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.
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.
Others are transhumanist. They agree with Heidegger without necessarily siding with him. They tell us we cannot go out into space and remain human. The stars are too many and the void between them too dark. But that’s OK. We don’t need to be human. Heidegger was right about humanity’s limits but wrong about the implications of exceeding them. The most important question of our time may be “Should we lose our humanity?” Mass Effect scares me by making me want to say “yes.”
There Is No Fat Lady
“Mass Effect is a space opera,” says Joel Gourdin of X-Play in the opening of “Sci vs. Fi: Mass Effect,” a half-hour slobberfest over the game, presented by the SciFi channel back in November. The program featured BioWare staff and Mass Effect voice actors, as well as game journalists and random D-List celebrities. Gourdin contributed shameless saliva to the production, but he did classify the game correctly.
Space opera is essentially Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers: serial adventure with galactic-scale civilizations. The core conflict of a space opera occurs between larger-than-life heroes and villains, with the fate of humanity at stake. Though long derided for bad science and cartoonish characters, the genre has been respectable since Star Trek.
From the beginning, space opera has always been allegorical. They reflected the great conflicts of the 20th century. The humanoids populating the galaxy represent either Earth cultures or exaggerations of the human condition. Thus, Klingons represent both the imperialism of the Soviet Union and the dangers of unrestrained aggression. The reason for using this formula is to address concerns of the day. It was no accident that the first interracial kiss on American television occurred on Star Trek.
Mass Effect applies the Star Trek formula – exactly that formula. Aliens represent what it means to be human, and BioWare hopes to show us a startling kiss. Unfortunately, the moment for such old-timey sci-fi may have passed.
Sex And Death!
Everyone involved in “Sci vs. Fi: Mass Effect” praised the game to the skies, including Mass Effect‘s head writer, Drew Karpyshyn. He said this:
“I think we’re entering an age when people are more open-minded. … People are saying traditional sexual roles don’t necessarily have to be the way to go. And Mass Effect lets you maybe explore things a little differently, because, let’s be honest, alien chicks are hot.”
There’s no geek obliviousness here. Karpyshyn is not talking about how you can play as a woman commander in Mass Effect. He’s talking about the game’s human-on-alien lesbian sex scene.
Amazingly, Karpyshyn considers these scenes progressive or daring. Yes, in 1992, people protested Basic Instinct over its lesbian content, but the 16-year-olds born in that year and who are now playing Mass Effect enjoyed a pubescence blessed with “Girls Making Out” videos. Mass Effect‘s understanding of traditional sexual roles may not be up-to-date.
“Sci vs. Fi” runs Karpyshyn’s comments over shots of the game’s iconic aliens, the Asari – blue-skinned women with fleshy folds instead of hair. We see the game’s hero at a nightclub, having an Asari exotic dancer perform for him, as well as clips of an Asari “consort.” Just to be clear: As Mass Effect‘s head writer lauds his own work for its subversion of traditional sex roles, we see images of a stripper and a prostitute.
The Asari stand as the most powerful species in the galaxy, and they have the ability – and desire – to breed with any other species. The primary love interest in the game is Asari, for both male and female characters. That’s right: The easiest romance to develop in Mass Effect is with a blue-skinned, bisexual, hot alien chick who prefers to date outside her race.
You can see the Star Trek formula at work. The Asari are a species of super-feminine females. Men receive similar treatment. They turn up as the super-masculine Krogan. Looking like bipedal snapping turtles, the Krogan are a warlike species that were defeated and rendered nearly infertile in a big war. Now on their way to extinction, the Krogan work as mercenaries, gleefully wreaking havoc whenever possible. The Krogan destroy; they don’t create. Also, they have four testicles.
In your Mass Effect crew, you have a species that breeds with anything and a species that can hardly breed at all. You have the option of making sweet love to the one with blue breasts and killing the one with a double scrotum. What is BioWare telling us?
Humans are the Problem
It makes sense to write sci-fi that explores gender in today’s world. Francis Fukuyama has suggested that increases in life expectancy (which favors women) in the developed global North and the practice of aborting female fetuses in the less developed South may result in a gender divide between the two regions. Female and male cultures.
Mass Effect‘s hyper-gendered aliens don’t speak to any present concern. The Asari character is shy, articulate and apologizes frequently. She’s like a Canadian. The Asari species comprises matriarchs, strippers, prostitutes and occasionally commandos – fine entries for Captain Kirk’s Guide to Women. The Asari and the Krogan have no alien ways about them. They serve only to fill tried-and-true BioWare roles: good-girl romantic interest and tough-guy mercenary.
BioWare set out to produce archaic sci-fi, and they accomplished their task too well. They offer us wisdom that was meaningful 30 or 40 years ago: Deep down, we’re all human, baby. That’s a pleasant sentiment, but today’s future is about what it means not to be human.
Genetic engineering, life extension, and artificial intelligence will evolve humanity. After playing Mass Effect, I can’t wait for this to happen. The future can’t possibly be as dull as blue Canadian chicks. Younger generations, because they’re bored and because they were born on a planet, not on the ground, will set these technologies loose. One good showing of the youth vote and the U.S. will legalize human cloning. We’ll become our own aliens. The prospect scares me, but I want the view from the moon.
Ray Huling’s a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. He can’t wait to escape from New York back to Lovecraft Country.