Games We Dig — Mass Effect Series

Games We Dig is a review-series by VALUE. In every GWD, we explore a videogame or other piece of interactive media by asking what an archaeological, heritage, and historical perspective can bring to the game under review, or  the other way around: how can the playground offered by the game advance method, theory, and (outreach) practices of the disciplines that study the past. In this review Angus “Doc Random” Mol discusses the Mass Effect series, a Roleplaying Game (RPG) set among the stars of the Milkyway. Clearly, the game takes place in mankind’s fictitious future but the game also has something to say about the actual past and, in particular, how we deal with collapse — spoiler: in general, quite poorly.

What is Mass Effect?

Bioware’s Mass Effect-series is a high watermark in the RPG genre. Still, I decided not to play the most recent game in the series, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and it is unlikely I ever will. The same can be said for many other people, as the critiques were very underwhelming for the game press, and terrible from the gaming community, especially in the light of the great reviews of the previous games. The IP even seems to have been put on ice for now. It is a twisted sort of poetry that a series that is fundamentally about collapse has now buckled under its own weight. Instead, I played the third installment of the series: Mass Effect 3.

A brief introduction is in order for those who have not heard of this game. Mass Effect is an epic space opera, both in terms of the time it will take you to play to the end of the games as well as in their scope: to save everybody from certain death. In Mass Effect, the concept of everybody extends well beyond the human race. Earth and its denizens are just one of the bites in this Milky Way-sized smorgasbord of alien races. From the positively brutish yet somehow loveable Krogan to the most well-spoken jellyfish I ever had the pleasure to meet, every single denizen of the Mass Effect Milky Way is deserving of protection by the protagonist, Commander Shepard.

Generally speaking, the game’s mechanics are nothing to get too excited about, smoothish cover-based shooting, light RPG elements, and quite boring resource collection. Instead, Mass Effect’s success lies in the broad appeal of its world and the characters in it. Captain Shepard herself is a very relatable character yet like all great heroes, she has something to set her apart from the crowd: an iron resolve. The same “recognizable yet not from the cookie cutter” aspect applies to the many locations you get to visit as a player and the quests you get to play through. The absolute stand-out aspect of the game is the deep and personal relations you get to develop with the crew of the SSV Normandy, the ship that Shepard is the commander of. Through their stories the games facilitate an easy landing into a potentially complicated political and cultural structure. The result is you soon feel at home in the alien galaxy that you are about to save.

All of this is threatened by the pending arrival of the Reapers, an ancient and highly advanced race of tower-sized Artificial Intelligences. They make a  habit of pushing the reset button on the Milky Way every ten thousand years or so, because they have a distinct  distaste for the disorder caused by organic, intelligent life. As an aside, I already briefly discussed the trope of ancient but advanced cultures that have no real historical analogue in a recent GWD on Skyrim, but it is clearly also preset in Mass Effect. While Captain Shephards military muscle, personal charisma, and strategic mind end up winning the day, let’s just take a moment to appreciate that it is in fact the Asari archaeologist Liara T’Soni who first realizes that the Reapers are coming. Because of this ME relies on ancient ruins and artefacts to foreshadow your first meeting with the Reapers and, later on, to discover the key to combating them. For archaeologists, it should be quite interesting to see how ME taps into the belief that the past holds both (irreal) advanced threats as well as valuable cautionary tales and other tools for the future. It are these types of popular sentiments that we should be highly aware of in our endeavour to make the past have a real bearing and positive impact on the present.

The Collapse of Galactic Culture and Society

Just as the future of Mass Effect’s Milky Way was under threat by forces from the past, the future of the series has come under considerable pressure as a result of its own past. At least, that is my analysis of the critical flop that was Mass Effect: Andromeda. Of course, others have pointed to other causes, from horrible animations, dreary gameplay, to a messed-up development process. These explanations all squarely lay the blame with ME: Andromeda itself. Yet I think a major cause of Andromeda’s failure also lays with the series past, particularly the ending of Mass Effect 3.

For those of you who pay attention to gaming news, I hardly have to talk about THAT ending, as it has practically become the gaming history equivalent of the spectacular ruin of a collapsed empire. To reiterate it in one sentence (with lots of commas and an ellipsis, so this is cheating a bit): after marshalling the entire Milky Way behind you, making thousands of small decisions and living through hundreds of interesting events, to change an almost certain doom at the hands of the Reapers, you are faced with… three choices that all have as outcome that, while the survival of populations is achieved, the pan-galactic culture of the Milky Way as well as Shepard herself are destroyed in the process. The reason is that the mass relays, Reaper technology that enabled communication and travel between solar systems, are destroyed with their creators. With these intra-galactic loopholes down, there is no interaction possible between far flung planets, and thus pan-galactic society, the thing we fought so hard to protect, collapses.

At the time Mass Effect 3 came out, many railed against the fact that this negative outcome was inevitable and only played out in three short outro sequences that were only distinguished by a slightly different colour scheme. I hated that too, at first, but after the initial shock had worn off, it wasn’t the lack of choice or diversity in the ending that bothered me. Instead, it then really irked me that it ended with a catastrophe that meant there was no going forward in a way that meaningfully connected the first trilogy to what would follow. No more meaningful stories would be told about the Mass Effect universe after the collapse at the end of its third installment.

