The Politics of Mass Effect

So, I’ve been playing the first two games of the Mass Effect trilogy recently, and I’m reasonably familiar (due to visits to the franchise’s wiki) with the third. One of the many interesting things about the games is that the view of interspecies relations changes significantly over the course of the trilogy, in a fashion that I think mirrors a person’s ideological maturation.

Here’s what I mean.

I like to call  Mass Effect “Progressive Ideology: The Game,” but it might be better to call it “Liberal International Theory: The Game.” Essentially, the view of interspecies relations presented as the proper one, in-game, is one of enthusiastic cooperation with and acceptance of other species, and any character who is not so welcoming is presented as “incorrect” and generally xenophobic. Said enthusiastic cooperation includes letting persons who are, essentially, foreign nationals onto a top-secret stealth reconnaissance vessel with top-of-the-line technology. Said “not so welcoming” includes viewing aliens as being, like humans, essentially self-interested and willing to put their species before others, and having problems with letting foreign nationals onto the awesome top-secret vessel. It should be noted that the cooperation is rewarded, and does not come back to bite you.

Mass Effect 2 is a little different. For starters, the only organization willing to help you is a well-funded group of pro-human terrorists–they turn out to be completely insane, no surprise, but it does bring up some interesting questions about ports and storms. Going a bit further, it quickly becomes evident that there might be something to the notion that everyone’s self-interested. In one mission, you have to prevent someone from assassinating an anti-human politician, who is anti-human even if (based on your actions from the previous game) humanity has been extremely helpful to galactic society.  Then there’s the issue of a genetically-engineered disease called the genophage, developed to stop a species from taking over the galaxy while leaving them alive by rendering almost all of their children stillborn–one of your teammates helped update it, and regrets it, while thinking that it was the best option. He is not presented as a monster.

Mass Effect 3 can be summed up as “Realist International Theory: The Game.” The entire game basically consists of finding out that the “xenophobe” who said that everyone was self-interested was completely correct. Despite the fact that the galaxy is being invaded by a race of omnicidal machines, getting people to actually work together essentially requires slapping them upside the head. One group goes off to retake their homeworld from robots who they created and tried to annihilate when they realized they were sapient; said robots ally with the omnicidal machines. The species attacked by the genophage will not help if they realize there is no cure, while the species that made the genophage will withdraw from the fight against the omnicidal machine race if it is cured. In the meantime, the species most devoted to intergalactic cooperation and sharing of previous artifacts turns out to have built their tech off of possession of an extremely powerful and useful one that they concealed from everyone else in the galaxy.

However, what keeps this from turning into an angst-overflowed nightmare is that you can get all of these idiots to cooperate, eventually (except for the genophage bunch, if you’re a halfway decent person). Essentially, while the entire trilogy is a big fan of cooperation (as is proper), over the course of the games, an understanding is reached that it is difficult to achieve, and that no one person or group is responsible for its lack. It’s a mutual thing, and just believing that those not of your group are somehow better than those of your group is evidence of lack of experience, not open-mindedness.

And the best part is, it’s a cracking good story, too. Well, so far as video games go, but hey. If you want Steinbeck, go read Steinbeck.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

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