Mass Effect Reminds Us That The Biggest Villain Is Always Bureaucracy

There are few things in this world with a capacity for evil as large as bureaucracy. In all of the atrocities that have been committed in modern human history, perhaps the most chilling aspect of them is the record keeping. In amongst all of the torture and cruelty, somebody sat down in an office with a pencil, some paperwork, and a stale cup of coffee, to fill in some forms. The Nazis kept copious files and folders on their ‘experiments’. Military dictatorships are built on spreadsheets. ISIS even has an official form for suicide bombers. There is no evil without paperwork.

The Mass Effect trilogy understands this. Because paperwork has as much capacity to be dull as it does to be cruel, games rarely explore it. Papers, Please literally gamifies the bureaucracy of evil to highlight the ways in which oppressive systems enforce the rules of their dystopia, and turn citizens against each other – but most games simply disregard it. Villains in games are too often unhinged tyrants or lone bad guys motivated by needs that are either selfishly personal or ridiculously over-the-top. I want revenge on you, specifically, or I want to rule the world. The system, and the various ways it can be used to aid villainy, disenfranchise minorities, and keep the established power systems in place, never comes into it.

While Shepard’s pro-militarism stance in Mass Effect feels dated now, the idea of Shepard as a ‘space cop’ feels a little glib to me. The capacity is there for Shepard to be an asshole, punching reporters and leveraging their status as a law enforcer for a discount at stores, but that’s a choice of the player. You can also be polite and charming, negotiating with people as equals. You can support Ashley Williams’ distaste for other races – a distaste many humans share – or you can call her out on it. You can also stand on the sidelines and do nothing, if you’re feeling a bit Keir Starmer. Disco Elysium offers much worse choices, and still establishes itself as an anti-cop piece of media. Mass Effect falls well short of this, and still feels vaguely pro-cop (aided by being extremely pro-military), but it’s the paperwork underlining the game rather than Shepard that displays this stance best.

This is not a defence of the typical video game protagonist, or of gaming’s positioning of violence as a solution. I loathe helping the police spy on people in Spider-Man. Shepard is a cop, in the same way Nathan Drake or Kratos are. They position themselves as a moral authority and enact violent justice on anyone who opposes them. But labelling Shepard a cop in the literal sense – as opposed to an adjective for their behaviour, moral compass, and problem solving – is more troublesome. We might not need cops, but we need Shepard.

The biggest argument against abolishing the police is “well who would solve the murders?”, but nobody calling for police abolishment is calling for a land without justice or laws. Some sort of law enforcement would still exist for crimes of this nature; we just wouldn’t have cops free to harass whichever citizens they choose, able to enforce authority on anyone and any situation they wish, and petty crimes like possession would no longer lead to incarceration for profit. People trained in de-escalation would be called to disturbances, instead of wannabe John McClanes rushing in to take out as many Hans Grubers as they can.

Shepard’s goal in the first game – the only game where they’re actually a cop – is fairly simple. They must stop Saren. Again, smaller choices in the Renegade/Paragon dynamic can allow Shepard to act as a leather-booted facist in pursuit of this, but their goal is just. It’s not Shepard that showcases the cruelty of the system, it’s the bureaucracy behind them.

Where Shepard sits in the cop morality is up for debate, but Saren is very clearly a Bad Cop. He uses his power to manipulate, kill, and control others, while the Spectre status protects him. The Council refuses to believe that he could be a bad apple, and even when offered irrefutable proof, they are reluctant to act. Shepard is frequently dismissed when they bring in further evidence, and is even told the mention of Saren is “politically inconvenient,” when asked about it by a news reporter. The Council is happy to send Shepard after Saren, but is keen to sweep the whole thing under the rug rather than warn the public. Saren’s maliciousness would not have been able to thrive were it not for the power afforded him by bureaucracy, and the limits that same bureaucracy placed on his opponents. That’s the reason Garrus is unable to effectively chase Saren down while working for C-Sec – Garrus is a Good Cop, and his superiors ensure he never has the tools to go after ‘one of his own’. Garrus is vaguely used as a way for the game to critique policing, but only in the immediate sense. It’s not the system at fault, it’s one particularly bad boss in Garrus’ way.

We frequently hear of delinquent police officers being moved to new towns or districts, offering a guise of punishment despite no actual consequences, allowing the officer to flee their issues rather than face them. The system must be protected. It’s an ideal Mass Effect believes in too.

At the end of the first game, you’re met with a choice – save the Council or kill the Council. Technically, the game offers up saving some random humans as the other choice, but it never really feels like that. It’s not choosing which one to save – it’s save or kill. The choice, however, is irrelevant. Killing the Council results in their designated survivors serving in the next game, and very little changes. The system endures.

In Mass Effect 2, bureaucracy appears in smaller, more insidious ways. When Shepard returns from the dead, a Citadel officer offers to save them “nine days of running around,” by pushing a single button to update their records. While this is far less villainous and actually rather helpful, it’s also a privilege. Many folk, likely the poorest or those from unpopular races, would have had to endure that nine day impact on their schedules, which could have impacted on their income, safety, and citizen’s rights. On one hand, it’s a throwaway gag, but on the other, the punchline is that the establishment gets to waive the rules for whomever they choose. It’s the bureaucratic power dynamics that allow Jacob’s father to turn his downed ship into a twisted harem. We also see Samara kill with impunity, in pursuit of her serial-killer daughter created by Samara’s own excess in her youth. Samara’s Justicar status positions her as a noble warrior ensuring justice is exacted throughout the galaxy, but it’s a justice of her own choosing, and when we meet her, she is killing in order to correct her own mistakes. She is the space cop here, far more than Shepard ever is.

Mass Effect 3 changes the series’ tone dramatically. In the first two games, there is an impending threat, lurking in the background, ignored by most of the galaxy. In Mass Effect 3, it arrives. Here is when bureaucracy could prove its worth, when the systems of organisation and communication already constructed could be utilised with a wartime efficiency. Instead, petty political squabbles dominate the discussions, and refugees are left to rot. Even in Andromeda, we see political games being played over which colonists are awoken first. The very fact that they are labelled colonists with no concern for that word’s connotations, its history throughout humanity, or the Milky Way’s place in a new galaxy, is yet another example of how the series establishes certain power systems as just and righteous, even as great evil is done in their name.

Mass Effect is a wonderful series built off fantastic character dynamics and heartfelt personal narratives intertwined around the main plot. But while calling Shepard a space cop feels like a slightly trite dismissal of player control and the Paragon path, it is true that there are no serious negative consequences to going full Renegade fascist. Shepard’s ability to agree with Ashley’s “Earth first, make humanity great again” ideals, combined with their pro-military nature and unbridled power allow Mass Effect to be an incredibly pro-cop game, even if it can be played in other ways to offset that. The real issue is larger than Shepard, however. The issues around policing are bigger than one dirty cop. The issue, underneath everything, is cold, faceless, remorseless bureaucracy. It always is.

Source: Read Full Article