The Reapers are Coming: Mass Effect and Survival Through Escapism 4


One day, nobody will have ever heard of you, #PCName. If you’re lucky, they might have heard of human­i­ty, but you will be long gone. But you know this. This isn’t any­thing new to you (and if it is, sorry for Spoilers).

If you reg­u­lar­ly read this esteemed pub­li­ca­tion, chances are a not-insignificant por­tion of your life is devot­ed to video games and other sim­i­lar enter­tain­ing pas­times. And if you’re any­thing like me, you enjoy the get­ting lost. I value expan­sive worlds where I can be a badass, where I can put myself in a posi­tion, not mere­ly of power, but of hero­ics.

We con­sume enter­tain­ment, embrace fic­tion, fill our time with pleas­ant tri­fles, all in the name of pass­ing the time on the long car­riage ride to the grave. Ultimately, after the human race has been swal­lowed by the sun (assum­ing we don’t luck into find­ing a Mass Relay), our finest works, our great­est tri­umphs of artis­tic expres­sion, will be unmade. Mass Effect, Tolkien’s oeu­vre, Watchmen, and (yes, even) Batman, then, are in-flight movies on our jour­ney to the abyss. In short, we waste our time to dis­tract our­selves from our own mor­tal­i­ty.

In short, the Reapers are com­ing.

There is a memet­ic virus that made the rounds here at this most esteemed pub­li­ca­tion, Porpentine’s game howl­ing dogs. Though this is beside the point, it’s a stu­pen­dous work of art and has a habit of kick­ing some of us right in the real­i­ty. Though this is also beside the point, play it. Experience it, rather, because you real­ize that it is not you who play the game, but the game that con­fronts you with an unset­tling truth.

This arti­cle is not about howl­ing dogs. In fact, this arti­cle serves as a defense of the escapism and tun­nel­ing against which howl­ing dogs dogged­ly howls. As a cre­ator of worlds into which I (and I flat­ter myself to imag­ine) oth­ers would like to escape, I like to believe that all that time spent in God Mode isn’t entire­ly fruit­less, even though there exist an infi­nite num­ber of more prac­ti­cal alter­na­tive uses of my time.  And though I do acknowl­edge that, one day, nobody will have heard of me, I know I can’t let that keep me down.

I recent­ly adopt­ed a mantra: Be Your Own Badass. It’s why I do the things I do, includ­ing play games. I like to be able to feel pow­er­ful in a world where just about every­thing in my life tells me that there is a huge prob­lem and the prob­lem is me. Perhaps it is this Badass Drive that com­pelled me to blaze through the Mass Effect tril­o­gy over Winter Break. Being at home, where nobody calls me by the right name, I live in exile from the things that make life eas­i­er.

The thing is, it worked.

Playing Mass Effect, I wasn’t Hannah, nor was I Hannah’s‑alter-ego. I was Commander Shepard. People lis­tened when I talked. People called me ma’am. I effect­ed change on a grand scale. I like to believe I saved lives. It made it eas­i­er to han­dle liv­ing in a prob­lem­at­ic envi­ron­ment where I need to hide who I am in the name of pre­serv­ing the peace. Did I devote seventy-five hours of my life to a fic­tion­al real­i­ty that’s not even of my own devis­ing? Yes. Did I “waste” those seventy-five hours? That’s debat­able. But was it wrong of me to seek, and find, escape in the guise of Commander Jane Shepard of the Alliance? I don’t think so.

Matt Schanuel ret­ro­spect­ed upon Mass Effect about a year pre­vi­ous. Before I chose this topic, I didn’t quite agree with or under­stand his the­sis, that the series is about com­ing to terms with death. But now I see the wis­dom in his words. Shepard seems to have unlim­it­ed agency. Shepard can decide the fate of frillions of peo­ple, all in the name of the fight against mor­tal­i­ty. But no mat­ter which choic­es you make, fate will always bring you to one place, and the options will always be the same.

The theme of escapism is ram­pant through­out Mass Effect. Despite hir best efforts to show them real­i­ty, the Council is blind to Shepard’s dogged doom­say­ing. Even in vol. 3, the crewmem­bers of the Normandy repeat­ed­ly observe that nor­mal peo­ple are not act­ing as though there’s actu­al­ly a war on. Even Shepard’s courtship dance with the intre­pid cub reporter Khalisah Bint Sinan al-Jilani is cen­tered around the theme of run­ning from the truth (albeit in a very prob­lem­at­ic, Fox News kind of way). Ms. al-Jilani may slan­der those with whom she tan­gos, but she is in earnest; she seeks the truth and it costs her her rep­u­ta­tion.

Mass Effect 3 intro­duced the con­cept of a Readiness Rating. As Shepard plays nanny for the Council races and attempts to con­vince them to come inside and eat their peas, var­i­ous enti­ties will pledge them­selves to the fight against the Reapers. These things are illu­sions. In the final analy­sis, it doesn’t mat­ter how much of the galaxy can be unit­ed; the Reapers will beat you. As great as it would be to turn the Reapers into ice cream, you are not so lucky. You will always, always, have a hot date with Anderson and a guy who is very hard to get a hold of. And it won’t go very well for any of you.

