essay

Shepard is America (and so can you)

[Warning: Without meaning to, I’m probably going to spoil plot points for Mass Effect 1 and 2 in this post.]

I finally put into words on a podcast recently something I have known for a long time: I subvert games. Given the choice to make the story harder for the character, I will pick the dark path, the spooky forest or unleash the great evil. I want the best story and I know, as a writer myself, that the best release comes after the most tension. It’s why roller coasters have you go up and up and up… before-quickly-dropping-you-down. Pacing is the key.

You lose that tension-release cycle without a threat. If there is no real danger, we dismiss what we perceive as illusion or farce. We see through the experience. It’s no longer exciting to use because we can see where the story is going. We need that constant on-the-edge-of-our-seats action.

I’m not sure I get that with Mass Effect 1 and 2 and I hit on several of the reasons why in that episode. In short, it’s too human-centric. Too much of the story is about humans suddenly getting thrown into the galactic scene and, instead of the more realistic flailing about and not knowing what to do, they thrive. They conquer. They are the saviors of the galaxy. Space Saviors: Saviors of… Space. Humans will win out.

What was sad, at least to me, was that I didn’t realize I felt that way until I started reading about the Rachni in preparation for the episode. During the end of my office hours a couple weeks ago, I printed some material from the wikia to read over before my next class started. It was only then, as I was sitting on a bench about ten minutes later, looking through the pages and making some notes to myself that I realized the pattern I had never noticed before: all the species are humans plus.

[Note: I make the scientific distinction between ‘races’ and species. If two genetically different groups can mate and produce offspring, they are races. Otherwise, species. So, to put it bluntly, unless there are Elcor-human babies running around somewhere, those two groups are different species, for example.]

It’s what I like to call the Star Trek Effect (if I can coin a term). The aliens are us plus something. Klingons, in the original series, were humans plus angry and hairier (much later, ridged foreheads). Vulcans are humans plus more logical (and pointy ears). There are all manner of examples and, although Star Trek wasn’t the first show to do this, it’s the most well known — in the U.S. anyway. (Doctor Who, in the U.K., was doing the same things around the same time.)

Not that I can fault the time period or the show itself for this. Costumes took time to make and it was easiest to create a visual short-hand to show who was the bad guy or good guy. The same could be said of the scriptwriting too. I’ve done some work with that medium and the formula is always “It’s X plus Y” or “Z meets A”. You take something a viewer would know and then add or subtract some aspect. Add a different hair style, a non-standard accent and some makeup: you’ve got yourself an alien.

It’s only later, with science fiction in the late Eighties and into the Nineties, that we get more mainstream alien species. (Actually, I’d say that the movie Alien actually helped the visual mediums along too.) Yet, we still see that “cowboy diplomacy” come up again and again. The humans, who are, of course, in charge of everything, bring their weapons to the savage aliens and teach them to work together (or love, depending on the episode and show). Humans are the saviors.

It’s what the Mass Effect series is based on, all those tropes and ideas of retro-futurism meets frontierism. You take the shapely, shiny ships — aerodynamics doesn’t matter, no air in space! — away and replace it with land vehicles. You take away the space lasers and replace it with bullets (which Mass Effect 2 did for the most part anyway). It’s not unlike our own World Wars. In fact, it’s pretty close to post-Cold War to be more exact.

It was something that Roger Travis said in that episode that clued me into the idea: “It’s America.” It’s pretty simple when you think about it. That’s the basis for Shepard. Regardless of the visual looks of the character, it’s still about Shepard going into each zone and recruiting people (Mass Effect 2) or even leading the army against the Reapers (Mass Effect 1 and, as I understand it, 3). The savages (aliens) need a “shepard” to lead them.

The humans come into the multi-species council and take command. Even if they are the are the youngest ‘race’, they, and only them, see the threat. If the other groups disagree, humans don’t need them. Even if the council survives into Mass Effect 2, Shepard is effectively the dictator of a new collection of the different groups. Whatever Shepard (the player) says, goes. Kill some people, save others or even romance all aliens; no one is going to question the actions of Space Savior Shepard.

I like the games I have played of the Mass Effect series. I thought, at the time, they were neat science fiction games, but the more I got to thinking about this metaphor and the power that it has to shape player experiences, the more worried I have become. Looking at Shepard, as much as I can from an alien perspective, it’s crazy that the humans have done this in the fiction. Some of the species have 50,000 years of history and unique cultures. Yet, the humans stumble into the room, with their guns and human-centric view points, and start to demand changes.

I’m surprised there hasn’t been talk about this, truthfully. Perhaps it’s because, as players, we assume that we are right too. Whatever we choose, whatever the outcome, well, that was meant to be right? If the greater theme of the Mass Effect series is trying to live with a past in a time of increasing multiracial (i.e. multi-species) culture, maybe we should take more time to consider the other sides. It’s not just Humans in the galaxy (or Americans in the world).