Mass Effect Legendary Edition: Should We ‘Defund The Space Police?’
And abolish that bastard Shepard and the crew of the Normandy?
With the release of the mostly excellent Mass Effect Legendary Edition, I thought it might be nice to take a stroll down memory lane back to when Forbes Games really took off.
It was the year of our lord 2012 and I was but a lad of 30 approaching my 31st birthday, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I am now approaching my 40th birthday, and in some ways it’s hard to wrap my brain around the fact that the Mass Effect controversy took place this long ago. My how time flies.
Mass Effect 3 was the conclusion to an enormously popular trilogy of space RPGs that promised to give players a satisfying ending based on the choices they had made in the previous two games. Mass Effect 2 is still widely regarded as one of the best video game RPGs out there, and players were excited for the finale.
But the finale was a massive letdown. There were just three endings, and they were remarkably similar. Players joked that they were the RGB endings since each had a different color scheme—red, green and blue.
Other problems plagued the game, including a growing tension between fans and the developers at BioWare who had become increasingly political, threating to politicize a video game franchise that had always had political stories, but never dipped too deep into the politics of the day, particularly social justice politics.
Things got ugly. While much of the Retake Mass Effect movement was positive and simply exerting their rights as consumers unhappy with a product they’d paid for and invested in emotionally, there was also the occasional troll or harasser. Much was made of these types. A chorus in the gaming press smeared all Mass Effect fans as “entitled gamers” who should just take their medicine and behave.
As a newcomer to video game reporting, it was easy to think that the press’s narrative was true. Gamers were being whiny. They were all just mad about the gay romance options in the game (though this was not the first in the trilogy with same-sex romance options, it certainly had the most).
But when I actually listened to what gamers were saying about the controversy, I realized that the press was mostly focusing on a few bad apples and using them to ignore the majority of Mass Effect fans who were justifiably upset by the third game’s ending and the way it cheapened the entire trilogy. This was my first glimpse into the strange, unsettling relationship between the video game press and the video game industry and how quickly journalists would defend their corporate masters and throw their readers—consumers—under the bus.
This trend continues years later. The gaming media has gotten better in some regards—taking the industry to task more on issues like loot boxes, crunch time and other excesses thanks to more pro-consumer voices in traditional games media and on YouTube, though many of the same bad, incestuous practices continue. In other ways, the press has grown sillier by the day, adopting more and more narrow-minded niche social justice views as gospel and creating a culture of silence or cancellation around any kind of dissenting opinion. Your humble narrator has been all but blacklisted by many of these sites for years. Such is the price of having one’s own unorthodox opinion, of critiquing one’s colleagues and going against the grain of popular opinion. I defended GamerGate, didn’t you hear? I said it was largely a consumer movement not so different from Retake Mass Effect.
But I digress. Game journalism keeps getting worse is the point, or at least more utterly and completely beholden to the cult of woke.
Now, for instance, instead of Op/Eds proclaiming how entitled gamers are, we have articles in game outlets pushing the defund the police nonsense.
Riding the wave of BLM hype and “defund the police” politics that swept the country last summer, Polygon’s Yussef Cole argues that we should in fact “abolish” the space police. Just like Brooklyn Nine Nine is being cancelled because now apparently even good cops are bad cops, Commander Shepard and the crew of the Normandy should be cancelled as well—apparently even trying to save the galaxy is a bridge too far if you identify as police.
“The [Mass Effect] Legendary Edition is proof enough that there remains a lasting sense of goodwill toward the franchise, enough to invest the time and energy needed to update and re-release it.
“But when most fans reminisce about what they truly love about the games, it’s the memorable relationships between the young, diverse cast of characters that they tend to bring up. Less warm recollection is spent on the jobs these characters hold, which exist (in various forms) in the military arms of the galaxy’s major political players. Whether it’s as Earth Alliance Military, Cerberus Commandos, or reinstated Alliance Navy Officers, Shepard and their crew are always some version of glorified space cops. They travel the galaxy, maintain security, and enforce order, while largely being unaccountable to any power beyond their own.”
Do we actually have a “less warm recollection” of the jobs these characters held? I seem to recall enjoying all the shooting and combat I took part in as Commander Shepard, and I was certainly always grateful I had some badass crewmembers by my side to help me in these fights. Traversing the galaxy to help save it—not just “maintain security, and enforce order”—seemed like a pretty neat gig, and a pretty important one, too. Dangerous, sure, but somebody’s got to do it. Some men are born great, others have greatness thrust upon them and all that. (On a side-note, this reminds me of Wyatt Russell’s character in Falcon and the Winter Soldier. He was a thrice-decorated special ops guy who devoted his life to protecting and serving America abroad and yet he’s cast as this deeply unlikable guy—and I can’t help but think it’s because he is A) a soldier and B) a white cishet male).
Cole expounds on the problematic nature of the police—and why policing should be abolished—by examining the fantasy that is Brooklyn Nine Nine—a TV show, I will remind readers, that is about a scrappy bunch of comical cops and their various goofy encounters and practical jokes, including the occasional run-in with a criminal or mob boss. It’s not meant to be a serious look at policing and, in many ways, is so far detached from actual police work it’s barely a show about cops to begin with. This is not Law & Order or CSI or Miami Vice or Hill Street Blues we’re talking about. This is The Office with badges.
