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Indoctrination, Assimilation, and Elimination: The Reaper Methodology in Mass Effect

The indoctrinated Matriarch Benezia

The indoctrinated Matriarch Benezia

It took three games, but at last now I have a more complete  understanding of how the Reapers go about conquering organic life every 50,000 years.  A warning though: if you have not completed the Mass Effect trilogy, you may want to skip this article for now.  There are spoilers for each game in the franchise.

From Commander Shepard’s first trip to Noveria and her confrontation with Matriarch Benezia, Mass Effect players have learned of indoctrination, the process by which Reapers convince organics that following the machines is the best course of action all the while presenting the appearance of free will. Our indoctrination education continues on Virmire during Shepard and Saren’s first battle.  Our hero realizes that the machines conditioned the former Spectre to think a Reaper takeover is inevitable.  Saren claims that aiding the Reaper Sovereign is the best way to help the species of our galaxy. This theme returns in Mass Effect 3 when Shepard and Anderson realize that the Reapers controlled the Illusive Man.  It is also quite possible that Shepard herself might be indoctrinated toward the end of ME3, though I do not agree with that argument.

The indoctrinated Saren Arterius on Virmire.

Yet this condition is only one possible method of Reaper control.  Obviously this works on the individual level when the machines need key individuals to influence other organics. However indoctrination is a slow process which ultimately burns out the thrall, though not before influencing governments at the highest level and causing all sorts of chaos.

In contrast the second method, assimilation, actually allows entire civilizations to “survive.”  The Reapers, though their agents, capture and then convert thousands of individuals for the specific purpose of creating new reapers.  In order to facilitate this process, the Reapers repurpose one species for the task of capturing and converting.  After the last cycle, the machines turned the Protheans into the Collectors, who were charged with assimilating humankind for the next Reaper. Assimilation normally is the process whereby the dominant social group absorbs a subordinate one to the point where only a few (desirable) traits of the lesser remain.  In the case of Mass Effect, one species is literally collected, processed, absorbed, repurposed and used as material for a new Reaper.  And yet some of that species remains, “alive” if you will inside the new creation.  Had the Collectors succeeded in Mass Effect 2, a successful Reaper invasion would have left humankind alive in the body of the youngest machine.

Human Reaper from Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect investigated indoctrination and Mass Effect 2 covered assimilation. The final act, ME3, told the story of elimination. Up until Shepard’s final confrontation with the Illusive Man Mass Effect 3 chronicles the organics struggle to avoid extinction.  However the final few minutes bring all three aspects of the Reapers methodology into one scene. With the defeat of the Collectors in Mass Effect 2, the Reapers needed to process more humans for the construction of another machine.  Earth of course, provided the greatest source of human beings for assimilation. After Shepard and company make a final assault on the Citadel in order to stave off elimination, she and Anderson find the indoctrinated Illusive Man who believes he can control the Reapers, not realizing he was fully converted into a pawn. From Shepard’s conversation with the Catalyst it is not clear (and the subject of much debate) if she is indeed indoctrinated or not.  Of the three choices presented to her by the Catalyst, two (synthesis and controlling the machines) not only keep the machines intact, but bring about a union of flesh and metal. The hardest choice is for Shepard to destroy the Reapers as she sacrifices herself.

Commander Shepard prevented the assimilation of humans in ME2.

However this choice also presents a possibility that the cycle will finally end.  Shepard had already prevented the assimilation and elimination of her species.  If she chose to also reject indoctrination, she would also remove the first and most insidious aspect of Reaper control.

I have no doubt that my analysis of Reaper methodology is incomplete.  As I work my way through another play through of the entire franchise, my views may change or evolve.

