Forget Andromeda. It’s the second instalment of the original Mass Effect trilogy that matters right now.
It’s hard to repress a shiver when staring at an icy landscape, even if it is fictional. The world of Alchera is silent and lifeless. My character is the only life form on a ground littered with wreckage from a spaceship. The assignment for the journal is to collect dog tags of those who died. It’s rare that a game can elicit a feeling of anger at a waste of life. It is just a game – but one, that after nearly eight years, is at its most powerful.
One of the biggest gaming talking points of 2017 was Mass Effect: Andromeda and whether it lived up to the promise of the original trilogy. The jury is still out on that one (although it must be remembered that it wasn’t until the second instalment when the original trilogy first truly made its mark), but the reason the original series endures isn’t just because of its epic tale – but because the story is more politically relevant than ever. This is particularly true of Mass Effect 2 which is regarded by some as one of the best games ever.
The game itself was immensely fun but it arguably put a curse on the series; the two subsequent games have failed to match the stunning surprise that was Mass Effect 2. It was the Reaper war game that everyone thought would deliver, not the in between game that barely had a plot. Yet, it did work, and its legacy endures because we’re wrestling with the questions it poses right now.
“Its legacy endures, because we’re wrestling with the questions it poses right now”
Mass Effect 2 asked more contentious moral questions than its predecessor, and went out of its way to provoke the audience. For those who have never played, the appeal of Mass Effect is the moral choice system that sees each decision leading to serious consequences both militarily and personally. Entire planets and populations are at stake, as are the lives of your character’s friends. The series can be played almost endlessly because of the sheer volume of choices with each action and conversation. With Mass Effect 2 though, the rose-tinted idealism of the first game had been destroyed. This wasn’t about chasing victory and admiration. It was just about hoping that humanity could survive. What players got was the most radical, politically charged game of the lot.
The epic sci-fi adventure starts with two strangers who are revealed to be part of a radical terrorist organisation, Cerberus, discussing how the Alliance and the Council are ignoring the Reapers who are waiting in the shadows to destroy the entire galaxy. The hero, Commander Shepard, is then murdered at the hands of Reaper forces while the Council continued to ignore his/her pleas to start taking action. Shepard is resurrected by Cerberus, and so must abandon the forces of good that the Alliance and Council claim to represent. Shepard must work instead with an illegal organisation that have been prepared to commit murder in the name of furthering equality, as they’re the only ones wanting to challenge the Reapers.
The Reapers waiting in dark space, making use of indoctrinated individuals to develop their power-base while the establishment do nothing, sounds so staggeringly familiar that it’s amazing that this game is eight years old and wasn’t just released within the last couple of years. Mass Effect 2 was released half way through Obama’s tenure, and before we even had a Coalition Government in the UK (on most platforms). This was pre-Trump, pre-Brexit, and even pre-austerity. Times were dark with the economic downturn, but there was still some hope in decency. The last two years or so have utterly destroyed that illusion as neo-Nazis have continued to gain traction and have become normalised. There is also now a white supremacist who occupies the White House. Since the US election, there have been endless discussions about how far we should go to oppose something we cannot abide. Do we punch Nazis? Do we ban freedom of speech? Mass Effect 2 took away the most significant choice – in a series where decision making was at the forefront – because the player had to do everything to stop the Reapers. Shepard had to work with Cerberus, whatever the moral implications. Bioware understood that having Shepard do nothing wasn’t an option. Shepard could still choose to be a paragon in an organisation widely regarded with distrust but he/she still had to join them. Shepard couldn’t just stay with the Alliance. Opposition was everything. If only society could understand that, instead of looking around weakly like the Citadel Council then we might not be where we are today.
Every scene was carefully crafted for maximum impact, including in the DLCs. Nothing is more poignant than watching the resurrected Shepard navigate the icy terrain, with the slain Normandy ship scattered all over the landscape, collecting the dog tags of those who had died while the Alliance and Council still do almost nothing to prepare against the very threat that killed them in the first place. Shepard’s mission to collect the tags may be Alliance business, but so too is his/her work with Cerberus; for the fate of the galaxy should never have been left up to a small group of committed fighters to stand up. For even working towards hindering the Reapers efforts to destroy the galaxy, Shepard will be put on trial and grounded by the Alliance in Mass Effect 3.
