Machismo and 'Mass Effect'

For characters in Mass Effect, sometimes working out their feelings about their past requires hitting someone or being hit by someone.

It might be just me (and admittedly I hear that thanks to a very different vocal performance by Jennifer Hale that playing as a female Shepard creates a very different tone for the Mass Effect series) but on loading up Mass Effect 3 all I could think was, “Damn, this is a macho game.”

Okay, it wasn't on loading the game up. It was really a sense that emerged when participating in the first in-depth conversation (in-depth conversation being a hallmark of the series and of the Bioware oeuvre) in the game with one of Shepard's crew members, James, that I started getting this very macho vibe from the game.

That conversation occurs within the context of some light boxing between James and Shepard (sparring for the sake of sparring, not an overtly hostile conflict), in which Shepard tries to learn a little something about James's background and James is placed in the position of having to work out some of his feelings about his past. Working out feelings about his past, of course, requires hitting someone and being hit by someone. Indeed, my conversation ended (and James's resolution of his feelings ended) with me directing Shepard to throw James to the ground. James then submissively “gets over it,” learning through this physical confrontation that he can trust his superior, that Shepard “gets it” and thus that he himself can settle down and not worry about it so much. Useful, one would think, for a soldier who needs to put his emotions aside and focus on doing things that might normally make him feel bad.

More might be said through how these two men interact physically, confrontationally, and in terms of the authority and the submission present in that physical confrontation than through the words that they actually speak as that action takes place.

Eschewing verbal communication for physical signs, though, occurs off and on throughout the game. When Grunt decides to stay behind to hold off an incoming horde of Rachni, for example, while his men and Shepard's men escape, he and Shepard's final parting moments occur in silence. After Grunt does voice his intentions to stay and fight alone, the two men look at one another meaningfully, Shepard slaps Grunt on the arm, and then he again nods meaningfully at Grunt. The knowing in those looks and in that slap of acknowledgment of the plan speaks to a sense of finality, of loss, but also of respect, and again a sense of “getting it.”

The reason that I mention all of this is that Bioware's series (this one and Dragon Age, for instance) is largely known for its emphasis on communication and relationships as central concerns of the game. Critics have lauded the developer for creating characters with emotional depth and for drawing a female demographic to games that are often thought to be the “domain” of boys. And those two ideas are often seen as related. The consensus seems to be that Mass Effect and Dragon Age appeal more to female gamers because they are games interested in communication and relationships, not just making everything in sight go kerplooey.

That being said, the goals of communication in the two series feel quite different to me now that I have returned to the Mass Effect series with this game, the conclusion to the trilogy. All of these dialogues between Shepard and his crew seem to me to suggest that Dragon Age is a series that is more interested in exploring emotional and relational issues and seeing where they go and how relationships deepen but that Mass Effect looks at such concerns in what might be seen as a more traditionally “macho” kind of way. This is not a game about “getting into it” but about “getting over it.”

Emotional distress emerges throughout Mass Effect among the crew (and emerges very, very often). Shepard seems to serve a role in the game as a leader by managing the battlefield, managing his troops by giving orders (indeed, I spend probably less time shooting anything in battle in the most recent Mass Effect games than I do in directing my squadmates via the quick commands on the D-pad to facilitate mopping up the opposing side -- this is battle enacted via communication, not bullets). He also seems to serve the role of leader by managing the morale of his troops (again, requiring shepherding via communication, not heavy weaponry). Nevertheless, it is management with a terminal goal in mind: ending it.

Emotion and personal concerns are a threat, perhaps in some sense, the major foe of the Mass Effect series and all of the talk that exists in the game, all of Shepard's constant communication with his crew,. seems less about exploring those concerns than it is about resolving those concerns. In other words, Shepard does “talk it out” with everyone on board his ship but it is in order to put an end to such issues, so that everyone can focus on the job at hand: saving the galaxy. Once they get over what is bothering them, they can get on with the work of soldiering.

Shepard, then, in my playthroughs seems like a man who understands how to encourage others to find a way to come to terms with their issues, so that they can stop feeling and start acting, stop talking and start hitting, hitting, of course, when it is appropriate and when it can be accomplished without the heat of emotional entanglement.

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.