Return to Mass Effect: The Compassionate Shepard

April 17, 2013 Comments off

Karen Shepard in action on Ferros

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Mass Effect (ME) franchise on gaming and entertainment.  Some refer to ME as the most important science fiction narrative of our generation. Yes, ME and its two sequels have sold millions of copies, but if we consider the narrative itself, we realize that it is also an exploration of human nature as it relates to choice. I chose to play ME again, but this time I deleted all my game saves from ME2 and ME3. This way I could start fresh and my choices would matter all over again. What a difference that made!  I have been playing Mass Effect 1 almost like the first time, taking my time and finishing every mission while engaging in all conversations.

My main goal, since I know how the story ends, was to watch the character development across all three games.  Of course I have my theories as to which games and missions bring the most out of the characters, including my Shepard, but it is still interesting to see these stories as they emerge.

Of course my Shepard is center.

At the beginning of ME1 I already know her as a war hero and as a woman who has overcome a rough upbringing.  She is confident, though quick to let others know she expects the best from them.  She is compassionate to the point where she will try to avoid a fight if at all possible.  Exploration runs in her blood, even with the fate of millions resting on her shoulders.  Her curiosity gets the better of her.  Finally, she is loyal to her new crew.

I have found that this crew, however, is only really developed through dialogue.  Where as in ME2 the player has the opportunity to flesh out Miranda Lawson, Jack, and others through missions, ME1 relegates most character development to conversations aboard the Normandy.  Wrex and Garrus Vakarian are the only exceptions.  At first I took every instance to see what my companions had to say, but they quickly began repeating themselves.  Not much help there.  Still, I am careful to cultivate strong friendships, especially with Ashley Williams and Liara T’soni.  It will be interesting to see my relationship with Ashley deteriorate over the course of the games.  On the other end, I always look forward to a romance with Liara and all the great moments that spring from it.

The indoctrinated Saren on Virmire.

The indoctrinated Saren on Virmire.

Having said all that however, it was only after I finished ME last night that I realized the real development/evolution came from Shepard (or rather from me).  In thinking back, I now realize I played Shepard differently from the way I did previously. From the beginning of my time with my Shepard (back in 2007) I took pleasure in having her be compassionate.  Whenever possible, she would talk her way out of a fight with the  paragon option.  This time I even went so far as to save the council, because this is what she would do.  I realize now that letting the council die in order to advance human interests is not what my Shepard would do (even if that is what I would do).  All these years I pulled her out of character with that one choice. This is the Shepard that convinced Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams to not sacrifice her self in order to regain her family honor.  This is the Shepard that persuaded Saren Arterius he could fight indoctrination.  I had never before convinced him to shoot himself rather than fight me.  It didn’t matter that he had betrayed all organic life in Citadel Space.  It didn’t even matter that we fought on Virmire.  All that really counted for me in our final confrontation on the Citadel is that I felt I could give him a chance to redeem himself.  It was sort of the “I know there is still good in you” moment from Return of the Jedi.

So now Shepard has saved the Council, the Citadel, and humanity from the Reapers, at least for a short time. In going down this road (again) she has helped me realize that of all my trips through ME this one was the most satisfying as I know have my Shepard, now complete, ready to battle the Collectors in ME2.

Categories: Role Playing

Mass Effect 3, Marketing, and a Magic Bullet: Emily Wong Reporting

On October 30, 1938, Mercury Theatre of the Air performed H.G.Wells’ War of the Worlds, which was broadcasted over the Columbia Broadcast System radio network.  Orson Welles directed and narrated this now-infamous production.  Because many listeners missed the first few minutes, which included the disclaimer that the performance was only fiction, many believed that an actual invasion was taking place.  This event is often cited as an example of the Magic Bullet (or Hypodermic Needle) theory that states that media have swift and powerful effects on consumers because they believe the entire message.  You don’t hear too much about Magic Bullet nowadays but then a strange thing happened on the way to the release of Mass Effect 3. The 21st century version of War of the Worlds appeared via Twitter.

Emily Wong from Mass Effect.

