The Politics of Worldbuilding in Mass Effect

Apropos of nothing (perhaps I was reminded by the recent, sad death of Iain Banks, whose positive example inspires much of what follows), I’ve tidied up some old notes about the Mass Effect games. Not exactly topical, but I think the piece is important. While I’m certainly not the first to suggest that ME’s treatment of certain issues is, as they say, ‘problematic’, the series irks me for slightly different reasons. Apologies in advance for wordiness and a slightly oblique approach to the point: everything is there for a reason, I promise.

Update: I’ve just noticed part of my argument is not as unusual as I’d first thought, which serves me right for having inferior google-fu.

Mass Effect is kind of a big deal. As I write this, Google returns 219 million results, compared to 95 million for its sister trilogy Dragon Age, and for good reason. In a genre stewed in orcs and apocalypses and lightly seasoned with cyberpunk noir, here is a series of high-budget role-playing games that offers the world the ability to play a daring spaceship captain, Shepard, at the centre of an epic space opera. Explore the wonders of the galaxy, solve ancient mysteries, meet (and potentially sleep with) exotic aliens and blow up giant spaceships with fancy space guns just in time to save the day; ME scratches a lot of geeky itches that were previously trapped beneath the cast of industry convention. It’s a pity, then, that the universe the games give us is so terrible.

Riding the Space Taxi

Bioware has a reputation for taking writing seriously, but although the writing in the ME games is generally competent in a technical sense, the setting stuck me, to be blunt, like a heap of cobbled-together action movie clichés and Gernsback-inflected stodge. Star-spanning empires; hard-bitten soldier-hero; uneasy alliance; rogue states; Ultimate Existential Threat; bumbling bureaucrats; criminal power-brokers; lost alien ‘precursors’; sigh. I’d say it sits oddly with the meticulous attention to technological detail — you might call the games ‘autistic’ — if this were not also par for the course where a lot of science fiction is concerned. Bioware set out to write a space opera, and the conventions of the genre are certainly no excuse when there is so much fine science fiction around. In a world in which even Bungie has claimed to be familiar with the late, great Iain Banks’ well known and rather more interesting space operas, this stodginess looks deliberate.

Take the game’s representation of technology. Warship fetishes and sleek corporate neon aside, this amounts to Star Trek-inspired ethical dilemmas about cloning, genetic engineering, biological weapons, and so forth. This is well and good (I happen to like Star Trek) but, as in Roddenberry’s oeuvre, technology is basically sterile, a plot device that allows the writers to pose questions about contemporary mores. The cultures of ME are not shaped by their relationship with technology, in the way that, for example, contemporary industrialised societies were shaped by the industrial revolution, or hunter-gatherers and farmers are shaped by their different relationships with nature. Science fiction literature is rife with interpretations of the transformative power of technology on human society, from the social disintegration of cyberpunk to the liberation from biological and economic constraint in Banks’ superb ‘Culture’ novels, but in ME, as in Star Trek, there is very little of this. Interstellar travel exists so that soldiers, bureaucrats and businesspeople can shuffle between various galactic cosmopoleis performing tasks that are mundane even by the standards of Twenty-First Century earth. Technology in ME is a device for the continuation of business as usual, and human beings are very much its masters (except for the inevitable rogue machine menace).

If Roddenberry used this science-fiction façade to present an argument for human equality, we might ask what sort of argument ME is making. Put another way: what does it mean that ME is so relentlessly generic and unimaginative?

Rubber Masks

The representation of aliens is a key to this. They come in three types. Firstly, there are the sociable, civilised ‘Council Races’ and their hangers-on. Without exception, these are 21st century North Americans wearing rubber masks. This is true right down to their emotions, gender roles and body language, and up to their economies, mass media, military command structures and diplomatic bureaucracies. Civilised ‘culture’ in ME could reside harmoniously within contemporary Western capitalism: which is to say, its differences do not matter. You can have blue skin and exotic sexual preferences, so long as you accept the exigency of warfare, bureaucracy, hierarchy, slums, stock markets and high heels. Nowhere—monsters, savages and Ultimate Existential Threats aside—are we faced with a culture that challenges these norms. In addition, each species only seems to have a single, essentialised culture which is indistinguishable from the species itself: complications do not exist.

