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‘You Talk Too Much…’

Mass Effect 2

BioWare, 2010

Decisions, decisions.

This February put me in a tricky position: I was faced with two games I was dead set on reviewing. Both highly anticipated sequels to critically successful games, both made by brilliant development teams, both with distinctly different but powerful narrative methods. The choice was hard but, although it seems fitting that I’d review BioShock 2 on this, the anniversary of my article on the original BioShock, I find myself unable to produce that pleasing symmetry. First, because BioShock 2 would necessarily dim in comparison to its predecessor, and second because the betrayal of your origins is a central to ethical conduct (I read about that in a book!), and it’s ethics I want to talk about.

Specifically, the ethics of Mass Effect 2.

A little groundwork first.

Released by those masters of fantastical video game narrative, BioWare, the original Mass Effect and its sequel are single player role playing games (RPG) with an emphasis on action that draws from third person shooters, gunplay games played with the character visible from behind. Like an RPG, there is an emphasis on dialogue and interaction with characters in the game, as well as an action-driving central plot. The series is also the company’s first foray into their own sci-fi intellectual property.

Previously they had kicked out the incredible Knights of the Old Republic (its friends call it KotOR), a Star Wars role playing game set millennia before Luke Skywalker was even a twinkle in Natalie Portman’s eye. Their triumph was in breathing life into a beleaguered yet still rich franchise by being faithful to the ethos of Star Wars yet creating a space that was all BioWare’s own (subject to the approval of George Lucas, of course). Crucial to KotOR was the classic lightside/darkside paradigm, allowing you to aspire to Yoda-like goodness or, alternately, feats of evil that might make even Darth Vader blush. The choices between good and evil tended to be pretty clear cut. Do you defend Wookies from rapacious slavers, or do you sell out their species to those same slavers just to line your pocket with some extra credits? Not precisely a complex ethical situation.

With Mass Effect, the genre was still space opera, but in a galaxy of their own invention. Rather than being set long ago and far, far away, Mass Effect takes place in the latter decades of the 22nd century, with humans having recently stepped onto the interplanetary stage by discovering alien ruins on Mars, which taught them the secret of faster-than-light travel necessary for any serious space voyaging (one of the chief issues in the sci-fi genre). Of course, the galaxy is rich with other advanced races, all with various views on the appearance of a humanity that quickly make themselves known both for their innovation and their aggression. The player’s character, Commander Shepard, is the first human to be accepted into the ranks of the Specters, a corp of elite agents given free reign by the galaxy’s governing council. As such, the player’s actions determine to a great extent how humanity is viewed by the many other species with which we share the galaxy.

To underscore this responsibility, BioWare included a mechanic rather similar to the lightside/darkside measure in KotOR. Structured as Paragon/Renegade, the player could accrue points in either category through interactions with other characters in the game, as well as their teammates, a crew of occasionally conflicting personalities and values. In the original Mass Effect, Paragon actions tended to be heroic, self sacrificing, merciful and, most notably, invested in humans co-existing with alien races. Renegade actions were the opposite, invariably ruthless, self serving, aggressive and with a ‘humans first’ attitude bordering on full on racism/speciesism. The Renegade Shepard would openly state that he favored humans over aliens and, ultimately, decided to let the multi-species council that ran the galaxy die in a battle, allowing humans to take over in their place. The mutual orientation of the two was less directly obvious than in KotOR, since Renegade actions did have a beneficiary beyond the self, being closer to ‘ends justify the means’ than ‘motiveless malignance’. Nevertheless, Renegades always seemed like total jerks, which made them hard to play – I just disliked my Renegade-leaning character most of the time. KotOR, at least, gave you the certain pleasure to be found in sadism (see my article on Tropico for more in that vein).

Mass Effect 2 retained the space opera feel of its predecessor, but went way, way darker; ME2 feels like Empire Strikes Back to ME‘s A New Hope. And, concurrently, the ethical dilemmas confronting the player become much less clear cut. Paragon actions are still heroic and interested in galactic peace and/or harmony. However, Renegade actions take on a much more ‘anti-hero’ feel, as in the finest tradition of action films, complete with cold-blooded one liners. Much cooler.