Atrocities in the colonial Americas, copper plate engraving by Theodor de Bry, accompanies the English re-print ofBrief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, by Bartolomé de las Casas

Facing up to Collapse

After the subsidiary feeling of sadness at the loss of a game world and history I really liked had worn of, I began to reconsider my position. I now appreciate the ending as a bold choice to close a space opera heroic epic as if it were a tragedy. Indeed it seems that the hero dying at the end is becoming more and more of a rarely seen ending in popular media. This holds true for books and movies, but certainly applies to most video games. Even if you manage to “die” as a player so many times that you will lose track of how often you reloaded the game, we almost always expect to come out on top at the end of it all. If we have the skills to beat the last boss or overcome the final level, the game’s story should not be denying us our hard-won success, right? There are very few games that dare to mess with this expectation, Mass Effect 3 being one of the prominent examples.

What’s more, nowadays very few popular hero stories dare to serve us a Pyrrhic victory, an end in which we technically come out on top but at the same time lose everything we hold dear. Mass Effect 3 is a rare example of this in the video game world. Interestingly enough, the unmarred heroic victory is also a relatively recent invention. If we think about the classic heroic legends (I mean Classical and Germanic heroic tales — admittedly the situation is slightly different in non-Western legends), such as Beowulf and the Iliad, collapse is much more accepted as being a result of victory. For example, Beowulf dies and the Geatish people fade into nothing, and it is hard to argue that the Trojan war is a decisive win for any of its characters or polities involved. Even today some of the very best stories are those where victory is always bittersweet: think Games of Thrones, the Sopranos, the Walking Dead, or Breaking Bad.

Still, the apocalypse at the end of Mass Effect 3 saw heavy backlash from fans. Perhaps it is simply the case that the tragedy of collapse was much more poorly delivered in Mass Effec, but I like to think that the difference between the abovementioned tales, classic and modern, is that you are watching or reading about collapse instead of being an active agent  of the apocalypse, as was the case in Mass Effect. Here, I believe archaeologists and historians should also learn from the popular reception of this game and fight the modern aversion to having agency in collapse and catastrophe. The reason for this is that denying our agency in collapse is simply immoral and unfair with respect to the actual collapses we have caused.

Before I was into videogame archaeology, I was already passionate about the archaeology of the indigenous people of the Caribbean. Unfortunately this indigenous heritage is under threat by a general denial of its existence or importance, both in the Caribbean as outside of it. People tend not to feel too connected to the indigenous people, often — and this is often a direct answer to my why-question — the reason is that it is assumed they all “died out”. This is blatantly untrue, biological and cultural survival can still be testified in many islands of the Caribbean. The situation is even worse for other parts of the indigenous Americas — and, so I could fathom, in other parts of the colonized world — , where indigenous populations still exist in much larger numbers and have a distinct, if often suppressed cultural presence.

However, the popular perception is that all of these people have faded away. As an “upshot” of their disappearance, tourists can satisfy their morbid interests in collapse by visiting “lost” cities, tribes and artefacts. Unfortunately, archaeologists themselves often contribute to this craze. Even if virtual collapses are less momentous than those that happened in our world history, we see the same here. We play among the mysterious ruins of civilizations as archaeologists, adventurers, explorers and other action heroes, but rarely are we the cause of them. Even if we live through collapses, such as is the case in post-apocalyptic games like Fallout or any of the horde of zombie games, the real tragedy — the bomb, the virus, the flood — has already happened or happens in the beginning of the game. As players it is our task to make the world a better place and we do not expect to fail at this constructive task.

I believe this partly arises from a Western distaste and public forgetting of our very real involvement in most of actual and fatal societal and cultural collapses. We rather read, view, or play a renaissance or a post-apocalyptic come-back kid story. Yet it is unmistakably the case that the European colonizing nations and empires carry the moral and actual burden of the majority of the collapses of the last 500 years — even if pop-science positivos like Jared Diamond would love to sell you on the comforting idea that it wasn’t us, it was simply our superior guns, germs (resistance), and steel.

At the End: a False Re-Start

After I started to think of Mass Effect as a brave if flawed attempt at allowing the player to cause a collapse in the moment of victory, I regained some of my lost love for the series. I felt that, whatever would follow, it would have to feature some very ingenious narrative design to allow the Milky Way to rise from its own ashes. Yet, when I first read the story hook for Andromeda, I knew that this would not be a phoenix-revival. Instead, Andromeda is a weak attempt at making players forget that the collapse happened. The developers do this by hitting the “quick load” button on the scale of an entire game: before any of the events of the third game take place, humanity and some alien companions are shipped off on arks to colonize the far-away Andromeda galaxy and generally annoy everyone in it. Seeing colonization once again being jury-rigged as a positive force for change was a deception.

Andromeda undermines the state of katharsis that I — and perhaps many players with me — had reached with Mass Effect. Whatever the exact reason, Andromeda has led to a collapse that this series is not likely to recover from. As for us archaeologists, the lesson learned here is that there is beauty or, at least, important lessons to experience from seriously engaging with collapse, either in our actual or virtual histories. That said, I hope you will give me the luxury of forgetting that the ruinous Mass Effect: Andromeda happened and allow me to end my own history of the series at the collapse of the Milky Way and everything in it.

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This Games We Dig was written especially for the Day of Archaeology in addition to being a reward for Karim Safar, one of the many lovely backers of our Kickstarter campaign for The Interactive Past book (PDF available here). If you liked this playful approach to archaeological theory and popular perceptions of collapse, you can read more Games We Digs and see many more interesting posts and videos on VALUE’s website. Also, whether you liked this GWD or not, we’d love to hear your opinion on our Twitter or Facebook page.