Instead, the three main Council Races are the Turians (all soldiers), the Salarians (scientists) and the Asari (sex workers with magic powers who eventually get degrees in the humanities): divisions of labour writ large as ‘cultures’ in their own right. None of the sociable alien cultures caused me anything like culture shock. The all-female Asari come closest, but, excepting family and reproductive habits (which still seem to include something like monogamy, I might add, and also reflect the Asari role as exotic objects of male sexual desire) the Asari are like everyone else—telekinetic femmes fatales notwithstanding. In fact, the differences that ME does emphasise are explicitly linked to biology: Asari longevity and reproduction; Turian physical resilience; Salarian intellect and metabolism.

Then there are the hostile or otherwise problematic species, which I called the ‘savages’ and ‘monsters’. The clan-bound Krogan, portrayed as a violent, primitive evolutionary dead-end, are exemplary of the former.

After being ‘uplifted’ by the Salarians as a necessary step to win a war (Salarians are all effete intellectuals, remember, and superior technology is apparently worthless in the future), the Krogan became irrepressibly expansionistic because of their phenomenal birthrate; even once in possession of the technology for faster-than-light travel, they were unable or unwilling to use contraception. This problem was then solved by the Council Races via the ‘genophage’, a form of forcible sterilisation. As you do.

One of the games’ main subplots is the resolution of the Krogan problem, which is framed as a conflict between competing rights or categorical imperatives: genocide is wrong, but the Krogan are warlike and breed like rabbits, so curing them of the sterility virus will just start another conflict. Which takes priority: the Krogan’s right not to have their children aborted, or the galaxy’s right not to have to deal with these rampaging savages?

In fact, this dilemma is quite artificial, and hinges on the fact that the Krogan are generally denied the possibility of evolving into anything but thugs. The games explicitly state that Krogan reproductive and military prowess are due to biological factors. Likewise, Krogan invade things and refuse contraception because that is their culture, and culture in ME is, as we have seen, oddly homogeneous and immutable. Aside from a few necessary adaptations to the impact of the genophage, the only hints that the Krogan are actually capable of even the smallest social change come briefly in ME2 and in the ‘good’ Krogan endings of ME3, and this is mostly on the basis of power politics and fear: the new Krogan leader wishes to cement his power, and says he wants to avoid another reprisal from the Council Races. The Krogan understand, and can understand, only power, fear and a monolithic social tradition, perhaps leavened by personal loyalty.

This leaves the space monsters, all conveniently aligned against humanity: Collectors (intelligent bugs), Geth (robots), Rachni (intelligent bugs) and Reapers (the Ultimate Existential Threat, also giant super-intelligent robot bugs). Like the Krogan and the Council Races, the monsters do what they do because of their identity. The Reapers, ancient machines, destroy and enslave because that’s how they were programmed.

The Rachni subplot reprises the Krogan dilemma: Rachni are a threat because they are naturally driven to be expansionist and territorial. Sparing the Rachni from extinction in the first game is considered a ‘good’ action, albeit potentially foolish, but Shepard actually gains ‘renegade points’ for failing to murder a Rachni colony in ME3. As with the Krogan, peace with the Rachni is never proven to be absolutely impossible, but the discourse is framed by the probability of future conflict based on their nature. Where really alien aliens are concerned, ME repeatedly wrings its hands about the possibility of peace and redemption, but rigs the argument in favour of war with its simplistic and one-sided portrayal of the actors.

There is, to be fair, a more sensitive approach to the alien Other in the treatment of the robotic Geth in ME2 and ME3. Originally a bland machine menace with a collective consciousness, the Geth are complicated in ME2 by the introduction of the non-hostile character Legion—though whether lasting peace and co-operation are possible is left an open question in the second game.