Rather than dismiss this as a matter of mere improved style and writing, I want to confront the implications of that very change in style and writing. And I would like to highlight those moments in the game where we’re confronted by the ethical ambiguity that haunts all the best sci-fi, and see how these gray areas are resolved in a game that not only creates but insists upon the participation in a certain ethical framework – the binary of Paragon/Renegade.

The first question: why the suddenly palatable Renegade?

I can speak only from my experience, but as I said, ME‘s Renegade was a total bastard. Shoving his or her gun in people’s faces at the drop of a hat, bullying and blustering, incapable of a single conversation without threatening someone, the full-on Renegade came off as petty, his or her aggression often uncalled-for or excessive. ME2‘s Renegade is ruthless, yes, and far from chummy or forgiving, but seems cool. Gunslinging rather than guncrazy, badass instead of just bellicose, the new game’s Renegade actions just feel different.

Let’s take a look at an example:


The big lizard looking guys? Those are krogan. And they’re angry due to some very legitimate grievances we’ll get into later. Legitimate or no, the ‘sea of blood’ and ‘scream while we dump space stations into their respective suns’ stuff doesn’t endear one to these particular political radicals. When the red thing on the side of screen started flashing, that was a sign that the player could choose to interrupt with a Renegade action. This video shows an example of just such an interruption, with a great cold-blooded line: “You talk too much.” Pure pulp gold.

That genre connection should clue us in – pulps are all about a cop over the edge or a full-on vigilante meting out the justice the real (and either corrupt or ineffectual) keepers of law and order are unable to administer. At its heart, the pulp impulse is a reactionary one, the idea that, to preserve the law, the law itself must be exceeded, and violently. ME‘s Renegade menaced innocents. The new Renegade menaces the guilty. Asshole becomes anti-hero.

Setting is crucial here. ME2‘s universe is set in deeper shades, and the government takes on more of the aspects of weakness common to stereotype legal authorities. This is a galaxy that needs a good cleaning, and Commander Shepard is here to make a combat sweep. The bad guys are often really bad – slavers, profiteers, pirates and terrorists – but the clip we just watched points to the reactionary alignment of the hero (Renegade Shepard) borrowed from its pulp cousin. What the monologuing krogan expresses is horrific, promises of death and ruin, but it is essentially, dimly, the promise of revolution, of counter conquest. The first section of the krogan’s speech is all threats and viciousness. The last, similarly, is a promise of galactic carnage. But, right in the middle, is a simple, clean demand for justice against galactic authority. Revenge, yes, but one motivated by genuine revolutionary passion, the need not just to even the scales but upset the very system of measurement, to recreate the galaxy.

So, when Shepard says ‘You talk too much’, we should see this statement’s two sides. First, that literally the krogan ‘talks too much’, speaking up too loudly and saying too much aloud. The reactionary vigilante intervenes to silence dissent and demands for justice. Second, paradoxically, that the krogan talks too little. He threatens to cease to just talk, to directly enact the justice he desires. The reactionary vigilante intervenes so that it will only ever be just talk, to use diplomacy as a stalling action to prevent any real change, promises continually deferred. In both cases, the prevailing order remains. The Renegade is a political conservative, not truly rebelling against the law, but behaving as what Slavoj Žižek would refer to as the law’s ‘obscene supplement’. It’s innate self-transgression, necessary for the law’s very continuance.

The appeal of the pulp hero, then, is that of getting access to the real power of the law, which is itself against the law. You are the cop sent over the edge, the lone soldier making his last stand, the man who is willing to do ‘what it takes’, the sort of figure embodied in Dick Tracy, or Frank Miller’s (highly conservative) depiction of Batman. It’s the pleasure of being a henchman, gilded to let you look like a hero, because no matter how ‘bad’ you are, you always know the other guy is worse. And that is the appeal, also, of ME2‘s Renegade.

