It’s hard to believe, but it’s been thirteen years since Mass Effect, Bioware’s sprawling Space Opera, first appeared on PC and consoles. A critical darling almost from the moment it dropped, it dazzled gamers with its combination of solid action, brilliant visuals, and epic plot, and went on to spawn two equally acclaimed sequels (a spinoff, Mass Effect: Andromeda, was released to considerably less fanfare in 2017).
And while the Mass Effect franchise has gone dark after Andromeda (and largely, it must be said, because of it) its rabid fanbase has blithely forged on, producing reams of commentary, art, cosplay, and fan-fiction, an output which continues unabated to this day. It’s a surprising devotion for a role-playing video game three years removed from its most lackluster entry.
That got me to thinking. Just what is it, I wondered, that inspires such affection? And just what, exactly, keeps people coming back to the world of Mass Effect? Sure, the gameplay is fun, the visuals are beautiful, and the “morality” and “romance” mechanics are innovative enough, but these features offer diminishing returns with time, as other games continually improve upon them.
There’s the short answer of course: Mass Effect tells a barn-burner of a story, filled with characters we care about, set in a convincing, gorgeously crafted universe that we enjoy revisiting. But that’s a statement that deserves a little unpacking. What elements make it convincing? What aspects make it enjoyable? Why, exactly, has Mass Effect continued to inspire such loyalty amongst fans, even as similar (and sometimes equally well-made) games from the era have drifted into obscurity? What is it about this game in particular that makes it so enduring?
Below I’ll offer a few of my own ideas as to Mass Effect’s lasting appeal, and make the (perhaps shakier) case that Mass Effect transcends the limitations of its genre, and attains the status of genuine art.
True to the old cliché, this essay will not “exhaust its subject” — Mass Effect is a hodgepodge of diverse influences, and lingering too long on any one of them would, I fear, take up even more of the reader’s precious time than I am already demanding. The game raises intriguing questions about many subjects, ranging from Free Will to Colonialism to Racism, and each would require an essay of its own to explore in detail.
That said, we’ll divert from this approach somewhat at the end of the piece, where I’ll discuss the Reapers (and my own pet theory about them) at length, since they are so central not just to Mass Effect’s story, but to the success of that story, pushing it beyond its banal genre roots into something new, dark, and exciting.
But before we begin making the case for Mass Effect as art, perhaps it’s best to talk briefly about why we’d want to bother at all.
Prologue: A (Brief) Defense of Video Games as Art
(Note: if you want to get straight to the biscuits, you can skip over this section entirely).
The late film critic Roger Ebert once famously made the claim that video games are not art. Apparently emboldened by the ensuing barrage of opprobrium heaped upon him for this hot take, he later doubled down, further proclaiming that video games could never, in principle, be art, or at least that:
“…no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.”
Statements like this were seemingly tailor-made to invite further scorn, and indeed they did, as Ebert’s arguments have been widely reviled, refuted, and lambasted from the moment they appeared. (It didn’t help matters that his own defense of these opinions was both so tortuous and unconvincing).
In fairness, it’s worth noting that Ebert’s definition of a video game seems to hinge on the difference between two separate aspects of the game experience: gameplay and story. Gameplay — the rote movements or actions within the game world that unfold along a predetermined path — cannot be art in the same, self-evident way that checkers or tic-tac-toe cannot be art — they are mechanical activities governed by stringent rules, obviously lacking the emotional or intellectual depth of the written narratives, visual representations, or performances that one would quickly identify as “genuine” art.
Story is something else. According to Ebert, an immersive game without any “points or rules” ceases to be a game and becomes “a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film.” So, a video game cutscene can be art (if only an ersatz version) but not, say, a boss fight.
This drifts a little bit closer to lucidity, but only a little. Ebert apparently seemed to think that the stories presented in video games were not “real” stories at all, but instead functioned as pale imitations of actual works of art, because (and here one again attempts to make sense of a half-hearted argument) the more rigid structure of the gaming medium cripples these stories in some fundamental way. This supposed rigidity prevents video games from ever achieving the illimitability that other, more traditional, art forms are supposed to have a monopoly on. Why exactly this must be the case, Ebert doesn’t make clear.
One senses in all this the simple intransigence of age, dressed up as philosophy. Video games, after all, have a greater barrier to entry than most other forms of art. Here, more acutely than in other mediums, understanding the ground rules is a necessary prerequisite to appreciation — and Ebert made it clear that he had no interest in bridging that gap.
