If import can be measured in influence, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890−1937) is certainly one of the most important writers of the 20th century. Everyone from Neil Gaiman to Joyce Carol Oates has cited him as an influence, and in videogames you can find his tentacles in everything from Amnesia: The Dark Descent to Borderlands. Lovecraft, like his friend Robert E. Howard and, of course, Professor Tolkien, is everywhere in genre fiction.
It’s Lovecraft’s influence on Mass Effect which caused Kyle Munkittrick to argue that Mass Effect is “the most important science fiction universe of our generation.” In both Lovecraft and Mass Effect, humanity has to justify its very existence in the face of an indifferent universe and without recourse to any higher authority. This, Munkittrick argues, makes the Mass Effect universe particularly relevant to our postmodern and increasingly secular society.
While it’s impossible to deny Lovecraft’s influence upon Mass Effect,1 there is a fundamental dissonance between this influence and the game’s overall structure which goes all the way down to its roots and gnaws at them like Nidhogg. I believe it’s this tension which is responsible for the game’s more incomprehensible moments. At the end of the day, I believe Mass Effect simply borrows Lovecraftian trappings without fully embracing a Lovecraftian worldview, thereby constructing a deep dissonance between the supposed power of the Reapers and the unstoppable juggernaut that is the player-controlled Commander Shepard. The game attempts to be both a Lovecraftian narrative of Powerful, Unspeakable Forces Beyond Human Comprehension and a straightforward videogame power fantasy, and this is an irreconcilable tension which weakens the game as a whole.
Even Dead Gods Dream
“Rudimentary creatures of blood and flesh, you touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance, incapable of understanding.” — Sovereign
When most people talk about Lovecraft, they are primarily interested in the stories which would form the backbone of the “Cthulhu Mythos2″ of the early 20th century. These stories, including but not limited to The Call of Cthulhu, At The Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Out of Time and, probably his best, The Colour Out of Space, all share certain powerful themes. In each, the protagonists (for they cannot usually be called heroes) discover the overall impotence and unimportance of humankind in the face of some cosmic revelation, and many either go mad or are quietly murdered by their discoveries.
In At The Mountains of Madness, an Antarctic geological expedition discovers the remains of an ancient, powerful and alien civilization which may well have created humanity to serve as a slave race. In The Colour Out of Space, some inexplicable Thing from beyond human comprehension crash-lands in rural Massachusetts and proceeds to terrorize and destroy a helpless family. And in The Call of Cthulhu, a man discovers that somewhere, sleeping deep beneath the surface of the ocean in his House at R’lyeh, waits a being of such ancient and terrible power that its awakening would surely spell the end of human civilization, and discovers, to his dread, that there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.
In each of these stories we are confronted with the cosmic irrelevance of humanity and the existence of powerful beings far beyond our understanding. At best, these beings regard us with indifference and at worst would utterly annihilate us for an afternoon’s light entertainment. Even the happiest of these stories ends with no more than a delay of the inevitable — humanity is quietly doomed, and none of our undertakers will care much about us even as they’re destroying us.
These themes will sound very familiar to any player of Mass Effect. Mass Effect’s primary antagonists are the Reapers, a race of ancient machines which return every 50,000 years to annihilate and harvest all advanced life in the galaxy as part of a cosmic Cycle which has stretched back since long before humanity’s distant ancestors considered swinging down from the trees. The Reapers are vast and inscrutable, each the size of an enormous starship and capable of incalculable destruction. One Reaper is enough to threaten the combined fleets of several advanced spacefaring races.
The Reapers thus recall Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones,” of whom Cthulhu is the most famous. Even their design is reminiscent of Cthulhu’s tentacled description.
Their motives are initially incomprehensible and cosmic in scope, and they shape the very course of galactic history time and time again. Spending time around a Reaper causes any organic life to go insane as they are enthralled by the Reaper’s powerful indoctrination. The game assures us repeatedly that they are far beyond human understanding, and that Shepard’s quest to prevent their harvest of this cycle’s civilizations is almost certainly doomed.
There is a scene in Mass Effect 2 which makes the Lovecraftian connection about as explicit as possible. A Cerberus science team has found the corpse of a long-dead Reaper and sets up camp on board to discover its secrets. Though the Reaper is dead, something of its ability to indoctrinate remains, such that the science team begins to slowly go insane, and is fully gone by the time Shepard arrives. In a log left behind for Shepard to find,3 one scientist, realizing what’s happening, states that “even a dead god can dream,” recalling the “much-discussed couplet” from the Necronomicon4 and the chant of the Cthulhu-cult: “In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.“5
Shepard is faced with an impossible task, facing down the wrath of a race of beings far beyond his/her comprehension. Yet Shepard somehow manages to surmount the insurmountable, and it is here that we find our dissonance.
