For a game that wants to be about friendship and diversity, everybody’s an idiot except Shepard in the original Mass Effect, and it feels bad.
Nobody likes Udina. It’s pretty clear that, even when he’s working on your side, the human ambassador to Mass Effect’s Citadel council is kind of a piece of shit. At one point, Shepard chides him for caring more about the political gains of a mission to save a bunch of human colonists than the lives that mission actually protected. This career bureaucrat might work for humanity’s best interest at times, but he’s also a transactional, ambitious climber who at least has a secondary goal of advancing his own influence. He only gets worse as time goes on.
It’s not just Udina that nobody likes, though. Despite providing Shepard with the unlimited power and near-total lack of accountability of the Spectres, the Citadel Council–a seemingly semi-democratic body comprising the galaxy’s most influential races–are largely an impediment to you getting the job done. On your periodic calls with them to debrief on your mission, which they authorized, they occasionally show frustration at your choices as you unilaterally make decisions that could threaten the whole galaxy or annihilate entire species. If you go Renegade in these moments, you throw it back in their faces. Your Paragon choices are more deferential, but only in an “ask forgiveness” kind of way. And plenty of dialogue options, Paragon or Renegade, express frustration with the Council’s unwillingness to do whatever you ask of them because you had a dream of world-ending monsters.
In fact, no member of civil authority in Mass Effect really seems like they’re that respectable. Playing Mass Effect today, it’s been surprising just how much disdain the game seems to show for the idea of civilian government, institutions, and rules in general. The galaxy of Mass Effect is not an especially democratic place, and when it is, it’s the know-nothing paper pushers who make up the government that put lives in danger. The time it takes to get the Citadel Council to sign off on an action could cost lives. Bureaucrats and their rules prevent you from stopping criminals and terrorists. You’re the only one who understands the real threat, and everyone else just has their head in the sand if they’re unwilling to let you do whatever you want to deal with it.
It generally feels…weird. Mass Effect is a game that spends a lot of time thinking about and discussing the idea of a galactic community, one within which humanity is still finding its place. The Paragon path is largely about finding common ground with members of other species and working closely with them–provided, of course, that they agree with you (and, really, defer to you). You spend a lot of time going out and making friends, finding people who want to protect lives and fight injustice, and working together with them. But they have to listen to you, they don’t get a vote, and ultimately, every call is yours.
To some degree, it has to be said, this is just video game stuff. You’re the hero in a story-based RPG, so what you say goes. You’re the commander of a ship, you’re fighting an unknowable force wielded by a murderous madman, and you’re out on the front lines with more information than literally any other person in the galaxy. Mass Effect is fun because it puts you to choices and makes you think about them, and for that to be interesting, you have to be in the driver’s seat. The game could, at least in theory, lose the immediacy and power that makes it work if you had to poll your crew about their thoughts on dealing with the rachni, or whether you should accept that hanar merchant’s pleas to help him smuggle some stuff through port security.
But more than just leaving decisions in your hands, Mass Effect also constantly positions you against any non-military person with any authority, who are almost criminally unwilling to submit to your obvious superior decision-making ability. You even get a moment at the end of the game where you can decide if it’s worth risking ships and soldiers to protect the lives of the Citadel Council–again, the seemingly only democratic authority you ever interact with–and you can choose to let them die. That decision is definitely informed by how you’ve felt the Council has treated you throughout the game, and again, their role is largely to ignore your pleas for aid or action and second-guess your decisions after the fact. The Council is only effective in that they’ve allowed you the unlimited power to police the galaxy your own way, and if you’re annoyed with them for floating the suggestion of accountability, which is all they ever do, you can let them die for it.
Really, the only authority figures Mass Effect shows much respect for are military ones. There are a lot of moments when you can talk to and laud Captain Anderson, your former commanding officer, who does you the constant service of agreeing with your ideas and methods. Your other big connection to the Alliance, the human space military, is Admiral Hackett, who occasionally asks for help and who defers to your judgment during the endgame’s big military engagement. Anderson and Hackett deserve your respect because they’re soldiers who know a thing or two about how the world actually works. They get their hands dirty. They’re not sitting behind a desk somewhere wondering about how the optics of your choices are going to play out.