Judging by his dismissive tone, in fact, it seems he never bothered trying to understand the medium he so lazily derided at all. Instead, he hand-waved it away by asserting that art should be assessed at face value, and that’s that– if it doesn’t move you, you move on. This is a perfectly valid personal approach; Ebert’s mistake was in insisting it be universal.
After all, settling on a definition of what Art is has been a pastime that has existed as long as Art itself, and, as Ebert conceded in the essay linked above, no universally accepted meaning has yet emerged. This fact alone should have given him pause. If Art is a country that is continuously being discovered, why should we take seriously any claim that attempts to rigidly define its borders?
The answer is: we shouldn’t. Art’s inherent subjectivity isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. And, going a step further (if you’ll forgive me my own Ebertesque decree) any attempt to define art, or what forms it may legitimately take, must necessarily be doomed to failure. We can only speak about it in the most general terms, and even then, we can’t say what art truly is, but only what it does — of the effect it has, or doesn’t have, on each of us. Art is reciprocatory. It changes, and is changed, by the observer, and it is as vast or limited, as silly or profound, as beautiful or ugly as that observer decides it to be.
This doesn’t mean that all art is created equal, or that every work of art possesses the same complexity, power, or longevity. Critical consensus, though dangerous, is an often reliable guide in separating the wheat from the chaff, but it is also just that — a guide. No one gets the last word in a conversation that never ends.
And while we can’t speak with authority about the meaning of Art, or of its limits, we can, I think, say a little about its intent. In that sense, Art is anything that takes reality and amplifies it, extends it, comments on it, and (in the best cases) transmutes it into something new — something startling, strange, or wonderful. The very best video games, I would contend, meet those criteria.
All that said, I will not make the case below that Mass Effect is capital “A” art, because I don’t believe that it is. The case I will make, however, is that Mass Effect is art nonetheless, that it transcends its genre, that it tells not just an adequate or entertaining story, but a great one — one that is capable of standing alongside anything in the worlds of film, books, or television, and one that is worthy of serious critical appraisal.
And so, with the knowledge that anyone who disagrees with the above assessment has likely already noped out of this essay, let’s put a cork in all the rationalizing and set about doing just that.
We’ll start by taking a closer look at Mass Effect’s central triumph — the font from which all of its other virtues spring.
The Write Stuff
Mass Effect succeeded masterfully in something that every work of speculative fiction attempts, but few ever convincingly pull off: world-building. Creating a fictive universe that is both fantastic and utterly convincing is the first conceptual hurdle that every work of Science Fiction must leap, and the grander the story, the higher the hurdle.
While Mass Effect’s interactive medium did grant it an advantage that a more traditional narrative framework would allow only with great difficulty, from its built-in, encyclopedic trove of data on anything and everything in-universe (here exhibited in the game’s Codex — a fictional supplement so lovingly labyrinthine it’d make Tolkien blush) to its much vaunted at the time — if not terribly impressive in retrospect — branching storylines, what really makes Mass Effect’s world-building work is the same thing that’s made any piece of fiction work since Street & Smith was a going concern: good writing.
Admittedly, that writing can be a little clunky at times — a perhaps inevitable side-effect of the peculiar constraints imposed upon it by video game logic. One glaring example: the game’s protagonist, Commander Shepard, is constantly forced to divert from her mission to attend to random fetch quests, an obvious absurdity from a pure storytelling perspective. Such digressions, while common enough in the role-playing genre, highlight one baked-in conundrum that all games that aspire to the status of literary art must try to resolve: how to serve two masters, both the gamer and the reader, without devolving into a purely passive experience for the former or a purely superficial experience for the latter. Mass Effect isn’t immune to this tension, and the writing sometimes suffers as a result: action during side quests often comes across as purely functional, the dialogue perfunctory.
But for the most part, Mass Effect navigates these mandated narrative curlicues with aplomb, and occasionally even manages to integrate them in ways that enrich the overall story. The “loyalty” missions of Mass Effect 2, for example, serve to deepen the player’s affiliation with the game’s supporting cast, creating literary characters out of what could have been just another collection of shallow NPCs. And while it’s true that these and other deviations from the main plot-line undermine any sense of urgency, they also deliver two ancillary benefits: they enlarge the story in subtle and sometimes interesting ways, and they allow the player to luxuriate in the game’s intricately constructed universe — itself no small thing.
