OROur species will end one day. Whether from our own arrogance, the disastrous effects of rampant wealth accumulation and social division, war, climate crisis, plague, a space rock, or perhaps hostile aliens, one day we will be dust caught in the cosmic winds, lost in an indifferent universe. At our pale blue dot, the remnants of once great civilizations and vanished peoples that we unearthed already show us that advanced development is no guarantee of perpetuity.
In science fiction, humanity’s naive longing to keep fighting despite this discovery often demonstrates a point of curiosity, and sometimes inspiration, for alien species. This is the front and center of the Mass Effect video game trilogy, in which our impending annihilation takes shape in the tendrils of creatures called Reapers – ancient building-sized robot-alien hybrids that wipe out most of life in the Milky Way every day. 50,000 years.
Originally released between 2007 and 2012, the games were reissued this year as Mass Effect Legendary Edition, an updated complete trilogy, and there is a compelling case that they are among the best sci-fi movies ever made. These games tell poignant stories about human courage in the face of cosmic indifference, stories that each player can shape differently through their choices and their relationships with the characters.
Mass Effect is set many hundreds of years in the future, after humanity discovers a device on Mars that allows faster-than-light travel. This leads to finding advanced alien species, which had already formed an interplanetary council to promote stability in a chaotic and disorderly universe. Humanity has become part of this new galactic society, trying to rise through the ranks. By the time players are introduced to the Mass Effect universe, humans have already proven themselves to be somewhat special, moving quickly for these relatively fledgling entities.
The protagonist Commander Shepard, when we first meet her, is on a routine mission that goes awry, beginning her search for a rogue operative. The story of the first game is pretty standard: a badass hunts a badass traitor. But this is only the prologue to larger events, as the traitor turns out to be an avatar of a greater threat. Shepard slowly discovers what happened to the galaxy’s mysteriously vanished advanced civilizations: they were victims of a cycle of extermination, caused by the Reapers, that has lasted for millions of years.
Reapers are giant bodies that house artificial intelligence or, rather, they follow the orders of a central AI, the Catalyst. The reasons for their behavior are no different than any other fictional AI acquisition scenario – they were programmed with a primary goal and they are fulfilling it. Ironically, that goal was “to preserve organic life.” The Catalyst concluded that conflict between organic and artificial life was inevitable and therefore the only way to preserve organic life was to exterminate large portions of it, leaving only enough to allow underdeveloped species to survive.
Shepard is aware that there is no way to stop the Reapers. And yet, despite the inevitability of what lies ahead, she fights and encourages others to fight with her. Facing the monolithic inevitability of cosmic annihilation and giving it the middle finger is wonderfully human.
Faced with this existential threat, Shepard makes connections. Mass Effect is loved for its rich, well-written, and perfectly expressed characters. They are loud and scary; calm and dignified; quirky and super smart. Like Shepard, whose morality is determined by the player’s choices, these characters are never completely good or purely bad. They are not so much shades of gray as a chaotic color palette thrown against the canvas of history, as messy as real people. This is particularly true of Shepard’s squadmates, who don’t necessarily stay with her forever. There is precariousness not only in the state of the galaxy itself, but also in its relationships. They can involve romance, murder, betrayal, deception, and sacrifice.
Think Legion. The potential conflict between artificial intelligence and life is a theme that runs through the entire Mass Effect trilogy, but especially through this story about a robot entity that always refers to itself in the first person plural. Legion is part of a “species” called Geth: a hive mind of artificial intelligence programs that use bipedal bodies to transport themselves across the galaxy. The Geth are wary of the galaxy, but Legion is determined to rectify that by hunting down rogue factions that gave Geth a bad rap.
In the final moments of Mass Effect 3, however, before sacrificing himself to save the galaxy, Legion begins using “I”. It is fully conscious: a singular and conscious entity. It’s a heartbreaking moment because when Legion is truly born, Legion dies. It says a lot that the BioWare writers were able to turn a literal faceless, emotionless robot into such a memorable character.
The ambitious message at the heart of Mass Effect is to get a diverse set of societies, peoples, and entities to work together for the common good. The trilogy culminates when Shepard and his team make everyone work together, for one last great battle: defend Earth from invading Reapers. Alien species that have no real reason to help humans, however, decide to do so.
This year, when everyone has been encouraged to isolate themselves and death has been ubiquitous, experiencing a great community narrative has been satisfying. Mass Effect carefully balances the personal and the political in Shepard’s place in history: helping a humble community encourages a large corporation to send help; Befriending an alien leads the entire civilization of that alien to help humanity. The personal is the political, but it is also the thread that unites various groups.
The storytelling ability to link personal stories into a general narrative on a galactic scale is commendable. The mass army that ends up fighting the Reapers is not made up of faceless soldiers and nondescript spaceships – each combatant reflects the player’s efforts throughout the trilogy. In many space operas, the spaceships are just lifeless shells, firing or being shot down. This is not the case here. Mass Effect, like other great sci-fi creations like Battlestar Galactica, makes even space battles personal.
Like much of science fiction, Mass Effect is about aspiration and connection in the face of an indifferent cosmos. At the same time, it is as cerebral as Star Trek, as hopeful as Asimov, as dramatic as Battlestar Galactica, but since this is a story told through video games, it is also one that we, as gamers, can influence.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism