This is written by my other half, to rant about her favourite video game series Mass Effect. Spoilers ahead (duh), but really, you should play the trilogy that pioneered several narrative and RPG elements for hundreds of following games. There are footnotes for more in-depth explanations if you are not familiar with the ME trilogy.
Her words below:
As part of my Google/Huawei newsfeed today, (clearly able to tell I’ve been finishing up my 4th run through of the Mass Effect trilogy) I was suggested the below opinion piece:
The article makes a few shallow points:
- Ashley is racist, her whole personality is xenophobia, her past isn’t an excuse
- Humans, more specifically the colonists, are xenophobic with no excuse other than the First Contact War
- The Alien races within the ME universe are shallow stereotypes
The article is unclear if they’ve played ME3 or even a full playthough, but they do mention ME1 and ME2. I argue that with a character that can appear in all 3 games, one should look at her character as a whole. The author also uses xenophobia and racism interchangibly, where I would argue racism in the ME universe would be like disparaging a colonist turian that fought in the Unification War based on their facial markings, just as humans can be disparaging towards people of colour. Xenophobia in the ME universe would be towards other species.
Ashley is a Xenophobe
Now, I’m not one to usually keep Ashley alive after Virmire. Tactically, both in universe and militarily it would not make sense to leave Kaiden to die and save Ashley. She’s a much lower rank and can’t move things with her mind like Kaiden can. Her abilities are otherwise pretty standard, but not something that gives you an edge in combat. That’s one of the big reasons many choose to let her die and never experience her in ME2 or ME3.
But Ashley is more than her initial xenophobia. The article even links to a clip where she disavows the Terra Firma1 human-first political movement. Within the trilogy, there are several missions where you fight Cerberus2, another human-first terrorist organization. In ME2, when you try to recruit her after being resurrected by Cerberus, she doesn’t trust you or Cerberus and denies your request. She’s a military daughter trying to bring honor to the family name. A lover of poems and a protective big sister.
Let’s try to understand why she may be personally mistrustful of aliens:
- Ashley has never worked with aliens before being recruited onto your ship
- Her first run-in with aliens is a hostile synthetic race called the geth3 and a crazy turian spectre 4 named Saren 5
- The First Contact War6 was only 30 years prior, and her grandfather being the first human General to surrender during the war has left a stain on her military family
- She was refused combat experience and regular joint missions with other species because of this
Ashely’s all of these things and I can still call her xenophobic in ME1. Bioware decided to add dialogue where she openly says she “can’t see the difference between aliens and animals”. There’s no excuse for her there and I’m not going to give her any. However, her xenophobia is is born of fear, mistrust and misunderstanding, just as today’s racism is. Ashley’s fear, mistrust and misunderstanding of aliens is overcome throughout the series.
In the first game, you are recruiting several crewmates of several species to fight Saren and the geth. Ashley is initially mistrustful, you’ve been given the most advanced ship in the Alliance military and now random crewmates (some of whom are barely combat proficient) have full access to the ship. They may have their own agendas, secrets are what give an edge to a military force and she’s thinking as a soldier would. At this point you can reassure her that the crew are only focused on the main mission, that they’re all working as a team to bring Saren down. And she backs down.
Throughout the rest of the game she’s sympathetic to Liara, an asari who’s mother ended up working for Saren. Mistrustful of Wrex, a krogan, which is several hundred pounds of war machine who is suddenly angry at Shepard and willing to kill them. Willing to work with a squard of Salarians she just met. Sad that a Prothean archeological site is destroyed.
In the final game, if you keep her alive in ME1 and recruit her in ME3, she joins your crew after she was protecting the Council who are the reigning galactic leaders of some of the main species, specifically turian, asari and salarian. Within 3 years she’s come full circle, willing to put her life on the line for alien politicians. The most annoying thing about her in ME3 is not her xenophobia (which is never mentioned, she happily works with your alien crew) but the fact that in the beginning of ME3 she still thinks your working with Cerberus and/or that Cerberus has made you into a sleeper agent. She’s still concerned that you’re somehow connected to a pro-human terrorist organization.