And when Mass Effect is completely set free from the demands of the medium, it shines. There is nothing in any Star Wars film, for example, that comes close to the menace of Shepard’s first encounter with a Reaper (the game’s big baddies — on whom more later), or possesses even a hint of the grandeur of “meeting” the last virtual representative of the Protheans — a powerful and long extinct species who may hold the key to saving the galaxy. And these two examples aren’t planet-blasting set pieces (though the game certainly has no shortage of those) they’re conversations. That’s the power of good writing.
But let’s dive a little deeper into the specifics of Mass Effect’s world-building — as solidly written as it is, what makes that world feel so much richer than similar works, not just in the realm of gaming, but across other mediums as well?
A Sense of Wonder
For starters, the game posits a largely prosperous human future built on cooperation, exploration, and diplomacy, and it does so without the uncomfortable excision of every inelegant human trait or desire — e.g., lust, greed, violence — that shows like Star Trek had decided were incompatible with utopia. For this notion alone it deserves special praise. The idea of a credible, successful, near-human future built on largely peaceful coexistence not just with each other but with alien races, too, was — and remains — a much-needed counterpoint to twenty-first century pop-culture’s tiresome (if understandable) obsession with dystopian gloom.
Much popular sci-fi — including current iterations of Star Trek — too often clumsily gropes for relevance by planting its feet so firmly in the muck of despair that it becomes hopelessly stuck. This cynical, world-weary pose is pursued, one assumes, in the hopes that it will confer upon the work a sense of realism, or at the very least help it to avoid the bathos perceived to be inherent in works of Fantasy and Sci-Fi. But this approach aims for the bullseye of the wrong target: Science Fiction absent wonder is horror, it’s drama, it’s a detective story, it’s romance — it’s beautiful, even — but it’s not Science Fiction.
“Wonder” in this sense needn’t connote naivete, or even optimism. Lovecraft’s sense of wonder, for instance, is vast but negative — an ever-deepening well of horror. But Science Fiction at its best supplies us with Wonder in the positive sense. It welcomes the future, even as it remains wary of it, pointing to the horizon without ignoring the pitfalls along the way. A purely grim work that trucks almost exclusively in human misery fulfills one aspect of Science Fiction’s charge — a statement on things as they are, while ignoring the other, more vital, function of the genre: a statement on things as they could be — of a world where possibility still exists. Science Fiction — at its darkest — should be a warning, not a condemnation.
The balance between these two commitments is, admittedly, a fine one. What makes the Mass Effect universe so convincing is that its writing walks this tightrope so well. It shows us a galaxy of fabulous wealth, uninhibited sexuality, technological wonders, and widespread interspecies cooperation, while giving equal time (most notably in the second installment) to the dark underbelly of this outwardly ideal society. We witness slave trading, political corruption, murder, and theft — and see these crimes perpetrated not just by the game’s villains or some “othered” alien race, but by the good guys, too — humanity being no exception.
No one group in the Mass Effect universe comes across as either truly, boringly evil (not even, I will soon contend, the game’s primary antagonists) or wholly noble — instead we find a story populated by individuals — some of them broken, some of them mad, some of them simply pursuing their own personal agendas, but most of them essentially decent, and trying to make their way in the galaxy as best they can.
Here then, I would argue, is how you do it right: the world of Mass Effect is one any of us might want to live in, and it’s definitely one most of us would want to preserve. But it’s also decidedly not perfect — its prosperity is immense but unevenly distributed, its stated ethical values are noble in principle but not always realizable in practice, its denizens are numerous and interconnected, but the designs of one individual, or group of individuals, can often be at odds with others, to disastrous effect. It is a galaxy that is, in a word: complex. And that’s what makes it so believable.
Another important aspect of that believability must certainly be the numerous alien species introduced throughout the trilogy. The main players are the “Council” races — who hold the reins of galactic governance — the Asari, Salarians, and Turians (don’t worry, xenophobes — Humans grab a seat in due course) though non-Council species do play a central role in the story as well — most notably the war-like Krogan and the lost-in-space Quarians.
At first glance, the portrayal of these cultures seems reductive — and the player can be forgiven for thinking she’s encountered yet another case of a common Sci-Fi trope: the lazy distillation of an entire alien species down to a single human trait.
And while there is some truth in this reading (generally: Turians are military tacticians, Salarians are timid nerds, Asari are empathic sex-pots, Krogan are, well — Klingons, basically) the games find enough exceptions to these stereotypes to keep things from settling into dull predictability — witness the Salarian Captain Kirrahe’s inspirational bravery in battle, the Krogan Eve’s rejection of her people’s self-destructive impulses, or even the gruesome-looking and ostensibly malevolent Rachni queen’s surprising vulnerability, to name just a few.