But Cole, well, he says we don’t need no stinkin’ badges:
In discussing the hypothetical career changes of Jake Peralta, Charles Boyle, Amy Santiago, and the rest of the characters from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the Collider piece suggests that there is little thematic connection between the characters’ lives and their status as police officers. But this rings false, considering how much of the show is committed to the “copaganda” of valorizing police work. When they’re not up to zany hijinks at the precinct, the officers of Brooklyn Nine-Nine are out solving crimes and catching criminals. This is pure fantasy, a fabricated depiction of what police actually do, which falls more along the lines of harassing the homeless and mentally ill, and profiling and frisking young Black men. At its root, the show’s purpose is to defend and uphold the myth that police are our guardians.
I used to write about police reform and the War on Drugs. I have my opinions on both matters. I think police have a great deal of power and that any instrument of the state that involves violence, bullets, prisons and so forth should be well regulated and limited. If you believe in limited government (and you should at least when it comes to violence) you damn well better believe in limiting the power of police, of spy agencies and the “deep state” and of course, the military. But limited government is not the same thing as no government, and frankly the “defund the police” movement remains one of the most ridiculous, short-sighted, poorly-messaged political pan-flashes I’ve ever encountered.
That Cole believes police’s primary function is to harass the homeless and mentally ill and profile and “frisk” young black men says just about everything you need to know about whether or not he should be taken seriously.
Besides, Shepard isn’t a cop. At the root of all of this is the argument that somehow the crew of the Normandy is just an unaccountable police force out patrolling the galaxy to maintain order and, uh, profile and frisk black dudes. But I don’t recall Shepard or Liara or Garrus harassing homeless people or the mentally ill. Or handing out speeding tickets, for that matter. It’s a massive logical leap to consider any of them police in the traditional sense. The Normandy is out there exploring the galaxy not patrolling Earth’s air-space.
Never mind all that, game journalism is all about squeezing the political zeitgeist of the day out of whatever digital stone it can find. Steady drip of hackneyed bullshit.
How, then, might an abolitionist perspective impact a series like Mass Effect? What new jobs might Shepard and their crewmates be assigned that would still allow them their camaraderie, their heart-wrenching moments of dramatic tension? How do we take these rich instances of sci-fi melodrama and extract them from the unseemly and violent drudgery of enforcing order across a vast and chaotic frontier? How do we move away from a premise that simplifies the Lovecraftian mystery of the Reapers into interchangeable robo-zombies to be shot at from behind chest-high barriers? A premise that neatly classifies a vast plethora of alien races into categories of the law-abiding and the lawless — one group to romance, another to gun down within the dimly lit corridors of space stations?
Alas, Cole does not answer this question beyond stating:
Just as Brooklyn Nine-Nine would not be the same show if it didn’t use its plotlines to valorize cops, Mass Effect would not be the same game if it stripped away its militaristic aesthetics and was led by someone other than its quasi-fascistic super soldier.
The intractability of this format comes down to a limit of imagination. Just as it is difficult to imagine a world like ours free from state violence, savage individualism, and insurmountable hierarchies, it is equally difficult to envision a game like Mass Effect where you are not playing as the ultimate securing force, the one who gets to put everything back in its place.
You can explore a vibrant and colorful galaxy without serving as its enforcing power. You can experience these complex narrative systems in satisfying ways without requiring all final decisions to be subject to your own approval. It’s all possible, but it requires courageous vision, as well as hope and trust in others. Mass Effect lends rhetorical support to this cause, particularly in its endings, which aim for “peace across the galaxy” while also arguing that a lone, unaccountable hero is the one to deliver it to us. In reality, it is only we, as players and as people, who must find our own way toward a better world.
Ah yes, the classic “we must find our own way to a better world” argument. A handy way to slip out the back door of an Op/Ed without making a closing argument. How very sneaky.
The point is this: If you thought the social justice politics of 2012 were silly, or the ‘game journalism on steroids’ of 2014 and the heady days of GamerGate was bad, well here we have four years of Trumpism added to the mix, a dash of BLM and some Antifa peppered on top, plus 9 years of university wokeness—everything is race and gender, amirite?—muddled in for good measure and good grief things just keep getting worse.
And like any good story, I suspect things will continue to get worse before they get better. Fools to the left of me, jokers to the right here I am.
Stuck in the middle with you, dear readers. Stuck in the middle with you.
In an ideal world, we could abolish the police. We’d abolish the state altogether. No more knights in mottes and baileys, no more toll booths or toll bridges, no more kings or presidents. No corporations, either, blindly plundering the earth for profits at the expense of the natural world and the common good. We would all engage in peaceful cooperative self-governance, Hobbits in the Shire who know there is a king somewhere but he hasn’t been around in some centuries and that’s just fine, thank you very much, we can mind our own business.
But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a terrible world. Sauron got the Ring back long ago and all the magic is gone, all the elves have sailed West, and the Shire is rubble and dust. The machines of war and greed rule the land and we squabble amongst ourselves for scraps.
In this grim, bleak world of ours we do need police and other trappings of government and while I am all for reforming them—let’s end the War on Drugs, let’s demilitarize the police, let’s fight peacefully for peace—these articles are really awfully silly, don’t you think?
I made a video about this on my newly relaunched and improved YouTube channel that I hope you’ll watch or at least like and possibly share. I would also love it if you’d subscribe to my little channel. My goal is to have this Substack eventually become my primary home for written work, but to couple that with my YouTube videos and upcoming diabolical podcast. Big things are afoot and I’m so glad you’re here, dearest droogs of mine.
P.S. Sorry I’ve been a bit quiet here on this Substack the past week. Turning the “on” switch for my YouTube channel ended up being quite time consuming. Things should be back to normal(ish) going forward.
P.P.S. Book club peeps: I’m a bit late on my update for A Clockwork Orange but will try to get that out shortly. I need more hours in the day, or at least more hours where my brain functions!