Friday, March 19, 2010

The Humanism of Mass Effect 2

Ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a Malo

If there's one thing we can thank the bible for it's the way it has made literary archetypes and memes. At first glance Mass Effect seems to borrow quite a bit of them. Project Lazarus, a club called Afterlife, ascension... Could there be something more going on? In my previous posts I've spotted a very engaged humanist vision in the stories and characters of their games. So I kept my eyes peeled while playing Mass Effect 2. In this post I want to explore how far the bible analogy goes and where it breaks down. Are there any differences? Can it tell us something about our human condition today - which is for some, if not a lot of, people a big part of what defines art.

Mass Effect 2 doesn't seem to be as epic as its predecessor. It's more intimate. The game is much more focused on its characters, interaction and dialogue. The events less grand in scope. Shepard needs to build a team to take out the Collectors. Emphasis is laid on the team building. The taking out is done in, what is presumed, a suicide mission behind enemy lines. Because of this, you end up fighting primarily to save your team, saving the galaxy seems like a secondary objective.

I should say that this post will potentially be one big crackpot theory. As the rather pretentious title of this post might suggest. It's a continuation of my own series started with my Dragon Age post. In which I said that Bioware has a very strong humanist viewpoint. Christians might call it anti-christian. But besides the fact that any religion will feel picked on no matter what, there might something to be said for those feelings, given the biblical names and themes in the game. Also keep in mind that this is what I'm reading from the game and isn't said to be the outspoken opinion of the company.

Religion in Mass Effect is rather curious. Because no alien race in the Mass Effect Universe is religious. That is to say, truly religious in so far as the player would have to believe that there is a "true religion" within the fiction. When Ashley admits she and her family are very religious, Shepard would rather believe her dead father to be a zombie than believe he's watching from heaven. "Wherever that is" she adds, a logical comment to make when you're born in a space-faring civilization. Heaven was supposed to be a sky kingdom in the clouds, as evident in classical paintings, and space doesn't have quite the same kind of clouds nor anything we could naively call "the sky". As Shepard you can confess to Ashley that he is religious, just as she is. It is considered a Paragon choice. However, Bioware has made the Renegade Shepard canon. So they have made Shepard, de facto, an anti-religious Atheist (ruling out even Agnosticism).

The most outspoken religious race in ME are the Hannar. They are a Jellyfish-like race, soft spoken but a bit naive. And because of it, often the butt of jokes. And mostly referred to as "the Jellys".They revere "the inkindlers". A superior race who bestowed knowledge upon them. The inkindlers turn out the be the Protheans. They turn out to be an extinct alien race. Then there's the Asari. A spiritual race. They often speak of "the Goddess". Not an odd choice for a race of females. A further comment on our human beliefs where no deity could be female in a society dominated by men. The game is very positive about the Asari point of view. Yet the faith is dispelled as soon as the Novaria mission in the first Mass Effect. Where Benezia bemoans the lack of a "promised white light, they said there would be..." with her dying breath. It isn't said that the Goddess is an actual deity or a spiritual unconsciousness, but by Benezia's comment there is at least some deception going on. A portion of the Geth, a sapient machine race, worship the Reapers. Because they are supreme mechanical synthetic lifeforms. That they do not fit the picture of an ideal God needs no explanation. Or does it? They are powerful, eternal, or so they say, have worshipers, and promise ascension. Ascension is the term Harbinger, the main antagonist, uses in Mass Effect 2 during the collectors' harvest of human colonies. This because their actual physical biomass will be used to construct a "human reaper". A god in the image of man. Man made god. Or plainly put, a god made out of Human bodies. Bioware is painting quite a cynical picture of what a god is.

The central figure in the series is Shepard. Gathering disciples of all walks of life of many worlds. He's a born leader. His name is Shepard. It's pretty clear that the closest resemblance is Jesus. More so in Mass Effect 2, where he dies and is resurrected with project Lazarus. Lazarus, not Jesus. Indeed not, but imagine what game this would have been if the project had been called "Project Jesus". It would hit the player over the head with symbolism that isn't really necessary. It would change the tone of the game dramatically and would probably offend a portion of the lucrative American audience. And anyway, 'Lazarus' is also often used to denote a situation where one is presumed dead but ultimately isn't.

