Science fiction works best when it uses fantastic worlds to comment on our real one. Paul Verhoeven’s dystopic run of films in the 1980s were a reaction to the rise of neoliberalism and corporate recklessness. Star Trek used its diverse cast to battle the hegemony of the 1960s TV landscape. Black Mirror uses its Twilight Zone-inspired formula to explore the dangers of over-reliance on technology.
The fears and concerns of the present day are as pressing as any other period in human history, past or future. As Americans, we see our country embroiled in dozens of different conflicts with ambiguous enemies and no clear signs of exit. We are long past the point of returning our climate to normal levels and are rapidly approaching environmental catastrophe. The extreme right, cohered around fear and distrust of others, is on a worldwide winning streak.
Now, more than ever, we need stories that address the fractured nature of our society. The Mass Effect games do just that. In light of the upcoming Mass Effect: Andromeda—and considering its increased focus on colonization—it’s helpful to examine what made the original three games successful in this regard. The Mass Effect trilogy, through its story, presents an argument for empathy, social responsibility and the necessity of working together to survive. The film Arrival makes the same argument in strikingly similar ways. These are stories that de-emphasize the importance of humanity and the individual in a genre traditionally dominated by both.
The Mass Effect games have you play as Commander Shepard, the representative of humanity, a species depicted as the nascent underdogs in a universe dominated by much older and more advanced civilizations. The Asari and the Salarians discovered the Citadel, the central location of all three games, thousands of years before humanity figured out how to escape Earth’s gravity. And they don’t hesitate to remind you of that, either. Your early run-ins with the Citadel council play like an argument between a parent and a petulant child—not surprising considering most of the council races’ lifespans dwarf those of humans.
This balance is thrown on its head when faced with the existential threat of the Reapers, an immortal machine race that cyclically wipes the galaxy of life. Shepard, along with humanity, is thrust into a position of dominance far above the station of a species that has only been involved in intergalactic politics for a few decades.
But that dominance is not all-encompassing. Whether playing as a paragon or renegade, it is only through teaming up with other species that you can successfully challenge the Reapers. You must dive into the cultural backgrounds of the majority of your crew, learn about their past grudges, their hopes and their pain. Though the xenophobic elements that plague each species remain a factor, the game unambiguously paints them as ideologies that have no place in a galaxy that must cooperate to ensure its continued existence.
Arrival is equally concerned with this question of mutual survival. Amy Adams’ Louise Banks butts heads with the arrogant and shortsighted leadership of the various generals and politicians who hold the fate of the world in their hands. The film constantly pivots between the earnest curiosity of the science team working to unlock the alien language and the nervous and rigidly lockstep generals who have no choice but to view anything new as inherently threatening. No scene reinforces this dichotomy as explicitly as when a Russian scientist is shot trying to transmit information about the aliens through the government-enforced silence.
What makes the movie work, though, is that this fear is not unreasonable. Like the Reapers, Arrival’s heptapods represent the unknowable vastness of the universe. It’s no coincidence that both creatures recall the squid gods that populate H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. But this only further necessitates the need to communicate, to attempt to comprehend what may seem incomprehensible. While an understandably frightening prospect, it’s still doable. Instead, the political leaders in both stories insist on shutting their eyes and closing their doors, both to the looming threat and their own neighbors. This is a mistake and the main obstacle in the way of both heroes’ journeys. The heptapods have brought a gift for humanity, but only if it’s able to act and decide as a united species. The Reapers can negotiate with all of galactic life only after they’ve teamed up, after that Readiness Rating (dictating how organized galactic civilization is to face the Reaper threat) is above a certain threshold.
