To the best fandom out there!
To the best fandom out there!
Something that I always thought was weird about Mass Effect- it makes me nostalgic for the years that the game was made. This wouldn’t be weird, but I didn’t play the games back then, I didn’t start to play Mass Effect until 2014-15, and the trilogy had already been out for a while up to that point. So why does playing through the games make me nostalgic for 2010?
I’ve finally figured it out- Mass Effect is a product of its time. It won’t be a timeless classic in the sense that some works are, and that’s, ironically, a good thing.
Science fiction reflects the zeitgeist of the time in which it was created. Brave New World wasn’t just a creative piece of fiction; it was an exploration of how industrialization and scientific advancement was going to change societal structures. 1984 reflected the fear of oppressive forms of government at a time when fascism and communism were very visible threats to liberal capitalist democracies. Starship Troopers reflected the dissonance between the military pride of the WWII generation with the anti-war sentiment of the Boomers.
Even Star Trek, with its rubber forehead aliens and technobabble, was really just a commercial for Gene Roddenberry’s political views, with some of the later seasons of the spinoffs challenging those views- poignantly showing the changing culture of the 90s compared to the 60s. (As a point of comparison that proves my point, look at Star Wars- ultimately just a modern day myth, and ultimately not science fiction at all, but rather fantasy set in space).
Point is, science fiction tells us about ourselves, and that’s what makes it so interesting to examine old science fiction. Even when the setting is the future, it tells us about the hopes and fears of the people of the past.
So what will Mass Effect tell future generations about the late 00s- early 10s? I’ve got a few ideas.
Mass Effect taps into the contradictory nature of how we interpret technology in our lives. This is still true today, but some of you who are younger may not realize how drastically technology was changing our day to day routines during that time. When ME1 came out, I had a cell phone capable of making phone calls, and I didn’t even use it to text. By the time of ME3, I was routinely using it to send and receive emails and text, browse the Internet, use social media, etc. Techology was changing rapidly, and there was, deep down, a mixture of fear and promise in that.
The promise side of things was reflected in the Mass Effect itself. The series has, woven throughout, the idea that if we can just discover the right combination of solutions, we can solve our problems. Sure, the world of Mass Effect is not perfect, but it’s getting better as people learn more and explore more.
The fear side, however, was reflected by the Reapers. The Repears are technological, and fundamentally want to turn humans into something non-human through technological means. The Repears represent the fear that the rapid introduction of new technologies is changing us in ways totally unknown to us. Indoctrination itself is the key example- the fear that merely by being exposed to technology, we may lose who we are and not even realize it.
A key point in Mass Effect is that the problems facing the galaxy are not able to be solved by one race alone, but only by working together.
The batarians try to go it alone- and they are utterly destroyed. The Protheans tried to force everyone to help them- for the good of the Protheans, and they were destroyed. Only Shepard can hope to succeed, and he does so by forging mutually beneficial alliances.
Starting around the time Mass Effect was released, people started to realize that the problems of the 21st century couldn’t be solved without some sort of a global approach. Climate change, global terrorism, the 2008 financial crisis- all were/are problems facing everyone, and everyone is required to own the solution. The Reaper War, and Shep’s alliance building- whether the Paragon “all-for-one-one-for-all” attitude or the Renegade teeth clenched teamwork- reflects that.
In a similar vein to my last point, Mass Effect gives a very pointed critique of nationalism. In ME2, Cerberus might appear to have all the answers, but by ME3, it’s clear that they do not.
There is, currently, a sort of surge of nationalism around the globe. I don’t want to get too political, but I believe that Mass Effect predicted that before it happened. Many political theorists were predicting that at the time, and Cereberus makes a great straw man for nationalism (and I mean that in a good way; a straw man isn’t inherently bad in this context). It’s almost as if the writers are arguing that nationalism might appear good on the surface, but deep down they are only exacerbating the problems that, as previously noted, will require global responses to solve.
