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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.

Cultural Hegemony Within the World of Mass Effect, part 2

Last time I wrote about how the organization Cerberus challenges the hegemonic rule of the Citadel Council in the Mass Effect franchise.  This time around we explore some of the finer points of cultural hegemony and how some different readings of ME point to inclusion of hegemony in these two BioWare games.

In ME mythology, the Council was originally made up of the Asari and the Salarians.  The Turians were allowed to join after they unleashed the genophage on the violent Krogan, thereby keeping them in check due to the new genetically controlled birthrate. Humanity joined the council after the Battle of the Citadel (as Sovereign’s attack came to be known).  Both times the race that saved the Citadel from demise  became a member of the ruling council. In the world of Mass Effect, the most relevant challenges to hegemonic rule are a) those great threats that come from the outside and b) an uprising so strong that the regular fleet cannot prevail.

In the case of the Krogan Uprisings, the Citadel nearly destroyed itself. After all, they enabled the quick-breeding Krogan to escape the confides of their predator-filled home planet and as long as they could defeat the Rachni and win the Citadel’s war, the hegemony prevailed. However with the end of the Rachi War, the Krogan population ballooned at an alarming rate.  Hence the genophage and the Turian seat on the Council.

Humanity of course took the lead in fighting the Reaper Sovereign. Again we see the Council recognizing that a race was now powerful and influential enough to pose a threat if left outside the political inner circle. And so humanity became the fourth race represented on the Council.  Any member of the human race might think that, like the Turians, mankind had now reached the pinnacle of galactic government and thus had “arrived.”  Not Cerberus.

Perhaps if humanity had gained its proper position in the power structure after that battle, Cerberus would have ceased its operations.  However the Illusive Man believed that human interests were still not being served.  Why would he think that?  Let me refer back to cultural hegemony theory for a few hints.  Specifically, I will reference the Artz and Murphy book Cultural Hegemony in the United States.

These two writers remind us that the messages, ideas, and ideals of the dominant class are transmitted to and adopted by the marginalized (or oppressed) classes.  If we apply that to Mass Effect, it is reasonable to assume the ideologies of humanity are not transmitted via the extranet (Mass Effect‘s Internet) and to the masses.  We only get snippets of information while playing ME1 and ME2, so we don’t know if Shepard’s interactions with reporters are for the human press or the galactic press.  Likewise, the brief reports the player hears via “galaxy news” in ME2 could be customized for just for Shepard, just like the advertisements on the Citadel are personalized ala Minority Report.

Second, we know that hegemonic concessions must look like real progress for the oppressed classes. Otherwise they have little or no effect.  Genuine interest is an illusion that often times is enough to placate the oppressed enough to quiet cultural, economic, or political unrest.  We know that in the real world that having women on the Supreme Court does not automatically mean fair and equal treatment for both sexes; nor does having Barack Obama as President of the United States ensure that African-Americans now have equal access to economic, cultural, and political power.  So can we say that (in the Mass Effect universe) having David Anderson on the Citadel Council guarantees all of humanity’s concerns will be addressed?

We still know too little of the Illusive Man’s motivations to be sure, but it could very well be that he has recognized the power of hegemonic rule and knows that humankind must still fight in order to gain power. And so he has adopted an “end justifies the means” mentality.  We know from playing the two games that Cerberus has raised some hackles with both the human Systems Alliance and with the Citadel.  We also know that many in the Alliance do not trust Cerberus.  Even Ashley Williams, a self-professed xenophobic, berates Shepard for joining the Illusive Man when the two meet on Horizon in ME2.

But for all that, Cerberus seems more of a nuisance and a headache than a threat to rule of the Council races.  In ideology, the Illusive Man and his organization appear to be conscious of humanity’s actual place in the galaxy. Yet in practice, Cerberus by itself cannot pose any true challenge to that order.  And whether the writer’s of Mass Effect realize it or not, that is right in line with cultural hegemony theory.