Mass Effect 2: Arrival
US: 28 Mar 2011
Note: This article contains spoilers for the Arrival DLC.
Ah, the batarians.
No species save humanity seems exempt from being a “racial spokesman” in the Mass Effect franchise, a problem when each species tends to get painted with a broad brush and rarely permitted to overcome that characterization. The asari are defined by their sexuality. The krogan are savages. The quarians are gypsies. The volus are Jews. But onto the batarians Mass Effect‘s writers have granted the special distinction of space Arabs, whose narrative role seems to consist almost entirely on their depiction as religious and/or political extremists who hate humanity and the American-dominated Alliance Navy in particular with bombastic fervor.
This has been evident in the games since their introduction in the Bring Down the Sky DLC, in which their codex entry first appears alongside a mission that has Shepard recapture a hijacked
a human-colonized planet. In doing so, we’re repeatedly waylaid by the caveat, “not all batarians are like this.” But all the ones we see are.
If we choose the colonist background, batarians are responsible for the death of Shepard’s parents, as well as the enslavement and torture of countless others. In Mass Effect Galaxy, we learn that even their peace ambassadors are covertly terrorists. Mass Effect 2 gives us our first look at members of the batarian species whose primary occupation is not waging a crusade against mankind, but the roles we find them in are predictable: thugs, mercenaries, drug smugglers, and slave traders. The most non-threatening batarian that Shepard finds is one bleeding to death in an alley and even he manages to act ill-tempered while being saved.
And yet somehow the story’s universe persists in describing these characters as exceptions, ones that don’t represent the body politic of the main, highly xenophobic systems that they inhabit. It’s rather convenient to keep any caveat to the presentation of these warmongering caricatures locked up and out of sight of the player, somewhere where some measure of doubt would remain. However, as of Arrival the narrative seems determined to weaponize the entire species, regardless of how the player might feel about it.
In “Arrival,” Shepard must first break an Alliance officer out of a deadly batarian secret prison. During this section of the gameplay, we’re treated to several overheard conversations from batarians alternatively worried and angered about the human military presence, seeming to treat the situation as more of a liability than an asset. After infringing on their territories and other disputes, their view of mankind is about as dim as man’s view on them. Then, following the rescue, the situation is turned on its ear when it is learned that Shepard must destroy the nearest Mass Relay—and thus several planets full of millions of innocent batarian bystanders—to prevent the Reapers from quickly spreading across the galaxy. And we’re talking a matter of hours, not weeks or months.
There is no dialectic here. There is no happy medium, not even a pause for reflection. Narratively, the game commands that the Reaper invasion must be delayed for the DLC to successfully bridge events to the upcoming sequel, and so the batarian planets must be sacrificed. You can make a bid to warn them, but the message won’t get through. “At least you tried,” Admiral Hackett says in some paltry attempt at consolation, while informing you that half the galaxy is going to want to see you hanged.
Usually, Mass Effect DLC leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth but generally no worse for wear. I’ve gone through many unpalatable missions with my main Shepard, and if I do say so, I’m fiercely attached to her—even her more uncomfortable decisions. Now I don’t want to touch her save file again. Putting a hatchet through the spine of a single saboteur is one thing. Heck, even brainwashing the geth seems at least vaguely humanitarian compared to the alternative, and I at least had the ability to make a choice there. Moral boundaries may exist to be toyed with in games, but I think that I’ve just found my line in the sand.
I do not enjoy watching a character that I’ve nurtured for over 60+ hours of gameplay consign an entire planetary system to death without even dignifying the moment with a perfunctory button press (a la BioShock or Mass Effect 3). The narrative already asserts its character preferences over my own in enough situations without adding compulsory genocide to the list. When I import a new campaign to get my ideal playthrough together in time for Mass Effect 3, I’m fairly confident I will be leaving this particular mission unplayed altogether. If the game’s writing is determined to create straw men just so I have another breed of enemy to half-heartedly gun down, it can do so without my support.
Moreover, I’m disappointed in how the Mass Effect franchise has used every opportunity to cast the batarians in an uncompromisingly antagonistic light. They are villains, terrorists, and torturers. At their very best, they’re xenophobic lowlifes and religious zealots. Now as of Arrival, the entire species will apparently be waging (quite justified) war against the human race, removing all but the slimmest possibility that they will ever be characterized more sympathetically.
Terrorists, militants, demagogues, and other extremists certainly exist in reality, so it makes as much sense to populate our fictional worlds with them. But ideally that sort of thing is best done with a certain obligation to fairness, something neither American news nor Mass Effect‘s writing team would appear to have much truck with. Within days of a Florida Koran burning sparking deadly riots in Afghanistan, Arrival showed up to demonstrate an almost appalling similarity not just in the way that we create our own enemies, but in how we manage to disregard the ensuing violence as the Other’s doing, surely not our own.
In Mass Effect‘s universe, you don’t get very far without siding with humans—those American-accented, militaristic, expansionist humans. Maybe I’m asking for it, playing as a naval commander in a narrative largely about military action and conservative politics, but it wasn’t until this particular DLC that I developed the profound sense that this game was not “for” me. Although, to be fair, I can’t see how a game where the fate of billions is decided without your input can be “for” anyone, but your mileage may vary.