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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.

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.