in Civilization, Kulturkampf

Why Mass Effect is a Parable About Climate Change

This post is going to have spoilers, including for the ending to Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect is my current science fictional obsession. I buttoned down and got an Xbox 360 solely for it in 2007; I wound up re-buying it for the PC when it made the leap to that platform, where I’ve bought both subsequent games the day they came out. I own the compiled art book, one of the novels, and listen to the soundtrack (which is the most beautiful music a video game’s ever had. Click that YouTube up top before you disagree.) I can tell you the rubber physics behind an element zero drive, the reason why “barefaced” is a grievous turian insult, what the acronym S.P.E.C.T.R.E. stands for, and debate the ethics of the genophage with the best of them. No, I don’t have a girlfriend, but I’m okay with that for now.

Mass Effect is compelling not just because of its unique visual aesthetic, the well-grown lore of its universe, and its epic story where a decision the player made five years ago can rear its head in the present – but because it understands that science fiction, at its best, is about more than just how many bugs you can kill. Among sci-fi video games, Aliens is probably the most influential film of all time – but too often, game creators take the wrong lessons away from it, having their games be about macho space marines feeding round after round into creatures so ugly it’s perfectly okay to kill them. (I wish more games would copy the implicit feminism of Aliens instead.)

Video game enthusiast and Portland author Tom Bissell talked about Mass Effect in his book, Extra Lifes: Why Video Games Matter, an extended meditation on what video games mean to the people who play them, whether or not they’re art, and whether or not they need to be. There’s an extended passage on the emotions stirred within him on the Virmire mission, but what caught my eye was his research into the genesis of the universe:

For several weeks they talked about their favorite science-fiction films and novels. All had elements of special intensity, but what made these elements so affecting, and why? A list was made, and they realized that what these elements shared was not that they looked great or sounded cool, which is the point at which many works of sci-fi kick back and call it a day. Rather, these elements tapped into the emotions to which science fiction has privileged access: hope for and wonder at the potential of human ingenuity and, of course, fear of the very same. Rather than mimic the particular sci-fi elements that gave rise to these emotions, the emotions themselves became BioWare’s goal. “I think,” Karpyshyn told me, “that this is the step that a lot of games miss.” When I asked him if the list was still extant, he said that it was—and under no circumstances save for imminent Armageddon could he show it to me.

There’s a pressing issue of our day that fits “hope and fear of what humanity is capable of,” and while it has little to do with impossibly ancient cybernetic Lovecraftian monsters from the dark space beyond the galaxy, climate change is not too far removed from them either.

In Mass Effect, we are introduced to a galaxy where easy faster-than-light travel is within the reach of any race advanced enough to go into space, and lucky enough to be living close to a mass relay – an ancient piece of technology created by an extinct race that vanished 50,000 years ago, that creates a transit corridor between linked points. Humanity, a few short decades prior to the game’s beginning, finds one of these relays past Pluto and travels out into the galaxy at large, where a first contact with an alien race goes disastrously wrong, leaving humanity with a bad first impression of the other races of the galaxy, and vice-versa. Still, humanity has too much to gain from alliances not to try and smooth things out, and so the game begins with humanity trying to find its place in the larger scheme of the galaxy – which, while no grim horror-show of perpetual warfare, has its own grudges and ancient animosities, some barely scarred over.

The player controls Commander Shepard – a prominent human soldier whose personal details, appearance, race, gender, sexuality, and general outlook are player-chosen– as Shepard discovers that this galaxy is facing a threat no one’s prepared for, and worse, that the technology that enables the galaxy’s lifestyle is part of this threat. The means of the galaxy’s prosperity and vast interconnectedness is actually a subtle trap – and it’s about to be sprung. Despite Shepard’s warnings, the galaxy’s politicians and leaders don’t put much stock in what Shepard is saying – until a disaster strikes their seat of government, seeming forcing them to acknowledge the threat.