Colonists are Xenophobic
This area of the article is where I suspect the author has not played the full trilogy, the full trilogy in depth (as in playing all the side missions) or has not actually paid attention to what the colonists say.
The human colonies are generally depicted in 2 ways: a mining colony or a research colony. Both are small, with low population, minimal military protection or armed personel. Many of them are established in the Terminus, an area of the galaxy unrestricted by the Citadel Council. Out there, there is no police force, the military has limited resources and little ability to help in a timely matter.
The First Contact War was sure to leave it’s scars on families. Within those 30 years, it has been slow progress to co-operate with any of the other alien species. Colonists turned to the Terminus systems as a way of avoiding that pain and carving out a life for humanity in a politically crowded galaxy that seemed to shun humans.
Slavers, pirates, gangs and all matter of corruption runs rampant in the Terminus systems. This is not hidden or shyed away from in the games. You are often saving colonists from aliens, and it’s the whole plot of ME2. Colonies are frequently at risk of hostile, usually alien, forces. That’s just the nature of the Terminus systems, and the people living in those colonies are rightly scared of the atrocities that they could be subjected to next. There are no space cops they can call to come save them when/if they fall prey. This xenophobia is not entirely because of the First Contact war, colonists are at risk every day of slavers finding them and hauling off most of the colony.
It would be unheard of, let’s say, a salarian military force coming to the aid of a human colony. The main alien species, the salarians, turians, asari and even krogan are all comfortably colonizing within Citadel space. The Council often comments on the recklessness of humans putting colonies in the Terminus then asking for help and protection from the Council, other races, etc.
I am unsure of where the author gets the impression that the ME trilogy depicts “…the expansion of the human colonies across the galaxy as a good thing, despite those human colonies being filled with racists who want Aliens dead.” The expansion of human colonies is usually done as part of a mining corporation or research and often by exploiting the workers either through dangerous work/location 7, scams 8 or outright lies9. Living in a colony out in the Terminus is not some glorious expansion of human control over the galaxy and aliens as the author implies. It’s more akin to the mining colonies or factory towns of North America, except with hostile aliens and no police or military force to protect you.
All Aliens as Stereotypes
This area of the article is where I really suspect the author has not played the full trilogy, and/or has not actually paid attention to what the characters are saying.
Within the ME trilogy, it is heavily implied that humans are weird, reckless and incredibly individualistic when compared to the other species. Whether through graphical limitations or a pointed decision, humans are the most varied looking species by far. Skin tones, hair tones/cuts, facial features, accents, and opinions are all incredibly varied within each game. Most alien variation is limited to minimal skin tone changes, facial markings in turians and asari, slight facial differences and clothing. Background characters of aliens are often even more restricted in the levels of variation whereas humans still have high level of variation.
There are a few stereotypes presented for each species that I (mostly) agree with the author on. All stereotypes presented for the species have either a cause and/or a reason for why they act that way. (Which I’ll discuss in an upcoming post). Many of those are because of the outcome of a war (of which the ME universe has several, both within the species10 and against other species11). The previous wars are not hidden and are actively talked about amongst characters, I’m unsure why the author felt that these feelings, reactions and ways of thinking are seemingly out of nowhere, for no purpose.
Stereotypes are neither good or bad inherently, they are a tool used to deliver information quickly and efficiently. They can become a poorly used tool when generalizing. When assuming a whole race or species must act this way with no deeper explanation that is never explored or challenged.
This is where the Mass Effect trilogy shines.
Mass Effect is more than your character saving the galaxy. The ability to choose decisions in this game gives you a level of agency rarely afforded in games (especially at its first launch). Mass Effect is about the bond with your crew, how they grow with and along side you (mainly focusing on the Paragon12 side here). Your first crew especially, they’re (mostly) all nobodies. By the end of the trilogy? Play your cards right and you’ve fashioned them into legends amongst their own kind and the galaxy at large. That isn’t even taking into consideration the other two crews from ME2 and ME3 respectively.