It all started out with a simple retweet from an Alliance News Network message.  I didn’t pay much attention, but it said something about a mysterious object in the sky.  Another retweet revealed that reporter Emily Wong, from Mass Effect 1, was reporting that Earth communications were down just as this object descended from the clouds.  My interest piqued, I began to follow the Alliance News Network (ANN) so I could get all the tweets as they posted.  What followed was a brilliant re-enactment of War of the Worlds with the Reapers now taking the place of Martians.  Of course I did not realize this at first, but as I read tweet after tweet, I remembered listening to recordings of War of the Worlds and reading about the ensuing panic.

Soon I started following the hashtag connected to the tweets and found that many others were commenting on the messages.  Some even took to role-playing as they pretended to “panic” and in doing so began to “re-enact” the real panic of 1938. I began to see some slight similarities between the mayhem used to support an antiquated theory and the reach of social media.  Of course the reach of ANN is nowhere near the panic of 1938.  Some estimates run as high as 1.7 million people who thought the production was real.  I don’t believe anyone thinks the Reapers are really coming of course and only 8,000 people were on the receiving end of those Tweets, but my guess is that the “magic bullet” BioWare is looking for is an uptick in sales.  Is it a stretch to think that those consumers who are still undecided about buying Mass Effect 3 would do so because of this modern-day War of the Worlds? Or do these message simply reinforce the idea that this is a must-have game for those who have already decided to purchase Mass Effect 3?

As I sit here and read the messages from Emily Wong, I wonder if I will see her in the actual game. Or does her story end before the game begins?  Her frantic messages serve to heighten anticipation of the invasion of course, but they also reveal how quickly messages spread through social media thanks to retweeting and hashtags.  One of the aspects of the classic magic bullet theory is that mass media quickly effect those who consume them. A marketing magic bullet, in this case, might be powered by social media.

Mass Effect 2: One Year Later

Karen Shepard, my character from ME1 & 2, has helped me explore the galaxy, humanity, and alien cultures.

(Warning: Mass Effect 1 & 2 spoilers follow).

January 26, 2011 marks the first anniversary of BioWare’s Mass Effect 2. It is hard to believe a year has passed since we first got to play the second installment of its epic space trilogy.  Mass Effect 2 continued the saga of humanity’s struggle for survival as well as its quest for political supremacy within the Citadel. It would be the biggest understatement to say I have enjoyed that game.  However having completed the games several times, I think I am in a better position to look at several areas of research available due to the volumes of content that come with the Mass Effect experience.  Some of them I have already touched on, yet there are other areas that cry out for exploration, including disability, body image, moral choices, and several mass communication theories to include framing (in-game media broadcasts), agenda setting (Cerebus network), and gatekeeping. To be honest, I have already dabbled into why Mass Effect 2 address the human condition and how some story elements represent cultural hegemony.  In fact I did that not once, but twice.  A few months later, I wrote we need more characters like Joker. Recently I explored how BioWare uses fictitious faith as an option to avoid the controversies of addressing real-world religions. I even argued that my beloved Karen Shepard should die again at the end of Mass Effect 3. In addition, other writers have brilliantly written about some of the political aspects of BioWare’s epic. Jorge Albor over at Experience Points penned “The Quarian Exiles,” “The Salarian Dilemna” and “Cultural Conflict.” One might think that because of the many articles about Mass Effect that we have sufficiently mined universe for cultural ideas.  Not so.

Mass Effect "Overlord" is an opportunity to study disability.

First, the added content (DLC) “Overlord” infused horror and oppression of the disabled into Mass Effect 2. The “ends justifies the means” mentality used by Cerebus to combat the mechanical Geth put the player in the position of leaving a disabled man in the hands of his oppressive brother or shipping him off to an academy for help and thereby putting humanity at a disadvantage in its war against the Geth’s masters, the Reapers. Anyone interested in exploring how the story unfolds must capture and study the flashbacks the player sees as well as the ending cut scene and in doing so will see how the character Daniel will shift from what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls wondrous (awe-inspiring) to exotic (dangerous, alien, strange) to sentimental (to be pitied and taken care of).

