Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Mass Effect Saves Humanity - for What?

Ray Huling | 11 Mar 2008 12:44
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You know evolution did not end with us growin' thumbs. You do know that, right? - Bill Hicks

Let's Get Space-y
The boys at BioWare said they took their inspiration for Mass Effect, their hit sci-fi roleplaying game for the Xbox 360, from their favorite science fiction films of the late '70s and early '80s. The claim seems disingenuous. Why not just say Star Wars and be done with it? Mass Effect consists of the Mos Eisley Cantina, the bounty hunters from Empire and Jabba's Palace, plus Force powers. Whom do they think they're kidding?

There's more to it, actually. A bug-hunting sequence, a homicidal computer, a civilization of robots that rebelled against their creators, a machine species that exterminates any sapient organic life. Mass Effect draws from Aliens, 2001 and Battlestar Galactica, both new and old. The game has a perfunctory, checklist feel, but you can still find a profound moment in it.

Mine came on Earth's moon. I went there to destroy the HAL 9000 redux, and on the way to its bunkers I stopped to ransack a Soviet lander, forgotten in the gray dust. As an American, I took pleasure in stripping that Soviet junk. "Haw, haw," I guffawed, as I disrespected the Russkie tech. "Tough luck, second best!" Then I got back into my six-wheeled exploration vehicle and drove over the lip of a crater. There, I had the experience that defines Mass Effect: terror induced by the banal.

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It was Earthrise over the moon. Blue, green and white, clear against the spill of the Milky Way. Breathtaking. Seeing the Earth from the moon in Mass Effect felt like hearing an American accent when someone speaks to me in a foreign language. I felt alien, mistaken for a foreigner. That's what terrified me: For a moment, I enjoyed not being myself.

Let's Get Philosophical
In an interview he gave in 1966, Martin Heidegger spoke about precisely this experience. Heidegger is arguably the most influential philosopher of the 20th century; he is inarguably the most controversial. His thinking on what it means to be human in a technologically advanced world still informs debates on genetics, medicine and artificial intelligence today. He was also a Nazi. You just have to deal with this sort of thing in contemporary philosophy.

Heidegger had a reaction different from mine. "I was certainly shocked when I recently saw photographs of the Earth taken from the moon," he said. He fears estrangement; I fear liking it. For Heidegger, if you want to destroy humanity, you don't need nuclear weapons or a giant asteroid or pollution or disease, you just need to convince people that they live on a planet rather than on the ground. The image of the Earth from space is something we cannot accept without becoming inhuman. I pretty much live for ideas like that.

Science fiction always takes a position on Heidegger. Star Wars, Star Trek, old Battlestar Galactica and Mass Effect all believe Heidegger was wrong. They believe humanity can endure among the stars. Theirs is a humanist sci-fi.

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