Hither Came Shepard
Mass Effect, like most games of its ilk, is a power fantasy. Shepard is able to deal with these tremendous problems because he/she is the Player Character, and therefore infallible. Shepard is a prime example of the Mary Sue archetype: a proxy for the player who is infinitely more powerful, charming and respected than the player might ever be. Everyone is impressed with Shepard. Krogan warlords, Drell assassins, and even the Reapers themselves know Shepard’s name and reputation and bow to him/her as the badassest of the badasses. When Shepard is killed in a Reaper-orchestrated attack, one of the most powerful human beings in the galaxy spends a vast fortune to resurrect him/her, because Shepard is the Only One Who Can Do It. He/she is the Hero, the Chosen One.
Shepard is preternaturally persuasive and powerful. He or she can talk anyone into anything simply by shouting at them. Two separate games have a penultimate dialogue encounter in which Shepard can talk a primary antagonist into shooting himself in the span of five minutes. No one can withstand Shepard’s silver tongue or brutal threats, and no one, no matter how powerful, can beat Shepard in a firefight.
Further, Shepard is always conveniently placed in a position to make all of the most important decisions in the galaxy, even when it doesn’t make much sense that he/she would be. Shepard decides the fate of entire races on at least three separate occasions, plots the course of galactic politics at least twice, and frequently issues orders to military officers high above his/her own rank, sometimes even those in entirely separate militaries. Shepard is so badass that the Reapers specifically seek him/her out to kill him/her, but only ever succeed in making him/her angry.
Shepard is the modern Conan, completely free, above the law, above the chain of military command, immensely powerful and free to be honorable or scummy as the player sees fit. This is not necessarily a problem in-and-of-itself. Power fantasies have their place in the world. But there is a fundamental dissonance between Mass Effect as power fantasy and Mass Effect as Lovecraftian narrative, and it is this dissonance that damages the coherence of the game as a whole. Humans cannot be both irrelevant and immensely powerful. The moral of any Lovecraftian narrative cannot be “but if you just try hard enough you can win.”
A Pleasant Chat With Cthulhu
Nowhere is this dissonance more pronounced than in Leviathan, the second piece of add-on DLC released for Mass Effect 3. Released at least partly in an attempt to assuage annoyed fans by giving them more information about the Reapers and their backstory, Leviathan puts Shepard on a quest to find and recruit a legendary Reaper-killer, a powerful creature called the Leviathan of Dis. The Leviathan does not particularly want to be found, however, so Shepard must work his/her way through a variety of trials and tribulations before finally coming face-to-face with the thing and convincing it to join the cause.
Leviathan happens to be remarkably similar to the central conceits of Lovecraft’s most famous short story, The Call of Cthulhu, and it is in examining the similarities and differences between the two works that we can see the real problem inherent in couching a power fantasy in Lovecraftian language.
In both stories, our protagonists are searching for some immensely powerful creature of legend that can only be discovered by carefully investigating archeological information and strange behavior from certain cults or other organizations. In Leviathan, the titular beast keeps track of what’s happening in the galaxy by enthralling various scientists and other agents and forcing them to report back on the goings-on around them. If anyone gets too close to discovering the nature of the creature, Leviathan orchestrates that person’s demise. In this way, Leviathan remains hidden, and can observe the events of the galaxy and bide its time until it feels it can act on its grand designs. In Call, Cthulhu is worshiped by a cult that works to bring about his return to the earth and murders anyone who asks too many questions about him.
Unlike Leviathan, the protagonist of Call never does much in the way of investigation himself, preferring to read other peoples’ diaries. Yet the structure is otherwise the same — Thurston first reads an account of an unusual young man having weird dreams about a sunken city/Shepard first meets a man who is under the control of something he doesn’t understand. Second, Thurston reads about a cult of Cthulhu-worshippers in Louisiana/Shepard discovers a mining colony which is entirely under Leviathan’s control. Finally, after a bit of digging, Thurston reads about a man who actually encounters Cthulhu/Shepard travels to an uncharted planet and finds Leviathan.
Cthulhu slumbers deep beneath the ocean in the ancient, sunken city of R’lyeh, and Leviathan waits with several others of its kind deep beneath another ocean on a distant world. Both are associated with the untraveled depths of distant oceans, but it’s in the physical encounters with these creatures that the stories diverge.
Cthulhu discovers a boat full of tasty and inquisitive sailors and immediately sets to work eating/frightening them to death. The first mate, Johansen, only barely escapes, apparently because Cthulhu is too uninterested to seriously pursue, choosing instead to hit the snooze button after Johansen causes it to stub its toe. Not long after the sailor makes it home, he is murdered by a cultist. There is never an opportunity for the crew to speak with Great Cthulhu, who apparently views them as nothing more than a mild annoyance. Even being directly rammed by a large boat only causes Cthulhu momentary inconvenience. Cthulhu cares nothing for our attempts to harm it.
Leviathan, conversely, rises threateningly out of the ocean only to dump a great deal of exposition on the player.6 The details are largely irrelevant to the matter at hand, but Leviathan is revealed to be a member of the race that indirectly created the Reapers, and is even greater and more powerful than the Old Machines themselves. It is capable of destroying a Reaper with relatively little effort, and once held entire planets in thrall. It is vastly beyond Shepard, and cares nothing for Shepard’s troubles.