Grunt (foreground) and Tali help the gamer explore family issues in ME2.

Body image and gender issues are obvious avenues of exploration in ME2.  Critics will no doubt zero in on First Officer Miranda Lawson, whose tight outfits present the image of sex symbol even as she reminds Commander Shepard, and the player, that she has been genetically bred to be intelligent as well as a powerful biotic.  She therefore often times splits the male player’s focus on her since she is a possible love interest for MaleShep while catering to the Illusive Man’s interest as a Cerberus operative and first officer of the good ship Normandy. Her cool demeanor is offset by the fiery and sexual Jack/Subject Zero who presents the option of unattached sex. In contrast, Samara’s quest to kill her daughter provides room for those interested in the intersection of child rearing and employment and the consequences of being away from home too much.  Kasumi Goto quest reveals a love tale with some James Bond elements thrown in. Of all the characters, it is Tali’Zorah who provides the interesting political/familial/loyalty missions in the game (as does the Krogan Grunt).

The Mass Effect trilogy is well-known for its moral choices.  One of the big selling points was that choices made in the first game carry over into the second.  Likewise, choices made in ME2 will help shape the outcome of the series in ME3.

If you saved the Rachni in ME1 will they help defeat the Reapers in ME3?

I have read accounts of how Shepard’s actions with the Krogan, the Quarians, the Geth, and the Rachni will help to form an alliance against the Reapers in ME3. It will be interesting to see if certain options lead to success or if some kind of pluralism exists in ME (all roads lead to a good ending).

Another rich area of research is in-game media, ala the Cerberus Daily News and in-game news updates on different planets. The CBN ran for one year, providing daily updates from the ME Universe.  These short messages not only enhanced and expanded the canon, but also provide material for textual and content analyses. Just as interesting are the numerous in-game updates the player can listen to.  These quick announcements might provide some insight into how news reports are framed within the game.  What elements are emphasized and which ones are downplayed or even ignored? How do the interests of the Citadel play out against the public’s need to know? Do these news bursts, as I call them, in any way help to set the public agenda for conversation and reaction? This last item is difficult since we are only privy to the reactions of Shepard and those around her.

It seems that the anniversary of Mass Effect 2 raises nearly as many questions as it answers. The middle chapter of this trilogy has one final section of downloadable content due out this year.  BioWare has not revealed if this will be DLC that bridges ME2 and 3, ala “Lair of the Shadow Broker.”  If it does you can bet that researchers will add it to the healthy collection of ME content already available.

Religion in AAA Releases: Some Thoughts on Real and Fictitious Faith

Major digital game titles are not exactly known for straying from the dominant perspective. One only has to look at how these AAA titles cater to white, male, and heterosexual norms. The question (or at least one of them) becomes why does that change when religion becomes the focus?  I am certainly not saying that portrayals of religion should shamelessly adopt a dominant perspective also, but that religion occupies a small space in the narrative of digital games. In the United States, Christianity is the dominant religion, yet games, like other entertainment media, tend to shy away from portraying that faith in ways that reflect diversity of faith while avoiding preaching and cliché religion portrayals.  Of course faith is a touchy topic and just as explosive as race, yet at the same time is core to the human experience.

However religion, at least in the United States, is complex in part because of the diverse nature of our many faiths. After all, to claim Christ does not reveal is one is orthodox, Catholic, mainline protestant, evangelical, and so on. Moreover, those mixtures change depending on what part of the country you reside.  For example, in One Nation, Divisible, Mark Silk and Andrew Walsh report that in New England, 68% of those who claim religious affiliation are catholic and mainland protestants are outnumbered by evangelicals by 3 to 1. When you compare that to the Southern Crossroads (Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri), you find that the percentage of Roman Catholics drops to 18.6 %.  Moreover, half the Catholics in the region are Latino. Lastly, one will find very few minority religions (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and so on) in this area, less than 0.5%.  The other areas of the country, the South, the Pacific, the Pacific Northwest, etc, are all equally diverse.  How do developers address the many aspects of Christianity in their narratives?  For the most part, they don’t.

