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The Galaxy Is Yours: Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 has problems with its representation of race, gender and ethics.

 This game makes me feel like an interstellar war-leech. I run, I shoot, I do my stealing. I try to like the writing but I hate it. It’s Star Trek Wars, and protagonist Captain Kirk Skywalker does a lot of shooting from behind waist-high cover in between marathons of Star Control II and Babylon 5.

 Nearly every BioWare game’s format is essentially unchanged from their 2003 game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Since then their games have pretty much had the same conversation systems, the familiar game-stopping glitches, those jittery physics and that general flow of walk, talk, make obvious good or bad choices, and then kill. Characters remain the same types of charming murderers who can fit into whatever tropey pigeonholes you want to stuff them. The morality system still works in a contrived and too-comfortable binary.

 One thing BioWare tends to change with each new iteration of Knights of the Old Republic is the core element of many videogames: their combat systems. Since shooting from cover was largely the norm for third-person 3D videogames in 2010, that’s what Mass Effect 2’s combat consists of.

 This in mind, I enter the mind-numbing videogame trance of accruing supplies and experience points. I run down narrow, monochromatic corridors that invariably widen into arenas with waist-high cover, indicating impending gunfights. I’m frequently surrounded by high bluffs funneling me down one-way paths, making the game’s jungles feel like industrial hallways with more work put into them. The fate of the galaxy is somehow at stake in these corridors and arenas where nothing changes as much as the wallpaper.

 The game has auto-targeted an explosive crate near some waist-high 
cover on this catwalk. Chance of an enemy ambush? One-hundred percent.

 If you play Mass Effect 2 on a computer with one of those keyboards people like to use, you’ll probably press the spacebar a lot. You talk and steal with it. You get behind cover with it. You hold the spacebar down to run and use the mouse to orient yourself. While you look around, the game automatically locks on to things you can steal, talk to or open, even if they’re behind walls. Because of this, you’ll often be informed of what is around a corner before you see it. The lock-on is visualized with four corner brackets, and your character will sometimes continue looking at what the game has auto-locked on to, even if it’s offscreen, meaning your character will constantly look over their shoulder.

 If you release the spacebar while sprinting and then press it again while near the object the game has locked on to, you can slow down to a lazy jog just in time to steal or open something and keep moving, not really caring where the hiccup in the drudgery came from or what it means. To make sure you’ll have to at least pay attention sometimes, the developers included silly picture-matching mini-games.

 You run into a couple of humans that are looting the bodies of aliens who’ve died of a lab-made plague. You can tell them that stealing from the dead is wrong, which is hilariously hypocritical to have your character say, considering that’s a decent chunk of what you do in Mass Effect 2. You can feign higher morals during dialogue sequences, yet almost every player’s action, should they find dead people piled in front of work desks, is to step over the corpses, hack their computers, and then steal their money. That might have helped their families, but fuck ’em. You’re more important.

You get Good Person or Bad Person Points depending on what you say throughout the game, and the Good Person Choices are highlighted in blue and placed above the Bad Choices, which are highlighted in red. This is so you will never make a choice without knowing what you’ll get in return. It removes all tension and risk from conversations. It's something unique, weird and ultimately stupid about videogames—the colorized moral poles in Mass Effect 2 and the highlighted Good and Bad Choices are pretty much there to save time so you won't have to load a previous save to get the right color of points you want. You don't want to accidentally be nice when you were trying to be an asshole. It also insults how socially conscious the player is, because apparently we need to be informed beforehand that punching a reporter is maybe not one of the milestones on the way to sainthood.

The game is quick to give you Bad Person Points for picking dialogue options the developers frown upon, but is tellingly silent when you participate in its other systems. And you steal from corpses throughout the game, which is the only way to attain certain permanent equipment upgrades. You don’t just steal from mercenaries or space terrors who were out to kill you and would do the same to you; you pillage homes under the pretense of saving people’s lives. You can walk in on a massacre in a shopping area and steal from the corpses of shoppers. You can help a friend find her father amidst yet another massacre while you root through the belongings of his dead colleagues.

 “Loot” is as common a verb in videogames as the word “jump” is. Another common verb is “kill”. You kill a lot in Mass Effect 2, meaning you have to play an unfinished version of Gears of War where you use the Force powers from Star Wars. You run a three-person squad out of a pool of nearly a dozen crewmates, and you all murder hundreds of people who clown-car out of dead-end rooms. When you kill someone, your teammates sometimes say fucked-up things, as if they get off on killing and think it’s hilarious fun. You and your team of super-killers come off as a bunch of semi-immortal adolescents goofing around, ending life after life with one-liner after one-liner before your one big serious mission where you all might actually die forever.

 Cutscenes jump around or abruptly end sometimes, breaking the rhythm of story beats. After cutscenes end, the camera returns behind your back as your squad automatically draws their weapons. The cutscene might’ve shown you viewing a computer terminal, so when it ends you draw your guns and aim them point-blank at computers or walls for no reason. Sometimes your team draws their weapons again after they’ve already had them drawn in a cutscene. Oops.

