The Mass Effect on racism
December 07, 2007
I've kicked Mass Effect around lately for its unfortunate infatuation with cinematic storytelling. Some of these filmic effects work well, especially as transitional devices (such as the Normandy's rousing departure from the Citadel under Shepherd's command), and they often do a god job of establishing locales. But dialogue scenes and extended conversations too often appear stilted with limited camera setups and repetitive animations.
Nevertheless, Mass Effect is an amazingly effective RPG with a rich and engaging narrative. One reason the game succeeds so well as a story is that the writers of Mass Effect have endowed the game with a point of view about racism that permeates the storyline and avoids the usual pitfalls of moralizing and oversimplification.
The sci-fi genre has always portrayed the future as commentary on the present, and Mass Effect is no exception. But what really stands out in this game are the subtle ways racism emerges as Shepherd moves through the narrative and the significant impact those attitudes can have on her relationships with other characters.
The writers wisely chose to depict humans as outsiders in the world of Mass Effect, which often forces them into a position of needing to prove themselves to aliens they may regard suspiciously. Shepard's interactions with Navigator Pressley are particularly revealing as he represents the kind of "old school" soldier who clearly harbors racist views of all non-humans.
Interestingly, if you play Shepard as a commander who will not condone such intolerance, when you later return to speak with Pressley he will appear to have disavowed these beliefs. But the fact that he won't engage with you on the topic of aliens anymore suggests that he has decided to suppress them in the presence of his C.O. rather than truly examine them. Despite his silence, it's impossible to dismiss the relish with which he described the slaughter of an alien battalion in your previous conversation. So you're left always wondering about Pressley, and it remains unclear whether or not he can be trusted.
A hallmark of good writing is a certain degree of purposeful ambiguity, and the character of Ashley Williams is an apt example. Full of self-doubt and uncertainty, she expresses sentiments that seem patently racist. If you speak to her while exploring the Presidium, for example, she will observe "You can't tell the aliens from the animals." However, if you take the time to investigate her, over time you will discover much about her background that explains her deep-seated insecurities and conflicted loyalties. She has suffered much, which may not excuse her racist sentiments, but like nearly all the characters in Mass Effect her backstory provides the player with a more thorough empathetic engagement than other contemporary RPGs.
The racial tensions portrayed in Mass Effect are further complicated--and thus made more interesting--by the fact that the story involves multiple races with conflicting interests, rather than the typical binary presentation we have seen so often. Easy answers and conflict-resolving platitudes will not work in this environment.
Remember the original series Star Trek allegory "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" in which two intractable aliens wage war against each other based on the fact that one of them has a white left and black right face, while the other has the opposite?
There's no one alive on Cheron because of hate! Give yourselves time to grieve; give up your hate! You're welcome to live with us. Listen to me -- you both must end up dead if you don't stop hating! --Kirk
Pop culture science fiction has come a long way from such well-meaning but simple-minded depictions of race and culture. With many hours of gameplay ahead of me, I cannot tell how these conflicts will be resolved in Mass Effect. That in itself suggests a maturity in video game storytelling we ought to celebrate.