That’s not to say that it’s a perfect representation — alien races in Mass Effect oftentimes feel very 21st century human in everything from their motivations to their patois — but it doesn’t have to be. After all, even “hard” Science Fiction must make the occasional concessions to its Earth-bound audience, and imbuing aliens with human traits — even narrow ones — provides one tried-and-true toe-hold into strange new worlds, allowing us to circumvent the things that we don’t need to worry about in order to keep us focused on the things that we do.
What makes Mass Effect’s alien characters feel so authentic is, paradoxically, the fact that they’re so inauthentically written. These are human beings in creature suits, with the same fears, drives, and desires as any of us. Inaccurate? Perhaps (as of this writing, we have yet to make contact with any actual aliens from outer space). But the game trades this veneer of realism for relatability, and that’s a perfectly acceptable — one might say unavoidable — creative decision. Demarcating the (many, I’m sure) differences between Humans and Elcor, for instance, isn’t the point. If it were, Mass Effect would be a very different story (closer to something like Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris) and the emotional stakes would be noticeably lessened as a result.
That the game presents its alien characters as three-dimensionally as it does its human ones, instead of relegating them to the inanimate furniture of its world, or mindless quintains for its heroes to tilt at, is what gives it the appearance of truth — even if that edifice is built upon a foundation of thin air.
One Mass Effect species that decidedly does not suffer from a relatability issue are the Reapers — the gigantic, sentient warships that constitute Mass Effect’s chief villains. Looking like demonic cuttlefish and boasting weaponry and intelligence far beyond any of the galactic races, the Reapers entire raison d’etre seems to be centered around a single, apocalyptic errand: destroying all sapient life in the galaxy every fifty thousand years.
These monstrous entities may be the most interesting characters in the entire Mass Effect universe. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why.
Eternal Return: The Reapers and the Endless Cycle
Placing the Reapers within the SF megatext takes a bit of unraveling, since — as in the case of much of Mass Effect’s mythos — they represent an agglomeration of many well-worn tropes from the genre’s long and varied history. When we first meet them, they are at their Lovecraftian best — cosmic monstrosities from the depths, with motives both unknown and unknowable. As the story progresses, the origin of the Reapers, and of their monomaniac lust for cyclic genocide, is gradually exposed. They were created in the remote past, and given a single purpose: to “protect” organic life from advanced AI. This is a directive they carry out in the most heavy-handed way possible — by violently resetting the evolutionary clock every fifty thousand years, culling technologically mature species (alongside their life-threatening artificial creations) while allowing less advanced species to survive into the next cycle, after which the whole grisly spectacle is carried out again, ad infinitum.
This revealed version of the Reapers is a riff on one of Science Fiction’s oldest concerns: of human creation run amok; of our ability to create suddenly outstripping our ability to control, or even to understand. It’s a depiction that owes much to 2001’s Hal — a synthetic, self-aware lifeform tasked by organic beings with a mission that it carries out all too well, following a cold logic that follows the letter, and not the spirit, of its assignment. The machine’s too-literal interpretation of its appointed task inevitably confuses and shocks its creators, who were unable to anticipate, or even envisage, an intelligence so divorced from any human standard of morality, nuance, or even self-preservation. What they imagined they’d created was a simple extension of themselves; a more perfect Human Being. What they got instead was something different, something that they could no longer comprehend: a truly alien mind.
There are elements of philosopher Nick Bostrom’s Paperclip Maximizer in this portrayal of the Reapers, but as terrifying as Bostrom’s AI would be, it at least can be understood as taking a set of instructions and carrying them out to a logical (to it) and horrifying (to us) extreme. The Reapers diverge from this algorithmic nightmare in the sense that they appear to be unbound by such restrictions — or at least seem to be imbued with a guiding philosophy that casts them as the saviors of organic life, their actions a harsh necessity that short-lived, soft-brained humans simply cannot grasp. Theirs is the fulfillment of a utilitarian cycle that trades years of unspeakable terror for millennia of peaceful stability. As such — and unlike Bostrom’s runaway AI — they possess a morality of a sort, however twisted it may be.
