I was late to the Avatar party, and only saw the movie a few weeks
ago. (I did review the game when it came out, though. Short version: it
basically serves up the same plot points with different characters, uninspired
gameplay and far less visual dazzle.) As I sat through James Cameron's 3D ode
to nativism, I kept waiting for Jake Sully to get his Pandora Pass so the
credits could roll and I get back to playing Mass Effect.
I'd been revisiting the 2007 action/role-playing hybrid for
a few weeks in anticipation of its sequel. After seeing Avatar, I appreciate
how much more complex Mass Effect's cosmos feels.
The broad strokes, for those who don't know: Mass Effect's a big adventure in the far future where humanity's become part of an alliance of different space-faring species. Players create a character called Commander Shepard, who you can make look like reasonable facsimile of yourself. (Or, erm, Sanaa Lathan, should you choose...) Shepard's a human soldier who uncovers a threat that could eliminate all organic life when a long-lost machine race called the Reapers starts to re-emerge.
At first, you might think human expansion throughout the universe would riff on European colonization of the Third World. You see that throughline in the original Star Trek mythos, as put forth by Gene Roddenberry in the Prime Directive. It basically says, "Well, let's at least try to leave things the way we find them." But, in the Mass Effect universe, humanity's the weak sister in the galactic hierarchy and, psychologically speaking, that actually affects the way you play.
The alien races you meet along the way aren't naïve pseudo-aborigines, either. In Mass Effect, it's humanity who're the universe's new jacks. The more powerful Turian and Asari races condescend to you all the time and other extraterrestrial cultures treat humans like bumpkins. The first few times you meet with the coalition leaders of the Alliance's ruling Council, you basically get patted on the head while they politely dismiss you. These interactions teach you the game's first lesson, which is that chauvinism's only great when it benefits your culture. Ain't no white privilege in Mass Effect, son. There's only blue (Asari) privilege.
From the very beginning of the game, you're faced with choices that will shape your Shepard's personality and the way other characters in the game react to you. But the ones that stood out to me were ones that reverberated with political and racial allegory.
Xenophobia's an unavoidable theme in Mass Effect. Some of the universe's major conflicts were only resolved by hasty partnerships with other species and a vicious cycle grew out of this wartime diplomacy. When the insectoid Rachni threatened to overrun the galaxy, the Alliance unleashed the brutal saurian Krogans to hunt them into extinction. And then, when the Krogans' expansion ran unchecked, they were infected with the genophage, a genetic virus that drastically lowered their fertility rate. This lore mirrors some ugly moments in real-world history, like the Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee experiments and American and Soviet strategies of propping up petty despots during the Cold War, which goes back to the point I was making in Monday's post about creating allegory. When specific historical moments gets folded into fictional constructs (with a certain amount of talent), they can be come universal. Look at the way Mass Effect meditates on power struggles throughout history and what you see is a cyclical scenario of races being allowed to proliferate as long as they serve the needs of the ruling class, only to be culled later when things get ugly. It's the kind of social Darwinism that makes you wince and two key missions force the player to confront it.
One quest has you encountering the Rachni, whispered about as a scary legend after being presumed extinct for decades. After battling them--and franky getting your ass handed to you for the better part of that level--you come face-to-face with the Rachni Queen. She telepathically begs for you to euthanize the young Rachni, who've been running wild, as it turns out, because they haven't been "sung to" properly. Without good formative experiences, they've become the crazed monsters that every other sentient in the universe fears. Read all the sociological parallels into that that you want. After you've carried out this grim task and returned to the queen, you're faced with the decision to free her or to kill her. You can learn a lot about yourself in this moment. I paused for at least a full minute as I thought about what I wanted to do. If I freed her, she'd breed and did I want to give that option to a race that's been my enemy for the last hour or so? What felt right to me, the child of Haitian immigrants? As someone who may not have even existed if my ancestors had lost their bid for freedom, I could only do one thing. I opened the giant tube where the Rachni queen was held and watched her slither out into the frozen wastes of the planet where I'd found her. I had no idea whether I was naïve, whether I'd regret this decision or whether I'd just doomed the universe. But it felt right.