Leliana (Dragon Age Origins) is a member of the Chantry and a fierce warrior.

Instead some titles address fictional religions.  For example, religion plays a central role in Dragon Age Origins (DAO).  While it is apparent from the start of the game that this religion is modeled closely after Christianity, there are obvious differences.  Still the similarities are such that one can point out multiple examples of Christian faith playing out in the game world.  This should not come as a surprise to anyone who plays role-playing games, the genre to which DOA belongs.  Other games in this genre, such as The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion and Mass Effect, also have religious elements.

Mass Effect 1 takes a different approach in that it creates a new religion around the antagonists of the game, the mechanical Reapers. These ancient machines are worshipped by other machines known as the Geth.  During the game, the player, kills two Geth as they worship the Reapers in a temple.  The player gets very little information because he/she is still trying to figure out the relationship between the two races, so we are left to wonder what other aspects of this fictional religion exists.  The in-game encyclopedia, the Codex offers some slight clues, but little information is forthcoming about Reaper worship in the first two Mass Effect games.

The writers of Mass Effect created a religion for the game.

Of course creating a whole new faith is far safer than attempting to navigate religious waters.  Yet if digital game producers dare to call their craft a full-fledged medium then this bridge will have to be crossed eventually.  Hopefully games will be more bold than television has been in this regard.  To be honest, I have no idea how such an endeavor will work out.  Any honest attempt to explore religion without being preachy (like many of those awful PC Christian games on the market today) can still draw the ire of different groups. However this intersection of faith and adventure does not have to provide any answers, nor does it always have to be direct.  I recall a conversation between Mass Effect characters Commander Shepard and Chief Ashley Williams where they briefly discuss her faith.  That is certainly more tangible than the heavy religious symbolism we see in Bioshock or Assassin’s Creed, but it is a reminder that there are multiple ways to explore the faith of individuals and communities.

Commander Shepard Must Die – Again!

I read a blog by Greg Rucka the other week titled “On Reapers, Collectors, Being Called Shepard” and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  As much as I love Mass Effect 2, I was having some issues with the rebirth of Commander Shepard.  Rucka’s article address many of those concerns, including the idea that there has to be some conversation involving Shepard and her rebirth (I usually play as FemShep and so I use the pronoun “she”).  I hope we get to experience that in ME3.

That is not my main issue, however.

Simply put, Commander Shepard needs to die.  Again.

Now I have played through ME2 four times, finished all the DLC, including “Lair of the Shadow Broker”, and I will argue to anyone who will listen that it is the best game ever.  And yet I can’t escape the notion that because of the way Shepard came back that she should not survive the end of the trilogy.

Perhaps if she had come back to life through more divine means I might have been able to accept this second chance at life.  If God or gods or aliens with fantastic powers (ala Q in Star Trek) were responsible, then perhaps I could suspend my disbelief and play in peace.  This sort of thing happens in graphic novels all the time.  (Jean Grey and Betsy Braddock in X-Men come to mind.) Perhaps I might even have been okay if Shepard had been revived by technology a few moments after her death (a crutch in Star Trek The Next Generation and Voyager).  However in ME2 two years pass between her death and rebirth. Even with the advanced technology available to Miranda Lawson and the Illusive Man, I wonder if I got the same Shepard, my Shepard, back just the way she was before.

In my latest play through, I looked even more closely at the nano-tech that Lawson used to repair Shepard’s body(shown in the above youtube video).  Impressive for sure. That is all well and good, but how can even the most advanced technology restore memory and personality? Moreover, her new lease on life speaks to the issue that the spark that makes her special and unique is somehow anchored to her physical body, or at the very least returns when all the organs and systems begin to work again.