“The fate of the galaxy should never have been left up to a small group of committed fighters to stand up”
All of Shepard’s squad-mates present emotional and moral conflicts too. There’s the Justicar who has taken such an absolutist code of honour, she is compelled to kill her own daughter who is a mass murderer. There is the dying assassin who shrugs off responsibility for what he has done as he sees himself as a weapon that has been wielded by others. There is the former Alliance soldier that came before Shepard, who grew frustrated that the establishment weren’t doing anything and so defected to Cerberus, and acquired the label of ‘terrorist’. There is the thief who isn’t committed to the cause, but does a deal to work against the Reapers so she can get her own personal prize. There is the survivor of abuse, living on fury and vengeance but who does want to live. Then there is the doctor responsible for sterilising an entire population because simulations showed that the Krogans would rise up and risk the fate of the galaxy. Shepard must reconcile working with every one of them.
All of the characters are given vast complexities, and the fabric of their identities, stories and the history of the galaxy is explored deeply. Shepard can be disgusted, or can even agree with the all-costs approach some have gone to, but ultimately, knows that working with them is the only way to stop the entire galaxy from being destroyed.
There are little scraps of subversion too, as though the creators were intent about challenging the audience at every corner. Miranda Lawson seemed crafted for the male gaze, and yet, she is utterly unimpressed by Shepard at first, is not remotely bothered about seeking approval (to the point where many fans hold her in contempt) and her outfit is actually a punchline by other characters, but Lawson doesn’t flinch. Her outfit can be changed, but the point is that women are allowed to be revealing or choose not to be. Kasumi covers her face in a headscarf but is no less empowered. Jack basically wears a belt over her chest (this too can be changed) but nor is she less empowered. In fact, Jack can use her sexuality in a far more casual manner than anyone else, and leave behind Shepard easily. Miranda isn’t presented as ridiculous. She just wears a tighter outfit, but it doesn’t come off that she’s at all subjected as a character in any scenes, although there is the odd pointless gratuitous shot. There is a debate to be had about sexualisation, but even on a topic that is usually so obvious in games, Mass Effect sought to challenge and look at things in a deeper way. Is it about sexualisation, or is this a character embracing her sexuality? Or both? Is it about us the audience, or about the creators? Or, again, both? Maybe we’re not supposed to know, but we are supposed to keep asking, to keep digging and to keep challenging ourselves.
“We are supposed to keep asking, to keep digging and to keep challenging ourselves”
Shepard is faced with regrets for the allegiance to Cerberus. The Illusive Man will go to disgusting lengths, but he will actually do something. Shepard must constantly navigate his/her team around moral minefields to ensure that they don’t go too far but that they are still doing enough. Doing nothing would allow the darkness in, but going too far or choosing poorly can get quite a death count.
2010 seemed like such a more innocent time in hindsight, but Mass Effect 2 was posing a question that transcends time and yet has never been more relevant – what do you choose when there’s only ever a bad choice or doing nothing? All of the heroes of the story, good, bad, in between, were willing to risk their lives in a mission to try to setback the Reapers – not even destroy them – while the galaxy looked the other way, and enjoyed the façade of peace. Shepard’s team flew into the gates of hell anyway, with no backup and with nobody to care, because it was still the right thing to do.
Replaying the game now, it feels different as the years have gone by. The alt-right might not be Reapers (although the monstrous synthetics are closer to billionaire capitalists manipulating arms sales and the media), but so many of the moral debates embedded within every level feel relevant now. Shepard is the radical bi fighting alongside other activists across the galaxy on a threat the powerful just aren’t paying attention to. It’s why Mass Effect 2 is now a classic. Andromeda does provoke, but we’ve yet to see if it’s ahead of its time quite like the second game was. If anything shows games should be taken more seriously, it’s this.