It was at this point where I recognized the depth to which I could express my philosophies with regard to race or politics in Mass Effect. There are clear metaphors with regard to the moral costs of security, safety and even profitability, but none of it felt as terribly heavy-handed as Cameron's "fight terror with terror" bombast in Avatar.
Unlike a lot of games where you're called upon to save existence, Mass Effect doesn't let you run off half-cocked. The game sets up two behavioral poles, Paragon and Renegade, and even if you're playing as the latter, you still need to build political alliances and present findings before engaging Saren, the game's big antagonist. Mass Effect came out in 2007 during the waning days of the Bush Administration and had probably been in development for four to five years prior. It's nearly impossible to not read the game as a commentary on the run-up to the War on Terror. All along, you're forming a persona that either charms or coerces the people you need to help you.
Take one of Shepard's crew members, for example. Ashley's somewhat representative of the "humans first" movement that lies on the fringes of the game and lets her xenophobia flag fly unapologetically. That turned me off of her and I let her languish on the starship Normandy while I picked other characters to accompany me on missions. Along the way, a Krogan bruiser named Wrex joins your cast and, in talking to Wrex, you get to learn that beneath that gruff, bloodthirsty exterior of his lies a deep regret about the slow, eventual extinction of his people as a result of the genophage. He ruefully describes how his once-proud people have to make do as muscle-for-hire in the same universe that they ran roughshod over. These dialogues reminded me of how the story arc of the Native American winds up with remnants of the Sioux, Coeur d'Alene and Seminole nations living on scraps on land. Land that they once could roam freely. Again, as a black person, I felt an odd kind of kinship with Wrex and I brought him along on almost every mission. I got to know how he hated the cold and knew that he'd have my back in a firefight.
Meanwhile, Ashley's racism floated around as an annoying buzz in the background until one fateful mission. You track down Saren to the planet Virmire where it's divulged that he's managed to counteract the genophage. Other Alliance forces have been planning a siege on the facility to stop the Krogan breeding that Saren's using to build an unstoppable army. Wrex, of course, see things differently. He wants to save his people and storms off. The mission can't start until you talk to him and I approached him as he angrily fired his gun into the sand further down the beach. My aim was to talk him down and make him understand that, if he couldn't take part in the raid, it still had to happen. The discussion becomes an argument and guns get drawn. I'm given the option to shoot Wrex... but I can't. The opportunity for his people to flourish and be something more than second-class citizens? I'd want the same chance, were I in his position. And I have been. Kinda.
I kept on trying to find the high ground while talking to Wrex but, in a stunning moment, Ashley takes that option away, shooting him down. She explains that she was just doing her duty and protecting me, her superior officer. But, I couldn't help but wonder if that's the only reason she pulled the trigger. She'd never liked him and I almost totally ignored her until I needed her. And, yes, there were mechanical reasons for why things wound up the way they did: I didn't spend enough character development points on the Charm or Intimidate abilities and I never got around to the mission that would've made Wrex more loyal to me. Nevertheless, it was my choices that brought me to this place.
Later on, you're called on to sacrifice a crew member to guarantee that same mission's success. Given the choice between her and another human, I sent Ashley to certain doom, thinking it'd make me feel good. But the vengeance I told myself I was getting for Wrex felt like a lie. I could win the game but he wasn't coming back. Being forced to lose my in-game comrade-who I thought of as a virtual person of color and as a brother-in-arms-affected me in a forceful way that I never expected. Mass Effect made me look at myself and think about the way races, classes and individuals bring their histories to bear. It's a powerful thing for any creative work to do and Mass Effect does it exceedingly well.
I'll have some more thoughts on Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 and the series' evolution in the coming days.