Philosophy and Mass Effect: A Response to Popbioethics
Posted by erikthereddest
Hello everyone! Over the last couple of weeks I have been analyzing and answering an article by Kyle Munkittrick at Popbiotheics.com titled “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation”. You can find the first section here, and the second here.
This week I’ll be wrapping up this discussion, looking at Munkittrick’s third and final point, and his conclusion regarding the importance of the video game Mass Effect to the science fiction genre as a whole. The third and final chapter of this game series is now out, and since I am currently playing through it, next week I’ll be taking a look at the game itself as a final examination of the Mass Effect series, taking a look at some of the controversy surrounding some writing decisions in the end of the game that I think we can all learn from. But before that, let’s take a look at Munkittrick’s final point.
“In nearly every great popular science fiction universe, there is a flaw… the assumption that life has meaning, that intelligent life has a purpose, and that humanity contributes anything to that universe.”
The philosophy of Mass Effect is Cosmicism, which Munkittrick defines as (quoting Wikipedia):
The majority of undiscerning humanity are creatures with the same significance as insects in a much greater struggle between greater forces which, due to humanity’s small, visionless and unimportant nature, it does not recognize.[emphasis added by Munkittrick]
According to this philosophy, humanity cannot attain meaningful existence, and to play Mass Effect, which embodies Cosmicism, is to consider the value of the lives of other species, the meaning of life on the cosmic scale, and the importance of individual relationships in the face of cataclysm. One must accept the premise that the technology to explore the universe is a trap, and a structure that forces galactic civilization to follow an invariable path.
All of the issues surrounding the development of each of form of intelligent life, from the reproductive genocide of the Krogan, to the war between the synthetic A.I. Geth and their creators the Quarians, are stripped of their sense of evil because of the very nature of the universe, that the path of life and civilization itself is an artificial and designed construct of a malevolent and ambivalent force. Above all the myriad issues that threaten natural life is the ancient threat of the Reapers, biomechanical equivalents of the Elder Gods of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. The Reapers are inconceivably powerful, are immortal, and bend the minds of anyone who encounters them, driving most insane and enslaving the others to their ancient, undeniable will. They come every 50,000 years to wipe the slate clean, to decimate all intelligent life, then slip away into dark space, to wait once again for civilization to develop along their pre-defined paths and inescapable controls.
“The Reapers and their cyclical destruction of civilization represent one of the most nihilistic interpretation[s] of intelligence in the universe ever presented. Mass Effect answers Fermi’s famous question, “Where is everyone?” with a matter-of-fact, “They have been consumed.”
“Mass Effect is the first blockbuster franchise in the postmodern era to directly confront a godless, meaningless universe indifferent to humanity.”
As Munkittrick claims, the setting, medium, and message all work to frame the philosophy of Cosmicism, which “forces the player to recontextualize his or her participation in the experiment of existence…By exploring and expanding upon the big questions asked by the last century of science fiction, Mass Effect has become the standard bearer for the questions the next century of science fiction will seek to answer.”
So the nature of the universe, that it is a “godless, meaningless universe indifferent to
humanity”, is essentially what Munkittrick points to as being the most defining feature of Mass Effect’s universe, and by extension, the primary element that affects its candidacy as the most important of our generation. Certainly by the very words of these creatures, and their obvious connection to Lovecraft (they even look like his giant evil space squids), the philosophy of Cosmicism is intended to be the metaphysical punchline of the Mass Effect universe. I don’t think there’s any denying that.
However, is this actually what the world presents to its audience? Do the Reapers actually perform their necessary roles of unimaginable, undefeatable, and immortal beings?
We have already established that while humanity is intended to be insignificant in the world of Mass Effect, they are up front and center anyway, a flaw in execution that effectively minimizes the equalizing factor Munkittrick claims the world to have. If the Reapers are not actually performing the role of the Elder Gods, then Mass Effect is not actually embodying Cosmicism either. The Reapers are the fulcrum upon which Munkittrick’s analysis stands. I believe that the Reapers fall short of this goal for the following reasons:
- They are not eternal. The Reapers are old, possibly millions of years old, but they had a beginning, and they can certainly meet an end. They were not only originally self-created beings (since they are essentially biomechanical synthetic robots), and while they seem to be “ageless” (they do not die simply due to the passage of time), there are several cases already in the series in which they have been killed or are found dead (and I can only assume more will follow in the final chapter of the game). In two occasions, these Reapers were killed by the player himself, a human. This flies directly in the face of both Munkittrick’s point that humans are insignificant, and that the Reapers create a universe where humans are incapable of attaining meaningful existence. In these two instances, even though the Reapers were in weakened states, humanity proved it could affect the “undeniable” and “inescapable” fate of the galaxy.
- They are not unknowable. The Reapers are advanced beyond imagination, but so were the Protheans, who were the last generation of intelligent life consumed. In both cases, humanity and the rest of the races have studied and gleaned from technological remnants, and have pieced together the story of the cyclical annihilation, as well as effectively figured out the general steps needed to prevent it. While they have been wrong, outwitted, and defeated along the way, and have little hope, they still have some hope. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods are characterized as offering no hope to the insects of humanity. This is the fundamentally important aspect of Cosmicism that Mass Effect fails to impart through the Reapers.
- They are flawed. The Reapers make mistakes. Sovereign, the first Reaper the player meets through the story, relies on his domination of a single Turian named Seren to act as an agent in the world as he attempts to open the door for the cyclical destruction. This plan falls apart, however, leaving him vulnerable to the mortals he thought he would crush effortlessly. This failure proves that the Reapers are not beyond the flaws of the morals they dominate, and do not embody the dark perfection of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods.
Because of the failure of the Reapers to sustain the environment of Cosmicism they are designed to create, the narrative that Munkittrick intends to elevate suffers from discordant tone and mismatched themes. This is still a hero story, perhaps the first true epic of video games, however, because it does not remain consistent with its setting, message, and philosophy, it cannot be called the generational genre definer that Munkittrick would claim it to be. Certainly a story like what he describes would be incredibly meaningful, and Mass Effect certainly is important for pushing the envelope in many ways, but it is unwise to prescribe such importance to a fledgling work, especially in an unproven medium. The classics are only classics because they have survived the test of time, after all, and such a label as “The Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation” is only something that can be truly given once time has shown it have the merit to last.
I hope you have enjoyed this discussion as much as I have! Next week I will take a look at the final installment of the series and attempt to explain the outrage surrounding its controversial ending, and what we can learn from it as writers. Until then, do you think that Cosmicism is a defining philosophy of our time? Let me know in the comments below!
About erikthereddestI'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.
Posted on March 14, 2012, in Erik Marsh, H.P. Lovecraft, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Mass Effect, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Universes and tagged Mass Effect, science fantasy, science fiction. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.