But the Reapers don’t just crib from Science Fiction of old, or even from modern doomsday scenarios involving artificial intelligence. The grim necessity of their task — of the present generation being swept away to make the way ready for the new, again and again — speaks to a human anxiety about the cycles of birth and death. Though we accept that progress involves the abandonment of old paradigms, of the old giving way to the young, we are also aware — if only dimly — that with this progress must come the inevitable destruction of our own, personal selves. While Mass Effect proffers the symbols of this destruction as the Reapers, for us there is another, more tangible exemplar of this austere transition: children.
It is perhaps no mistake, then, that Mass Effect 3 uses the image of a child to represent the Catalyst, the creator and controller of the Reaper fleets. The child appears to Shepard throughout the game: a symbol, it would seem, of all the lives that she has not been able to save, and the commensurate guilt that she feels at this failure. But embedded within this depiction is something deeper, and more interesting: our personal horror at the prospect of our own individual extinction, coupled with the intellectual realization that it is a sacrifice that is both necessary and (perhaps) meaningless.
The child in this sense becomes the living embodiment of a tripartite confusion: of an animal instinct that wishes to survive at all costs, to create and to grow, pitted against a love for our offspring, who are here, in a very real sense, to replace us. Commenting on this primitive agon is the intellect, which is aware that these children are destined to repeat the same cycle, on and on, and that, in fact, the cycle itself may be ultimately futile. The joy we find in children is thus bittersweet — they remind us not only of the human inability to escape the cycles of birth and death, but of the very existence of those cycles as well. We too, it would seem, are locked in the Reapers mad circle.
But then again, so are the Reapers. While a shallow (and pessimistic) reading would seem to support the idea that the Reapers’ periodic slaughtering of sapient species is ultimately an act of grace — by preserving organic life and preventing the rise of synthetics — two flaws, one practical and one ethical, will quickly put the lie to such a notion. One, the Reapers apparently “guide” species in each cycle, leading them along paths that will result in their constructing advanced AI. But this culminates in a paradox: the Reapers are creating the very problem they were meant to solve. Two, the Reapers favoring of organic over synthetic life is morally suspect. Why is synthetic life — even synthetic life that wipes out all organic life — less deserving of existence than its creators? And why is it a given that synthetic life will wipe out organics at all? The Reapers don’t seem to allow for this possibility.
Thus, the Reapers — for all their vaunted intelligence — are as much the pawns of the cycle as the organics they destroy. To return to the analogy of the child, who rebels against the current order, supplants it with her own, and then finds that new order itself rebelled against and supplanted in due course, the Reapers only imagine that they hold the reins of life and death. They, like us, can only reset the cycle — they cannot truly understand it, or escape it. The cycle itself — the cycle of birth and death — rules over all, and it can never end.
And speaking of endings…
Let’s Talk about that Ending
In Mass Effect 3’s final moments, the Catalyst, appearing before a dying Shepard in the image of the child, at last lays out the logic behind the Reapers genocidal crusades. It explains that the Reapers don’t just eliminate advanced organic species at the end of each cycle, they “harvest” them as well, integrating the vanquished into the body of a new Reaper. This process appears to be a literal assimilation of organic bodies (in keeping with Mass Effect’s somewhat unfortunate preoccupation with body horror) and not just a digital preservation of a species’ collected knowledge or culture.
The Catalyst here makes a well-worn argument against the futility of the cycle — individuals may perish, it says, but their ideas will carry on, in the new physical forms of their children, or in this case, the Reapers. Shepard, unmoved by this appeal, tells the Catalyst that organic life would “rather keep our own form,” giving voice to the unspoken contempt of the parent for the child, who is of course nothing more than the blameless representative of an even deeper, more nebulous contempt: that of the individual when confronted with the grand cycles of creation and extinction.
But now comes the curveball. The Catalyst, apparently impressed by the organic species’ success in constructing the Crucible — a weapon with the power to potentially destroy the Reapers — presents Shepard with three choices, each of which, it is suggested, are capable of ending the Reapers’ murderous forays into the galaxy once and for all: Destruction, Control, and Synthesis.
If Shepard chooses Destruction, the Reapers are annihilated, along with every other Synthetic form of life (and piece of technology) in the galaxy. But while the Reapers may be eliminated in this scenario, the existential disaster they were created to prevent is not. It is only delayed, with future generations going on to construct advanced AI that is destined to destroy them.
If she chooses Control, Shepard takes the Catalyst’s place as master of the Reapers, utilizing them in whatever way she sees fit. But the price here is high: Shepard must surrender her humanity, becoming a disembodied, fully synthetic being and “ascending” to a higher level of consciousness. It is a transformation so total that it is, in essence, death.