Shepard valiantly attempts to enlist its help in the war, but it initially refuses, arguing that there is little reason to suspect that this cycle will be any different from the countless cycles it has already witnessed. Then, the absurdity begins. The player makes one dialogue choice which simply changes the flavor of Shepard’s rhetoric (friendly or mean) and then Shepard, with perhaps three lines of spoken dialogue, convinces the ancient and ineffable monster to change its mind.
Commander Shepard, like Abraham, can successfully bargain with God.
One cannot imagine Randolph Carter negotiating with Azathoth, or Albert Wilmarth convincing Shub-Niggurath to help out in the Second World War. There is simply no reason for Leviathan to care about Shepard’s problems — Shepard is as far beneath Leviathan as an ant is to Shepard, yet we are supposed to believe that a brief set of aphorisms is enough to convince this terrible and eldritch Thing to help in the war effort. The entire conversation with Leviathan, including all of its Stygian-voiced exposition, takes eight minutes and forty seconds. Leviathan ultimately agrees to help because Shepard is confident.
Cosmic Boss Fights
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” — H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
The rhetorical power of the Reapers and Leviathan is undercut by the ease of this conversation. Again and again we are told that these beings are beyond our understanding, that they are countless millennia old and full of immense power. Again and again Mass Effect clothes its villains in Lovecraftian rhetoric. The Reapers are gods, the Old Machines, “eternal… the pinnacle of evolution and existence. Before [them], [we] are nothing.” Yet time and time again, Shepard is able to beat them with brute force or outreason their betters in a matter of seconds. Shepard kills Reapers with orbital strikes, he/she kills them with hand-mounted nuclear weapons. He/she kills them in single combat when they foolishly possess human-sized beings and stride into the arena rather than just nuking him/her from orbit.
Much has been made on forums and blogs of the fact that explaining the Reapers’ origins damaged their mystery and emotional power, and this is probably true. It’s very difficult to make an answered question as frightening or intriguing as an unanswered one. We never find out what the Colour Out of Space is, or if it thinks, or what its motivations are, and that makes it terrifying.
But what really damages the Reapers is the fact that they are overcomeable antagonists in a power fantasy rather than the all-consuming, unstoppable Forces of Lovecraftian cosmicism. The Reapers become weak because we know we can beat them, and frequently beat them with ease. Shepard is the Hero, the Chosen One, and can do anything. This makes the eldritch language used by and about the Reapers feel hollow and ridiculous. The Reapers aren’t beyond our comprehension, they’re just boss fights.
Who’s Your Elder God Now
There are a lot of problems with the last ten minutes of Mass Effect 3. Any kind of ending to a game as expansive and frequently gripping as Mass Effect was going to be difficult, and the sharp left turn the game took into speculative philosophy is nothing if not jarring. But I believe that the real problem with the ending stems from this dissonance.
Shepard has to make some kind of Big Decision in order for it to remain a power fantasy. Shepard has to hold the fate of the universe in his/her hands and choose accordingly. Yet the Reapers, couched as they are in Lovecraftian language, can’t be defeated just by a massive bomb. They have to be beaten by something ineffable and tremendous, something conceptually larger than they are. There has to be something of Lovecraftian scale behind Shepard’s victory in order for it to be remotely plausible.
So we’re greeted by the Catalyst, the cosmic AI that designed the Reapers to do some Great Task, and so on and so forth. We watch the original ending cutscene, almost insultingly short, leaving so much up to the player’s imagination, so much left unsaid. They wanted to fill us again with the sense of wonder and smallness we got when first we talked to Sovereign on Virmire, when first we read of Azathoth, gnawing hungrily in darkness, and Yog-Sothoth, the Key and the Gate. But it’s too late for that. We don’t believe it any more. Shepard is the real eldritch force, the unstoppable juggernaut, and when faced with the tightly limited choices the Catalyst offers, we don’t feel wonder. Instead, we feel cheated out of our fantasy.
- I’m going to talk about Mass Effects 1, 2, & 3 and their attendant DLC as a single, coherent unit. This probably isn’t quite fair, since the game changed a great deal over its lifetime, not just mechanically but thematically, with occasional flat contradictions in lore. Nevertheless, the games are so tightly wound together that I don’t think there’s much sense talking about them separately. So throughout, when I say “Mass Effect,” I mean the franchise as a whole. [↩]
- My inner amateur Lovecraft scholar wants me to make it very clear that much of the Cthulhu Mythos has very little to do with Lovecraft himself, being rather the creation of August Derleth. Mr. Derleth is a controversial figure in Lovecraft scholarship — without him, we’d almost certainly not remember Lovecraft at all, but through him we get a very strange and much less interesting vision of Lovecraft’s work. [↩]
- For there are always apocalyptic logs, arguably another trope for which we can thank Mr. Lovecraft. [↩]
- “That is not dead which can eternal lie/And with strange aeons even death may die.” [↩]
- Or, in the original gibberish: “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” The fact that I can spell that correctly without looking it up probably means something. [↩]
- This is actually very Lovecraftian. While I admire much of the man’s writing, he was not particularly good at weaving exposition into a narrative so much as just frontloading all of it in one place. [↩]