Each race in Mass Effect is introduced in a very stereotyped way. The turians are all military types, the Asari are all either promiscuous or wise advisors, the krogan are all tough mercs. Almost immediately, these stereotypes get broken to pieces. Garrus is a cowboy cop, Liara is basically a grad student, Wrex is a great leader building for the future once he starts to care. Basically, Mass Effect is tapping into the fact that, luckily, racism is dying out in the West. Sure, there’s still racism, but the situation is better now than it used to be. Science fiction in general is able to do well at things like this.
By substituting aliens for races, it gives writers more flexibility to explore controversial subject. No one in their right mind would ever choose to sterilize an entire human ethnicity because they might start a war. If the Allies had suggested sterilizing all Germans to avoid WWIII, everyone reading this would be against it. But when it happens to the fictional krogan, it suddenly becomes a dilemma, and therefore makes for good philosophical debate.
Andromeda did not do so well. There were some things it did well, and I’ve been less harsh on it than most. In fact, I vehemently believe we need an Andromeda sequel.
One thing Andromeda failed to do, however, was to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Andromeda’s core ideas are a century out of date.
The Andromeda Initiative represents a benign sort of imperialism. This contrasts with the kett’s malicious imperialism. The idea is that there is a type of imperialism that can benefit everyone.
The fact is, this benign imperialism has been tried before, in real life. And, in general, it’s safe to say that it was not well recieved. I know it’s not the same thing to compare the Initiative’s relationship with the angara with, say, the French in Algeria, but I would fully expect that sort of exploration of the subject if we ever get a sequel.
White savior myth, in space-
The white savior myth is a very outdated literary form that still manages to worm its way into media today (usually in movies about white teachers teaching inner city children). The driving plot line here is that there is a problem facing some non-white group, and a white person must come in and not only solve the problem, but also teach the poor savages to be civilized. These sorts of stories are basically dramatized versions of Kipling’s “white man’s burden,” and are rooted in extremely outdated ideas of how civilization functions.
“But wait,” you may object. “It’s not about white people, the Initiative has all races plus aliens. Ryder can be any race.” That misses the point. The point is still that some group of outsiders have to come in and solve a problem for a less technologically advanced group. This places it firmly into this genre.
I would have no problem with this if it were in any way adding something to the overall understanding of civilization. But Andromeda appears to contribute nothing new to this very outdated genre. It would be passable if, for example, the angara refused help from the Initiative, of it the two maintained an official distance from each other while working together on key points. But we don’t get any sort of nuance like that. Just another story where an analogue for Europeans have to civilize another “other.”
I’m not saying that that’s why Andromeda failed, but I am saying that it didn’t help. The trilogy was very easy to relate to, precisely because it tapped into the zeitgeist of the time. By not doing that, Andromeda likely alienated a major part of its target audience, even if that audience couldn’t articulate it at the time.
If we ever get an Andromeda sequel, I hope they break those paradigms down. It would be great to explore those ideas by seeing them not play out well in the long run. I think that that may actually salvage Andromeda in the long run.
At least this is how I see it.
Mass Effect X-Play
I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic this week, so I found X-play’s reviews of the Mass Effect series. I used to watch this show all the time, and I’m sure some of you can relate. All three games of the trilogy were reviewed by Adam Sessler and all were give 5/5.
For those of you who didn’t, or who are too young to have watched this, suffice it to say- the show was awesome in its day.
For those who don’t know, the show started off as Extended Play and was one of the first shows about video games. This was a big deal when it started, since YouTube didn’t exist yet, and game review magazines couldn’t show footage from the game. The name was changed to X-Play and it became one of two of TechTV’s shows to actually survive their merger with G4. It was so influential that the last thing G4 showed before shutting down was an old episode of X-Play.
ME1- XBox version:
Note: included some features not in the final release
ME1- PC version:
Note: I have heard that this was the last review Sessler wrote before leaving the show. Not sure if that’s true, but I want to believe it.
Sessler’s take on the Fox News scandal:
Note: I posted a video about this recently, and Sessler’s response is nothing short of savage. If you watch nothing else here, watch this one