It’s all fun and games until someone plays it for real
Our world is divided by wars, our destiny depends on their outcome. Millions of lives are lost in an effort to save billions of others. Wars unite nations and divide with equal strength. Wars are fought to keep people save, to deliver them from evil, to give the oppressed a chance to be free. Wars need strong, good and just men and women to wage them and complete them, to bring peace and happiness in lands where those things have long been forgotten, buried under the dust of bones and overflown by rivers of tears.
Wars are won by patriots, people who love their countries and trust their leadership, people who believe the world should be purged from evil.
Sounds wonderful, and I get a really warm feeling writing those words. I’d like to believe they are true but I can’t. The reason: recent history.
There are no good wars and their aftermath is always devastating, especially for the people who are left behind.
I’ve never experienced war first hand, but as a journalist I’ve had a chance to see what war does to the people who are supposed to be saved through it. For over a year I worked with war pictures from Iraq and as the captions editor I was given uncensored material. When your work involves seeing victims of roadside bombs every day, your view on war changes. I was lucky to get out of the captions department quickly and was rid of the nightmares, but the memory stuck. I will never forget those pictures and every time I watch a report about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or listen to the news from Libya, I remember how I felt looking at them.
My first reaction when I actually started to get what war means to the world, to people I know and to me personally, was complete rejection. I wanted to get rid of all wars everywhere, but this not something one person can achieve. Now, I don’t believe it’s possible to live in a world with no wars. It’s a difficult topic to discuss and there is not one right answer to all my questions.
Is there a right moment to start a war? Are the reasons for having a war always good reasons? Do all soldiers believe they should fight? Is it justified to kill for the sake of freedom? What is freedom? Do they know how to end a war when they are starting it? When is a war really over — when all troops have left or when all bullet holes in the walls have vanished? Is the war ever over for those who fought it?
Playing the Mass Effect games is like exploring a whole new history of wars and trying “to fight the good fight”, be a paragon in a world which expects from you to save it from evil.
The game provides a lot of information about the history of the galaxy and the player has many opportunities to learn more about the members of her crew or the people she meets around the galaxy, either through conversations or via Codex updates. The creators of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 have obviously spent a lot of time on creating the history of each race and its position in the galaxy. The fascinating thing is how it’s all connected to old wars, memories of past battles, old scars on young faces.
The quarians are the creators of the geth, which should have been helpers not enemies, but in the end a bitter war forced the quarians away from their homeworld. Now they are travelling the stars on a giant flotilla with no place to call home, leaving their planet to the machines which they had once hoped would make their lives easier.
Who is wrong here?
The quarians want to reclaim their planet. They see themselves as victims, because living on the flotilla for that long has made them vulnerable to diseases and forced them to wear environmental suits to stay alive in the outside world.
Even a slight damage to their suits could send them to hospital for weeks. The quarians lose more soldiers to diseases during battle than to the attacks of their enemies. Close combat is out of the question for them and they always seek opportunities to attack from space.
The geth are united and live as one being, which, as every sapient life form, wants to survive and defend its existence.
Were the geth wrong to attack? Who knows! If they wanted to be free from their creators, wouldn’t their war have been justified? Why should they be slaves forever?
The krogan were liberated by the salarians to fight a war against the rachni, but after they defeated the insectoids, the salarians created a powerful bioweapon, the genophage, to stop the krogan from spreading as they were too violent and unpredictable. Then the turians fought the krogan and are still seen by the latter as archenemies even though the war was centuries ago.
The krogan are one of the most interesting races in the Mass Effect universe. The sole purpose of their existence seems to be to go to war. They worship strength in its most brutal form and regard their honour as the highest value. Not only are they able warriors, but they are also proud and brave. The flipside is their aggression and natural hostility towards others. The krogan are only loyal to their clan and its leader and are ready to attack anyone else.
The genophage that plagues them is extensively explored in Mass Effect 2 and poses several interesting questions. Were the salarians right to use the genophage to curtail the growth of krogan populations? Can you ever decide to wipe out a species simply because they seem dangerous to you?