That transformation of character changes those (mostly) stereotypical aliens into incredible individuals. Some of your humanity rubs off onto them to shape them into great leaders and pillars of their communities. Stereotypes in ME become the vehicle for an exploration into looking beyond stereotypes. That anyone can learn to live and grow beyond what the universe dealt them.
Your crew grows in fantastic ways, and watching it is a joy every time. To be held to those standards and then to find ways to carve their own paths, their own lives in a unsympathetic galaxy. The author overlooks the sheer amount of growth and inspiration these characters portray. Again, I’ll do a deeper dive after the footnotes if you’re more interested.
All racism/xenophobia in the series is seemly portrayed incorrectly, so says the author. That the mere stereotyping of krogan as savages is “disgusting” and to be written off as poor quality writing. That all asari are manipulative, turians are all militaristic, salarians are all by the books. The author leads you into thinking that Mass Effect doesn’t address any of this and that the game suffers for that.
The initial portrayal of the krogan stereotype is to clue you in that a nearly 1500 years of oppression by the other galactic civilizations against the krogan has resulted in the collapse of their culture. That there is real generational trauma done when only 1/1000 children survive childbirth. That “dumb savage” stereotype ends for the player when you learn of the krogan tragedy at the hands of turians and salarians, Wrex agreeing with your decision on Virmire in ME1, when you meet krogan scientists in ME2, when Wrex unites the clans to fight the Reapers and find a future for the krogan people in ME3.
I could go on with each crew member (which I will in the next post!), but the point being that many of the crew start out as blank stereotypes that you learn to look beyond or grow before your eyes into well-rounded characters. This gives you the perspective to look at all the races in a new light. This trilogy pushes for the player to reflect, on their choices, on the races’ choices throughout the galaxy’s history, the individual characters’ choices and how that’s shaping.
Every play-through I learn something new, experience a new tidbit of information. This trilogy gives so much to the player, there’s a reason many people replay the trilogy several times like I have. Devoted 100s of hours of playtime to this story and the characters within. A game that the author describes, one riddled with poor writing, explicit and unchallenged racism/xenophobia would not be as beloved or well-respected as it is.
Terra Firma: political group created after the First Contact War and as humans began integrating into Citadel space with other aliens. Concerned about losing humanity’s culture to assimilation with the other races. Not particularly extremist but attracts those types of people with no condemnation. ↩︎
Cerberus: Ends justifiably the means for this human-first terrorist group. Illegal/ dangerous experimentation, sabotage, assassination, are all on the table. Claims to not hate aliens, but will do everything in its power to put humanity first. ↩︎
Geth are a synthetic (both biological and technologically based) race created by quarians through illegal Artificial Intelligence research a few hundred years ago. After the Morning War, the geth exiled the quarians from their homeworld. Manipulated to follow Saren. ↩︎
Spectres: a group of highly trained individuals that only answer to the Coucil and able to work outside the law. ↩︎
Saren: a turnian spectre that goes rogue, alies with destructive alien race called the Reapers bent on wiping out all sentient life in the galaxy ↩︎
First Contact War: when humanity first reached a massive structure called a relay able to shoot spaceships to other solar systems, this alerted the turians. They responded with war. ↩︎
During ME3’s Leviathan DLC a mining asteroid uncovers an artifact that allows an ancient alien species to control victims through it. This has been going on for 10 years, seemingly without the company owning the mine knowing or caring for the staff who have stopped responding during that time. ↩︎
Sanctuary in ME3: a seemingly safe colony to hide from the war but is actually owned by Cerberus. Takes its victims for horrendous experiments. ↩︎
A human colony on Feros is unknowingly used to test humans’ reactions to a sapient plant that uses its spores to control its victims. ↩︎
Wars within the species include: Turian Unification war, human civil wars, and several krogan battles for leadership. ↩︎
Wars against other species: Morning war between geth and quariuans, Krogan Rebellions between krogan, turians/asari/salarians, Rachni war between the rachni, krogan/turians/salarians/asari ↩︎
Paragon runs refers to choosing mainly compassionate, forgiving or kind actions in Mass Effect, while Renegade runs are mainly headstrong, aggressive or short-sighted options. ↩︎