So far, so good – but where the metaphor truly takes off is in Mass Effect 2, which opens with Commander Shepard’s ship attacked and Shepard being killed. Shepard’s body winds up in the hands of a shady “human dominance” group called Cerberus, which spends two years rebuilding Shepard because they need the human who beat back the threat they’re facing. Shepard awakens to discover that without Shepard around, the galaxy has decided to quietly forget about the two kilometer long nigh-indestructible cyborg that devastated the fleets of the galaxy’s advanced races. Shepard has the option of confronting the leaders of the galaxy, one of whom is so memorably condescending to Shepard that he became an instant meme. All of them were ready to fight the threat at the end of Mass Effect – but now they can only offer Shepard the slimmest of support.

Some players decry this about-face from the Council members, but I find this the most realistic portion of the entire game. It’s not that the Council hates humans in general or Shepard in particular – it’s that none of them want to turn their heads and face the threat on the horizon, because the threat is nightmarish and too frightening to think about. So they invent cognitive mechanisms in the grand tradition of the great philosopher Homer J. Simpson – “this can’t be true, because if it were, I’d be terrified.” They tell themselves it won’t really happen, or that if it does happen, it won’t be so bad, since hey, they survived one of these things attacking, didn’t they? And it’s only taken years to even slightly rebuild.

One has only to look at how people react to the notion of the human race being decimated by climate change to see this at play. People cling to any buzzword like “global cooling,” or “Climategate” as life preservers telling them that this life-altering event will not happen. People say “see, it snowed in April therefore NO CLIMATE CHANGE,” yet leap immediately to another strain of logic when a shorts-wearing day arrives in December. Any excuse to avoid having to change how we plan cities, power cars, and build our TVs, right? It’s a lie because CLIMATEGATE – but the logical inverse of “it’s true because Climategate turned out to be bullshit” never gets employed because logic is not what people are using. They aren’t arriving at “everything’s fine” logically – they’ve already decided “everything’s fine,” and then go out to cherry-pick the reasons why. It is difficult to convince someone they’re wrong, when them being wrong means that the whole human race is facing one of the greatest threats of its existence.

Mass Effect 2 concludes with Shepard stopping the newer, more subtle permutation of the threat – possibly dying in the process, but assuming Shepard survives, Mass Effect 3 begins with the threat’s arrival. The Reapers have made it into the galaxy en masse and their attack is more horrible than anything we could have forseen. Earth falls, and Shepard barely escapes. The entire rest of the game is a frantic race to secure alliances to mount a counter-offensive, while at the same time investing resources into an outside-the-box longshot solution. The plot device is a bit of an out, but it’s forgivable – because Mass Effect 3 shows the sacrifice and effort that war demands, and by way of parable, what stopping climate change will demand. It won’t be won just by us taking bottles down to the depot to get our nickel back, just like recycling paper in paper drives was not quite all that was needed to end the Second World War.

In the end, through incredible devastation that strikes friends and strangers alike, this solution is used. While the particulars of the solution can vary – either destroying the threat, controlling it, or altering life to adapt to it – in all endings to Mass Effect 3, the relay network is lost, ending far-range faster-than-light travel for a generation or more. This underlines and illustrates the cost that climate change will bring – even if we succeed, it’s going to mean some changes. And yet, despite the devastation, Mass Effect 3 ends on a hopeful, downright Sagan-esque note, as generations in the future, life endures, and soon, armed with greater wisdom, we will return to the stars.

I’m not a climate defeatist. I think we can survive the next century. But no question, it’s going to cost us, and it’s going to take a legendary, united effort to do it. What’s not going to win is burying our heads in the sand – and Mass Effect, in that way that a fiction can reveal a greater truth, shows us the dangers of why. One of the characters in Mass Effect 3 remarks that ‘maybe later’ will be the epitaph on a grave of eleven billion human beings. If a video game can teach us anything, maybe it can teach us not to let it be the epitaph on ours.

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