The meaning of the Illusive man becomes a bit more complicated. He's got godlike qualities, like the Reapers. He's seemingly all-knowing. Apparently lives forever. Doesn't give a sod about his health. Does whatever he deems necessary. Raises Shepard from the dead and like the god of the bit monotheistic faiths: cares about his own people (humans) first and foremost and at the expense of all other. A position that's bound to be problematic in a universe with a variety of sentient species.

Like all Bioware games, there's a lot to do about morals. As with religion. Both have a prominent place in everyday live. They seem linked even to the extent that it's generally, and wrongfully, believed that religion is where morals originated. I noticed that ethics in this story come from the characters themselves, not ever from some dogma or handbook. I could say these characters are a mouthpiece for the writers of the story, schooling the player in modern philosophy.

A prime example is Mordin, a Salarian scientist. It may be a stretch to call it an archetype. But perhaps accurate in this case. He's a genius who's considered a devil by some but does good work regardless. He's got his own set of morals that seem to work well enough. You can't call him an evil character because he's forced to act and tries to make the most of it. He's content to know that no one but himself could have done a better job. Mordin comments on the responsibilities of aiding foreign species and the dangers of bypassing any true need of technology and knowledge. In the context of our history, this is a comment on how irresponsible Humans have been in founding, or rather annexing, colonies. How native Americans were used against each other. How missionaries brought civilization to the "primitive" indigenous people of South America. Or how industrial Europe carved Africa into pieces for its own needs. And with that brought modern weapons into African tribal wars. Wars originating in no small way from the colonization. The Krogan are the analogy.

There are more biblical analogies. Miranda has been made out of the rib of her "father". Tali is a cloaked virgin, untouched, aloof, naive - though Shepard gets a chance to change all that. Garrus is John the Baptist, not quite a failed messiah but a precursor to Shepard. Jacob is symbolic of humanity standing alone. He's been separated from his father and has done just fine in constructing his life. In the story he discovers the faux-paradise his father has landed himself into, confronts the man and finds a repulsive, immoral, self-appointed hedonist King. He's a caricature of an evil, self-centered god. Jacob is disgusted and turns his back on him.

I consider myself to be somewhat of a humanist. I also consider the Mass Effect games to be one of the best games I've played these last few years. The cross-pollination between these make it extra interesting for me. Mass Effect is furthering the case that we have to see some games not only as consumer products but as carriers of information and points of view. Congratulations to the talent at Bioware for raising the bar once again. I can't wait to see where Mass Effect 3 will take us.


Laranda Lee said...

Hey, I love this post! I was surprised to see there are no comments (perhaps this is posted elsewhere as well?). I was wondering if you have received any feedback on this or were inspired from other sources? I had always thought of the idea of Shepard being a Christ-like figure, but I loved what you had to say about the Reapers. I'm also sure since ME3 has come out, you've seen many more themes (for example the destruction of the Mass Relays equating to the the fall of the tower of Babel). Wondering if you had an updated article?

I am currently trying to write an academic paper on religious roles of female characters within scifi media like video games (well, more of my escuse to try and write my final paper on a video game). Especially that of the birth of Miranda and her later involvement in the Lazarus project. Comparing Tali to the virgin Mary kind of confirmed why I never felt that comfortable with the idea of romancing her.

DominoHK5 said...

It seems to me that this post ignores the concept of choice and adopts the author's experience as the only true experience. In the first game the player can choose to be religious or not in response to Ashley's comment on her own faith. The old saying "there's never an atheist in the fox-hole" is even referenced if the choice is made to be religious.

Thomas Pottie said...


If I may quote myself from the original post on this:

"As Shepard you can confess to Ashley that he is religious, just as she is. It is considered a Paragon choice. However, Bioware has made the Renegade Shepard canon. So they have made Shepard, de facto, an anti-religious Atheïst (ruling out even Agonsticism)."

Yes, it's mainly interpretation on my part, but I was going on (visual) communication from Bioware about Mass Effect, and Shepard in particular. Of course it's far from a black and white issue. But the Bioware angle seems to have been slanted towards Renegade. But this post should be read as part of a series about how I keep finding humanism in Bioware games. And I think you'll find it hard to deny that almost all of them had progressive elements to them.

I was about to write follow up about Mass Effect 3, but the extended cut made me post-pone that up to a point where I felt it was no longer relevant. I may reconsider.