Obstructions to unification often manifest in recalcitrant and reluctant splinter groups that can sink the entire venture. Arrival gives us trigger-happy soldiers with an earful of conservative radio. They plant a bomb inside the audience chamber of the alien ship, killing one of the two heptapods as a result. Mass Effect has groups like Cerberus, a terrorist organization that seeks to undermine cooperation between humanity and the other alien races. Cerberus is ultimately subsumed by the Reapers, perhaps as a result of the similarity of their goals. Even your own crew can act out in ways that threaten the mission. Both Navigator Pressley and Ashley Williams voice troubling concerns at having to work alongside other species. But it’s ultimately Ashley who, during a confrontation with your Krogan crewmate Wrex, might wind up shooting Wrex in the kind of faux self-defensive violence that is uncomfortably reminiscent of the way police in America react to black men and women.
In his famous speech at Cornell University in 1994, Carl Sagan displayed a photo taken of Earth from nearly 4 billion miles away and described it as “a very small stage in a vast and cosmic arena.” The purpose of this photo was to point out how ultimately meaningless even our bloodiest conflicts were. The way Cerberus undermines the galaxy’s fight against the Reapers at every turn further reinforces the frustrating short-sightedness of defensive and cynical nationalist sentiments. Appealing to our base instincts, to our defensiveness, to our desire to blame others for our problems—it’s a sound political maneuver, as the 2016 elections will always remind us—but that’s got nothing to do with whether it will help us as a nation or as a species (it won’t).
Louise Banks in Arrival attempts to convince the military brass that only through sharing information can they fully comprehend what the heptapods are trying to tell them. But since they are modeled after our own hyper-militarized world, these generals and CIA operatives reject the idea of exposing their vulnerabilities to other nations. But that’s what make cooperation and allyship difficult to begin with: you’ve got to stick your neck and risk your own security in order to advance the security of others. Everyone’s donned their safety pins but the real test of heroism will be just how far we each are willing to go to help strangers.
Before help can either be given or received, you must be able to communicate. This is Arrival’s driving conflict. Dr. Banks is there to make sense of the aliens’ language—to create ground for reciprocal conversation. Further, according to the Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistics that the movie derives many of its ideas from, the language you speak determines how you perceive the world. This being the case, Dr Banks’ attempt to understand the language of the heptapods is the ultimate act of empathy.
Mass Effect is famously a series about diplomacy through communication. As your ship rockets through parts unknown, you can spend hours wandering around and having discussions with your crew. This is encouraged, since knowing more about your teammates and their respective cultures will help you make decisions that lead to better outcomes. Knowing that Krogan aggression masks their desperation at likely extinction helps you pick dialogue options to get Wrex on your side during the confrontation at Vermire. It takes diving deep into Quarian political intrigue to help convince them to exonerate Tali during her Mass Effect 2 loyalty mission. You could go through Mass Effect without getting to know anyone, just as you could choose more renegade dialogue options and side with the xenophobes, but so much of the game feels designed to support the opposite behavior. It’s a series featuring a universe rich with diverse cultures and perspectives, making it hard to want to skip any of them. Ideally, Andromeda will offer the same kind of experience, and one that keeps you on equal footing with the alien races you encounter—rather than as the colonial conquistador of your average sci fi property.
Both Mass Effect and Arrival are stories about communicating and empathizing with others for the sake of survival. In the years before the first Mass Effect, we read about the first contact wars, where the warlike humans ran headfirst into the warlike Turians and lost. Perhaps what every great and savage empire requires is to be humbled. Europe had to be crushed to dust and forced to give up its colonies before becoming the relative beacon of social progress that it is now.
But there’s got to be a better way to survive and make progress. You can either react to threats negatively, to distrust every potential offer of help, to withdraw into your own shell and hope the problem goes away, or you can reach out, work together with people of different backgrounds, beliefs, and social norms and find a solution. Truly this is the only way we will survive, as a species. Unlike in Arrival or Mass Effect, “There is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” (Cornell University in 1994, Carl Sagan)
Yussef Cole is a writer and visual artist from the Bronx, NY. His specialty is graphic design for television but he also deeply enjoys thinking and writing about games.