Mass Effect, its universe and everything in it

I came across this article (also on i09) at PopBioethics, by Kyle Munkittrick, claiming that Mass Effect is the most important science fiction universe of this generation. In any day and age, this would be a bold claim, but we are not exactly in a creative doldrum in the science fiction circles of movies, TV, video games or print.

Simply put, his argument is outlandish, overdone and uninformed. It reveals an ignorance of science fiction past and present and possibly ignorance of video games. I suspect that he came off an epic Mass Effect playing binge, aglow with adoration, and wrote this valentine to what may be his first science fiction love.

The Outlandish Claim

He says that Mass Effect has constructed the most important universe in science fiction ever. His thesis boils down to this:

Mass Effect matters because of its ability to reflect on our society as a whole.

By virtue of three simple traits – its medium, its message, and its philosophy – Mass Effect eclipses and engulfs all of science fiction’s greatest universes.

Medium

The video game backing of the story allows it to bring a plethora of aliens and settings that require a lot of work in print, movies and TV, and allows for a different kind of world-building. It’s not humans in rubber masks. The character customization of Commander Shepard allows the player to break out of the usual heterosexual white male trope. The player’s decision-making materially changes the game and the story, and the dialog choices invest the player in the story emotionally.

Message

The message is that humans not only don’t matter in the universe, but they are delusional that they matter or should play much of a role. Humans are a minor species amongst tons of others that have been kicking around the galaxy for a very long time and don’t much care for Earth’s hairless chimps and think little of them.

Philosophy

In the Mass Effect universe, life has no meaning. Omnipotent super-beings raise up intelligent life to squash it flat with extreme prejudice in an endless cycle, and the game questions why anyone should fight for a meaningless existence in such a hostile universe. There are a variety of new and innovative aliens and entities whose backstories and characterization push the bounds of previous SF discussions and reflect elements of this overarching philosophical theme. The Reapers, Collectors and Keepers are all enslaved foot soldiers of a Lovecraftian god who really hates all intelligent life, including the puny humans.

Kyle ends with:

The value of Mass Effect as a science fiction universe is that it is a critical starting point for discussion about the purpose of humanity in a materialistic universe.

The Rebuttal

The medium limits the universe

The gushing about the medium reveals ignorance about video games in general. Customizing the character and his/her party is not new in role-playing games, and like in most RPG’s it doesn’t affect the story much. And note that, in this ‘rich’ multi-species world, you must play a human. (That choosing to be a female or homosexual human seems ground-breaking in science fiction suggests a sizable amount of ignorance about the genre in print, movies, TV and yes, ignorance about video games in general.) The medium is what demands the human-only choice, just one of many ways that the medium is an obstacle to making this the best universe evar.

Technically, Mass Effect resembles earlier Bioware games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic I and II. Yes, the dialog wheel is neat but the dialog itself is mostly lifeless exposition. And voice-acting the dialog doesn’t help when it doesn’t really build much characterization: quick, remind me of all those memorable Mass Effect quotes. The video game medium could allow for a much richer, variable universe, (like Galactic Civilizations) but it is limited here to move along a linear story, which is fine because…

It’s an action-adventure game. That is what people expected and Bioware delivered: it’s a heck of an action-adventure game. The limited nature of the action-adventure game genre requires a certain level of generic comfort on which to build the adventure part. Note that this means that Kyle’s entire thesis dies on the point that Shepard, that member of that insignificant human minority, keeps saving the universe because the universe keeps turning to him to do it. He ain’t no Jawa.

The message is all old tropes

To continue with the ‘been there, done that so long ago, the t-shirt has holes in it’ theme, there are several ancient science fiction tropes about aliens that this game hits hard. (not that there’s anything wrong with that):

  1. They are thin disguises for current differences within humanity (race, ideology, gender, culture, morality)
  2. They put humans in their place
  3. The humans are united (no different factions, splinter groups, belief systems, etc.)
  4. The aliens are one-dimensional

The minority status of the humans is not new, even in Star Trek and Star Wars which he cites so often, but even less new if you consider the entire span of science fiction. Shepard doesn’t even have his planet blown up to make room for a galactic highway bypass, for Q’s sake. It’s okay to use this schtick, but it’s not okay to pretend this is a leg up on other science fiction.

Most alien encounter stories put humans through the ‘learn your place, we know/are better than you’ routine. Or they provide an educational moment where humans learn that they have more in common with the aliens than differences. The aliens kick humanity’s butt for a big chunk of the storyline, either militarily or philosophically. And yet the underdog humans somehow win. Just. Like. Shepard. The game doesn’t undermine pride in being human – it elevates it to a crusade – but somehow misses the magic moment where we’re rooting for Randy Quaid in a F-16.

It has the usual one-dimensional alien races too. Yes, they have a backstory, but does each species have schisms, races, prejudices and differences within itself that materially affects the story? Do the Geth argue about how much to tip the waitress based on deep-seated differences within their culture? No, they are cardboard, meant to represent a single idea or concept.

Also cardboard are the Reaper/Collector/Trapper-Keepers and the Lovecraftian, nihilist gods who twist their omnipotent mustaches in a typically boring way. His contention that the game is breaking new ground here is odd given his comparisons to Star Trek (Q‘s thesis is the same – humans are unprepared pipsqueaks – and it is the entire narrative arc of TNG).

Does this game do any of it better though, to engulf all other universes in its awesomeness? No. The tech’s thought-provoking potential pales in comparison to early Charlie Stross. The universe is not as deep or lived in like as Star Wars or Blade Runner (the Citadel is like a sterile airport terminal). It doesn’t challenge morals like Heinlein or LeGuin. The aliens are meh, nothing truly original – they are bipeds of about human height, all wear clothes, etc. It’s serviceable, but not memorable. Batman: Arkham City, Grand Theft Auto IV and Heavy Rain all create much more memorable and engaging video game universes (and two of those are arguably science fiction games).

What philosophy?

Kyle argues that other science fiction has shied away from the meaningless of life in their own universes, but not Mass Effect. Huh? I thought the game was about Shepard and his commandos taking down angry gods, which is a clearly defined purpose. Is there some existential navel-gazing that I missed? This seems to contradict his praise of the dialog wheel because you could build a character and believe in their story. In fact, creating a video game about a senseless and meaningless universe would seem to be a very short-sighted move on the part of a game designer. Even Plants vs. Zombies goes out of its way to remind you that stopping the zombies matters. Kyle’s gushing seems to get furthest off-base on this point.

The backstory about intelligent life in infinite space-time, which Kyle hangs his argument on, is paper-thin. Why would these lifeforms care at all about any of what goes on in the universe at the sentient biped level? Infinite space-time creatures’ major preoccupation would be preventing the seemingly imminent heat-death of the universe. The entire history of all the mortal civilizations would pass by unnoticed while they contemplated entropy. God, Douglas Adams parodied this kind of stuff a generation ago. The answer is 42. This isn’t new ground, this is a familiar old playground we could run around in blindfolded. And it ain’t taking anything to a new level.

But is it better than everything else?

To claim that something is better than what has come before requires you to show how it does so, or at least know what you are labelling as inferior. Citing two TV/movie franchises as proof (and weak proof at best) doesn’t cut it. If you want deep science fiction with well-constructed universes, go read the novels and short stories of the many excellent science fiction writers past and present. Go watch Battlestar Galactica or Person of Interest or District 9 or The Adjustment Bureau. You’ll learn that Mass Effect is only an action-adventure game, at best a gateway to science fiction, but not even close to being the pinnacle of it.

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