The above encounter is, due to more than coincidence, part in the same sub-plot as the dialogue below, which deals with the most poignant of Mass Effect 2’s ethical ambiguities, the genophage virus:


Brief fictional history lesson: The krogan were uplifted (given spacefaring technology) by the salarians (the frog-like race of the scientist in the clip) for use in a galaxy-wide war against the insectile rachni. The krogan, after defeating the rachni, rebelled against their position as a client race and, in turn, threatened to conquering the galaxy. The salarians developed the genophage virus as a way to defeat the krogan, a virulent disease that renders 99.9% of krogan sterile. This neatly ended the rebellion and have kept the entire krogan species weak and fragmented.

Mordin Solus, the scientist in the clip, was one of the salarians that helped develop the virus. He gives his reasons better than I can repeat, reasons which even he clearly recognizes as rationalizations. He is ‘responsible’ not ‘guilty’. ‘Genophage or genocide’, he insists, were the only available options. The virus, as he insists, doesn’t kill anyone, it simply prevents reproduction. And while it’s easy to blame him, as the player in this clip chooses to have Shepard do, from a very rational standpoint, Mordin has a point. And, for all Shepard’s criticisms, he doesn’t point to any obvious alternatives. If ‘genophage or genocide’ were the only options, surely sparing the krogan as a species is a better option.

I still don’t have a clear answer to this quandary, and the game similarly offers no choices outside either simply condoning (as a Renegade) or condemning (as a Paragon). Certainly, the reactionary principle of the Renegade is operative in its acceptance as ‘necessary’ this incredible crime in the name of maintaining the order of law. But the Paragon’s straight condemnation feels unsatisfying as well. While I played this section myself, my cursor twitched between the two extreme options available to me, and it was then I realized something. During this quandary, it’s Mordin I feel the most pathos for, not Shepard, even though I was Shepard in this scene. It’s Mordin’s conflict and uncertainty that I felt to be the best mirror of my own feelings, because Mordin’s ideology is closest to that of my own upbringing: liberal, pluralist, secular-spiritual, with Enlightenment ideals of reason and infinite perfectibility.

Okay, you’ve gotta bear with me for a second, because here’s where I bring out the big guns. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were philosophers and political thinkers in the Frankfurt school, a highly influential movement in Continental philosophy (they were colleagues and fellows of people like Thomas Mann and Walter Benjamin). Making observations throughout World War II, and trying to explain how it is that modernity, an age of reason and secularism, could have produced the insanity and irrationality of Nazism and the Holocaust, Adorno and Horkheimer came up with an earth-shattering answer: the Enlightenment itself. They claimed that the very way a person shaped by the Enlightenment was constituted as a person, deep down inside, was a contradiction – a dangerous myth that undermines itself in its own negation, total unreason, reactionary horror. It’s a complicated idea, but one that Mass Effect 2 manages to play out right before our eyes, in sci-fi guise.

What is Mordin’s ‘wheel of life’ but the literalization of the idea of Historical Progress or the Cunning of Reason, key modern, dialectical concepts? Infinite perfectibility, the belief that if we know more, understand more, we can make everything better – something I can’t help but believe. When pressed on the matter of the genophage, Mordin states his belief in the need for diversity in the galaxy, and the virus, by saving the krogan from extinction, was the instrument of that diversity. Doesn’t the liberal pluralist, an Enlightenment subject to be sure, share the spirit of these good intentions? He is a being of reason, insight, forethought and resolve. And his ultimate conclusion, between either genophage or genocide, mass sterilization or mass murder, is frighteningly reminiscent of Adorno and Horkheimer’s own conclusions about the dialectic of the Enlightenment. The Nazis, who were both eugenicists and genocidal, were, to Adorno and Horkheimer, the ultimate consequence of Enlightenment thought. Therefore Mordin’s own deadlock was predestined, due to the very coordinates of his ideology.

Mass Effect 2 is stuck in its own dialectical trap, pinioned between Paragon and Renegade, a binaristic system that is structurally unable to adequately resolve the issue of the genophage. Yet, that it is able to present such a chilling reflection of the logics that motivate enlightened modernity is a feat in and of itself. There are few higher compliments a game could receive than to be described as posing questions its own system cannot answer. So while it cannot simulate a genuinely ethical position for the player, it can point to that space of unknown potential that emerges out of its own confines, gesturing, however helplessly, at an ethics beyond itself.

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Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews can be read here.