Yes, they’re old, but since many will be playing them for the first time through the brand new Legendary Edition remaster, here’s a spoiler warning for Mass Effect and Mass Effect 3.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about who I was when I fell in love with Mass Effect. Mormon, squeamish, nervous, still a boy (if I ever was). This was before I learned German, before I had dated anyone, before I went to college, long before I began to question my identity. It was the first thing I booted up on my Xbox, the first game I wrote about online, and one of the few games I ever replayed. A lot has changed. Since then, I’m a girl, I’m married, I write about games on the internet part time, my German is holding on though fading. But I’m playing Mass Effect again.
To be honest, I’ve been falling out of love with the series for quite some time. Thanks to my friends at Journal Updated, who covered the series last year, and remembering major plot beats with an older, more politically aware mind, it dawned on me what the franchise was really about: the necessity and privilege of being a massive cop. With the upcoming remaster, we face a new wave of criticism about the Mass Effect franchise. Countless discourses from the past decade will be relitigated and rediscovered. In the wake of that change, in the wake of all the protests this year and last, popular games criticism must reckon with Mass Effect’s police state heart.
To summarize, early in the first Mass Effect, on the world called Eden, the young Commander Shepard tastes the forbidden fruit. They uncover an ancient message from the civilizations before, promising the return of machine gods, the Reapers, destined to kill us all. However, they are the only one who knows, and only a few others believe them. Despite this, the galactic government recognizes a legitimate threat in the form of Saren. A former Specter—imagine an intergalactic secret agent with none of the rules or red tape—Saren has gathered together a robotic army to call the Reapers back home. To pursue him, Shepard is also given specter rank, the first human to have it.
Even in this truncated summary, the nature of Mass Effect’s power fantasy shows itself. It places the player at the center of an ages-old galactic conflict. Thereby, it gives them unfathomable power over an extraordinary number of people. Not content with making the player a simple agent of state violence, Mass Effect emphasizes how unfettered Shepard is from the rules and regulations. The Dirty Harry-like Garrus expresses relief at being free from the red tape of being a police officer. In turn, this explains away Shepard’s potential wanton cruelty. While they are nominally responsible to the galactic government, there is no situation where Shepard can fall out of favor or lose their standing. Because your violence is the state’s, everything is permitted.
However, that violence structures every dialogue wheel in the game. Mass Effect’s pitch offers freedom, but it shows its ideological hand in the choices it does not let you make. Of course, no game can become an unfettered simulation. It is a ridiculous criticism to say that Mass Effect just needs more content. You don’t fix something like this with more labor. Nevertheless, the way the game deploys its scale shows its priorities.
For example, in the first game’s mission on the planet Virmire, Shepard discovers that Saren plans to win an army by curing alien Krogan of the Genophage. The Krogan were once a threat to the galactic government, but they suffered a chemical attack of astronomical proportions, which reduced their collective ability to reproduce. Shepard’s orders to stop Saren come into immediate conflict with his Krogan crewmember, Wrex. He begs Shepard to let the cure pass into Krogen hands. While there are nominally good (paragon) and evil (renegade) options, none allow Shepard to assist Wrex. They can either talk him down or kill him. Not only does the game use eugenic genocide callously for lore, it refuses those affected by it self determination. The violence of the state, that Shepard explicitly represents, always takes priority.
The plights and perils of the marginalized are not the immediate suffering of sentient beings, but rather abstract moral problems for an absent player to work through. Thus, liberation can wait. It can wait for when the oppressors realizes what they have done wrong. The Genophage is a recurring plot point in each of the three games, any attempt at fixing come by appealing to the very people that created it. This dynamic plays out over and over again, from a side quest in the first Mass Effect involving human terrorists demanding reparations for unjust experimentation, to the robot Geth asserting their personhood; Shepard, as the player’s avatar, precedes over all of these “problems.” Shepard is not a part of them, but nevertheless decides them.
By Mass Effect 3 (go ahead and skip this paragraph if you don’t want spoilers), the answer to the problems of countless worlds is just getting along. Though the Quarians created the robot Geth to be slaves, they can live in peace. The same people that created the Genophage will help cure it. Without all the mess of division, but rather the sickly sweet violence of simple colonized mediation. While 60 hours holds plenty of complexity, it is difficult for the game to escape its structure. By definition, the player must be the center.
That is in contrast to many of the RPGs I’ve fallen in love with since playing Mass Effect. Games like Disco Elysium and Pathologic 2 allow the player cruelty, but they also ground that cruelty in the world, in communities. The player cannot be some abstract mediator, but must be in the mess of the world, make the jump, or twist the knife in.
I have no desire to police people’s taste, to tell them what they can or cannot like, or, worse, to imply that one’s politics are directly tied to their taste. I do want to say that there are things we have to consider as critics. Mass Effect has violence and policing at its center. Any criticism worth reading must confront those things. I hold no illusion that this critical work is “important” in the grand scale of things. However, I do think it can open us up, to be kinder to ourselves, and recognize the limits of our vision. Good criticism does not make us punitive but receptive to new viewpoints. Whatever any of us do, many, many more words will be written about Mass Effect. If we want anything good to come out of that, we have to write honestly about what it argues. While Mass Effect might lean into the abstraction of the player, we cannot. Unlike Shepard, we are real, with power fettered and tied to others. In the end, that truth is all criticism asks of us.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.