined by Louis Althusser as societal structures from which we derive a sense of self as opposed to propagating our own. From the Alliance to the turian military, to krogan tribes and the quarian flotilla, each species in Mass Effect is defined by a proprietary order designed to be in inherent conflict with each other one. This leads to a degree of interpellation that breeds self-centrement, an internalized collective value that is at odds with all similarly internalized collective values to the point of universal distrust. The geth hivemind is far more revolutionary than the Systems Alliance ever could be because it is built around unity and leaves no logical room for exclusion based on perceived differences. If Lacanian thought suggests that there is no reality without an existing discursive system, the geth’s uniformly open and unprejudiced rhetoric leaves language built to facilitate derogatory discourse in a metaphorical Stone Age, where collective progress is buried beneath thousands of years’ worth of internal conflict rallied to a unanimously recognized redirection towards other species.
All of this is visible in a microcosm on the Normandy. Garrus isn’t a rebel who left C-Sec because he is still a cop, at least in terms of his values. He’s rogue and disheartened by bureaucracy, but he is still a staunch advocate of the law it protects and is protected by. Zaeed Massani is a militant merc with all of the prejudices borne of that profession, Ashley Williams is a space racist, Kaidan Alenko is a by-the-book stickler who killed a superior officer without being able to recognize the aftermath of that action beyond acknowledging it as something done in the heat of the moment. Tali, brilliant as she is, is clinically sceptical to the point of impulsive aggression based on unchallenged, internalized views. Renegade as they may seem, it’s jaded mercs like Wrex and hyper-violent youths like Grunt who are the real punks of Mass Effect, being able to recognize the difference between ostensibly bad actions and the real evil they are committed to oppose. Aside from them, crew diversity is largely used to facilitate species racism by proxy.
This is an old series, one that came out in 2007 and ran through to 2013. It was not made in the impression of contemporary events and causes. That’s why its value now predominantly lies in how evidently dated it is, how we can look to it and say “this is tactless,” not because the devs were tactless, but because the time was different. Wrex and Grunt recognize that, as Margaret Atwood would say, “in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” The real enemy is not the Other – the real enemy is not even Saren, or the Reapers. The real enemy is the systemic structure in place that problematizes recognizing evil and acting to expunge it, because the whole point of this story – as evidenced by Andromeda and the Liara-starring trailer for the next Mass Effect game – is that there is always another adversary. If Qui-Gon Jinn somehow wound up in the wrong space opera, he’d probably say there’s always a bigger fish.
Mass Effect is an excellent video game series filled with compelling stories. It is a cultural artefact worth studying for years to come, and it belongs in a museum for the astronomical impact it has had on the video game industry. But its exhibit needs to represent its worldview, too, because it is an important relic of an era that is not yet bygone. It is a game that was marked as brave for the time it came out, but that, by contemporary standards, is not very brave at all. That’s not on the devs who launched the first game 15 years ago, but it is on us to remember, articulate, and challenge these standards in order to refrain from repeating the same mistakes in future. When all is said and done, Shepard is never Shepard without being defined by a structure, whether that be an institution or a gamified meter designed to paint them in a light that drowns out the basis that is quietly but truly defining them and the universe they inhabit.
Ultimately, Mass Effect is a series that is brilliant but not bold. It is a series that is riveting but not revolutionary, and dramatic but not definitive in a way that reshapes video game sci-fi ideologies into a form more suited to a world in which we must approach reality with challenging, confrontational, and commanding intellectual thought. Historically, as per real world sensibilities, Mass Effect is a series that is essential for the future, but that is primarily because ideologically and politically, it is stuck in the amber of the past – there is no why until we strive to answer it.
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