Synthesis results in the melding of organic and synthetic life into a “new framework” perfecting — according to the Catalyst — both, and obviating the need for the cycles. Synthetic life forms would be imbued with organic traits, allowing them to fully understand their creators (and hence, one assumes, not destroy them) while Organics would be advanced through the addition of Synthetic technology. Here, too, however, Shepard must die, as her “organic energy” is required for Synthesis to work.
The obvious question raised by this interaction is whether or not the Catalyst is simply lying to Shepard, offering her the illusion of choice in order to lead her down the paths it prefers (we already know the Reapers have a history of doing just that). Indeed, why Shepard would, after years of conflict, trust the Catalyst by making any choice seems puzzling (it should be noted that a later DLC introduced the option of not choosing any of the above three scenarios, a decision that would result in the cycles continuing).
If we ignore these suspicions and assume the Catalyst is being honest, and then follow our parent/child analogy to its conclusion, we might re-phrase the three options before Shepard in this way: Death, Stagnation, and Acceptance.
In this reading, the Destruction option is literal death, or suicide. Shepard destroys herself, along with the Reapers, in order to personally escape the cycle. This is a nihilistic and ultimately futile gesture — for the cycle of birth and death itself carries on without her or the Reapers, ending only when all Organic life in the galaxy is ultimately destroyed.
In the second option, Control, Shepard chooses stagnation — a literal continuation of the status quo in which she is resigned both to the existence of the cycle and its utter inescapability. This is the mid-point between Death (getting out of the game) and Acceptance (accepting the rules of the game and attempting to flourish within them) and is in some ways the worst option, since here Shepard simply surrenders to fate. The cycles may end or they may not, but by taking the middle path she chooses not to advance and grow as a human being, and instead simply takes over the mantle of the Catalyst, thereby becoming as much a pawn of the cycles as it was. (The “Refusal” option is simply another corollary of this — sorry all you uber-renegades).
The final option, Synthesis, is in some ways the most painful and difficult of all, as Shepard must both die, and decide the ultimate fate of every future generation to come. Yet it is also the only option that makes sense. It is the parent/child relationship writ large, as Shepard’s own DNA is transferred into the future, in the hope (if not the guarantee) that it will result in a “new framework” which will advance the common cause and perhaps move life closer to its only logical goal: a transcendent state of being in which the birth-death cycle is forever broken, and the harsh laws of nature are guided along a more gentle path.
This is, of course, just one possible interpretation. Even if you think the above theory is hogwash, I hope that I’ve at least been successful in illuminating some of the deeper questions that Mass Effect’s bravura, melancholy ending brings to mind. Where a more typical game would simply sidestep the knotty problems it had raised in favor of a crowd-pleasing, laser-blasting denouement, Mass Effect instead chooses to meet them head-on, presenting the player not with a cliched, happy ending, but with three difficult choices, each of them unsatisfying in its own way, and each of them thought-provoking. It may not make for a great video game (reaction to the ending was divisive, to say the least) but it does make for real, vital art.
The Wrap Up
It would be inaccurate to call Mass Effect truly innovative. It borrows liberally (and knowingly) from a long list of its sci-fi predecessors, it’s not immune from the clichés of either the Video Game or the Space Opera genres, and it occasionally drifts into monotonous, momentum-killing tedium. But every work of sci-fi (perhaps every work of art) is necessarily derivative to some extent — to point out that a work borrows from earlier works is not a criticism, it’s a statement. The true sin isn’t creating a remix, then, so much as it is settling for a replay, and Mass Effect, despite its flaws, never does that.
And innovation, I think, is not quite as valuable in art as we imagine it to be. In truth, there is nothing new under the sun because Human Beings are Human Beings. We know what we like. As Samuel Johnson once memorably wrote: “the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.” Johnson was writing about Shakespeare, and offering a possible reason for the Bard’s endurance: he had showed us “a just representation of general nature” — a mirror which we cannot resist gazing into, again and again. It’s a reminder that, in the end, what really interests us isn’t ghosts, zombies, or even aliens from out of this world — it’s each other.
Mass Effect isn’t Shakespeare, obviously, but I think it fulfills Johnson’s dictum: it never forgets that at the base of all its wonders lie very human concerns. That the game dares to both conceal and reveal those concerns in the guise of a rollicking, galaxy-hopping Space Western doesn’t trivialize either — it instead enlarges both.