So I feel badly about implying this, and am fully cognizant of (and in agreement with) our Meho’s postulations regarding this sequel. In fact, years ago a friend of mine ruined the original Mass Effect for me – I’d been absolutely loving it until he deconstructed the entire game before my eyes, embarking on a litany of completely valid complaints ranging from the miniscule to the monumental. I still blame him for shattering my illusions.
So how do I feel about the sequel? Clicky the clicky to find out. No spoilers, I promise.
Let’s start with the obvious: Mass Effect may have come in space opera clothing, but the game was actually about racism. It was about smallmindedness and bigotry, and how such views lead inevitably to destruction. In it Bioware reminded us, none too gently, that we have bigots on this planet who actually hate and fear members of their own race because they look or behave differently. Two humans, with the same genetic makeup, can look at each other and find the other lacking. What would happen, Bioware asked, when we had to deal with intelligent life that wasn’t human? As a species were are hateful and destructive; worthless. Encounters with extraterrestrial intelligence would only exacerbate these flaws.
Mass Effect 2 is a little more subtle. Oh, not the main storyline – Meho’s critique of it is spot-on. it’s hackneyed and sophomoric compared to, say, Battlestar Galactica. This game is more Starship Troopers, in that it uses an absurdly cliched and ridiculous plot, but there is considerable thematic depth underneath, if you look.
Bioware is a Canadian company. Canada has always had an interesting relationship with the USA – (Canadian) network news anchor Peter Jennings once noted that being Canada is like sleeping next to an elephant. On one hand, you’re very safe, because who would challenge an elephant? On the other, though… what if that elephant rolls over in its sleep?
What the United States went through on 9/11 was transformative, and not in a good way, to many Americans. For the first time since Pearl Harbor we were frightened, but worse, we were angry. These are two emotions that are very dangerous when mixed in Americans. The rest of the world watched its collective TV on 9/11 too, and surely had its own emotional reaction to the images it saw. But I can tell you that while we Americans are very good at opening our hearts and wallets when we see tragedy (witness our actions in Haiti), to us there is a huge difference between viewing those images and spending days watching footage of soot-covered Americans running and screaming in fear. It may be egomaniacal to claim such, but it’s true. When we see that we are less likely to try and help, and more likely to lash out. While this nation has always been eager to use force to get its way, after 9/11 there was a growing view that it was just and right to use force, even in the face of global condemnation. But beyond that were small changes that took place internally, things that our international readers may not realize.
The W. Bush administration established practices unheard of in this country, all in the name of national security. They tapped our phones, listening even to conversations between American citizens, and did it without warrants. They limited our free speech protection, to the point of the Secret Service arresting citizens who wore t-shirts with innocuous anti-Bush slogans. They started intercepting and reading our emails using NSA software that sniffed for alarm words. They established absurd travel rules related to the carry-on allowances for shampoo and bottled water. They tortured people, and established the government’s “right” to lock individuals away forever, without trial or even arraignment, even if they were citizens, if they were labeled enemy combatants. People simply disappearing did not happen in America until this age. Meanwhile, these acts accomplished essentially nothing in the context of preventing another 9/11 attack.
Mass Effect 2 mirrors those things. At about 5 hours of play, what I’ve seen is a fascinating allegory of what’s been going on in the United States, even under this far wiser President, and what’s going on in Mass Effect 2. I’ve seen a low-level security officer tell an underling that she’d “Have to make him scream a little” if she wanted to get any information out of a prisoner. I’ve seen lockdowns and security checkpoints at formerly open public areas. I’ve heard mention of “designated Free Speech Zones,” a famous nod to the corralling of protesters to protect W. Bush from ever hearing dissent.
And I’ve seen human beings usurping what had been a flawed, but operational, galactic republic, co-opting spaces held by alien races that had many thousands of years of seniority over us. And why did we do it? How did we do it? By telling them that we had saved them from an uncompromising evil, and that in so doing, we’d earned ourselves a place at the front of the line. This is a satirical mirror to the common idiot-American remark “you’d all be speaking German if it weren’t for us.”
What else does Mass Effect 2 make a point to highlight? The fact that suddenly, other races hate us even more. What we see as divinely-awarded superiority they see as arrogant upstartism; what we see as protection and nation-building they see as occupying forces and cultural co-option.
The game? The game’s pretty good. Meho’s complaints about it are right on the money; it’s slow, it’s ponderous, it’s dialogue intensive. But it does improve most of the flawed play elements from the original, and I’m greatly enjoying my Steam-purchased PC version. As with any good RPG, I’m totally overwhelmed right now with all the to-do items on my list, but looking forward to each experience. For reasons I can’t adequately explain, this game has hooked me far more than Dragon Age. Gameplay is good, story is mediocre, but if you play, I recommend playing for the themes rather than either of those.