 Many of the missions in this forty-hour funeral procession become tediously rote, with gimmicks to distract you from the fact that you’re always shooting from cover, running to something the game auto-locked on to a hundred feet away, pressing the spacebar, and then watching a cutscene. This results in the developers making several hilarious attempts to change things up, like including a planet covered in a yellow-green fart haze that makes the foggy jungle level from Rare’s GoldenEye 007 seem technically superior.

 One area of the game that particularly bothers me is the planet Aeia, where a ship crashes and the crew is left to create a society by themselves before they’re discovered ten years later. It’s a tried-and-true science-fiction situation where a group of interstellar explorers crash-land on an alien planet. In more unimaginative science-fiction the explorers usually revert to more primal behavior. For reference as to how old this idea is: it’s the plot of several Twilight Zone episodes, and even that show was adapting old material. This homage to bygone science-fiction stories is acknowledged in the fact that the crashed ship is named after Hugo Gernsback, the man most responsible for the first science-fiction magazine.

 When the Gernsback crashes, the captain’s second-in-command takes over after the captain dies. The former second-in-command is the father of Jacob Taylor, a member of your crew. Unprepared for leadership, Jacob’s father becomes an asshole, forcing everyone to eat the alien plant life, which causes “neural degeneration”, and keeps all the ship’s rations for himself. Jacob is disgusted by his father’s actions, and the game makes a big deal out of the moral implications of the situation. This makes it all the more ridiculous if you manage to land a headshot on one of the mentally ill men that attack you, which causes Jacob to shout, “Right between the eyes!” with an intonation of glee.

 Videogames.

 The “neural degeneration” the crewmembers suffer from causes the men to become aggressive and rebel, while the women become docile and easily manipulated. Jacob’s father has most of his men exiled or killed. Women are assigned to high-ranking officers like property, creating a harem, which the game acknowledges is fucked-up.

 While Mass Effect 2’s developers definitely exerted effort to say that forcing women into sex slavery is wrong—I don’t want to think about the kinds of persons who would say otherwise—their ideas for the Planet Aeia section clearly hinged on supposed “biological truths” about gender.

 Once deprived of much of their brain functioning, Mass Effect 2 shows all of the human men on the crew becoming aggressive hunter-gatherers and attacking everything outside of their group. The crew’s women become childlike and scared and fragile, passively accepting whatever happens to them. This is depicted in Mass Effect 2 as something inherent to women and men, which, in a game where you explore the far reaches of the galaxy, you’d think BioWare would be a lot more open-minded about gender.

 Speaking of which, Mass Effect 2 has a whole species of blue women, the Asari, who bother the hell out of me. One Asari character in the first Mass Effect says they’re neither man nor woman, effectively making their gender identities nonbinary. The Asari only have a monogender on their planet. What bothers me is an Asari character claims they’re genderless in one or two sentences, but their entire species are unremittingly referred to as women throughout the rest of the game, even on the fourth-wall-breaking developer-written lore on the options screen. It reminds me of a problem many nonbinary people face, where their identity is not respected and others refer to them as whatever they please.

 Supposedly, the Asari had no idea what women were before they met other species, but then, why do they have three stages of life that are named with feminine nouns—the Maiden stage, the Matron stage, and the Matriarch stage? It conflicts heavily with the game’s established writing: in theory, the Asari saw themselves as genderless but the rest of the galaxy did not; in execution, the Asari, apparently, have always referred to themselves as women. It makes no sense. Mass Effect 2’s writers didn’t consider things carefully enough, and the limits of their imagination disrupt my own. 

Perhaps most damning about the depiction of the Asari is that characters throughout the game repeatedly stress that the Asari can mate with any species, as if that’s one of their primary functions. The Asari serve as an alien analogue for an entire gender, since Mass Effect 2 is a game where almost every alien species you meet consists of nothing but men. Or, at the very least, all the women stay at home. Making an entire species of sexy blue alien women when such discrepancies exist in the game’s gender representation only alienates and others women further. Out of seeming desperation to plant asterisks, the writers go out of their way to make aliens talk about the women of their species and where they are, but you never meet any women aliens besides the Quarians, who are conveniently sealed in hermetic suits, and a dead female Krogan obscured by a veil.

Men come first, no matter the species. Women? They're their own species.

The Asari are basically Mission Vao from Knights of the Old Republic made into an entire species. In the first Mass Effect’s official artbook, there exists a developer note admitting the Asari were designed to resemble Star Trek’s green alien women.

 Predictably, ethnic differences among humans in Mass Effect 2 are almost entirely ignored in favor of fictional species serving as safe stand-ins. For instance, Mass Effect’s itinerant species, the Quarians, are obviously based on the Romani people. BioWare’s portrayal of the prejudice the Quarians face may make the game’s authors seem sympathetic, but it effectively erases the Romani people from Mass Effect’s universe. The Romani people are transplanted from real-life into a fictional alien species and we never see nor hear of them in the game.

