Robert Graves wrote in the foreword to his translation of the Iliad that this celebrated cultural work was written for the purpose of entertainment. For a work of that sort, it has indeed been treated with a great deal of seriousness by generations of academics that have made it subject of rigorous analyses. The example of the Iliad is therefore illustrious of the fact that a single work can contain currents of both high and low. It can be entertaining to read and still treat serious topics like philosophy, identity, and the deeper questions of life.
This still applies to modern day cultural works. Popular culture that contains underlying themes that go above and beyond sheer entertainment are still being created in our time. The main difference, I think, between the culture industry of the postmodern age and the storytellers of Antiquity is that the former creates such an abundance of culture that it is near impossible to riddle out the high from the low. This difficulty does not, however, mean that it cannot be done. One such work that synthesizes entertainment with more serious themes is the Bioware produced game Mass Effect.
I would like to call Mass Effect a Spenglerian drama. The reason for this is that the story of the game revolves around the destruction of civilization and the struggle against this seemingly unstoppable force. Mass Effect belongs to the sci fi genre and the setting is located to outer space in a very distant future. The universe is centrally controlled by an UN-like organization with its own military forces and which in turn, is run by a small group known as “the council”. The different species rule themselves to some extent.
The idea that civilization is moving towards its own destruction seems to be as much a part of the Western mind as the idea of progress and the happy end of history. It was Oswald Spengler that articulated this idea in his book The Decline of the West, but the way I see it he merely articulated a subconscious fear. Just the way progressivists did not really create the idea of progress as much as they articulated a subconscious dream that Western man seems to have as the opposite to a more tragic view of fate. In Mass Effect the force of destruction is given a face in form of the mysterious Reapers.
The protagonist in Mass Effect is Captain Shepard; who in many ways is modeled after the classical ideal hero. Shepard is the one that uncovers the threat that the Reapers pose to civilization, and when the leaders of the galaxy fail to heed his warnings, he goes rogue and attempts to deal with the problem on his own. The plot of the game is thus Shepard–as the Western hero–fighting against the Reapers and all that stand between him and them. This can be seen as an analogy over Western man mobilizing the power of his will and refusing to accept the verdict of fate.
The Reapers are without a doubt the most interesting creation in Mass Effect. Now, what is a Reaper? The nature of the Reapers is to a large extent clouded in mystery. When Shepard confronts one of the Reapers, Sovereign, and demands to know more about them–Sovereign responds: “We simply are.” The Reapers are an advanced race of robots without beginning and without end. And their goal? The destruction of the civilization that covers the known galaxy. Here is where it gets interesting, because the reapers seemingly irrational bloodlust is based on traditional principles of renewal through destruction.
One could argue that the Reapers are radical traditionalists; although in robot form and given massive firepower. As the game is explored it is discovered that the Reapers have an idea that ever so often it is necessary to kill every single evolved being in the entire galaxy; thus ending the progression of that particular civilization. It seems that the Reapers believe that if the organic beings of a civilization are allowed to evolve too far, they will inevitable bring unstoppable destruction on themselves. So if this greater catastrophe is to be prevented, blood needs to be spilled in order to stop it from occurring.
The plot gets more interesting when it becomes known that the Reapers operate in cycles and have been doing so for all eternity, as far as the story is concerned. When a civilization reaches a certain point in its evolvement; the Reapers intervene and destroy it. However, they spare all the less advanced species in the galaxy so that they in turn can build new civilizations. The Reapers want to preserve the basis of life by destroying life when it reaches a certain point in its evolvement. Thus the Reapers create an ongoing cycle of destruction and rebirth under the assumption that death is actually necessary for the preservation of life in the long run.
This of course makes the story complicated because it goes beyond the typical setup of good versus evil that is the dominating leitmotif in our culture. In the beginning it seems natural to sympathize with Shepard in his struggle against these seemingly evil robots and their destructive ambitions. But as the plot unfolds and it becomes clear that the Reapers are the preservers of civilization just as much as its destroyers, things becomes harder to judge. It raises the question, is Shepard right in trying to hinder the Reapers’ mission since this could prove even more fatal in the long run? Shepard, being the hero and all, refuses to accept this determinist view of things.
When viewing a piece of popular culture like this one I find it is very illuminating to look at Shepard and his antagonists as representing the ideas and feelings of Western man. Viewed from that perspective, you see quite clearly that what you have on the stage are ideas as much as anything else. The essence of Mass Effect, it seems to me, is Western man’s fear for the destruction of his civilization, with the Reapers representing this mysterious and seemingly unstoppable force of destruction and Shepard representing the refusal to accept defeat at the hands of fate.
One interesting parallel is that both the people told about in the story of the game as well as contemporary Western man has a great deal of knowledge about history. There is this awareness of the destruction that is ever present in history and have come down on civilizations existing prior to one’s own. With this vast knowledge, it is not a mystery that the peoples possessing it can’t help but wonder when this force of destruction will knock on their own door. This fear isn’t really hard to grasp. And in Mass Effect it is put on stage and played out.
There are without a doubt problems with depicting themes like these ones in a computer game, even if it also offer advantages. The computer game is often a very low form of entertainment, rather lacking a deeper meaning and only offering the gamer endless scenes of violence. Mass Effect is not entirely different, and at times blasting aliens and blowing stuff up gets in the way of the deeper meaning that is also present in the game. Nevertheless, it is quite extraordinary that themes like these can be discovered in a form of culture that often seems to lack all seriousness.
Now, how did it end? Was Shepard able to stop the Reapers from fulfilling their mission in history or did they succeed? There were several endings available depending on the choices made by the player. Some tragic, with the Reapers succeeding and continuing their cycle of destruction and rebirth. Some heroic, with Shepard succeeding in his defiance against fate and the seemingly inevitable. I think the latter possibility stands as a monument over a trait that is definitive for Western man: the awareness that his civilization can meet its death and his refusal to accept this fate.