Alright, so I’ve con­vinced you by now that things don’t end mer­ri­ly for the Shepard. Permit me to change my approach. Remember the part where I sank seventy-five hours into the series? I did it, apart from want­i­ng to catch up with the rest of every­body, to feel like a badass. We play games like Mass Effect to feel pow­er­ful. The play­er is repeat­ed­ly given tough choic­es with real, far-reaching con­se­quences. Mass Effect isn’t mere­ly the story of a badass. Mass Effect is the story of your badass.

But even a badass can fall.

All I will say of the now-past end­ing con­tro­ver­sy1 is that most play­ers weren’t ready for the game’s ulti­mate les­son. They squealed like enti­tled pig­gies because it wasn’t made DeLargianly clear to them that they saved the galaxy. But guess what? You can’t always save the galaxy. Not even the Protheans could, and they fought the Reapers for hun­dreds of years. Despite their best efforts, the Protheans became a mem­o­ry and the cycle rolled on. But that’s the point. Everything dies, baby. That’s a fact.

Sometimes, you must take a men­tal vaca­tion from the shit­hole of your life. Not doing so, dwelling on the neg­a­tive that is very often big­ger than you are and insur­mount­able, will only deep­en your pain. Don’t feel bad about your need to go to your happy place. As some­one who has grown up around clin­i­cal depres­sion, and has wran­gled with it her­self for four years now, I know that there are some days when you just can’t go out­side. The option to move is uns­e­lec­table, like a unit in Civilization V you can­not yet build. I’ve had those days, and on some of them I’ve done noth­ing, stew­ing in my mis­ery and the abject fuck that is exis­tence. And those are some of my dark­est days.

howl­ing dogs urges you to lower the con­troller and go out­side. To tun­nel, to hide with­in a vir­tu­al world, is iso­lat­ing and will ulti­mate­ly con­sume you as it falls apart around itself. Eventually you find your­self alone, amidst the ruins of trash and poor hygiene, inces­sant­ly fol­low­ing Pavlovian pro­gram­ming to get to the next level/dream/instance of your cho­sen pas­time. And the kick­er is, the dread author Porpentine has a point.

Facing the crush­ing inevitabil­i­ty of our mor­tal­i­ty, we humans have three options. We can deny that the issue exists and bury our­selves in dis­trac­tions, we can give up and give in, or we can stand and fight. The Council, valid though their rea­sons for ignor­ing Shepard’s warn­ings and hir call to fight the Reapers cer­tain­ly are (I was fre­quent­ly on the Council’s side when it came to see­ing Shepard as a rav­ing loon, and I, with Shepard, had actu­al­ly seen the Reapers!), are depict­ed as use­less and impo­tent, obsta­cles to be over­come, and a waste of our time. Those who have been indoc­tri­nat­ed, who sub­mit to the Reapers’ will, are the most nefar­i­ous of our ene­mies. We all love Shepard because Shepard fights and fights hard, and at times is the only one doing what we all know in our hearts needs to be done.

Mass Effect, though it will not let you escape your mor­tal­i­ty, can also empow­er you. It gives you options not typ­i­cal­ly found in every­day life. And I believe it is per­fect­ly rea­son­able to want to be like Commander Shepard. A few times, I’ve actu­al­ly found myself ask­ing what Shepard would do in sit­u­a­tions that required badassery or death of one kind or anoth­er. Shepard kills a few Reapers dur­ing hir tour of duty, and is fre­quent­ly remind­ed that ze is the galaxy’s last hope for sur­vival. Ze is a sym­bol of hope for the galaxy, and fights for us when we can’t fight for our­selves. Shepard is, in this way, a real-life hero.

And that, friends, is why it is some­times okay to go some­place where we can at least feel like we mat­ter. Unfortunately, we aren’t always able to do like­wise in the face of our own Reapers. It’s not weak­ness, but a fact of life. The world’s prob­lems, and even our own, are some­times big­ger than we can direct­ly tack­le. Sometimes we can­not fight. And in those moments, we escape. We turn to video games or Netflix or Tumblr, any­where we can find strength, or at least a strength-simulator. We all must, on occa­sion, be our own badass.

  1. Except that any­one who clam­ored for a re-do of the end­ing, who felt cheat­ed by BioWare, who felt as though BioWare OWED THEMBETTER ENDING GODDAMMIT, is a whiny lit­tle bitch who can’t appre­ci­ate a sub­tle, nuanced finale when it is grace­ful­ly pre­sent­ed hir. []

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.


4 thoughts on “The Reapers are Coming: Mass Effect and Survival Through Escapism

  • Tom Dawson

    I’m going to have to dis­agree with you about the end­ing, on two points.