So how can BioWare make this right with me? The first option is to kill Shepard again.  She can go out in a blaze of glory saving all humankind from the Reapers or her body can simply shut down by rejecting the nanotech, but either way I need to see that in the end, nobody cheats death. The second option is to reveal that she really is different, ala the Rucka article. Instead of a simple acknowledgment that “I got better,” there should be some trauma associated with this return to life. Perhaps a darker Shepard could emerge over time. It would great to see her really transform into something more evil or twisted.

BioWare has a rare opportunity to explore the other side of death in Commander Shepard. They have created a character with the potential to be one of the most memorable in any medium. I would love to see her remembered not only for saving humankind, but for being the most human of us all by living, dying, living, and (hopefully) dying.

Christian Iconography in Dragon Age Origins

Numerous reviews of Dragon Age Origins knocked the game for its generous use of blood.  Not so much that the game has copious amounts of blood but rather the way that characters go about their business after battles while covered in it. I have to admit they do look rather silly having conversations with people without even bothering to wipe the blood off their faces and clothes but it doesn’t take too much away from an otherwise excellent game.

While DOA does not shy away from using blood on-screen whenever possible it seems, it also brilliantly uses symbolism in other areas.  In fact, the player does not even need to enter the game to see how well icons foreshadow the horror that is to come.  One need only look at the title screen to see how well developer BioWare has crafted Christian symbols into the mythology of Ferelden.

Christian icons abound in this image.

The dominant portion of this image is the sword in the foreground.  This weapon is not just stuck in the ground, but it is embedded in someone’s chest.  We can see blood runs halfway up the blade.  Visible in the background is another sword. It appears both have been left on the battlefield.  In the background we can see mountains and trees. Dark clouds move overhead.  Darkness shrouds the entire image.

Any analysis of the symbols gets easier thanks to George Ferguson. In 1955 he wrote Signs & Symbols in Christian Art. This work is a masterpiece in Christian iconography.  In it, Ferguson deftly places many items we see everyday into their proper connection with Christianity. Thanks to him, I can look into the overtly religious world of DOA and connect some of the dots to the Christian faith.

For example, Ferguson notes that clouds represent the unseen God. On DOA‘s title page, however, the clouds are a dark mixture of red and black.  Black means death and the underworld but can also represent the prince of darkness, witchcraft, mourning, sickness, and  negation.  In contrast to black, red symbolizes blood as well as the emotions of love and hate. Red also stands for martyred saints. I said before that the scene is quite dark.  Ferguson writes that in Christianity physical darkness represents spiritual darkness.

So before we even begin the game, Bioware presents the image of warfare and carnage, but not just on the physical level.  The rolling dark clouds indicate a spiritual battle taking place in the heavens.  In Dragon Age terms, the Maker and the arch-demons battle in the heavens while man and demon fight on earth. And the outcome seems to be in doubt.

Underneath the clouds we find rocks in the foreground and mountains in the distance.  While shadows shroud the far-off  mountain range, the rocks in the foreground appear brown. Now rocks symbolize the Lord while stones indicate firmness. However brown means spiritual death and degradation, a possible indication that evil prevails. A second indicator of the strength of evil in this game could be that the earth, meaning the Church/Chantry (which feeds man with spiritual faith and offers him shelter) is also covered in shadow.

Which brings me back to the pair of swords in the foreground.  Aside from the obvious connection to the Word of God, swords can also represent numerous saints in Christian history.  The number two stands for the two natures of Christ: human and divine while blood symbolizes life and the human soul as well as martyrs. Curiously, it appears that both swords are embedded in the same person. Furthermore, we cannot tell who that person is and if he was good or evil. Perhaps we were not meant to know.

The wonderful thing about all this analysis is that BioWare might now have known what was going on when they created this title page.  Or perhaps they did.  Whatever the case, I choose to read the page this way and it certainly helps me enjoy the game that much more.