ME3 does offer a peaceful solution to the Geth problem, though this is difficult to achieve. However, it comes at the cost of Legion’s distinctiveness. When the character first appears in ME2, it sports, as a kind of fetish, a piece of commander Shepard’s armour. In Legion’s final scene in ME3 (in the subplot’s ‘good’ ending), it achieves heightened consciousness and refers to itself as ‘I’ instead of the usual ‘we’, a change repeated by other Geth. Like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Legion moves from cargo-cultish emulation of sentient species to become nearly indistinguishable from them. Unlike Data, Legion already possessed a society of its own: but the Geth’s rapprochement with galactic society and their achievement of ‘true sentience’ coincides with the abolition of their hive-mind. The ‘good’ ending for the Geth is to become individuals, just like us.

Exporting Bureaucracy

Now, the writers of ME obviously needed to make the sociable aliens familiar enough that they could write them and we could empathise with them. Granted, too, that ME is set mostly in battlefields and liminal spaces where species meet, or where colonists face the void at the edge of civilisation, rather than on peaceful planets which might give a more unique perspective of each species. It is also possible to read the ME games as arguments that superficial differences should not be a basis for discrimination, which is laudable enough, surely.

Nonetheless, I think the superficiality of the Council Races’ differences is problematic. Perceptive readers of the previous section will have noticed that there is a correlation in ME between conflict and difference. The Council Species and their allies, who are all pretty much the same, can compete and commingle (thought not without friction) in ME’s cosmopolitan entrepots and bureaucracies, and only await a common cause to realise how similar they are. The Krogan, who are different but still recognisable if only as Klingons, might or might not be capable of peaceful cooperation. The Reapers and their Menagerie of Evil, on the other hand, must all be regarded as hostile, unless and until they surrender their distinctiveness and attempt to become more familiar (America, it turns out, is the Borg).

In fact, ME never fails to hint, if not openly declare, that the cause of a war is not economics or geopolitics or cynical scaremongering or just plain misunderstanding, but a culture’s nature. The game adopts a racist argument—that essential differences exist and are an obstacle to co-existence between cultures—by way of promoting multiculturalism.

In case anyone thinks I am drawing a long bow, let me give the example of the Batarians, one of ME‘s standard bad guys. This species/empire (note again the essentialising social/biological/political conflation of identity), which is explicitly referred to as a ‘rogue state’, is a paranoid, militarised, slave-trading autarky whose unprovoked aggression, drug-dealing and terrorism (yes, all of them) are possible to the extent that the bickering Council of responsible species (cough, UN/NATO) is insufficiently zealous in its application of violence. Evoking Ignatieff and the neocons, the game repeatedly suggests that the Batarian problem is aggravated by Council Races’ aversion to military commitment. Physically, the Batarians—along with the Vorcha, the vanilla orcs to the Batarian Uruk-Hai—are depicted as slavering, thuggish Other-as-vermin alá Tolkien or Goebbels. In fact, they are a heady mixture of just about every trope ever deployed in defence of racism, hierarchy or imperialist war. All the Batarians lack is an alien religion and an opportunity to be ‘saved’ by a Council willing to shoulder the white man’s Council Races’ burden.

While I can only speculate about what the writers were thinking, it’s easy to read a lot into this polarisation of difference into incompatible extremes. Aside from the validity it grants prejudice, this view of the world (in its ‘liberal’ form, if you like) is still problematic, because it encourages violence against cultures or states that are in any way substantially different from the dominant Western one, if only for pragmatic reasons. If conflicts are always ‘hard-wired’ beyond the vanishingly small breadth of acceptable difference (the change we get after investing our credulity in the idea that contemporary Western Earth is the blueprint for all galactic civilisation), the solutions will involve violence. Go ahead and spare the Rachni, says ME, if your categorical imperative demands it: but don’t be surprised when they sting you like the scorpion they are.