    Firstly, while I agree to a degree with your point about the over­all state­ment made, the actu­al expe­ri­ence was as sub­tle and nuanced as a brick to the face. The grand sys­tem of choic­es (as it was pre­sent­ed at least, even if it fell a bit flat some­times in prac­tice), often hor­ri­ble and dif­fi­cult ones, hav­ing unforseen and far-reaching effects on the Mass Effect uni­verse is sud­den­ly stripped away and given all the weight of a find-the-lady game. Pick a card, see what hap­pens. The extend­ed cut helped with this a lit­tle (par­tic­u­lar­ly with the option to dis­agree with the kid’s sup­posed wis­dom), but it was still deeply unsat­is­fy­ing to have all those hours of char­ac­ter build­ing pared down to a choose-your-own-adventure book.

    Secondly, I assume we got dif­fer­ent end­ings, because in mine I don’t feel as if the Reapers won. Really, nobody won, with the game’s end­ing being basi­cal­ly a stale­mate. They were pre­vent­ed from destroy­ing the galaxy, every­one went all happy and peace­ful, and the cycle of vio­lence was ended. I’d count that as a win in the imme­di­ate sense, even if it fun­da­men­tal­ly altered the sta­tus quo of the uni­verse with­out actu­al­ly achiev­ing any­thing in the long term. Despite being pre­sent­ed as The Good Ending, I fail to see how Synthesis cre­ates a uni­verse of shiny happy peo­ple — organ­ics fought each other despite all being organ­ics, and syn­thet­ics fought each other (the Geth against the Reapers, the Geth against the heretic Geth) despite all being syn­thet­ics. Now that every­one is (some­how — expla­na­tions are for chumps) a mix­ture of both, the infer­ence is that we should ring all the bells and declare an end to war, which does­n’t make even a lick of sense. The far-future epi­logue gives us absolute­ly zero hint to the state of the galaxy as a whole, mean­ing the entire quest could have been for noth­ing. As you point out, every­thing dies even­tu­al­ly, mean­ing that even by tak­ing the good end­ing all Shepard has done is pro­long the inevitable and may as well just have let the Reapers destroy every­one.

    Perhaps much of the still-lingering con­tro­ver­sy stems from the point you’ve made here. We do use our games as escapism and as a way to sim­u­late the empow­er­ment we lack in our own lives. Shepard is a badass, so we feel like a badass for con­trol­ling him (Shep will always be a him to me, to the point where try­ing a sec­ond playthrough with a FemShep just felt wrong. As you say, he’s MY badass) and yet at the end of the game we’re bru­tal­ly remind­ed that we’re not a badass at all. After hun­dreds of hours of kick­ing ass and not both­er­ing to take names because seri­ous­ly, every­one’s dead Dave, Dave dead is every­one, the only options are to do as we’re told or sim­ply turn the con­sole off and leave Shepard and the Star Child locked in an awk­ward silence and try­ing to avoid mak­ing eye con­tact for all eter­ni­ty. There’s no empow­er­ment to be taken from the exas­per­at­ed sigh of a tired devel­op­er who tells you to just pick a colour and press the but­ton so that every­one can go home.

  • Joel Cuthbertson
    Joel Cuthbertson

    I’m not sure I have too much to add, espe­cial­ly as the end­ing of Mass Effect has been dis­sect­ed every which way, but unlike Tom I felt the weight of the final choice. I played with the extend­ed end­ing only, so per­haps that explains some of it. I will say, though, I was also dis­sat­is­fied with the Synthesis option – I wish I had cho­sen some­thing else. Something rebel­lious or that felt more authen­tic.

    But the choice itself, and even the setup, was more effec­tive for me than not. This is most­ly because I believed, per­haps as an ama­teur gamer, in the true unpre­dictabil­i­ty of all the game’s choic­es. Much of Mass Effect was me try­ing to out­play, in some ways, the devel­op­ers. “Was this the right choice?” “Would I have killed that indi­vid­ual if I didn’t want to lose my ‘good guy’ sta­tus or have my face dis­fig­ured?” All this to say – I believed the results of my choic­es were essen­tial­ly out of my hands. I was never sure I had made the opti­mal move. At any time, I almost always believed that I could actu­al­ly screw things up, that I could lose crew mem­bers. This final choice then, and how sim­ple it was to walk one of three (or four, depend­ing) ways exposed just how much con­trol Shepherd never had. Or at least, how blind­ly Shepherd/I had to hope his deci­sion wouldn’t back­fire. For as much strat­e­gy as the game seems to have, and per­haps does employ, in the end you must sim­ply choose and hope.

  • Connie

    Excelent piece of writ­ing. I share your thoughts on the tril­o­gy and the rel­e­vance of escapism in our exis­tence. Mostly, I’m amused with the way you think and ana­lyze, and how you add the nec­es­sary quote of wit­ti­ness and a tone of irony (because the human strug­gle with death is actu­al­ly a mis­er­able irony). Thank you for this, please keep the good writ­ing, look­ing for­ward to read more from you. Sorry if my eng­lish sounds weird, it isn’t my moth­er lan­guage.

Comments are closed.