 Addressing racism with aliens as stand-ins for certain ethnicities has long been some kind of ideal in science-fiction that is rarely actualized. Prejudice in science-fiction is almost always defanged and safely focused on a fantasy species. Coding alien species as real-life ethnicities comes off as a kids-gloves way of dealing with racism, as well as appropriating the struggles and cultures of real people and othering them in order to enrich fictional universes. When you introduce different anthropomorphic alien species into fiction, gender differences between characters remain and are exploited by writers, but human society, as is usually depicted in fiction, somehow magically becomes post-racial.

 Of the most prominent Persons of Color in Mass Effect 2, there are only three. Of these three, two are shown harboring prejudices toward aliens if you dig deeply enough. The rest of humanity, according to Mass Effect, is mostly White people.

 No matter what you make your protagonist look like, Mass Effect’s story is told from a White perspective. Analogues for real-world people and cultures seen by White Westerners as foreign or exotic become the aliens of Mass Effect. Of course, the default protagonist for Mass Effect’s character-creation screens is a White man, just like in other popular games like Fallout and Dark Souls, as well as countless others. And no matter what gender you pick, a White person is always the default.

 I want to talk about Mass Effect 2’s “galaxy map”. It’s how you get around from planet to planet. Every planet and solar system resembles a node-based checklist with percentages of completion next to them, making space exploration feel rote and like you’re filling quotas. You point and click a spot on the map and your spaceship flies there, overshooting where you clicked, so you have to remember to compensate. If you’re flying between solar systems, overshooting your destination causes you to waste a few tons of fuel. I suppose the developers tried to give a sense of kinetic energy to the interface, which is so sterile and abstract it lets you fly through stars and planets without dying. By giving you limited fuel and chemical elements along with the possibility of wasting them, the developers at least try to emphasize that resources are precious, but the attempts seem token and peripheral.

 You encounter a gunnery chief on the Citadel who tells his recruits how important it is to respect the precision of space technology and use it accordingly, and how doing things manually, or “eyeballing it”, is often dangerous. It’s weird, then, that your protagonist does so many things manually without much consequence, like flying a spaceship with shitty brakes. 

The galaxy gets a bit overcrowded with name tags.

 You can select the option to orbit a planet on the galaxy map, which requires basic knowledge of how DVD menus work. Once you orbit a planet, it becomes apparent that you’re an explorer in the sense that Christopher Columbus was an explorer. Meaning you steal resources and murder everyone that gets in your way.

 When orbiting a planet, you can scan it by right-clicking the mouse and roving your gun-like crosshairs across the sphere, watching for jumps in waveform patterns on a nearby green graph that resembles Guitar Hero fretboards. When the waveform spikes drastically, left-click to launch a probe. The probe then beams whatever resources it discovers directly to your ship. It’s a violent sort of feeling when you launch a probe, like a gunshot or missile going off and hitting the planet, with an orange circle indicating the point of impact. A green holographic flag sprouts from where you shot the probe, commemorating your conquest.

 An indicator shows the planet’s remaining minerals just above the waveform graph; if a planet is plentiful, it starts at “Rich”, eventually goes down to “Poor”, and then finally becomes “Depleted”. Sometimes you can read an extended history of a planet and how its inhabitants have suffered before you rob it of its riches. When you read a planet’s history, there are occasional mentions of resource exploitation, but nothing is done with it. An underlying function of the planetary histories is to explain how much a planet has for the taking—the only way the words apply to you. It’s all flavor text anyway, since most of the game’s planets exist as places to be looted and as containers where you commit massacres.

 You’re never implicated or questioned for what you do; you’re above it all. No character is ever wise enough to comment on what’s happening; their concerns never extend beyond their stations. Your exploring of planets purely to profit from what they have goes unexplored. So much of what you do in Mass Effect to defend your part of the galaxy is completely unnecessary. This affected my views of the rest of the game, where other glaring questions are glossed over for the sake of turn-off-your-brain entertainment.

 So many videogames require the player to behave like a colonialist; to conquer, to pillage, to massacre. Mass Effect 2 mentions “colonizing”, but no one ever comments on colonialism or its casualties beyond dispassionate statistical readouts from optional lore dumps. It’s not explored as a theme. You take part in facets of colonialism but are never implicated. It’s never adequately addressed. The ethics of what your protagonist does is buffered by grids and graphs and holograms, cushioned enough by the abstraction of pop-ups, menus and numbers so that actions seem sufficiently superficial, so that no sensibilities might be affected.

 Mass Effect 2 depicts a space-age colonialism where you don’t have to necessarily inhabit a space with the places you’re exploiting. You can fly overhead and just jam a straw in a planet, sucking it dry of all the things you want. The people living there are colonists anyway, right? It’s every asshole for themselves in this galaxy. You’re just getting to the point: resources. Never mind whatever life may develop or is developing there; they won’t need it.

 Your goal, in the end, is to use the resources you take from planets so you can make stuff in order to kill better.

 And if you play Mass Effect 2 with a mouse, scanning planets for resources is oddly intimate. Each circular rub of the mouse across the mousepad rotates each planet accordingly on its axis, evoking distasteful but potentially insightful thoughts. It reminded me of an ultrasound, of rubbing the belly of each pregnant planet before plunging a probe into it and harvesting the baby-meats so I could make a better sniper rifle.

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