On at least two occasions, Hackett asks you to go clean up Alliance messes that seem like they might paint humanity in a bad light in the international community. On one mission, you’re to go find a missing probe that was outfitted with a nuclear bomb. It’s a remnant of the before humanity was part of the galactic community, but the reason you have to deal with it quietly is because the Citadel Council would not look kindly on humanity leaving live nukes out in the galaxy to be found by…whoever. Your goal is to handle the situation before anyone finds out about it, effectively to protect the military from blowback. Another of Hackett’s missions has you disabling a rogue virtual intelligence that has gotten dangerously close to becoming a self-aware artificial intelligence. Hackett denies that the Alliance was trying to make an AI, which is illegal, but he’s still dispatching you to go handle the situation because you can do so off the books. Mass Effect 2 pretty much makes it clear that the rogue VI was actually an AI experiment gone wrong.
Where Mass Effect has plenty of opportunities to chide bureaucrats for their life-costing decisions and overly cautious heel-dragging, there’s not a lot to say about the Alliance carrying out actions that are illegal under galactic law. You just dutifully head out and clean up the human military’s messes, because you’re a soldier and that’s what soldiers do. Sure, the rogue VI might have murdered everyone in Luna base and then attempts to do the same to you when you arrive, but that’s just the cost of protecting the galaxy.
Spend any time with fan favorite character Garrus and you get a huge dose of these anti-government, anti-democratic feelings. Before he joined up with you, Garrus was an officer in C-Sec, the Citadel’s police force. He’s a big-time law-and-order type, but annoyed that the “rules” and “red tape” are always holding him back from getting the bad guys. He talks about how it shouldn’t matter how he takes down a suspect as long as he does, in fact, take them down. He talks about roughing up suspects in interviews. And he tells a lengthy story about a doctor he investigated who was using his employees as incubators for organ harvesting, which ends with Garrus complaining the C-Sec brass wouldn’t let him shoot that guy’s ship down as he was fleeing. This was a ship filled with hostages (who Garrus says were “already dead” thanks to the doctor’s experiments) flying over a populated area, and Garrus thinks the fact he was stopped from blowing it up makes everyone else the asshole.
Garrus likes Shepard because they’re not confined by the rules, and it really sounds like that includes things like respecting the rights of the accused or limiting the possibility of collateral damage. Garrus respects following the law, even that of the ethics-less corporate research haven of Noveria, simply because it is the law. But he sure seems less interested in protecting innocent lives than he does bringing criminals to heel, and he has no respect for any rules that might limit or temper the enforcement of the law, at least as relates to people Garrus has decided are guilty of breaking it.
And even without all these other character moments, it’s impossible to overlook that Shepard is basically Jack Bauer (the terrorist fighter who occasionally employs torture in the TV show 24) in space. Go Renegade and you’re fully Jack Bauer in space, taking an any-means-necessary approach to meeting the goals you’ve decided matter more than anything else. Paragon softens the situation a little by making you more polite and apologetic, but it really doesn’t change the overall situation that much. The very idea of the Spectres is to create operatives who aren’t beholden to answer to anybody but the Citadel Council–they don’t have to follow any laws, and can complete missions however they think they must. The role literally exists to circumvent accountability. No civilian paper-pusher can get in the way of you completing the job–finally.
Looking at Mass Effect now, it’s hard to divorce it from its real-world historical moment. It’s a game mired in the 2000s, fully embracing the War on Terror politics of the time. Shepard is a military officer endowed with the power to Do What Needs To Be Done. They scour the galaxy to locate a powerful but hidden baddie, who wields a brain-washing weapon of mass destruction that can turn regular people into fanatics, and take them down. Shepard needs to do this, because the consequences of inaction, or slowing down, or waiting to gather evidence are just too great, and anybody who suggests otherwise is a coward or a clown. Shepard knows who’s responsible and everyone else is just some idiot who cares more about their own power than Doing What’s Right. Stop me if any of this is starting to sound like things that were happening in the real world between roughly 2001 and 2008.
It makes it tough to reconcile some of what feels like the general idea of Mass Effect from a decade ago with the reality. It’s not nearly as much the hopeful, idealistic conception of the future, in which humanity finds its place among the stars and becomes better for it, as I previously believed. I still enjoy the game’s world and the characters that it brings together, and the way you learn about other cultures, spend time with people of different backgrounds and races, and explore the galaxy. But I wish Mass Effect was more serious about the underlying ideas it espouses of banding together, finding common ground, and appreciating one another’s differences.
Mass Effect’s treatment of everyone who’s not military or in agreement with you makes those ideas feel disingenuous, because as much as it seems to care about unity and diversity, it doesn’t express any trust in other people. And in the era of QAnon, the US capitol riot, and ongoing lies about the rigging of the 2020 US presidential election, Shepard’s side feels like the wrong side to be on.
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