Why Mass Effect is some of the best sci-fi ever made

A grand narrative of community … Mass Effect Legendary Edition. Photograph: EA/BioWare

Games

By turns as cerebral as Star Trek, as hopeful as Asimov and as dramatic as Battlestar Galactica, the video game series deserves a place among the sci-fi greats

Our species will one day end. Whether it’s down to our own hubris, the disastrous effects of unbridled wealth accumulation and social division, war, the climate crisis, plague, a space rock or perhaps unfriendly aliens – we’ll one day be dust caught in cosmic winds, lost to an indifferent universe. On our pale blue dot, the remnants of once-great civilisations and vanished peoples that we unearth already show us that advanced development is no guarantee of perpetuity.

In sci-fi, humanity’s naive yearning to fight on despite this realisation often proves a point of curiosity – and sometimes inspiration – for alien species. This is front and centre of the Mass Effect trilogy of video games, in which our imminent annihilation is given form in the tendrils of creatures called Reapers: ancient, building-sized, alien-robot hybrids that wipe out most life in the Milky Way every 50,000 years.

Originally released between 2007 and 2012, the games were reissued this year as Mass Effect Legendary Edition, an updated complete trilogy, and there’s a compelling case that they are among the best sci-fi ever made. These games tell moving stories about human grit in the face of cosmic indifference, stories that every player gets to shape differently through their choices and their relationships with the characters.

Mass Effect Legendary Edition – humanity has to persuade the whole galaxy to come together to fight an existential threat. Photograph: EA/BioWare

Mass Effect is set many hundreds of years in the future, after humanity uncovers a device on Mars that allows for faster-than-light travel. This leads to encountering advanced alien species, who had already formed an interplanetary council to promote stability in a chaotic and messy universe. Humanity has become part of this new galactic society, trying to rise through the ranks. By the time players are introduced to the Mass Effect universe, humans have already proven themselves somewhat special, advancing quickly for such comparatively fledgling entities.

Protagonist Commander Shepard, when we first meet her, is on a routine mission that goes wrong, kicking off a hunt for a rogue operative. The first game’s story is fairly standard: one badass hunts down another, traitorous badass. But this is only the prologue for bigger events, as the traitor turns out to be an avatar for a larger threat. Shepard slowly discovers what happened to the galaxy’s mysteriously vanished advanced civilisations: they fell victim to a cycle of extermination, caused by the Reapers, that has gone on for millions of years.

The Reapers are giant bodies housing artificial intelligence – or, rather, following the orders of a central AI, the Catalyst. The reasons for their behaviour are no different to any other fictional AI takeover scenario: they were programmed with one main goal, and are fulfilling it. Ironically, that goal was “to preserve organic life”. The Catalyst concluded that the conflict between organic and artificial life was inevitable, and thus the only way to preserve organic life was to exterminate large portions of it, leaving only enough to allow underdeveloped species to survive.

Shepard is aware that there is no stopping the Reapers. And yet, despite the inevitability of what’s coming, she fights, and encourages others to fight with her. To face down the monolithic inevitability of cosmic annihilation and give it the middle finger is wonderfully human.

Personal and political … Garrus in Mass Effect Legendary Edition. Photograph: EA/BioWare

In the face of that existential threat, Shepard makes connections. Mass Effect is beloved for its rich, well-written, perfectly voiced characters. They are loud and terrifying; quiet and dignified; quirky and super-intelligent. Like Shepard, whose morality is shaped by the player’s choices, these characters are never outright good or purely evil. They are not shades of grey so much as a chaotic colour palette thrown against the canvas of the story, as messy as actual people are. This is particularly true of Shepard’s squadmates, who do not necessarily stay with her for ever. There’s precariousness not only in the state of the galaxy itself, but also in her relationships. They can involve romance, murder, betrayal, disappointment and sacrifice.

Consider Legion. Potential conflict between artificial intelligence and life is a theme that runs through the entire Mass Effect trilogy, but especially through this storyline about a robot entity that always refers to themselves in the first-person plural. Legion is part of a “species” called the Geth: a hive mind of artificial intelligence programs that use bipedal bodies to transport themselves around the galaxy. Geth are distrusted in the galaxy but Legion is determined to rectify that by hunting down rogue factions that gave Geth a bad name.

In the final moments of Mass Effect 3, however, before sacrificing themselves to save the galaxy, Legion starts to use “I”. It is fully aware: a singular, conscious entity. It is a heartbreaking moment because as Legion is truly born, Legion dies. It speaks volumes that BioWare’s writers were able to make a literal robot with no emotions and no face into a character so memorable.

The aspirational message at the heart of Mass Effect is getting a diverse set of societies, peoples and entities to work together for a common good. The trilogy culminates as Shepard and crew get everyone to work together, for one last major battle – to defend Earth from the invading Reapers. Alien species that have no real reason to help humans nevertheless decide to do so.

The Illusive Man, voiced by Martin Sheen, is one of the trilogy’s memorable antagonists. Photograph: EA/BioWare

This year, when everyone has been encouraged to isolate and death has been omnipresent, experiencing a grand narrative of community has been fulfilling. Mass Effect carefully balances the personal and the political in Shepard’s place in the story: helping some lowly community encourages a large corporation to send aid; befriending one alien leads that alien’s entire civilisation to help humanity. The personal is the political, but it is also the thread stitching diverse groups together.

The storytelling’s ability to tie personal stories into an overarching, galactic-scale narrative is commendable. The massed army that ends up fighting the Reapers is not made up of faceless soldiers and nondescript spaceships: each combatant reflects the player’s efforts throughout the trilogy. In many a space opera, spaceships are just lifeless husks, shooting or getting shot down. Not so here. Mass Effect, like other excellent sci-fi creations such as Battlestar Galactica, makes even space battles personal.

Like much great science fiction, Mass Effect is about aspiration and connection in the face of an indifferent cosmos. It is by turns as cerebral as Star Trek, as hopeful as Asimov, as dramatic as Battlestar Galactica – but because this is a story told through video games, it’s also one we, as players, can influence.

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Tauriq Moosa