According to the salarians, simulations showed irrefutably that the spread of the krogan would mean war to the whole galaxy. So they created the genophage, the hole in the krogans’ armour. The only scenes when they seem vulnerable is when they are faced with the consequences of the genetic war. And it is sad, it is hurtful, looking at a soldier on his knees. On his knees but determined to stay in a facility where he most probably will be tortured and die because he hopes that way he would be able to save his people from that curse.
The genophage is interesting also from another point of view — war science. A valuable scientific discovery needs sacrifice and in many cases lives are lost on the way to success. Is it ethical to use science in that way?
In the Mass Effect games there are a lot of races which have had their home-world wars and are now fighting wars on other worlds as mercenaries. Many of them have made killing their profession.
The asari, aside from being long-lived and wise, are also shown as the toughest when it comes to battles. They are often seen as mercs working for various criminal organisations such as Eclipse.
The batarians are among the members of the most feared galactic gangs.
The vorcha, who like the krogans are seen as aggressive, cruel and unpredictable, are ready to fight for anyone who pays good enough.
The drell, enslaved by the hanar ages ago, have accepted a life as trained assassins — quiet, invisible and dead quick. Mass Effect 2 touches on an interesting issue with the drell: that the body of the assassin is merely a weapon in the hands of the person who hires him. The client is the real killer, because he is the one who wishes to murder and the assassin is just the weapon which kills but does not feel.
Saviour of the galaxy
In this chaotic world, where it seems everybody is fighting everybody else, the humans are the newcomers. Seen by other races as short-lived, short-tempered and probably dangerous for life across the galaxy, the humans are trying to find their place in it.
As Commander Shepard you are put in the position of being the face of humanity. You have to choose what example you will set for your people and you have to wage war against the enemy of the entire galaxy. Save it and you will be the hero.
The bad war and the good warriors
Good soldiers don’t follow orders without thinking in the Mass Effect universe. The whole crew of Commander Shepard is comprised of able soldiers who are fed up with listening to orders that make no sense or are running away from organisations which have become too bureaucratic to be called military any more. Some of them have also decided to join the crew because they have lost fate in the values they once believed in and fought for. A group of special creatures for a special kind of war. A war from which many of them believe there would be no return.
They are depicted as good warriors who have to fight a bad war. How can that be? How can you be good when you are going to kill someone? You do not want to, but you will do it to save lives, defend your way of living, help the weak against their tyrants. Some of that I can accept, but not all, because the bottom line is that lives are lost.
When I first started playing Mass Effect I simply saw it as a very good and entertaining game and didn’t think much more of it. Over time it got under my skin and for the past two months I have been playing the sequel. I’m currently on my fourth play-through and have tried almost everything, explored the whole galaxy and had time to learn more about the story.
The galaxy, Shepard, the aliens: this is all just fiction, but behind it stands the knowledge and thought of the games’ writers who paint a picture of the wars in their own experience and share their own view. They give answers to some questions and ask others themselves.
In the history of each race one can see memories of our own wars and discover our fear of violence and the threat of annihilation as well as our hopes of freedom, happiness and salvation.
If there is one place in the games that symbolises a world at war, it’s Tuchanka.
The face of the endless war is depicted wonderfully on the planet of the krogan whose surface is literally torn to pieces from old battles.The krogan do not want to rebuild, they like living in the rubble of past victories, because this is where they belong. After the war there is only dust and cracked concrete, a sight reminiscent of Mogadishu, the capital of real-life Somalia. The city is in ruins, all buildings are damaged and people are living in the rubble. Some basements and some rooms on the upper floors are still intact and whole families live cramped together in fear of the rebels. They tend to move when the gunfights get too close to their homes. For 20 years those people have been living in a broken city, hiding in the niches, seeking shelter in buildings which have long not been suited to give one.
While we play game of war, other people have to live them for real.