05 January 2011

Mass Effect as Marxist allegory (just for fun)

I remarked in an earlier post that Mass Effect was very much like Knights of the Old Republic in terms of plot and storyline – and that one gets the feeling that Mass Effect is the story BioWare wanted to tell without being burdened down by all of the baggage of the Star Wars extended universe. In a certain sense, this also affects the theology of the game – I say this not to be censorious at all, but rather as a form (as Lt Kaidan Alenko might put it) of art appreciation. Mass Effect, like all good speculative fiction, builds a universe as it might be; thus, certain theological assumptions about ‘human’ nature, theodicy, the relationship of man to his creator(s) all filter through.

Without spoiling too much of the storyline, one can note that on the face of it, the view of the universe posited by Mass Effect is cyclical, apocalyptic and dystheistic, even Lovecraftian. The antagonists of the series, the Reapers, are godlike machines which have this nasty habit of accelerating the development of galactic civilisation using FTL technology (the mass relays), only to wipe out that civilisation using both brute military force and brainwashing every 50,000 years or so. The task of Cdr Shepard, however, is to thwart this cycle of technological acceleration and extinction, and in so doing, save humanity and galactic civilisation – one assumes that the arc of the story, therefore, offers a release from a cyclical view of history in a final teleological apocalypse. One sees hints already that there will be an attempt at a final galactic revolution, led by a messianic figure in Cdr Shepard. Given that this revolution against the Reapers will involve all species who have been secretly exploited by the Reapers through mass effect technology, one could imagine that Mass Effect is indeed a Marxian parable (with the Reapers as the capitalist class, the mass relays as industrial technology and everyone else in the galaxy as the world proletariat – or, in the case of the Citadel species, the petty bourgeoisie whose false consciousness in the original Mass Effect prevents them from understanding the depth of their own exploitation). Of course, this interpretation all depends on what BioWare does with Mass Effect 3, but thus far I find that this interpretation a.) works and b.) is highly amusing. It is bolstered by the portrayal of (human) intergalactic corporations (ExoGeni, Binary Helix) as inherently manipulative and unethical – Cdr Shepard is pitted against both of these corporations in the original Mass Effect.

There are a couple of massive problems with this interpretation, of course. The first problem is that the universe of the original Mass Effect is nearly (and ironically, given its genre) Luddite in its distaste for some forms of technology. The only examples of AI we are given in the first instalment are: the Reapers (who are the antagonists of the series, evil beyond human comprehension), the geth (who are tools of the Reapers, originally created by the quarians) and a rogue AI whose first and only act before being destroyed by Shepard was to rob the Flux casino and attempt to escape the Citadel by hijacking an outbound ship. The message of the original game was a near-unequivocal ‘artificial intelligence bad’ – that all instances of AI need to be destroyed or tightly controlled.

To my pleasant surprise, they very neatly subverted this expectation in the sequel. As it turns out, the Normandy SR2 is saved by the shipboard AI, EDI, who is ultimately a sympathetic character (despite being highly mistrusted by Joker and Tali in particular). Joker (the pilot, played by Seth Green in both games) carries over the anti-AI mentality from the first game and at first refuses to see EDI as having either dignity or a sense of morality; after EDI saves his life, however, by being ‘unshackled’ from the ship’s AI core and thwarting an attack by the Collectors, Joker begins to see EDI as a full rights-bearer.

A more interesting reversal of the anti-AI bent of the first game is present in the character of Legion – a geth platform whose back-story provides an ironic parallel to the arc of the entire series. The original game placed one in a position of sympathy with the quarians (the creators of the geth), whose creations rebelled against them and drove them off their homeworld. As Legion notes, however, they were created only as labour owned entirely by their quarian masters, who attempted to commit genocide after it became clear that the geth were fully sentient. The geth developed a difference of opinion – the larger group of geth decided they wanted to pursue peaceful coexistence with organics, while the smaller group of geth (aptly called ‘heretics’, as their differences were ultimately theological) wished to accept the technological guidance of the Reapers. The geth represented by Legion rightly saw that the Faustian pact the heretics made with the Reapers represented acquiescence to the very same kind of exploitation they suffered under the quarians. Legion’s insistence that the development of technology ought to be subservient to the moral development of his species, and that placing control over their technological development in the hands of a more ‘advanced’ species would ultimately lead to brutal forms of exploitation, lends a much greater sophistication to the Mass Effect universe’s outlook on technology. Though it confronts and subverts the Luddite leanings of the original game, it is still not really a Marxian perspective; in fact, it is here much closer to the economic thought of Mohandas Gandhi – but I find it very hard to believe it was a coincidence that ‘orthodox’ geth society is portrayed as radically communistic and consensus-democratic.

I think we need to be clear – as Nikolai Berdyaev argued, and I believe the argument to be true – that Marxism is a theology. It is a heretical theology, though one which (like most heresies) provides valuable insights into some much-neglected truths. It is a well-deserved reaction against the inhumanity of that great idol which marks our time: ‘the market’. However, it does have a disturbing tendency to want to swing the other way – in order to wipe out the inhumanity and structural violence of capitalism, it succumbs to the operating assumptions of capitalism in that it advocates even greater violence to make space for the peaceable alternative. This is, of course, the mistake of Mass Effect (though it is a mistake endemic to all first-person shooters, and, it should be noted, to video games in general) – the nature of the universe is inherently violent, and sentient life must make use of overwhelming violence to stop the Reapers from continuing that cycle. The tradition of Christian socialism does provide an alternative, but that is a subject for another post.

Ehh… screw it. I enjoy the Marxian implications anyway, and I’m not going to let my pacifistic leanings get in the way of enjoying a massively entertaining (no pun intended) series of video games for the masterworks they are. Trailer for ME3 is out; here it is:


  1. I love this. We're studying Communist Manifesto now, and these were my thoughts almost exactly. I do have one point of contention though. The Reapers and the husks they control, much like Romero's zombies, are communist states. Sovereign emphasizes the inevitable collapse of organic life, and organics will be exploited and/or fed to the Reapers to create a new Reaper (communist state).

  2. Glad you liked it. Even though I am highly sympathetic to the aims of socialism, I do have some fairly strong qualms about the way communism tends to happen in practice. How was it put? 'In communism, man oppresses man; in capitalism, it's the other way around.'